"HUNTING BIN LADEN"|
Airdate: March 21, 2000
Produced and Directed by Martin Smith
Written by Lowell Bergman and Martin Smith
Correspondent, Lowell Bergman
NARRATOR: On New Year's eve, as America
celebrated the new millennium, US authorities were breathing a sigh of
relief--the event had passed without a terrorist attack.
Just two weeks earlier, an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, had been
arrested in Washington state, crossing the border from Canada in a car
containing explosives and timing devices.
The following day in the middle east, Jordanian police
arrested 14 men, accused of planning bomb and machine gun attacks against
American tourists. American intelligence agencies believe there is increasing
evidence that both plots may be connected to one man: Osama bin Laden.
LARRY C. JOHNSON: And there's that "A-ha" moment, that
"Oh, we do have a problem. We've actually got someone who doesn't like us and
is wanting to kill us."
NARRATOR: For years this one man has taunted,
threatened and frustrated the United States. But who is he? The U.S.
government has tried to link him to nearly every act of Islamic terrorism
against Americans in the 90s, from the World Trade Center to the bombings of
U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia to the bombings of two U.S.
embassies in Africa.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: The United States launched an
attack this morning on one of the most active terrorist bases in the
REPORTER: Did you kill bin Laden? Is bin Laden dead,
do you know?
SAMUEL R. BERGER, National Security Adviser: We have
no idea where bin Laden's whereabouts-
LOWELL BERGMAN: How carefully were the
NARRATOR: Tonight FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell
Bergman investigates the hunt for Usama bin Laden.
ANNOUNCER: This special edition of FRONTLINE is a
co-production with The New York Times.
NARRATOR: The bombers set off in the morning for
downtown Nairobi. Their target, the United States embassy, was located at one
of the busiest intersections in the city. Their truck was carrying 2,000 pounds
of TNT. Two hundred and thirteen people died, five thousand were
Four minutes later, 600 miles away in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania,
another bomb. Another 11 people died, another 85 wounded. The question was
why, and to what end?
U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell:
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya: For two
nights after the bombing, I was plagued with the question: What's the point?
Really, what is the point? And since then I have heard what the point is,
because Mr. Bin Laden explained the point. The point, he says, is, "I hate
Americans, and I'm going to kill you."
If that's the point, it certainly is the wrong point, but it's
the point of one man, one renegade, somebody who certainly doesn't have his feet
in the kind of reality I deal with every day.
NARRATOR: Usama bin Laden, the man the U.S. government
calls a renegade, is today the most wanted man on earth, with a $5 million
bounty on his head. But who is this man? Is he just one lone
AHMED SATTAR: The American government don't get
LOWELL BERGMAN: They don't get it?
AHMED SATTAR: They don't get it. No.
10400NARRATOR: Ahmed Sattar is a close associate of
Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Five years ago the sheik was arrested, tried and
convicted for conspiring to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations
headquarters and the Holland Tunnel.
AHMED SATTAR: You can kill Usama bin Laden today or
tomorrow. You can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington
or whatever. If this will end the problem? No. Tomorrow he will get somebody
It's not a secret, but the American government, you know, has
one enemy, is the Islamic movement all over the world, whether it's armed
struggle or peaceful- or by peaceful means. I mean, you can see it. You can
see it from Algeria to Afghanistan.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The United States is at war?
AHMED SATTAR: Yes, to a certain extent.
LOWELL BERGMAN: With Islam.
AHMED SATTAR: Yes.
NARRATOR: For the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is a
religion of peace. But in mosques around the world, many clerics talk about
Islam being under attack and about how they must unite and fight back. It is
what Muslims call jihad, the obligation to defend Islam from any and all
Facing the house of Allah in Mecca, devout Muslims around the
world submit to their god five times a day. Mecca is at heart of Islam, in
Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. It is also
the homeland of Usama bin Laden.
The country is ruled by a monarchy that bin Laden says is a
corrupt and repressive puppet of the United States. FRONTLINE wanted to come
here to inquire about bin Laden, but reporters with cameras are not welcome, and
anyone who speaks out here risks their freedom. So we went to London to talk to
exiled Saudi dissidents.
London is home to half a million Muslims and sanctuary for
Islamic dissidents from all over the world. A prominent Saudi physician, Saad
al-Fagih, heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. He says he opposes
the use of violence, but he knows a lot about bin Laden and his views.
SAAD AL-FAGIH, Saudi Dissident: He's a product of a
new social structure, new social feelings in the Muslim world where you have
strong hostility not only against America, but also against many Arab and Muslim
regimes who are allying to America.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Who are the bin Ladens?
SAAD AL-FAGIH: The bin Laden family is very
interesting. His father came from a family from Hetremout, South Yemen, who are
famous to be successful merchants and businessmen by talent- probably by their
genes as successful businessmen.
