Kill bin Laden or risk catastrophe, says FBI : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Kill bin Laden or risk catastrophe, says FBI

War on Terrorism: Observer special

Ed Vulliamy in New York Sunday October 7, 2001 The Observer Guardian Unlimited

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Ltd, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

Investigators tracking Osama bin Laden have emerged as a cogent voice of caution over widespread United States military strikes against Afghanistan. There is pressure in America for action to match the rhetoric of President George Bush and others during the first weeks of the crisis, but one official from the security services said: 'This is not a war that will be won by impatience.' But those charged with the most onerous task of all - killing or catching the world's most wanted man - acknowledge that widespread military action might crush the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which protects their target.

But, say sources in the intelligence community, the FBI and those preparing the legal case against bin Laden at the Justice Department, if such action allowed their target to escape it would prove catastrophic, igniting his terrorist network with 'more resolve than ever'. In briefings with The Observer, sources said an absolute priority had to be placed on his delivery for trial in the US, or else production of a forensically verifiable corpse, whatever the ambitions for Afghanistan or wider aims in the war against terrorism.

Officials in the Justice Department and intelligence services believe that the bin Laden network, still operative in cells across the globe, would implode if he were beheaded. Investigators laid out two scenarios: 'There's a notion that if you behead the snake, another two crawl out of the swamp,' said one official. 'This situation is the opposite: cut off the snake's head and the body shrivels up. The important thing is to get the man.'

On the other hand, if Afghanistan was bombed into submission and bin Laden survived, it would be like kicking open a hornet's nest: 'This would just burnish his image and make the network even more determined. The worst thing would be a military operation that caused civilian casualties, let him escape and steeled the resolve of his operatives.'

'It's a view of history,' said another official. 'It says that, if Hitler had been assassinated in 1935, the rest would probably not have happened.' Hawks in the Pentagon pour scorn on such words of caution: 'They have no belief in military power or that of the country,' said one.

The premium on delivering bin Laden or a body bag pitches the Justice Department and many in the intelligence services against these more bellicose factions in the Bush administration, which favour not only early strikes but a wide-ranging war on terrorism that incorporates Iraq. The argument is reported to have acted as a brake on military action last week. Investigators acknowledge that bin Laden's presence has emboldened such organisations as Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, and fundamentalist movements in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and Algeria.

The premium on getting bin Laden has been illustrated by revelations in the Washington Post last week, charting a number of abortive CIA-backed operations to capture or kill him, mounted in conjunction with Pakistani intelligence. The Observer has learnt of a further episode that demonstrates current thinking in intelligence circles. In 1999, bin Laden was visiting one of his compounds in a 'large Afghan city'. US intelligence selected a short list of buildings where he was thought to be, and did blast calculations to work out how many civilians would die if they blew them up. But the risk assessment analysis deemed the potential 'collateral damage' too high.

Meanwhile, investigators concede, the US security services for years failed to 'look outside the box' of their global inquiries to predict an attack on US soil. They also tell The Observer that a counter terrorism report circulated last April urged security agencies to 'play down' bin Laden's influence in global terrorism. The key problem, say officials, was reliance on wiretaps and surveillance rather than human Intelligence - i.e. spies. Officials said bin Laden's organisation made it well-nigh impossible to penetrate or recruit double agents. A spy would probably have to participate in terrorist actions to win the confidence of al-Qaeda. During the past three years, intelligence monitoring of al-Qaeda had, said one official, picked up what now appear to have been false trails, deliberately laid for interception. Hoax messages and calls pointed to attacks in Europe and South America, and were closely followed by distracted US intelligence services.

Indications of another attack on the US were missed. Before 11 September, the CIA sent the FBI a list of 100 men known to have associations with bin Laden and believed to be resident in the US - the names of two of them resurfaced on the fateful day itself, among the hijackers. Warning phrases had been picked up, such as 'they're going to pay the price' and 'we're ready to go', but many failed to reach the desks of the intelligence analysts until at least 48 hours later. Others went untranslated from Arabic. Jargon and codewords used by the terrorists bypassed the CIA and FBI. It was not until they listened to wiretaps in the 1993 World Trade Centre bomb investigation that the FBI learned that the network uses the word hadduta - an Arabic term for a child's bedtime story - to mean a bomb. The oversights date back to the 1992 arrest of Sayyid Nosair, assassin of the Jewish extremist Mehir Kahane, in whose apartment police found bomb-making instructions, pictures of the World Trade Centre and pages of handwritten Arabic. None of this material was inventoried or translated. 'You are getting these huge amounts of material and have no way to translate it. We had one guy who spoke Arabic,' recalls Michael Cherasky, investigations chief in the Manhattan District Attorney's office during the Kahane murder investigation. The bomber in 1993 was Ramzi Yousef. Yousef had also been planning to hijack a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters or a nuclear power station, but the FBI thought the idea far-fetched.

-- Robert Riggs (, October 07, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