Assassinating Terrorists: The bin Laden Case

Ten years ago, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror gang declared war on America. It struck the first blow in the war in East Africa. The US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were attacked simultaneously by suicide bombers, and hundreds of Americans and Africans were casualties.

Within days, the CIA identified bin Laden as the mastermind and acquired a priceless piece of information: he was scheduled to visit a terror training camp in Afghanistan in less than 72 hours. President Clinton ordered a missile strike to eliminate the enemy.

In the White House, a small interagency core team was sequestered to plan and coordinate all elements of the strike and the diplomacy and public explanation of the operation. Since the missiles would overfly Pakistan only a few months after the Pakistanis and Indians had tested nuclear weapons, for example, it was essential to ensure we did not unintentionally provoke another Indian-Pakistani war. Pakistan was informed of the strikes literally at the last minute to ensure that did not occur.

Unfortunately, bin Laden was not on target when the strike hit. The best guess by experts later is that we may have missed him by less than an hour, but we will never know for sure.

When Hizballah terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated this February, my thoughts went back to that night in the White House before the attack. We worked all through the night and next morning on the operation to decapitate al-Qaeda. We had some serious tactical arguments within the team over important details of our work but no one questioned the wisdom of the president’s decision to act. All knew the plan was a long shot but all agreed it was worth a try.

What if it had worked? Probably the terrible events of September 11, 2001 would never have happened. We know now that bin Laden was personally managing all the elements of the plot to strike America on 9/11 and the accompanying plot to kill Ahmad Shah Massoud, al-Qaeda’s number one enemy in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden picked the terrorists personally for each attack, chose Muhammad Atta to be the “emir” of the team in America, trained the Belgians used to kill Massoud, selected the targets for the aircraft to strike and micro-managed the timing. Bin Laden was critical to the plots: without his leadership, al-Qaeda almost certainly would not have made 9/11 the second most violent and bloody day in American history.

Would al-Qaeda have survived bin Laden’s death and struck again? Retaliated somewhere? Yes, surely so, but it would have been a different organization without the charismatic Saudi leader. His deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, is a tough and murderous terrorist but his track record as an independent leader is one of failure. In the 1990s, his Islamic Jihad group was defeated in Egypt and on the run abroad. He has never enjoyed the appeal of bin Laden. Al-Qaeda would have been a deadly menace but not the monster bin Laden made it.

So killing senior terrorist leaders in some cases can profoundly change the course of events. Leadership matters in terrorist organizations like everywhere else. Democratic leaders should always weigh the pluses and minuses, the costs and risks, of any operation to kill the enemy on a case-by-case basis with great care. The objective should be to stop a murderer before he strikes; not revenge, but preemption. The attacks on bin Laden in 1998 and Mugniyeh in 2008 fit that requirement in my view.

The failure to bring justice to bin Laden after ten years of war has created a dangerous mystique in the Islamic world about this man. He is seen as immune to American retribution and a mythic figure. Claims that he is “in a cave” or “on the run” ring hollow, especially when American intelligence officials say correctly that his gang is still planning deadly operations on a global scale.

Targeting and eliminating a senior terrorist like Mughniyeh or bin Laden requires an extremely focused and intense effort that may take years to do the job. Israel has again and again demonstrated the capability to do so, from Black September to Hizballah. Not every operation has been a success. There is always the risk of failure and costly blowback. The Khaled Meshaal caper in Amman in 1997, when a senior Hamas figure was almost killed but the operatives were caught and King Hussein was outraged by the attack in his capital, is a reminder of the need for great judgment in the execution of such operations. Some times, like then, they should not be done.

The challenge is not just to collect the highest quality intelligence to ensure the best chance of success. It is to select leaders, both in the political leadership and the intelligence apparatus, who have the good judgment and experience to manage such decisions wisely.

The US intelligence community has demonstrated some impressive successes in recent years, including the capture of Khaled Shaykh Muhammad (bin Laden’s maestro for 9/11) and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (bin Laden’s deputy in Iraq).

The next president will need to select an intelligence chief who can build on these successes and do even better. There is no assignment in the US national security leadership team that requires more expertise and judgment than that of the man or woman who will lead our campaign to fight bin Laden and bring him to justice. Getting it right when you target a kingpin like Mughniyeh can mean the difference between catastrophe and success.