U.S. Strikes Terrorist-Linked Sites In Afghanistan, Factory in Sudan
By Barton Gellman and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page A01
American cruise missiles struck without warning yesterday at paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that U.S. intelligence identified as a chemical weapons facility. President Clinton described the synchronized blows as retaliation for the twin bombings this month of U.S. embassies in Africa and an effort to preempt further terrorist attacks.
"Today, we have struck back," Clinton said in a surprise announcement at the Massachusetts island resort of Martha's Vineyard, where he cut short his vacation and returned to Washington for a late afternoon conference with his national security team in the White House situation room.
Clinton described the training complex in Khost, Afghanistan -- 94 miles southeast of Kabul and just inside the border with Pakistan -- as "one of the most active terrorist bases in the world." He said it was "operated by groups affiliated with Osama bin Laden," a Saudi expatriate whose public declarations and shadowy history have placed him at the center of suspicion since the Aug. 7 destruction of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Yesterday's use of military force was distinguished not only by its scale, among the largest of the Clinton presidency, but by the nature of its target: a stateless confederation of terrorist groups, without strict hierarchy, government or territory. A high-ranking intelligence official said of bin Laden: "He's a transnational actor in and of himself."
Senior administration officials involved in planning yesterday's attacks said they signaled the start of what one called "a real war against terrorism," emphasizing that "this is not a one-shot deal here." A high-ranking intelligence official said "the prospect of retaliation against Americans is very, very high."
Lawmakers gave the substantial bipartisan support that is traditional immediately after a U.S. military operation. "I think the president did exactly the right thing," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Coming less than three days after Clinton's televised admission that he had misled the American people about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the U.S. military strikes also drew unusually swift criticisms from a few members of Congress that the president was trying to change the subject in a national conversation dominated by his sexual affair and legal jeopardy.
National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said Clinton conferred periodically through the night on details of the attack and gave his final go-ahead at about 6 a.m. EDT yesterday. Seven hours later, a submarine and several surface warships in the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group launched roughly 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea.
The missiles struck home at 1:30 p.m. EDT -- 7:30 p.m. local time in Sudan, more than an hour after sundown, and at 10 p.m. in Afghanistan. The timing was intended to reduce unintended harm to civilians in Sudan, where the Shifa Pharmaceutical factory had closed for the day, and to catch as many terrorists as possible in their beds in the Afghan camps where they trained.
The latter goal, of inflicting casualties on paramilitary fighters in training, was a departure from the prevailing emphasis in the U.S. military since the Vietnam War. In the Persian Gulf War and in Bosnia, among other recent uses of air power, American target planners have concentrated on the heavy equipment and command posts of enemy forces rather than foot soldiers.
But a senior intelligence official, explaining the timing of yesterday's strikes, ascribed it in part to "credible information that led us to conclude that there would be more terrorists in these camps today than otherwise expected."
Berger, elaborating later, said "we have some prior reason to believe there may have been a gathering today of some of bin Laden's organizations." A senior defense official said the meeting included bin Laden's "upper echelons." Among the groups present yesterday were the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Armed Islamic Group, officials said.
Government briefers denied any knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts during the attack and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said killing him was "not our design."
Mullah Abdullah, a spokesman for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement, said bin Laden "is safe and no damage has been done to any of his companions." American officials said they could not confirm that last night.
In Sudan, government television broadcast pictures of shattered concrete structures burning brightly against Khartoum's night sky. The announcer's commentary on the state-run broadcast promised to "build another factory, better than the first." A crowd of protesters was shown throwing stones at the U.S. Embassy, which is officially operational although no American diplomats are in Khartoum.
Interior Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein told Cable News Network in a telephone interview that the destroyed facility was "a factory for medical drugs." He added, "We have no chemical weapons factory in our country."
Berger and U.S. intelligence officials said the factory was patrolled by the Sudanese military and the building in question, one of several in a large compound in northeastern Khartoum, produced no commercial medicines. Among the chemicals it did produce, they said, was one used to create the nerve agent VX. Among the most potent of chemical weapons, VX is highly persistent and is lethal in quantities as small as a single drop in contact with exposed skin.
After two weeks of cautioning that investigation of the embassy bombings would probably require months or years, American officials assigned to explain yesterday's missile strikes went to extraordinary lengths to justify the timing of the attacks.
As long as 10 days ago, administration officials said, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet agreed in a telephone call that enough evidence was mounting of bin Laden's responsibility to provide what one official called "a real occasion for decisive action."
