Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the best chance the United States had to kill Osama bin Laden before he led al-Qaeda to plan and carry out the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In addition to failing to elimate bin Laden, or any senior al-Qaeda leaders, the botched cruise missile attack of August 20, 1998, played a prominent role in accelerating efforts to arm unmanned drones. What began as highly specialized, covert tool to locate and kill one individual has developed into today’s default counterterrorism tactic.
On August 7, 1998, at 10:30 a.m., a Toyota Dyna truck bomb exploded at the rear of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 213 people—including 12 Americans—and injuring more than 4,000 others. Nine minutes later, a 1987 Nissan Atlas refrigeration truck bomb exploded thirty-five feet outside of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 11 people and injuring 85 more. Both truck bombs were made in Kenya by the same man, Egyptian explosives expert Mushin Musa Matwalli Atwah, who was killed by a CIA drone in Pakistan in April 2006. The bombings were described by an CIA official as, “On a scale of 1 to 10 [with one being the highest], that’s a 1.”
The following day, a “small group” within the National Security Council was formed, consisting of the principals and a handful of other senior officials. At the first meeting, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet presented unusually specific evidence that over two hundred suspected militants and al-Qaeda leaders (including bin Laden) were planning to gather at the Zhawar Kili training complex in Khost, Afghanistan. Six days later, Tenet provided the CIA’s formal determination that bin Laden and his senior Egyptian aides were responsible for the U.S. embassy bombings; “This one is a slam dunk, Mr. President,” the director unequivocally stated, using a metaphor of certainty he would repeat for President Bush regarding Saddam Hussein’s supposed-WMD programs. Military planners in U.S. Central Command and the Joint Staff developed options including a special operations raid, which was discounted due to concerns that it would take too long to assemble the complete force package, enabling logistics, and combat search and rescue capabilities. Presented with six options to attack the Zhawar Kili training complex, a senior U.S. military official later told me, the president “went right to the cruise missile option.”
In addition, a range of targets in Sudan, supposedly connected to bin Laden from when he lived there until 1996, were also considered by the small group. Eventually, two targets in the capital of Khartoum were proposed: the El-Shifa Pharmaceuticals Industries Company factory and the Khartoum Tannery Company, which bin Laden had received from the Sudanese government as partial payment for building a road linking the capital to the Red Sea. In the weeks prior to the embassy bombings, the CIA had presented intelligence to the White House about al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire WMD, including an assessment of a soil sample taken near the El-Shifa factory that contained over two times the normal trace of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid (or Empta), a chemical precursor used in the production of nerve gas. Shortly before the operation, Clinton, according to his autobiography, “took the tannery off the list because it had no military value to al-Qaeda and I wanted to minimize civilian casualties.”
The cruise missile strikes—codenamed Operation Infinite Reach—were the model of American limited military force. At 7:30 p.m. local time in Sudan, two U.S. Navy warships in the Red Sea fired thirteen BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) at the El-Shifa factory. Pentagon planners ran computer models to calculate the risk of the possible release of a chemical plume from the attack. To ensure that any toxins would be incinerated, extra Tomahawks were added in order to burn the factory to the ground. El-Shifa was destroyed, its night watchman was killed, and a watchman in a sugar factory next door was horribly injured. As General Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. Central Command, sarcastically noted: “[El Shifa] was a success. We sprayed aspirin all over Khartoum.” Yet, it was a failure politically as it was later revealed that Bin Laden had no ownership stake in the factory, and it was not connected to producing WMD.
At the same time as the El-Shifa strike, four Navy ships in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan launched sixty-six TLAMs against six sites within the Zhawar Kili complex at Khost. With no concern about collateral damage, the bombing of the Khost complex sought to inflict the maximum number of casualties. To accomplish this, Pentagon planners deployed cruise missiles in two waves. The first began with several C-model unitary warhead TLAMs that hit the complex to lure people outside to find out what was happening. The follow-up wave consisted of a saturation of D-model TLAMs armed with 166 soda-can-sized bomblets that burst several hundred feet above the target and blanketed an area roughly eight hundred by four hundred feet with shards of shrapnel. Reportedly, between twenty and sixty people were killed, including Pakistani ISI officers training militants to fight in Kashmir. Some later claimed that bin Laden was tipped off in advance by Pakistan, although U.S. officials argue there is no definitive evidence. For whatever reason—his bodyguard later claimed bin Laden was not at Khost at the time—bin Laden and all senior al-Qaeda members survived the cruise missiles.
In December 1998, four months after Operation Infinite Reach, new intelligence emerged that bin Laden would be staying at a particular location in Kandahar for an indefinite period of time. This was crucial; the time needed to analyze the intelligence, obtain presidential authorization, program the missiles, and launch the targeted missile required a minimum of four to six hours. The collateral damage from a potential cruise missile attack against Kandahar was estimated at roughly three hundred casualties. Although the operation was never authorized, the 9/11 Commission later found: “After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative to cruise missiles, such as using precision strike aircraft.”
With specific guidance from the National Security Council to develop new means to locate, identify, and track bin Laden, an interagency team—led by Vice Admiral Scott Fry, the Joint Staff’s director of operations—soon settled on the most promising option: the Predator. In fifteen test flights before 9/11, unmanned surveillance drones provided live video coverage of Afghanistan. To enable the Predator to carry out lethal strikes, the Air Force mated the drone with a reconfigured Hellfire antitank missile normally used by attack helicopters. The first successful U.S. armed drone strike test took place on February 16, 2001. By November, a Predator was used to kill Mohammed Atef, a top al-Qaeda military commander in Afghanistan.
Reviewing the debates among late Clinton and early Bush administration officials, one is struck by how uneasy many were with both deploying such a low-risk, low-cost lethal tool and where such a weapon would ultimately lead. Since that time, armed drones have been used some four hundred times outside of battlefield settings to kill nearly three thousand individuals. The emergence of drones as the preeminent tool in America’s undeclared Third War against suspected militants in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and The Philippines is one that former officials would have found hard to believe. The relative precision that drones allow, compared to less precise tools like the cruise missiles launched fourteen years ago in the immediate search for bin Laden, makes them more attractive than anyone would have anticipated or predicted.