NARRATOR: So successful were the bin Ladens that they
amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune in the construction business. It helped
that the father had close ties to the king, who, says al-Fagih, issued a decree
that all government contracts had to go to the bin Laden construction
Usama bin Laden is the 17th son of 52 children, presumed to be
heir to a $300 million fortune. But Usama bin Laden wasn't all that interested
in money or the family business.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Some people have told us in the 1970s
he was lost. He wasn't really focused. He didn't really have a career or
direction until he went to Afghanistan.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Exactly. He was a student in the
university, and then he was taken by the news of Afghanistan, and he moved
there. Even the first three or four years in Afghanistan, nobody noticed that
he was there.
NARRATOR: For Muslims, the war in Afghanistan against
godless communist Soviet invaders was a religious duty, a holy war or jihad.
Thousands of Muslims flocked to Afghanistan from all over the world. Saad
al-Fagih came as a surgeon.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What was the attraction to go to
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Well, it was a golden opportunity to
live the life of jihad because you could not practice jihad in Saudi Arabia.
You cannot practice jihad in the Gulf. You cannot practice jihad in Arab, any
other country. So the only way to practice actual jihad in its full-scale sense
is you carry a weapon and fight the enemy, the enemy of Islam.
NARRATOR: For Americans, the Afghan war was a chance
to weaken the Kremlin. The U.S., along with its chief ally in the region, Saudi
Arabia, pumped in $6 billion of not-so-covert guns and ammunition in order to
defeat the Russians.
Milt Bearden was the CIA field officer charged with overseeing
the agency's operations.
LOWELL BERGMAN: How important was the Afghan war as an
event for the Arabs and for the United States?
MILT BEARDEN, CIA, 1964-1994: It's a very big deal. A
small Islamic nation of 15 million people stood up to the Soviet Union with
assistance from others and forced that entity called the Soviet Red Army to
withdraw. And that's a great victory, a jihad. It's the first of a great
moment in resurgent Islam.
NARRATOR: This is bin Laden in Afghanistan. At age 22
he came here and used his family name and influence to help raise money for the
MILT BEARDEN: Bin Laden actually did some very good
things. He put a lot of money in a lot of right places in Afghanistan. He
never came on the screen of any Americans as either a terrific asset or someone
who was anti-American.
NARRATOR: Bearden was familiar with the Arabs that
came to Afghanistan. He says the idea that Usama bin Laden led a force of
freedom fighters through bloody and heroic battles with the Soviets is pure
myth, as is the idea that bin Laden was a creation of the CIA.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What you knew of Usama Bin Laden at
the time was as a fund-raiser, not as a fighter?
MILT BEARDEN: Oh, not as a fighter. There were no
Arabs who had what I would call major role in fighting the war. I think there
was one battle, one battle in the spring of '87 that bin Laden was engaged in,
and that's it.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: That's not true. He was involved to
the bone in fighting in Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Al-Fagih and members of the Saudi opposition
tell of a different bin Laden. They recount a leader among soldiers.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: And people who work with him or live
with him like him a lot because he's having the two characters for people to be
liked- the charisma, the aura, on one side, and also the humbleness and being
simple and being generous and soft on the other side. The people who lived with
him very closely, they told me that you are taken by his personality, and you
are forced to have strong affection towards him, and respect. [www.pbs.org:
Take a closer look at bin Laden's life]
NARRATOR: When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan
in 1989, victory over the Red Army left bin Laden and his followers extremely
AHMED SATTAR: Well, we can do things. We can achieve
NARRATOR: Ahmed Sattar says the war was an inspiration
to Muslims everywhere.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You mean if you can defeat what Ronald
Reagan called the "evil empire"-
AHMED SATTAR: Yes. If I can defeat the evil empire, I
can defeat anybody else.
NARRATOR: Said Aburish is a Palestinian-born author
living in London. He says the war in Afghanistan did much more than just boost
SAID K. ABURISH, Journalist/Author: What happened was
that the people who went to Afghanistan became radicalized. You know, they
assumed a political role above and beyond the original purpose of facing the
Russians. They wanted to go back home and have a say about how things were
being done in their own countries. And that is really what happened to Usama
NARRATOR: Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and, the
story goes, he had a dream.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: When he came back to Saudi Arabia in
1989, he had a prophecy that Saddam's going to invade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,
and he made this public, not only through secret, confidential letters to the
king, but he was talking about it in the mosques. And then his prophecy was
NARRATOR: In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and
threatened Saudi Arabia, the king turned to the United States for help. Bin
SAAD AL-FAGIH: He said, "You don't need Americans.
You don't need any other non-Muslim troops. We will be enough. And I can
convince even Afghanis to come and join us instead of Americans."
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, you agree with that,
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Well, I'm not only- not only I. A very
broad spectrum in Arabia agree with that, that we don't want American forces.
We don't want a single American soldier to step foot in our country.
NARRATOR: The arrival of American troops was bad
enough, but when the troops did not leave the holy lands of Islam after the Gulf
war ended, Muslims all over the world took notice. Continued U.S. presence was
a religious affront, not unlike the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
AHMED SATTAR: The people especially in the Arab and
Islamic world look at you same way they looked at the British and the French
LOWELL BERGMAN: How can you say that? We sent our
troops to defend you.