At Berger's direction, the Joint Staff and U.S. Central Command meanwhile prepared contingency plans for a strike at the Saudi expatriate's paramilitary infrastructure. By Aug. 12, when Tenet briefed Clinton and his security cabinet in the Oval Office, he was prepared to state definitively that bin Laden was responsible for the African explosions, which killed 263 people, among them 12 Americans.
A top official of the agency, briefing reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity, said a rare and uniform convergence of intelligence gave the Clinton administration "high confidence that these bombings were planned, financed and carried out by the organization that bin Laden leads."
Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized prevention over retribution in explaining the operation yesterday, noting that there were specific and imminent warnings of further terrorism by bin Laden's organization against U.S. citizens or interests abroad.
"This is not simply a response to some specific act, but a concerted effort to defend U.S. citizens and our interests around the globe against a very real and a very deadly terrorist threat," he said.
Administration officials declined to provide any substantiating details of those threats. Cohen would say only that "a number of other terrorist activities and plans were underway." He added, "We have an absolute obligation, indeed a duty, and we'd be derelict in that duty if we did not take action to interrupt those plans."
Last Friday, in a second meeting of the national security principals, Berger said Shelton and Cohen presented Clinton with a detailed operational plan for the missile strikes and "the president approved it in principle," reserving the right "to turn the switch off as late as six o'clock this morning."
Administration officials declined to detail why they decided to stage a military strike in this case rather than make further efforts to secure bin Laden's arrest, the approach after some other terrorist attacks.
"It's impossible to generalize," said one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "When there's an imminent threat, you don't have time to call the judge."
The United States last night notified the U.N. Security Council by letter that it justified the strikes under Article 51 of the U.N. charter, which permits states to act in self-defense if they fear imminent attack. A Justice Department spokesman said Clinton was acting within his constitutional authority to protect national security.
Cohen responded stonily at a press briefing when asked about any comparison to the satirical film "Wag the Dog," in which a president enveloped in sex scandal contrives a distracting war with Albania.
"The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities," Cohen said.
Clinton, and later Albright and Berger, emphasized that the strikes should not be seen as an attack on Islam or its followers.
"I want you to understand, I want the world to understand that our actions today were not aimed against Islam, the faith of hundreds of millions of good, peace-loving people all around the world, including the United States," the president said in an address from the Oval Office.
Shelton said the Afghan targets, known as the Zhawar Kili complex, included a base camp, a support camp that stored "a large amount of weapons and ammunition," and four nearby training camps including "tent stands, obstacle courses, firing ranges and burned areas for explosive testing and training."
Pentagon sources said some of the cruise missiles, each of which carries a payload of nearly 1,000 pounds, were configured with special warheads designed to maximize casualties in the camps. The Tomahawk is a subsonic surface-to-surface missile guided by terrain-matching radar or satellite beacon. At $750,000 a copy, it is much more expensive than an aircraft bomb but had the virtues in this operation of avoiding risk to American pilots and the need to ask permission from regional allies to fly over their territory.
Defense officials said the United States did not ask overflight permission from Pakistan, Egypt or Eritrea. They declined to say which routes the missiles had taken.
Administration officials were cautious about the results of the attack and declined to discuss whether all missiles reached their targets.
Preliminary reports are "that it was a successful attack," said a senior Pentagon official. "It's still nighttime over there. We will just have to wait and see."
At the Pentagon news conference and in later interviews, Pentagon officials made clear that their anti-terrorist mission is murkier and more uncertain than a traditional war. As a result, they offered no impressive video footage of the bombing or any of the operational details that commonly follow successful military operations.
"The issue is, we don't know what we don't know," said one military official with knowledge of the attack. "We need every edge we can get, so in 24 hours if you are all still confused, the guy sitting in the rubble in Afghanistan will also be confused. This is different than fighting Iraq."
A Pakistan-based Afghan news service, Afghan Islamic Press, reported that at least 15 people were killed by the missile strike in Afghanistan, Reuters said last night.
U.S. forces in the region braced for retaliation. There are about 20,000 U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf area, and U.S. officials said all military installations have taken fresh measures to secure themselves from attack.
In the District yesterday, Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance W. Gainer said the police department had "increased security around our own buildings" and was providing additional support to "embassy and office areas where foreign nationals might be."
"Clearly we are on a heightened state of alert," he said. "We have no specific intelligence that indicates there is any increased actual threat, but we are sensitive to the possibility. These are pretty tense times around the world, and Washington is a potential target."
Staff writers Michael Grunwald, John F. Harris, Thomas W. Lippman, Vernon Loeb, Brian Mooar and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company