NEAR KHOST, AFGHANISTAN-When Osama bin Laden decided to publicly declare war on the Western world for the fifth time in the Clinton presidency, he called a press conference that began with gunshots. It was May 1998.
Each of bin Laden's previous declarations of war had essentially been ignored by the Clinton Administration. The arch-terrorist first publicly declared war on America on October 12, 1996. "It is the duty of every tribe in the Arabian peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers. Their wealth is booty to those who kill them."
Amazingly, the Clinton Administration largely ignored bin Laden's plain threat. One reason might have been timing. With less than three weeks to go before the 1996 presidential election, Clinton was thinking about re-election, not national security.
Meanwhile, bin Laden upped the ante. In a February 1997 Arabic-language television interview, bin Laden declared, "If someone can kill an American soldier, it is better than wasting time on other matters." He thought it was his duty, his moral obligation, to kill American soldiers-and again, the Clinton [administration] did not respond.
Bin Laden turned up the volume. On February 23, 1998, the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders" issued a fatwa, a declaration of war, signed by bin Laden. (Bin Laden had taken control of the group only weeks before, according to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper that serves as a bulletin board for militant Muslims.) The Front announced its desire to kill all Americans, even civilians. The edict was explicit. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies-civilian and military-is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it." This marked the first time that bin Laden had publicly declared war on American civilians, although it was his third declaration of war. Again Clinton said nothing and did nothing.
A few months later bin Laden appeared on al-Jazeera television and said, "Our enemy is every American male, whether he is directly fighting us or paying taxes." It amounted to bin Laden's fourth declaration of war.
The May 1998 press conference held in the hills near Khost, Afghanistan, was to be bin Laden's last declaration of war before his most devastating attacks on Americans yet....
Dressed in white robes with his beard combed straight, bin Laden emerged and slowly moved forward. He seemed serene and serious. Without any introductions, he began speaking in Arabic and paused only for al-Qaeda interpreters to render his words into local languages. It was a long-winded speech. From the beginning, it was clear he was declaring war on the West, principally America.
"By God's grace, we have formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front, called the International Islamic Front, to do jihad against the Crusaders and Jews.
"And by God's grace, the men reacted to this call and they are going on this path and they are doing a good job. By God's will, their actions are going to have a successful result in killing Americans and getting rid of them."
Bin Laden was working himself into a frenzy. Tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice broke as he talked about the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. To him, it was an unbearable abomination. A personal affront. The Americans were infidels and their garrisons propped up a corrupt, insufficiently Islamic Saudi elite. His jihad would humiliate the American interlopers, crush them, drive them out, and stain them with defeat.
What drove bin Laden to issue his fifth declaration of war on America in May 1998? Aside from his stated ideological reasons, some longtime observers of bin Laden suspect a psychological motivation. In Paris, one senior French intelligence analyst told the author he believed that bin Laden was hoping to provoke a showdown between his forces and American troops in the wastes of Afghanistan. His theory is interesting, though unverifiable: A war in Afghanistan would allow bin Laden to relive the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and, after a long Vietnam-like conflict, he would defeat America, the world's sole remaining superpower. After such a historic victory, he would be a Muslim hero on par with Saladin, who drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem in the twelfth century. In this new Afghan jihad, unlike the last, he would be a commander, not a quartermaster. (The September 11 attacks would have the same motivation, according to this theory: to lure America into a war in Afghanistan, which bin Laden was sure he could win.) The idea that he, bin Laden, could lose never seems to have occurred to him.
In 1998, bin Laden wanted a provocation that even Clinton could not ignore. He had already selected the martyrs for the operation. One of them was a short, bearded man named Mohammed Rasheed Daoud al-Owhali. Unknown to the journalists gathered to listen to bin Laden in May 1998, al-Owhali was among the crowd of gunmen that day. Soon he would be on his way to Nairobi to murder and mangle thousands.
LANGLEY, VIRGINIA-Instead of fighting bin Laden, President Clinton spent 1998 fighting for his own political survival, as he faced a series of devastating scandals that involved accusations of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury, sexual harassment, and illegal campaign contributions. By May, Clinton's lawyers were filing endless, futile motions to stop an array of government officials from testifying before a federal grand jury. The Monica Lewinsky scandal began when the former White House intern filed a false affidavit, claiming she never had a sexual relationship with Clinton, on January 7, 1998. A few days later, Linda Tripp turned over tapes of phone calls with Lewinsky revealing that the former intern had knowingly filed a false affidavit-and appeared to have done so at the behest of the president. Witness tampering and obstruction of justice are both serious crimes, if proven. But Clinton did not stop there. On January 17, Clinton denied under oath that he accepted sexual favors from any employee. This would later prove to be false, adding another serious crime-perjury-to the charges against him. On January 26, Clinton had famously said that he "never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." This was no crime, merely an expedient lie. Politics as usual.
Other scandals would quickly follow. On February 3, a Democratic campaign contributor was taken into custody by the FBI. Another Clinton-Gore campaign donor, Maria Hsia, was indicted on February 18, on charges stemming from illegal contributions raised at a Buddhist temple in California. More questionable campaign contributors would come to light when Johnny Chung struck a plea bargain in March. On March 15, Kathleen Willey appeared on 60 Minutes, saying that Clinton groped her in a room near the Oval Office. This would appear to demonstrate a pattern of sexual harassment-the very pattern that former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones was trying to establish in court.
While Clinton was consumed by scandal, the CIA and the FBI tried to fight bin Laden. Referring to bin Laden and other terror masters, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, had testified before a closed-door session of the Senate Appropriations Committee in May 1997. "I think we are already at war," he said. "We have been on a war footing for a number of years now."