AHMED SATTAR: Well, you know, yes, we really
appreciate it very much you send your troops to defend us. Nobody asked for the
American troops to go there. You went there to protect your own interest. You
went there to protect some corrupted regimes that are working against their own
people. So do not give me that you were there to protect the people. Your
policy in this area has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with the
NARRATOR: Muslim fundamentalists say that America's
alliance with King Fahd is akin to America's disastrous alliance with the Shah
of Iran. When King Fahd, like the Shah, is forced from power, they say,
Americans will be on the wrong side of history.
OPPOSITION DEMONSTRATOR: We are here to ensure that
the decadent, corrupt, vile, violent, syphilitic family in the house al Saud be
taken out forever!
NARRATOR: In London we spoke to another prominent
leader of the Saudi opposition, Mohammed Masari. Masari, who has had close ties
to some of bin Laden's top people, agrees the Saudi leadership lacks
MOHAMMED AL-MASARI, Saudi Dissident: There's no
planning for the future which will guarantee a reasonable survival after the end
of the oil age. The oil age is coming to an end sooner or later. In 40, 50
years, there will enough energy resources that oil will become less significant
than it is today. Nothing is prepared because we have a ruling group, a ruling
class or clique, call it whatever you want, which does not have any vision of
the reality of the future. It's absolutely incapable and inept
NARRATOR: Already, critics of the Saudi government
point out the king has managed to turn the world's largest oil producer into a
SAID ABURISH: They have not used their income wisely,
and they have squandered all of their reserves. And as a result, at this moment
in time, the country is not only broke, they are heavily in debt. There have
been very many attempts to overthrow that government and to rebel.
SAUDI OPPOSITION LEADER: [subtitles] The state
is plunging into a grave crisis. Some reports talk about $160 billion in debt,
but even if it's one tenth of that there'll be consequences.
NARRATOR: This tape of Saudi opposition leader
speaking to a crowd of supporters was smuggled out of Saudi Arabia by Saudi
activists. In the early '90s, bin Laden was known to have made similar
SAID ABURISH: Usama bin Laden is the product of these
movements. And Usama bin Laden is much more interesting than most of them
because Usama bin Laden belongs to a family which is part of the establishment,
the ruling establishment in Saudi Arabia. And therefore it is an indication of
how bad things have got, when a member of the establishment becomes a radical
Islamist against the regime. Usama bin Laden's first demand is that the
American troops in Saudi Arabia should leave the holy soil of Islam.
NARRATOR: For his open opposition to the government,
bin Laden had his passport taken away. But dissent inside the royal family over
the direction of the kingdom was creating a base of influential support for
Saudi dissidents. Bin Laden was able to arrange an escape.
In Washington practically no one had heard of Usama bin Laden.
The CIA knew only that he was a vocal opponent of the Saudi regime and of U.S.
troop presence, troops U.S. officials felt were a necessary defense against
possible future attacks from Iraq.
FRANK ANDERSON, CIA, 1968-1995: American forces are in
Saudi Arabia helping to protect Saudi interests, as well as American
NARRATOR: Frank Anderson was with the CIA from 1968 to
1995 and was considered one of the agency's leading authorities on the Arab
LOWELL BERGMAN: What they're saying is "It's
despoiling our holy hand to have American troops, infidel troops, in the land of
Mohammed." This becomes a religious violation.
FRANK ANDERSON: And as a Christian, it's difficult for
me to get into a Muslim theological argument, but it's bad Islam. I reject bin
Laden's criticism, as do most Muslims I know reject his criticisms.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Is the presence of U.S. troops in
Saudi Arabia truly an affront to Muslims?
YASMIN KAHN, M.D.: Yes.
NARRATOR: We came to Arlington, Texas, home to a large
American Muslim community, to find out if bin Laden's ideas had any resonance
here. [www.pbs.org: More of this discussion]
ABDUL RAHMAN AMJAD, Student: I grew up in Saudi
Arabia, and we- you did a good favor. You know, you defend Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait. Thank you very much. We appreciate that. We'll give you how much
billions you'll ask for. However, the average Arabs or the average Saudi
citizen- it's like, you know, you have a Thanksgiving party. All your relatives
came to visit you, visit you from out of town. Thanksgiving is over. You know,
please leave. You have 30 people in your house, and they don't want to get
INAYAT I. LALANI, M.D., American Muslim Caucus: They
welcomed the U.S. troops in the Gulf. The Arabs did not vote for the
strangulation of the Iraqi people or dismemberment of Iraqi. They only agreed
to pushing Iraq out of Kuwait. And when that was accomplished, that was the
time for the United States to come home gracefully.
LOWELL BERGMAN: But is it a religious- in some way a
religious insult for U.S. troops to be in Saudi Arabia?
KHALID Y. HAMIDEH, Attorney: A huge religious insult.
