In the months leading up to the September 11 terror attacks, the Bush administration had Osama bin Laden on its radar. He was not a household name in America yet, but top administration officials regarded him as a mortal enemy. Secretary of State Colin Powell was among those deeply concerned about bin Laden’s ability to launch or provoke serious terror attacks – and to influence large swaths of the Muslim world, where many admired him and were drawn to his hate-filled anti-Americanism.
Secret diplomatic cables just released by WikiLeaks show that ten years ago, just months before 9⁄11, top Bush officials were attempting to bring bin Laden to justice for outrages that included his role in the truck-bombing attacks of U.S. embassies in the East African cities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. However, Washington was getting nowhere with the Taliban.
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, was getting stalled, stonewalled, and lied to by the Taliban in response to repeated queries and demands about bin Laden’s whereabouts and the Taliban’s pledges to close terror-training camps, according to diplomatic cables classified as “secret.”
The subject line of one secret cable: “Taliban claim Bin Laden out of their territory.” Dated February 19, 1999, it was written by President Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, based on information provided by a top Taliban figure, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, who was considered a “moderate” Taliban member.
Sounding upbeat, Talbott wrote:
Mujahid has long indicated his own opposition to UBL and support for better relations between the U.S. and the Taliban. It was clearly gratifying for him to deliver the news that UBL had left tall ban territory. Mujahid was more emotional during this session than in any previous encounter.
The diplomatic back and forth between Washington and Taliban officials over bin Laden’s whereabouts up until the eve of 9⁄11 is eerily similar to Washington’s negotiations over the years with North Korea and Iran about their nuclear weapons programs.
Read in the hindsight of 9⁄11, the cables provide a fascinating and sometimes comic and even depressing glimpse into the minds of officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations as they tried, during the late 90s and in early 2001, to find common ground and shared interests with the Taliban – with the aim of neutralizing bin Laden or bringing him to justice (though not necessarily kill him) and to shut down bin Laden’s terror-training camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
During the Clinton years in particular, some diplomatic cables give the sense that State Department officials viewed Taliban leaders as people who would listen to reason; or who could be shamed or pressured into doing the right thing with respect to their famous guest, Osama bin Laden, and his terror-training camps.
It’s the only thing to conclude from a secret cable sent by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, on February 26, 1998. Its subject line: “Usama bin Laden’s statement about jihad against the U.S.”
Albright noted her cable was responding to bin Laden’s recent statement “calling for all Muslims to engage in a holy war against Americans.”
Sent to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, it contained helpful “talking points” for embassy officials. Per Albright’s instructions, they were to convey the following to the Taliban:
How might the Taliban have reacted to the talking points in Albright’s February 26 cable? It should have been obvious to her and anybody who knew what they were doing, and had already done. In Kabul, for instance, they demonstrated their Islamo-facist credentials in February, 1998 – just like Germany’s Nazis had demonstrated their thug credentials in November 1938, with Kristallnacht, the nationwide attacks on Jewish homes, business, and synagogues. The Taliban’s religious police, for their part, were clearing women from Kabul’s streets and beating them up for failing to wear head-to-toe chadors, a violation of Sharia law. Months later, the Taliban turned Kabul soccer stadium into an execution ground, shooting untold numbers of men and women in the heads or stoning them to death for petty crimes and adultery. And despite international protests, they later destroyed colossal Buddhist statues carved into a mountain, considering them idolatrous and offensive to Islam.
This is what the Taliban was. Not surprisingly, Albright’s talking points failed to persuade it to clean up its act regarding bin Laden and the terror camps. Albright was flummoxed. And so she ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure by enlisting the help of a formidable ally: the Europe Union. In a secret cable dated March 27, 1998, Albright contacted U.S. embassies in the European Union – and in her “action message” directed U.S. envoys to invite E.U. states to join Washington in condemning the Taliban; she hoped the diplomatic pile on would persuade the Taliban to close its terror camps and withdraw support for Osama bin Laden. The cable’s subject line: “Approach to EU on Taleban support for Usama bin Laden” (“Taleban” is an alternative spelling to the more commonly used “Taliban”).
The U.S. is concerned by the so-called fatwa recently issued by terrorist patron Usama bin Laden that calls on all Muslims to kill Americans. We have raised this issue with the Taleban both in Kabul and in New York. We are confident that EU member states share this concern. We believe that there is merit in the Taleban realizing that this concern is not limited to the U.S.
Albright warned: “The Taleban must share responsibility for Usama bin Laden’s terrorist actions and inflammatory statements as long as he remains a guest in Qandahar.” (Qandahar is the Persian spelling of “Kandahar,” the more commonly seen Pashto version.)
How might the Taliban and bin Laden have reacted to Albright’s diplomatic efforts? In all likelihood, her talking points achieved the opposite of what she’d intended – providing evidence to bin Laden and the Taliban that America was a “weak horse”; or as bin Laden had famously declared: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”
Interestingly, just six months after Albright’s first “talking points” cable, she got an answer of sorts – the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in which bin Laden had a hand. Hundreds died and thousands were wounded; 12 Americans were among the dead. In retaliation for the suicide bombings, President Clinton thereupon established his own credentials as a “weak horse” – ineffectual cruise missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. In the minds of the Taliban and bin Laden (and their cheerleaders in the Middle East), the cruise missile strikes offered more evidence that they had nothing to fear from the pitiful American giant.