What this "war footing" amounted to was a series of vital, but small, bureaucratic steps. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) had established a special bin Laden unit in January 1996. By 1998, more than one hundred case officers and intelligence analysts were serving on the bin Laden station. With the help of the CTC, forty terrorists from the former Yugoslavia were captured and turned over to Arab governments, usually Egypt. Egyptian security is believed to have tortured, tried, and executed many of them. In this way, al-Qaeda cells were quickly smashed in Albania, Bosnia, and elsewhere.
But these small successes were not followed by broader and stronger measures. These would have required presidential decisions and Clinton was too sapped by scandal to make them. Instead, American intelligence agencies spent their time gathering data, information that would never drive Clinton to act....
Al-Qaeda had been planning to attack the embassy in Nairobi since 1993. Ali Mohammed, the double agent who worked for both the FBI and al-Qaeda, confessed to taking surveillance pictures of the U.S. embassy during a visit to Nairobi in 1993 and providing them to bin Laden in that year. Mohammed also trained many of the terrorists involved in the August 1998 attacks.
On their drive toward the target, Al-Owhali and Assam sang religious songs to keep up their morale.
The van glided around the corner of the embassy and headed to the rear parking lot.
Now came al-Owhali's task. He opened the passenger door, stepped out, and threw a hand grenade at the Kenyan guards. The defective grenade did not explode, but the guards fled anyway.
Al-Owhali was supposed to get back in the van and die, but, instinctively, he started to run away instead.
Assam, the driver, drove on toward martyrdom.
Seconds later, the van exploded. The blast reached out in all directions. It punched upward into the embassy's chancery building, tearing it apart from the bottom up. It smashed the face of a seven-story bank building near the embassy and shattered windows for blocks. The crowds on the sidewalks were smacked to the ground or buried under tons of concrete rubble.
In an instant, 256 people were dead and another 4,500 were wounded.
Strangely, al-Owhali was not among them. Hot flying rubble and glass had cut his face, hands, and back. But he was able to get up and walk away. Miraculously, the martyr had lived....
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN-Days after the embassy bombings, Clinton was searching for nonviolent solutions to the bin Laden threat. He would try a final, secret diplomatic offer. It is reported here in full for the first time.
He sent U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson to the capital of Pakistan in the second week of August 1998. Richardson's most important meeting was the one not listed on his official schedule-a secret meeting with the Taliban.
The Taliban representative, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, was one of the few Taliban leaders who spoke English and one of the many who wanted better relations with the United States. It wasn't that the Taliban had warmed to the "great Satan." The Taliban's radical Islamism was as fevered and intense as ever. But economic sanctions and the Taliban's diplomatic isolation were taking their toll. Only three nations on earth recognized the Taliban government as legitimate. United Nations relief convoys had stopped rolling, and private humanitarian groups had fled. Hunger grew and hospitals began reusing bandages. Even the Taliban realized that as the displeasure of the ordinary Afghans swelled, an anarchic tide threatened to sweep them from office.
Richardson had met with Rabbani months earlier in April 1998, and that meeting had gone reasonably well. The mullah made some encouraging remarks about improving girls' access to schooling and ending the harassment of non-Muslim nonprofit groups. Later, Maulvi Abdul Wakil Mutawakil, a member of the Taliban's ruling council, publicly announced that the Taliban would turn over bin Laden if it received "conclusive proof" that bin Laden was a terrorist.
Days after the embassy bombings, Richardson came armed with definitive proof of bin Laden's link to the attacks. Following Clinton's instructions, Richardson asked Afghanistan to expel bin Laden, just as Sudan did two years before.
This demand seems to illustrate how distracted Clinton had become by scandals. Clinton had long been seen as a "policy wonk's policy wonk," a man who was in command of even the most minute details about government policy. But somewhere Clinton the Ÿber-policy wonk failed to recognize that expelling bin Laden had been tried in the Sudan. A relocated bin Laden had now blown up two American embassies and murdered some two dozen Americans along with hundreds of luckless Africans. It was one of the largest attacks on American civilians since World War II. Why would repeating this failed expulsion policy work any better this time? Wouldn't it simply provoke another attack?
Rabbani politely declined to expel bin Laden. Apparently, the Taliban's earlier pledge to turn over bin Laden if given conclusive proof of terrorism proved to be so much hot air. The Taliban had adopted a Saudi Arabian notion of hospitality-bin Laden was a good Muslim, a guest of the regime, and therefore could not be expelled. In reality bin Laden had other attributes the Taliban valued. He supplied weapons, ammunition, and military training to the Taliban. In some cases, al-Qaeda troops even fought alongside the Taliban's militias against the Northern Alliance. And bin Laden had shrewdly married off one of his teenage daughters to a son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader. They were family now. Asking the Taliban to remove bin Laden was mission impossible. Again, something he should have known before ordering Richardson to Islamabad.
Within an hour, Richardson called Clinton on a secure telephone line. No deal. No surprise.
A gregarious southern politician, Clinton had assumed he could cut a deal with anyone. Just like LBJ. And, like LBJ, he refused to see that Communists and Islamists were unappeasable....
NEW YORK-In a public room in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, in September 1998, [counter terrorism czar] Richard Clarke stepped up to the podium. It was a rare public appearance by the ultimate insider.
He wanted to talk about America's Achilles heel. "Where is that?" he asked. "It's here. It's in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. It's where we are weakest, where we don't have two thousand troops and tanks and bombers to protect the U.S. It's where our national brain trust is."
He did not know just how prophetic his warnings would be.