And that's the underpinnings of all- again, the anti-American fervor. We see
the second holiest place in Islam - in Jerusalem - has been under occupation for
almost 50 years now. Now most Muslims view that the holiest sights in Islam are
also becoming under occupation. It's unfortunate that we don't view our foreign
policy with at least one inclination or a small bit of inclination towards the
Islamic religion or culture. It is an insult for most Muslims for the American
troops to be there.
NARRATOR: In 1991 Usama bin Laden came here, where the
White and Blue Nile meet, to the ancient city of Khartoum in the Sudan. Across
the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, the Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the
world. But in 1989, radical Muslims backed by the Sudanese army formed a
government dedicated to transforming the country into an Islamic
In the early '90s, the Sudan was attracting Muslims from all
over, including many of the newly radicalized veterans of the Afghan war.
President Bashir remembers bin Laden.
GEN. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR, President, Sudan:
[through interpreter] Yes, I met him in Khartoum after he came
LOWELL BERGMAN: What kind of person is he?
Pres. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR: [through
interpreter] He's a very normal person who is very religious. He believes
in Islam and, where possible, the establishment of an Islamic state. The time
that he spent in Afghanistan led him to believe that this might be achieved
through military means.
NARRATOR: In the Sudan, bin Laden set up a host of
businesses, among them a tannery, two large farms and a major road construction
company, and he reportedly paid for 480 Afghan vets to come work with him. The
Sudan liked this wealthy Saudi who was enthusiastic about investing in their
fledgling Islamic state. When bin Laden finished a major road construction
project, President al-Bashir treated him like a national hero.
But the FBI and the CIA were wary. They had pegged the Sudan
as a haven for Islamic terrorists, and the CIA was picking up some evidence,
although inconclusive, that bin Laden was now sending money to Islamic militants
around the world.
LARRY C. JOHNSON, U.S. State Dept. 1989-1993: The
intelligence that was being created pointed increasingly to him as someone that
had to be dealt with.
NARRATOR: Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, was
deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism from 1989
LOWELL BERGMAN: So we shouldn't take as credible their
claim that when they had Usama in Khartoum, he was basically building roads
LARRY C. JOHNSON: No, absolutely not. I think that's-
you know, that's ridiculous because the fact of the matter is that if he was
absolutely up to charitable works and constructive public projects, he wouldn't
have been an issue.
NARRATOR: Then came a seismic event, the World Trade
Center bombing. This was the first act of Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil. The
FBI investigation of the bombing conspiracy led in many directions. One led to
Egyptian veterans of the Afghan war, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Another
eventually led to this man, Ramsi Yousef, who investigators believed at the time
had a financial link to Usama bin Laden.
LARRY C. JOHNSON: And when Ramsi Yousef was captured
in Pakistan in 1995, in the end of January, first of February, then more
information started to come out about Usama.
NARRATOR: But the information was tenuous and
incomplete, but it was enough to lead investigators to wonder if bin Laden might
be an answer to their questions.
LARRY C. JOHNSON: And it turned out that- because
there had been confusion before. Why was the World Trade Center taking place?
Who was doing it? There were lots of theories, not very good intelligence. And
so the intelligence community actually started generating the picture that Usama
bin Laden was this, if you will, sort of the new face of terrorism. And there's
that "A-ha" moment, that "Oh, we do have a problem. We've actually got someone
who doesn't like us and is wanting to kill us."
NARRATOR: Over the next year, it would appear that
bin Laden was, at the very least, inspiring acts of terrorism. First, in
August, 1995, bin Laden wrote an open letter to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia
calling for a campaign of guerrilla attacks in order to drive U.S. forces out of
Three months later, a bomb exploded at a U.S. military
installation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five American servicemen. There
was no hard evidence that bin Laden was involved. The four men arrested for the
act confessed on Saudi T.V. that they had read communiqués from Usama bin
Laden and Mohammed Masari. U.S. investigators wanted to interrogate the men,
but the Saudis ordered their heads cut off.
Twenty-five days after the beheadings, another bomb tore
through a U.S. military post in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 more American
soldiers. But again, the FBI has never been able to determine if bin Laden was
Washington, though, had seen enough. Even before the second
bomb attack, President Clinton had signed a top-secret order that authorized the
CIA to use any and all means to destroy bin Laden's network. The U.S. and Saudi
governments also began to pressure the Sudanese to expel bin Laden in order to
deny him a base of operations. Sudanese minister of information is Gazi Salah
Dr. GHAZI SALAH AL-DIN ATABANI, Minister of Information,
Sudan: We could feel that there was a big case in the making against him.
We both became convinced that it was in the interests of both of us, Sudan and
bin Laden, that he should leave.
MOHAMMED AL-MASARI, Saudi Dissident: They started
putting pressure on him that he should keep a low profile, stated frankly "You
should shut up." And I remember discussing with several of his people that- I
told him "Believe me, Sudan is not a good place to stay. One day they will sell
you to the Saudis." I said it in very frank way. "I suggest you look for
another place. Sooner or later they will either sell you or kick you
Pres. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR: [through
interpreter] Actually, when we were asked to send bin Laden out of the
country by the Saudis and others, we told them that it would be better to keep
Usama bin Laden in Khartoum because here he wouldn't conduct any activity. He
was busy with his own business, and we could keep an eye on him. The Saudis in
their contacts with us never mentioned that they accused Usama bin Laden of
anything. The only thing they asked us was to just send him away.
