Friday 15 November 2019

Terror chief's reign comes to a bloody end as US finally exacts revenge

America has spent 13 long, deadly years on the trail of its tormentor-in-chief. Gordon Rayner charts the numerous near-misses and dead-ends

On August 20, 1998, American warships anchored in the Arabian Sea launched no less than 66 cruise missiles which obliterated a series of terrorist training camps near Khost, just inside Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

More than 30 al-Qa'ida terrorists were killed in the devastating attack ordered by President Bill Clinton, but its main target, Osama bin Laden, cheated death by leaving the area two hours earlier.

It was an astonishing piece of bad luck that would come to be repeated over the next 13 years and symbolised Bin Laden's almost supernatural ability to dodge the combined might of the Western world's military and intelligence powers.

The Clinton administration later conceded that the bombing of Khost was perhaps the greatest of all the missed opportunities to kill the Saudi Arabian who would soon become America's bogeyman and the nemesis of three successive American presidents.

From the stone-age caves of Tora Bora to a luxurious apartment in Tehran, the CIA chased endless shadows and false leads in a hunt that seemed destined to fail.

Many analysts came to believe that Bin Laden was already dead, having succumbed, supposedly, to typhoid.

In the end, America's unending obsession with Bin Laden led them to a hideout that could hardly have been further removed from the mountains and tunnels where most people pictured him being holed up: a million-dollar, purpose-built compound within walking distance of Pakistan's main military academy.

Yesterday's surgical raid on the stronghold by US Navy Seals, which crossed off the name of the most wanted man of the 21st century, will pass into legend. But for the families of thousands of al-Qa'ida's victims, and thousands more who have died on the battlefield in two wars, it will also be a time to reflect on what might have been, if only the Americans could have grasped the opportunities to snuff out the al-Qa'ida leader before his murderous doctrine took root.

Osama bin Laden had first come to the attention of the US in 1990, when he returned to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan, having fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation.

Believing America's deployment of troops in Saudi Arabia to be an insult to Islam, he spoke out against the presence of the US military in a land sacred to Muslims.

After being expelled by the ruling Saudi royal family, he went into exile in Sudan, where he set up a base in Khartoum and helped to plan an attempt to assassinate the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, as well as the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. It was here, in late 1995, that the US missed its first chance to stop him.

The 9/11 Commission Report described how the CIA prepared an operation to seize Bin Laden, only for the plan to be scrapped amid fears of a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia.

Sudan's defence minister later claimed that his country had offered to hand Bin Laden to American officials, but in May 1996, after the US, Sudan and Saudi Arabia dithered over what to do with him, he was expelled from Sudan and boarded a chartered flight to Afghanistan.

On August 7, 1998, after Bin Laden and his sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri signed a fatwa against American citizens, Bin Laden masterminded the truck bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223 people and earning him a place on the FBI's 10 most wanted list.

It was in response to the bombings that Clinton ordered Operation Infinite Reach, the cruise missile attack on Khost a fortnight later, which was co-ordinated with an attack on sites in Sudan.

Crucially, the raid on Afghanistan was delayed until after sunset to minimise the chances of the missiles being spotted -- a decision which almost certainly kept Bin Laden alive, as an earlier attack probably would have killed him.

One member of the Clinton administration later told the 'Washington Post': "I wish we'd recognised it then, and started the (Afghan) campaign then. In hindsight, we were at war."

The next assassination plan was formed in 1999, when the CIA secretly trained 60 Pakistani commandos to enter Afghanistan and kill Bin Laden, as part of an agreement between Mr Clinton and Nawaz Sharif, the then Pakistani prime minister, only for the operation to be scrapped when Sharif was ousted in a military coup.

In 2000, the same year that 17 American sailors were killed in an al-Qa'ida attack on the USS Cole at anchor in Aden, a CIA-planned ambush of a convoy in which Bin Laden was travelling came agonisingly close to success.

A rocket-propelled grenade fired at the convoy in Afghanistan hit one of the vehicles, but missed the one in which Bin Laden was travelling.

The events of September 11, 2001, elevated Bin Laden to the status of America's most wanted man, as he would remain for the next decade. The country's new president, George W Bush, summed up his enemy's status, saying: "There's an old poster out west, that said 'wanted, dead or alive'." He put a bounty of $25m on the terrorist's head.

Bush's gunslinging rhetoric as he took his country to war in retaliation for September 11 would come back to haunt him for the rest of his presidency as Bin Laden continually slipped through his fingers.

In December 2001, weeks after the American-led coalition's invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Laden came within firing range of US forces at the battle of Tora Bora, the cave complex on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

The US launched air strikes on the caves, putting a cordon around the area which they hoped would capture Bin Laden if he fled.

But the Bush administration failed to commit ground troops to flush him out, which officials later conceded to be one of their worst mistakes of the offensive.

The folly of the decision not to tackle al-Qa'ida man-to-man in Tora Bora became clearer and clearer as more intelligence was gathered. US government files on detainees in Guantanamo Bay, obtained by WikiLeaks and published last month, showed how close Bin Laden came to capture.

Shaker Aamer, a British resident still held in Guantanamo, told interrogators that he was with Bin Laden in Tora Bora after the US bombing campaign began.

Yet Bin Laden managed to slip away, leaving US soldiers snatching at thin air when they later went into the caves to check bodies and take DNA samples in the hope of finding evidence that they had at last blown up the al-Qa'ida leader.

Bush was made to pay for the error with a series of embarrassing videotapes in which Bin Laden taunted the US and promised further attacks, including a film released in late December 2001 in which the terrorist described attacks on America as "a response to injustice".

More than 30 video or audio recordings purporting to be of Osama bin Laden would surface over the following 10 years, many of which were almost impossible to verify, but all of which served as a constant reminder of America's failures.

In 2003, Bush opened a second front on the war against terror by leading the coalition invasion of Iraq, which was assumed by most American citizens to be directly linked to the 9/11 attacks, despite the official line that it was to disarm Saddam Hussein.

In Afghanistan, however, Bin Laden seemed to have vanished. For the next eight years, the official line was that he was believed to be hiding in the tribal border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in 2005 Pakistani intelligence admitted it had lost track of him a year earlier.

Determined to kill or capture Bin Laden before the end of his presidency, Bush persuaded Congress to set aside $200m in 2006 for a special unit to track him down.

The following year he looked at increasing the bounty on Bin Laden to $50m, all to no avail.

The vacuum of information about the terrorist's location was filled by rumour and supposition. French intelligence reported that, according to their Saudi contacts, Bin Laden had died of typhoid fever in Pakistan.

There were also claims that he was living in luxury in Tehran, where he had taken up falconry as a hobby whilst enjoying the protection of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

A Taliban detainee in Pakistan told his interrogators that Bin Laden had been seen in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni as recently as early 2009.

A Californian geography professor even claimed he had narrowed down the possible locations for Bin Laden's hideout to three houses in Parachinar, 12 miles from the Afghan border, by factoring in the terrorist's need for security, electricity, high ceilings to accommodate his 6ft 4in frame, and spare rooms for his bodyguards.

When President Barack Obama came to power in 2009, his advisers conceded there had been no hard evidence on Bin Laden's location for years.

Mr Obama refused to concede defeat, and later the same year ordered the CIA intelligence-gathering operation that would eventually lead special forces to the compound in Abbottabad, and the bloody end of America's tormentor-in-chief. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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