WARSAW, Poland -- In late 1999, two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, a group of Afghan agents loyal to an anti-Taliban guerrilla leader proposed assassinating Osama bin Laden. All they wanted was the $5 million reward the Clinton administration had offered for bin Laden’s capture, says a former Polish spy who was the Afghans’ go-between on the plot.
The CIA rejected the plan, however, saying, "We do not have a license to kill."
The story, the centerpiece of “Ferreting out bin Laden,” a book by former spy Alexander Makowski that was published in Poland in June but isn’t yet available in English, offers previously unknown details about how the United States missed warning signs of the deadliest foreign attack ever on U.S. soil. It’s told from the perspective of an allied intelligence service whose specialty is human intelligence – recruiting and running agents – not the technological monitoring that’s considered the U.S.’s strength.
“They gave us the exact location of the houses where bin Laden would be staying in Kandahar, the route he would be taking between his living quarters, his meeting place, and what kind of transportation he would be using,” Makowski told McClatchy in a recent interview, referring to the city in southern Afghanistan that was the Taliban’s seat of power. The Afghans planned to use car bombs to kill the Saudi-born leader of al Qaida.
But on Oct. 14, 1999, a CIA officer whom Makowski identified as "Jim" flew to Warsaw with a response. “I would like everyone here to be absolutely clear on one thing: We do not have a license to kill,” “Jim” told top officials at the headquarters of Polish intelligence. Makowski, at the time a businessman, said he was at the meeting.
“We have to capture bin Laden safe and sound so that he can stand trial and be sentenced legally,” Makowski quotes the officer as saying. “Any other solution is out of the question. CIA operates within the American legal order.”
According to Makowski, the intelligence proved accurate: Bin Laden arrived in Kandahar as planned and stayed in the house as had been predicted. Could the Afghans have killed him? “I have no doubt,” he said.
Bin Laden’s death in 1999 could have changed the American role in the world today, particularly if his death had demoralized al Qaida enough that it abandoned its 9/11 plans. Both the war in Afghanistan, which continues to this day, and the war in Iraq, which claimed nearly 4,500 American troops, were outgrowths of the 9/11 attacks, as was the increase in anti-Americanism in much of the Muslim world.
But Makowski’s book isn’t about the world that might have been. Instead, he uses the aborted bin Laden assassination plot as the basis for a much broader criticism: that the U.S. government, including the CIA, faced with a choice between a fundamentalist Taliban regime that had taken power in 1996 and the Taliban’s main rival, guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, sided with the Taliban.
The bin Laden mission was not the only missed opportunity that Makowski highlights. He also blames the CIA for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, which claimed the lives of 17 American sailors.
“Beginning in 1999, for almost a year, we started giving information that bin Laden had made a decision to prepare an operation to attack U.S. warships in the Gulf,” Makowski told McClatchy.