MILT BEARDEN, CIA, 1964-1994: So off he goes to
Afghanistan, which I commented is probably the best move since the Germans put
Ilyich Lenin in a boxcar and sent him to St. Petersburg in 1917.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You mean by letting him leave or
forcing him to leave, you incited-
MILT BEARDEN: By forcing him to leave, we left an area
where perhaps we could have controlled or monitored him more closely and to see
what he was doing.
MOHAMMED AL-MASARI: He was forced out of the area into
Afghanistan in the high mountains, as we say, the Hindu Kush, the high
mountains. Not a place for much of intellectual political activity. So being
disillusioned by the Sudanese, who pretended to be at least a model of a modern
Islamic government, he decided, "No. Now it's time to go to war."
NARRATOR: Bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan along
with 200 of his followers in the spring of 1996. That summer he issued a
fatwah, or religious decree, calling for war on Americans. [www.pbs.org: Read
bin Laden's calls to war]
USAMA BIN LADEN: [through interpreter] The
call to wage war against America was made because America has spearheaded a
crusade against Islam, sending thousands of its troops to the land of the two
holy mosques, meddling in Saudi affairs and politics and supporting its
oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical regime. These are the reasons behind
singling out America as a target.
NARRATOR: In Washington, the CIA and FBI had joined
forces and established a special bin Laden room at CIA headquarters, where
agents were working full-time tracking bin Laden's money and whereabouts.
Estimates of his wealth range from $300 million - which assumes he has received
his full inheritance - to much lower figures. Mohammed Masari knew bin Laden's
MOHAMMED AL-MASARI: With his limited resources, this
again- face facts. We are speaking about a man who has maybe a couple of
millions, or $10 million, $20 million, but not the $200 million. This is
nonsense. This is just imagination, fantasy running away.
NARRATOR: The CIA was also tracking bin Laden
associates, who they believed had set up cells or operating units around the
world. One man they were interested in was a Lebanese-born American citizen
named Wadih el Hage. El Hage had worked as bin Laden's personal secretary in
the Sudan. El Hage also had connections to several of the men convicted in the
World Trade Center bombing case.
When investigators caught up with el Hage, he had moved from
the Sudan to this neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. In August of
1997, the FBI and the CIA decided to come here and search his house.
MOTHER-IN-LAW: There was a knock on the outer gates
NARRATOR: El Hage's mother-in-law was in Nairobi
visiting her daughter.
MOTHER-IN-LAW: -opened the gates, and they came into
NARRATOR: She agreed to talk to us only if we obscured
MOTHER-IN-LAW: We were just frightened to
LOWELL BERGMAN: And Wadih wasn't there?
MOTHER-IN-LAW: He was not there.
NARRATOR: At the time of the raid, Wadih was in
LOWELL BERGMAN: When the FBI and the police came in,
what did they say?
MOTHER-IN-LAW: They were very pleasant, but the police
said they were looking for stolen property, and they searched the whole house.
Of course, Wadih, being how he is, he had all these little papers all over the
desk- his notebooks and other personal papers, his little ledgers, his address
books. They scooped them all up and took them, every single one. And they came
out of the bedrooms with Wadih's P.C.
NARRATOR: And from el Hage's personal computer, the
FBI downloaded and translated a letter written by one of el Hage's associates.
It showed that the author was afraid the cell was under surveillance. "There
are many reasons that lead me to believe that the cell members in East Africa
are in great danger. My recommendation to my brothers in East Africa was not to
be complacent regarding security matters and that they should know that now they
have become America's primary target." [www.pbs.org: Read el Hage's
NARRATOR: The FBI and the CIA believed that they had
uncovered a significant terrorist threat, and they reported their findings to
the embassy and to the State Department. But without more evidence, they
couldn't arrest el Hage. Instead they encouraged him and his family to
LOWELL BERGMAN: But before they leave, they say it
would be a good idea if you left the country?
MOTHER-IN-LAW: Yes. And they offered to put her on the
LOWELL BERGMAN: This was the FBI or this was
MOTHER-IN-LAW: The FBI. They said, "It might not be
safe for you here."
LOWELL BERGMAN: Did they mention anybody's name, like
Usama bin Laden or any- any-
MOTHER-IN-LAW: No. I don't remember that. If they
had, it went over my head. I didn't hear it.
NARRATOR: The raid was intended to disrupt the cell,
but other associates of bin Laden disappeared into the Muslim communities of
East Africa where, according to U.S. government sources, U.S. intelligence is
virtually non-existent. East Africa is home to a majority Muslim population.
