Militant meeting in ’07 offered hope of getting bin Laden

There were hints that Osama bin Laden might travel from his hiding place to rally militants training for large-scale attacks. There were hints that Osama bin Laden might travel from his hiding place to rally militants training for large-scale attacks.
By Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
New York Times / May 6, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Before Sunday, the last time a US president thought he had Osama bin Laden in his sights was late summer 2007.

Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders, terrorist volunteers, and insurgent foot soldiers would be meeting in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, a stream of intelligence reports showed. And there were hints that bin Laden himself might travel from his hiding place in Pakistan to rally militants training for large-scale suicide attacks in Europe or the United States.

“We thought we had ‘Number 1’ on this side of the border,’’ said a senior US military officer involved in planning the operation. “It was the best intelligence we’d had on him in a long time.’’

The military set into motion one of the largest strike missions of its kind, with long-range bombers, attack helicopters, artillery, and commandos all ready to pummel the rugged mountain valley along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, according to military officers and former government officials.

But just as the half dozen B-2 stealth bombers were halfway on the 3,000-mile flight to their target, commanders ordered them to return to their secret base in the Indian Ocean, because of doubts about the intelligence on bin Laden and concerns about civilian casualties from the bombs.

A smaller, more precise raid was carried out by commandos and attack helicopters, killing several dozen militants in the episode, which has not been previously disclosed.

But the founder and figurehead of Al Qaeda was not there.

Inside the White House, the disappointment was palpable, according to senior aides to President George W. Bush. It might have been Bush’s last chance at redeeming his administration’s failure to capture or kill bin Laden after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, when he was cornered in the same Tora Bora region but escaped into Pakistan.

Amid the national relief over the killing of bin Laden by a Navy SEAL team early Monday in Abbottabad, Pakistan, this secret chapter in the hunt for the world’s most famous fugitive is a reminder of the years of frustration and false hopes government officials endured in trying to pick up his trail.

Lessons of the 2007 mission echoed through the White House and the Pentagon in recent months, as a fresh stream of intelligence pointed to a compound in Abbottabad that appeared to house bin Laden. The options presented to President Obama for the raid that killed bin Laden were strikingly similar to those drawn up in 2007, as tensions in Washington heated up over reports of possible terrorist plots emanating from Pakistan.

At that time, Afghan intelligence officers, eavesdropping on insurgent conversations in early summer 2007, first picked up strong indications that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were planning the largest gathering in Afghanistan since early in the war. The intelligence was so compelling that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan summoned US officers to his palace in Kabul to request a major US operation to crush the fighters.

It was not just the Afghans who were tracking bin Laden’s potential movements. Independently, the US Special Operations unit assigned to hunt high-level Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, with analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency and other US spy organizations working alongside, had gathered information that more than 100 Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders and fighters planned to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan through Tora Bora.

This intelligence stream suggesting a bin Laden plan to slip into Tora Bora, and the attack devised to kill him in 2007, was uncovered in reporting about the episode conducted for a book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.’’ It will be published in August.

The account of the 2007 attack is based on interviews with almost a dozen military officers and former Bush administration officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, who were involved in planning the mission. Yesterday, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment about the episode, saying the Defense Department did not discuss, or even confirm, such classified missions.

The rugged region of Tora Bora is honeycombed with caves, some of which were used by the mujahedeen in their standoff against the Soviet army in the 1980s. The terrain, easy to defend and hard to attack, had been the site of bin Laden’s last stand before he escaped into Pakistan in the winter of 2001-02, a missed chance that was a blow to the Bush administration.

Faint if tantalizing hints that bin Laden was going to join the insurgent and terrorist gathering, seized the attention of senior administration officials. The intelligence reports were viewed as solid enough that they were briefed all the way up to Bush, former White House aides said. top stories on Twitter

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