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The Last Time We Hit Bin Laden

A Missile Attack In 1998

The United States is on the verge of going to war against Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network and any country that provides him sanctuary. But this is not the first time America has mobilized to unleash massive military power against bin Laden.

Just as anger is engulfing America today, back in 1998, the United States was enraged by the simultaneous bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa. And Bin Laden was held responsible.

This report is about how America's decision to retaliate back then may have backfired. With military options being discussed even as we speak, it is important to remember what happened three years ago when we launched cruise missiles into Afghanistan.

The Tomahawk cruise missile: Satellite-guided, surgically accurate and capable of delivering a 1,000-pound payload onto a precise target a half continent away. On Aug. 20, 1998, more than 60 missiles launched from U.S. naval ships in the Arabian Sea, aimed at silencing Osama bin Laden.

President Clinton said those cruise missiles were programmed to strike at the heart of bin Laden’s operations. He said it was a day when bin Laden was supposed to be meeting with his high command. The day after the missiles hit, the administration said the strikes had crippled bin Laden’s infrastructure.

Three years later, it’s evident that those missiles had little or no impact on bin Laden. And if he was in fact responsible for last week’s attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, it may well have made the problem worse.

Reporter George Crile’s mission: to journey deep into the land of Osama bin Laden to discover just what happened three years ago when the American missiles hit.

Two months ago, Khalid Kwaja, a former Pakistani intelligence officer, took Crile on a journey to Afghanistan’s ground zero, the place America targeted with cruise missiles. For 20 years, he has been Osama bin Laden’s teacher, comrade-in-arms and spiritual brother.

“You people are cowards who’s throwing missile from thousands miles,” says Kwaja. “Act of cowardice. Don’t expect this kind of cowardice from us.”

This is supposed to be the place called Terror University - the place where bin Laden was training thousands of terrorists - the place bin Laden and his high command were supposed to be meeting that day. If it weren’t for the wires and circuits and metal parts from the cruise missiles that rained down on these barren sites, you might wonder if you were in the right place.

As you might expect, Kwaja and our Taliban hosts insisted that bin Laden was not training terrorists to attack America here. We don’t know if that’s true but they said that instead of hitting bin Laden or any of his high command, many innocent people were killed or wounded.

"We don't know about the American people. They are very bad people, you see, very stupid people," one man told Krile.

"If you want to make us your enemes, you will die," says Kwaja.

Former four-star marine General Anthony Zinni, who commanded the missile attack, says there was no significant damage. Zinni says he knew that would happen even before the missiles were launched.

"We didn’t delude ourselves to thinking there were great targets out there. We know that-- terrorist camps, there isn’t much infrastructure, there isn’t much there." What about the bin Laden terrorism summit that the President said the missiles were supposed to break up?

Surprisingly, General Zinni said that getting bin Laden was never one of his objectives.

"We certainly didn't, in any way, launch those strikes with the objective to get Osama bin Laden and the measure of success or failure was whether Osama bin Laden was there."

Says Zinni: "I didn’t cross my fingers or hope or say a prayer that by some stroke of luck, you know, we're gonna have a mass of terrorist formation out there. They're gonna be giving our awards or something at morning formation, or that suddenly that the—the entire planning team from Osama bin Laden happened to be meeting right in one of those shacks."

If the commander didn’t expect to hit bin Laden or to wipe out his infrastructure, why did the United States fire scores of cruise missiles on these remote sites?

Says Zinni: "There was a message in that missile strike. The title of the Operation was "Infinite Reach." And it was to demonstrate to Osama bin Laden that he is not invulnerable behind the Himalayas, and in the hills of Afghanistan, the protection of the Taliban, and unreachable. There’s a psychological effect that I think it did have on Osama bin Laden. And I think it sent a message to his group that we still can reach out and touch him many places."

Milt Bearden has been to those places a lot. He’s the CIA officer who commanded the multibillion dollar covert campaign to support the Afghans in their victorious war against the Soviet Union. He agrees that a message was sent.

"It does indeed send a message. And it sends a message of impotence," he says. Beyond that, Bearden fears that that failed attack has had a devastating impact.

What are the consequences of having missed? "If you strike at a king, you must kill him. What you have done, is you have made him bigger than life," says Bearden.

Bin Laden’s great friend and advisor, Khalid Kwaja, says that's an understatement: "He became the hero of the Muslim world. And now we have a consensus and most of the Muslims consider that he is our hero. And he is kind of an uncontradicted leader of the Muslims now. You go and stay, go anywhere in any of the Muslim countries, get a hold of 100 people, so if they can unite on anybody it is Osama. So this was a problem for the Muslims. They didn’t have a leader. That was a basic problem. So you have given Muslims a leader."

That was what Krile found most everywhere he went. Not just from the bearded mullahs, but fro people in the city parks.

Even at an elite prep school in Pakistan, smart, well-educated teen-age boys in a physics lab expressed pride in bin Laden. Even if Osama is killed, they said, “another Osama will come. But you are gonna kill one Osama, thousand Osamas are still there.”

"You think, sir, that we are children but we are not children. We are mujihadeen and we can fight for the sake of Islam," said another boy. "If you are trying to kill one, ten gonna come. If you’re trying to kill one then you have to find out that 10 are still alive, and they’re after him."

As disturbing as the idea that the missile attacks may have transformed bin Laden the man into bin Laden the movement, there is another, perhaps, more troubling discovery.

Crile was told that some of those cruise missiles hit several mosques. And the Afghans said that a religious school was also hit. The head of the school said six children were killed by an American missile.

It is impossible to tell what really happened here, but two families told the same story, that their sons had died in the attack. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger says he knows of no evidence that a mosque or a school or any other civilian facility was hit. He says the only casualties were people connected to Osama bin Laden?

Three years after the attack, General Zinni still has no intelligence to suggest that a school or a mosque might have been hit.

Assuming that civilian targets were hit, what should the United States response be in a case of such a mistake?

Says Zinni: "I think it would be - obviously - as we do in all cases where we have unanticipated collateral damage, I mean, we regret that that happens, it certainly wasn’t in our intent to hit anything like that. We had no knowledge of it beforehand or even in this case after, I mean we are basing this on what the people there are saying."

That’s why General Zinni says it’s critical to be concerned about rules of engagement, particularly if civilians get caught in the crossfire.

"If we're callous about so-called collateral damage, or civilian casualties, if we’re willing to seek revenge at any cost, then I think we demonstrate to them that we’re the same, and we’ll take the same actions. And it strengthens their cause and their resolve, and justifies, in a way, their actions. We’re conducting a 'war,' quote unquote, on their level. And they want to be identified as warriors. And we shouldn't give them that privilege. They are not warriors, they're criminals in my mind."

We can't say for certain what happened in those camps, but what we do know is that the reports of cruise missiles hitting a mosque, a religious school and killing students circulated the entire region and fueled the belief that America is an anti-Islamic power. Two months ago, Khalid Kwaja warned us that a second American strike would trigger a holy war.

"Osama reserves the right to rtaliate but he is not going to retaliate alone," he said. "All of us. He is a symbol of Muslims' respect, so all of us are going to retaliate together, and we will just do it openly then. That is all, it is a Jihad, when it is Jihad then there is no problem, we’ll do it."

The world has changed since Kwaja issued that warning. And yesterday from Pakistan, Kwaja insisted that bin Laden was not responsible for last week's attacks. Also worth noting, Wednesday’s New York Times quoted President Bush, belittling the idea of using missile strikes to eliminate Osama bin Landen, saying, "What’s the sense of sending $2 million missiles into a $10 tent that’s empty."

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