Most live in poor and volatile communities with little political
We spoke to a leader of the Muslim community in Dar Es Salaam,
MAOULID HADJI, Local Muslim Leader: The journalists
here, they are Christians. The judges here, all of them, they are Christians.
Policemen, commissioners of policemen, all of them are Christians. The
principal secretaries wherever you go, all over the ministries, they are
Christians. District commissioners, all of them, the majority, they are
LOWELL BERGMAN: So there is anger growing in the
MAOULID HADJI: Of course.
NARRATOR: Hadji's complaints are not isolated. In
early 1998, rioting between Muslims and Tanzanian police caused the U.S. embassy
there to go on high alert. This footage was censored by Tanzanian T.V. for fear
that unrest would spread. To the north, in Nairobi, Kenya, U.S. Ambassador
Prudence Bushnell was complaining to the State Department about local unrest
there and that her embassy was vulnerable because of its location in a crowded
Amb. PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: For many reasons, I was
uncomfortable with the location of the building. Ninety-seven was a year of
great political unrest in Kenya, and we had tear gas seeping through the embassy
walls. The security issues included the possibility of terrorist
NARRATOR: The possibility of terrorist attack was very
real in Nairobi. In the fall of 1997, in addition to the discovery of the bin
Laden cell, this man, Mustapha Ahmed, said he knew of a plot to detonate a
truck bomb in the basement of the embassy building. In the midst of all this,
Ambassador Bushnell asked the State Department to move her embassy, but she was
By the spring of 1998, the CIA had developed a secret plan to
send commandos to snatch bin Laden from his mountain retreat in Afghanistan. In
Afghanistan, bin Laden was escalating his war on America. In May of 1998, he
staged a media event for ABC News and the world.
JOHN MILLER, ABC News: Quiet please......
NARRATOR: Bin Laden had invited ABC's John
Miller to interview him. Bin Laden - adept at using the world's media - made
his own videotape of the meeting, which was provided to FRONTLINE by a bin Laden
JOHN MILLER, ABC News: Mr. bin Laden, to Americans
you're an interesting figure, a man who comes from a background of wealth and
comfort who ended up fighting on the front lines. Many Americans would think
NARRATOR: Bin Laden had just issued a new fatwah
calling for the killing of Americans anywhere at any time. He told Miller that
America is oppressing Muslims and plundering their oil. "We believe," he said,
"that the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the
Americans. Nothing will stop you except perhaps retaliation."
Around the time of that interview, the director of the CIA,
fearing too many U.S. casualties, called off the commando raid on bin Laden's
camp. At the same time as that fatwah, a man, believed by the FBI to be a bin
Laden associate, moved into this upscale section of Nairobi. The US government
charges that he began planning a bomb attack on the US embassy. They believe
that the bomb was constructed in the garage. A month later in Dar es Salaam,
several other men rented this house and started planning for a bomb attack
The bombs went off exactly eight years to the day after U.S.
troops were ordered into Saudi Arabia. Of the 213 deaths in Nairobi, 12 were
Americans. In Dar Es Salaam, 11 Tanzanians were killed. Ten of them were
Muslims. Within days, the FBI had mobilized the largest deployment of personnel
in the agency's history.
In Washington the question was how to respond. Because of
some early breaks in the case, two men were arrested for the bombing almost
immediately. Wadih el Hage was arrested a month later for lying to the FBI.
But while CIA and FBI agents pored through intelligence reports, at least eight
key suspects, including bin Laden remained at large. And this secret FBI-
Justice Department document obtained by FRONTLINE reveals that there are two
other men sought by the U.S. who have not yet been publicly identified. One man
is cited as a possible tactical mastermind.
With almost all of the suspects still at large, top
administration officials were formulating another plan. Over a period of one
week after the bombings, a small group of U.S. officials met at the Old
Executive Office Building. The president's National Security Adviser, Sandy
Berger, and his aide, Dick Clark, argued that relying on law enforcement to
track down the bombers and bring them to trial would not be enough. They pushed
for a military response.
The Justice Department asked them to delay their decision
until they had more information, but the president's men prevailed.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: Today we have struck back. I
ordered our armed forces to strike at terrorist-related facilities-
NARRATOR: In Afghanistan, approximately 70 cruise
missiles hit three alleged bin Laden training camps. An estimated 24 people
were killed. But if they wanted to kill bin Laden, they failed. In the Sudan,
approximately 13 cruise missiles hit a pharmaceutical plant. The night watchman
In the streets of Khartoum, President al-Bashir led an
anti-U.S. march. Suddenly, it appeared that America was transformed from a
victim of terror to an aggressor nation.
HELEN THOMAS, UPI: [Sandy Berger briefing] Are
we absolutely sure that this pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was producing nerve
NARRATOR: In the days following the bombing, the
president's national security adviser, Samuel Berger, faced questions about the
missile strikes, especially the attack in the Sudan.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The response that we hear in the
Muslim world is that the United States is going to bomb, for instance, the
Sudan, a Muslim country, without warning, without really solid knowledge that
there was something going on at this point.
