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Ghost Wars : The CIA and Osama bin Laden, 1997-1999

A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan

Mission to Capture or Kill al Qaeda Leader Frustrated by Near Misses, Political Disputes

By Steve Coll
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2004; Page A01

First of two articles.

The seeds of the CIA's first formal plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden were contained in another urgent manhunt -- for Mir Aimal Kasi, the Pakistani migrant who murdered two CIA employees while spraying rounds from an assault rifle at cars idling before the entrance to the CIA's Langley headquarters in 1993.

For several years after the shooting, Kasi remained a fugitive in the border areas straddling Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. From its Langley offices, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center asked the Islamabad station for help recruiting agents who might be able to track Kasi down. Case officers signed up a group of Afghan tribal fighters who had worked for the CIA during the 1980s guerrilla war against Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan.

Afghan fighters signed up by the CIA to find Mir Aimal Kasi, center, executed in 2002 for killing two CIA employees, were later used to track Osama bin Laden. (1997 Photo Susan Walsh -- AP)

_____Ghost Wars_____
Steve Coll This report was adapted from "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," The Penguin Press (New York: 2004), by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, who discussed the book online. (Read the discussion transcript).
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
_____More From The Post_____
Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2004)
Legal Disputes Over Hunt Paralyzed Clinton's Aides (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2004)
Bin Laden's Tarnak Farm
The CIA in the Panjshir
Where the CIA Wages Its New World War (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 1998)
Killings Boost Retaliation Fears (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1997)
Kasi Guilty In Slayings Outside CIA (The Washington Post, Nov 11, 1997)
Saudi Sought in Bombings Moves to Afghan Militia Capital (The Washington Post, Apr 11, 1997)

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The family-based team of paid agents, given the cryptonym FD/TRODPINT, set up residences around the city of Kandahar. They were rugged, bearded fighters -- often in teams of a dozen or so -- who rolled around southern Afghanistan in four-wheel-drive vehicles, blending comfortably into the region's militarized tribal society.

In the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA carried out a secret but ultimately unsuccessful manhunt for bin Laden. It was based at first on the band of Afghan tribal agents, and later expanded to include other agents and allies, especially the legendary guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. But the search became mired in mutual frustrations, near misses and increasingly bitter policy disputes in Washington between the Clinton White House and the CIA.

An ambitious plan for the TRODPINT team to kidnap bin Laden from his bed and hold him in an Afghan cave telegraphed the CIA's audacity, despite what operatives saw as a restrictive mandate from the president. At the same time, the CIA's inability to pinpoint bin Laden's location or capture him drew pointed questions from the White House about the agency's effectiveness.

This account, a detailed history of the pursuit of bin Laden before the terrorist attacks of 2001, describes for the first time aborted CIA plans to seize bin Laden at his Kandahar farm, another attempt to rain Katyusha rockets on him, and the final struggle to work with Massoud, all in vain. It is based on several dozen interviews with participants and officials in the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as documents, private records and memoirs about the CIA covert action program in Afghanistan, which was designed in the 1980s to expel occupying Soviet forces and later to capture bin Laden or disrupt his activities.

When the TRODPINT team set out to find Kasi, one or two senior family members handled the face-to-face contacts with the CIA. Case officers working from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad supplied them with cash, assault rifles, land mines, motorcycles, trucks, listening devices and secure communications equipment.

Together they concocted a bold plan to capture Kasi and fly him to the United States for trial. If the Afghan agents found Kasi, they would detain him until U.S. Special Forces secretly flew into Afghanistan to bundle the fugitive away. With the TRODPINT team acting as spotters, the CIA identified a desert landing strip near Kandahar that could be used for this clandestine American extraction flight. The White House approved the plan, and President Bill Clinton secretly dispatched a Special Forces team to southern Afghanistan to confirm the coordinates and suitability of the makeshift airstrip.

In the end, Kasi was found elsewhere. In late May 1997, an ethnic Baluch man walked into the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and told a clerk he had information about Kasi. He was taken to a young CIA officer who was chief of base in the city. The informant handed her an application for a Pakistani driver's license recently filled out by Kasi under an alias. It contained a photo and a thumbprint that confirmed Kasi's identity.

Three weeks later, a team of CIA officers, Pakistani intelligence officers and FBI agents arrested Kasi at a Pakistani hotel, flew him to the United States and jailed him for trial. (He was convicted of murder in 1997, sentenced to death in 1998 and executed in Virginia on Nov. 14, 2002.)

In the weeks that followed Kasi's arrest, a new question was raised inside the CIA's Counterterrorist Center: What would become of their elaborately equipped and financed TRODPINT assets? The agents had filed numerous reports about where Kasi might be, but none of these had panned out. Ultimately, the team played no direct role in Kasi's arrest. Despite this questionable record, it seemed a shame to just cut them loose, some Langley officers believed.

The Hunt Begins

At CIA headquarters, the unit set up to track Kasi was located in the Counterterrorist Center. A few partitions away was another small cluster of analysts and operators who made up what the CIA officially called the "bin Laden issue unit."

The unit had been created early in 1996 to watch bin Laden, who was then living in Sudan. By that point, the United States had decided for security reasons to close the embassy and CIA station in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, where officers had previously been collecting intelligence about bin Laden's financial support for Islamic radicals in North Africa and elsewhere. In the spring of 1996, Sudan yielded to international pressure to expel bin Laden. The Saudi found sanctuary in Afghanistan in May.

The CIA had no station or base in Afghanistan, however, and it had no paid agents in the country at the time, other than those hunting for Kasi near Kandahar and a few loose contacts working on drug trafficking and recovering Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, according to Tom Simons, then U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, whose account is supported by several other U.S. officials familiar with the CIA's Afghan agent roster.

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