Months before September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was itself utilizing fruitless diplomatic channels to bring Osama bin Laden to justice – and a U.S. courtroom. By then, the terror master was on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. And his Taliban hosts were feeling the sting of a force that surely struck fear into their hearts – the United Nations Security Council. At the Clinton administration’s urging, it had authorized financial sanctions on the Taliban, demanded they stop allowing territory under their control to be used for terrorist training, and ordered that they turn over Osama bin Laden to “appropriate authorities.”
Appropriate authorities? It was an ambiguous phrase, of course, one apparently exploited by the Taliban to yet again give Washington the run-around, buy time, and protect bin Laden. This was underscored by a secret cable dated April 7, 2001 – five months before 9⁄11 – and sent by Secretary of State Colin Powell as an “action request” to U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth McKune in Doha, Qatar. The subject line: “Taliban Proposal for bin Laden Islamic Tribunal.”
As Powell explained:
There have been reports from various sources that during the Taliban delegation visit to Qatar, the Taliban and Qataris may discuss a tribunal of Muslim scholars to try Usama bin Laden in Qatar. Reportedly, under this formula, if the U.S. offered sufficient evidence at the trial, then UBL could conceivably face a sentence by the Islamic tribunal. If the tribunal does not find him guilty, then UBL would presumably be considered by many to be exonerated.
Powell’s cable nevertheless stressed that Washington opposed an “Islamic trial” for bin Laden – and so McKune should convey this to the Taliban if the issue came up. “Without studying the details of any such proposal, we seriously question whether a third country trial would meet the requirements the Security Council has laid down,” Powell wrote.
“As you know, Bin Laden is under indictment in the U.S., and our position is that we want him for trial in the U.S. If the Taleban have a serious proposal, they should present it to the U.S.”
Know Your Enemy
If some U.S. officials miscalculated regarding bin Laden, perhaps it was because they were naïve; or perhaps because they simply didn’t know their enemy. Nearly eight months after Albright’s first talking points cable, a secret cable dated October 13, 1998 was transmitted from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: It contained a detailed biography of Osama bin Laden. Signed by U.S. Ambassador Wyche Fowler Jr., it was distributed to a number of U.S. embassies and officials, as well as to military and intelligence officials: CIA, NSA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Its subject line: “Saudi Arabia: Usama bin Ladin (sic).”
What did bin Laden want? As the cable explained: “Bin Ladin’s (sic) immediate stated objective is the expulsion of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, the Arabian peninsula, and all Muslim countries.” It’s a goal that, interestingly, explains the timing of the U.S. embassy suicide bombings in East Africa. They occurred on the eighth anniversary of American troops arriving in Saudi Arabia.
The cable continued: “Beyond that goal, in March 1997, Bin Ladin (sic) told a Pakistani journalist that ‘Muslims need a leader who can unite them and establish a government which follows the rule of the caliphs. The rule of the caliphs will begin from Afghanistan. It will adopt interest-free banking. The rule of Allah will be established. We are against communism but we are also against capitalism. The concentration of wealth in just a few hands is unislamic (sic).’” Interestingly, this neatly sums up why radical Islamists get along so well with members of the international Left.
As for bin Laden’s objective of expelling American infidels from the Arabian peninsula, there is an irony here. The Americans were military personnel, enforcing the United Nations-mandated no-fly zone in Iraq under the terms of the cease-fire with Saddam Hussein; and so in one sense, 9⁄11 was blowback from the first Gulf War.
Fowler’s cable also touched on the issue of bin Laden’s popularity among many Muslims, stating: “According to Jamal Khashoggi, an Islamic movement specialist for ‘Al Hayat’ newspaper, many people consider Ysama bin Ladin (sic) as the ‘Che Guevara’ of the Arab world. He said that some hope that Usama will die in battle so that people will not have to suffer the ‘humiliation’ of seeing him transported in handcuffs to the U.S.”
How ironic that President Obama, in authorizing Navy Seals to kill bin Laden rather than capturing him, ended up giving many Muslims their fondest wish. But ultimately, killing Bin Laden was preferable to taking him to Guantanamo (unacceptable to Obama’s far-left political base) and putting him on trial in New York City, a trial that would have been a political circus and mockery of a criminal justice system that’s unsuited for trying terrorists captured on foreign battlefields.
The Obama administration now has another terror master on its radar – or to be precise, in its cross-hairs. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al-Qaeda commander, lecturer, and former imam, is thought to be hiding out in Yemen, from where his parents emigrated to America. He has inspired a number of terrorists and would-be terrorists, including the Fort Hood shooter, the Christmas Day bomber and the Times Square bomber. At least three of the 9⁄11 hijackers attended his sermons at a mosque in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Obama administration, however, has no interest in bringing him to an American courtroom. It has issued an order to kill him, one that withstood a legal challenge brought by an ACLU lawyer in behalf of al-Awlaki’s father.
America has come a long way since its pre-9⁄11 days – acquired an understanding of how decent men and women must, regrettably, sometimes function in brutish parts of the world: the real world.
It’s one of the legacies of 9⁄11.