SAMUEL R. BERGER, National Security Adviser: Well, I
believe we had solid knowledge that this facility was associated with chemical
weapons. Bin Laden was working with the Sudanese in developing chemical
weapons. The military industrial corporation of Sudan was involved in its
chemical weapons facility- its chemical weapons enterprise. And I think- I
think we took the appropriate action.
LOWELL BERGMAN: At the time, we said that the plant
was producing chemical weapons, and it had a financial link to bin Laden.
That's no longer our position, right?
SAMUEL R. BERGER: I think that there may have been
some individuals who said the camp was producing-
LOWELL BERGMAN: I think you did, actually, at the
SAMUEL R. BERGER: I don't think- I think-
NARRATOR: Last September, Mr. Berger stated clearly
that the plant was producing a chemical used to make lethal VX nerve
SAMUEL R. BERGER: [at press conference] -which
we know with great certainty produces essentially the penultimate chemical to
manufacture VX nerve gas.
NARRATOR: Now Berger says the plant was merely somehow
associated with chemical weapons.
SAMUEL R. BERGER: I don't think that- I think that is
not necessarily the case. I think it is certainly true that the plant was
associated with chemical weapons.
NARRATOR: To help us sort out what had happened, we
brought Milt Bearden to the Sudan. In addition to coordinating the Afghan war,
Bearden was the CIA station chief here in the mid-'80s. Bearden has been
critical of the missile strike.
MILT BEARDEN: Last August 20, we struck with missiles
two Islamic states: one totally failed state, Afghanistan, and a nearly failed
state, the Sudan. My reaction is, "Good God, what do they know? What is this
NARRATOR: What we now know is that the factory did
make pharmaceuticals. If it was ever producing any nerve gas-related chemicals,
the evidence has been less than convincing. U.S. undersecretary of state for
political affairs is Thomas Pickering.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Were you involved in the deliberations
as to how to retaliate to the bombings or how to respond to the
THOMAS PICKERING, Undersecretary of State for Political
Affairs: Well, I'm not going to talk about my role inside the government,
but I was certainly knowledgeable of the considerations that were brought to
LOWELL BERGMAN: How carefully were the consequences of
sending missiles into two of the poorest Muslim Islamic states in the
THOMAS PICKERING: Very carefully evaluated, because
they happen to have harbored, after very considerable examination of the facts,
people who literally declared themselves at war with the United States and
wanted to carry that war further to the United States after they had destroyed
our embassies, killed a dozen Americans and 250 Kenyans.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And you were comfortable with the idea
of U.S. missiles going into another country?
THOMAS PICKERING: I'm never comfortable with the idea
of using military force, but I felt it was extremely important on that occasion,
when we could take steps to defeat efforts we knew that were being planned to be
taken against us, that we do so.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And the evidence and the questions
about the evidence, particularly in Sudan and the pharmaceutical factory, you
still were comfortable with that position?
THOMAS PICKERING: I looked very carefully in detail at
that evidence. I felt that it was a established with great scientific accuracy,
and I felt it was persuasive.
NARRATOR: There are two problems with the government's
case. First, a test on a soil sample that the administration says proves that
the plant was involved in chemical weapons production is, according to many
experts, inconclusive. Despite repeated tests by others, there have been no
independent confirmations of the government's soil test. Second, the
administration has failed to demonstrate a solid financial link between the
plant and bin Laden.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Mr. Berger and others have said, "Rest
assured we have the intelligence. It's there. We're comfortable with
MILT BEARDEN: "Trust us." Look, if you've got
intelligence sources and methods to protect, don't worry about it. Bite the
bullet, lay the intelligence on the table. If you've got to move somebody out
for safety, do that, but lay it on the table now. Let us see it. This is not
going to go away. The doubts are not just lingering, they're growing.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Doubts about?
MILT BEARDEN: Why did we strike? Why did we commit an
act of war against a sovereign state with whom we have diplomatic relations,
commit such an act without a single warning ahead of time?
NARRATOR: Just as the missile strike has made
Washington uneasy, the Sudanese have wasted no time in capitalizing on it.
Sudanese officials were happy to give us tours of various military facilities
like this one, as if to prove conclusively there are no chemical weapons made in
But it is troubling that Sudan has refused to sign the United
Nations chemical weapons treaty. On the other hand, President Bashir insists
that the U.S. government is welcome to send a professional chemical weapons
inspection team to Sudan at any time.
Pres. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR: [through
interpreter] We're willing to receive anybody and to offer positive
cooperation. We're ready to show any site they ask to see, if there is a
positive attitude. There's nothing to hide.
NARRATOR: Bashir says he even wrote a letter to the
U.S. in 1996 after bin Laden was expelled.
LOWELL BERGMAN: President Bashir told us that in 1996
he sent a letter to the State Department saying that he would cooperate with the
United States government, with the FBI, with the CIA. "You want to look at
what's going on in the country, you want to check out terrorists, chemical
weapons plants, Scud missiles, whatever the allegation is, you're welcome to
come." He says he's still waiting for an answer from the letter, and he
extended the invitation again on camera.
THOMAS PICKERING: I know he's said that, and I know
he's claimed to have cooperated. We had information to the contrary,
information that led us to believe that his word was not reliable with these
particular circumstances, and we felt it was persuasive evidence.
FRANK ANDERSON, CIA, 1968-1995: I think that the
Sudanese, frankly, have been trying to surrender to us for at least three or
four years now, and we're not ready to accept that surrender.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What do you mean
FRANK ANDERSON: They're trying to find- well, they're
trying to find some way out of the box that they're in. They bet on Libya.
They bet on Iran. They bet on terrorist organizations like Usama bin Laden's.
That bet didn't pay off.
NARRATOR: After the missile strikes, anger spread from
the Sudan to countries across the Muslim world. Anyone who can make Americans
react with cruise missiles, the people seemed to be saying, must really be
somebody. In Mombassa, the heart of Kenya's Muslim community, we spoke to the
chairman of the council of imams in Kenya, Sheik Ali Shee.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What is Usama bin Laden's image in the
Islamic community here?
SHEIK ALI SHEE, Chairman of the Council of Imams: He's
LOWELL BERGMAN: A hero? His friends have blown up two
embassies. He's linked to blowing up the World Trade Center. He's declared war
on America. And people in East Africa think he's hero?
SHEIK ALI SHEE: Not in East Africa, everywhere. We
take him as a hero for Islam because he has declared his loyalty to Islam. But
he's not a terrorist at all. He's defending Islam. When the issue of
aggression come to Islam, then he stand to defend Islam. When he stands to
defend Islam, then he's called a terrorist.
NARRATOR: Today Usama bin Laden is in hiding somewhere
in the mountains of Afghanistan. According to the latest intelligence reports,
he is increasingly isolated and possibly gravely ill. The Saudi government has
attempted to negotiate his surrender, as has the U.S., but it not likely that
the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan will give him up. Such a move would be
perceived as a betrayal.
And his capture may only create more trouble. In recent
months, with bin Laden isolated and out of touch, U.S. government officials
report a large increase in the number of serious terrorist threats against U.S.
INAYAT I. LALANI, M.D., American Muslim Caucus: It
would be the gravest error on the part of the United States to somehow capture
bin Laden, bring him here, convict him and either send him to jail or hang
H. IBRAHIM SALIH, Ph.D., Political Science Professor:
He's not Pancho Villa. But if you continue with your intent on capturing him,
then you'll make a folk hero out of him, and then the radicals will further
rally behind an individual like him.
YASMIN KHAN, M.D.: As a physician, I would say you
have to understand the problem before you can either treat it or cure it. And
the reality is one third of this world's population, or close to it, is Muslims.
So unless the West makes an effort to educate itself, understand the good, bad,
all the problems that are associated with that way of life and that belief
system, none of these problems are going to go away, and we are not going to be
able to deal with it sensibly or in a humanitarian fashion.
LOWELL BERGMAN: We did hear that you were the real
thing. This is the government of the U.S. They said that you would speak to us
with two faces-
AHMED SATTAR: To who, to the media?
LOWELL BERGMAN: To us.
AHMED SATTAR: Okay.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Articulate, intelligent, peaceful, but
that beneath that is another face-
AHMED SATTAR: Okay.
LOWELL BERGMAN: -that is willing to commit acts of
violence or promote them-
AHMED SATTAR: Okay.
LOWELL BERGMAN: But that you would never show that to
AHMED SATTAR: The American government, or the
intelligence community, can think whatever they want. Do I believe in
self-defense? Yes, I do. Do I promote self-defense? Yes, I do. It's part of
my belief. It's part of my religion. I'm not going to stand up- or sit down,
okay, and you smack my right cheek, and I give you the left one. No, you smack
my right cheek, I will punch you right in the face. This is it. Keep away from
me, and I will keep away from you.
The defendants in the East Africa bombings are expected to go
on trial in September. Some could face the death penalty.
They remain in custody, locked down for 23 hours a day, held
Meanwhile, investigators in the US and Great Britain are
following the trail of drug money from the sale of opium and heroin from
They have told FRONTLINE they now believe the drug profits are
being used to finance Usama bin Laden's international
ANNOUNCER: Explore more of this story at our Web site.
You'll find a portrait of one of the accused conspirators in the Africa bombings
who's a U.S. citizen, a section on Islam, the Islamic resurgence in the world
and more of the reactions of one Muslim American community to the bin Laden
story and more on Usama bin Laden, with exclusive documents, video and pictures.
FRONTLINE on line at www.pbs.org.
CREDITS DURING PREVIEW
HUNTING BIN LADEN
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On April 13, 1999, FRONTLINE broadcast an earlier version of
this program entitled "The Terrorist and the Superpower." During
that broadcast, FRONTLINE reported that the CIA had conducted an investigation
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bomb plot against the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, Frontline did not intend to
suggest that the Al-Haramain Foundation, a non-profit Islamic foundation,
participated in any such plot, including the August 1998
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