Why Didn't Bill Clinton Go After Osama Bin Laden?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were devastating not only for the large number of lives lost, but also for the morale and resolve of our country and our intelligence framework. These attacks did not destroy our intelligence or resolve as a nation, but they did call into question signs, indicators, and forewarnings that were exhibited prior to the attacks, and that could have proven useful in deterring them. In spite of the fact that there were certain indicators and warnings of intent to attack America from Islamist radicals, there were human elements to this story that illuminate the reality that hindsight truly is 20/20. Looking back, there are clear actions that could have been taken and policies that could have been pursued to avoid the attacks on our country. However, these signs were misunderstood, ignored, and/or minimized.

Osama bin Laden was clearly a foe of America up until the day a U.S. Navy SEAL team assassinated him in Pakistan. Beginning around the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bin Laden began his rise to power in the Muslim extremist world, emerging as a reformer and co-creator of jihad, or holy war. As he was rising to power, Bin Laden had a clear and consistent message that he let the world know explicitly in a famous ABC interview in 1998. In this interview, he claimed, “It was far better [for a Muslim] to kill an American soldier than to squander his efforts on other activities." When asked whether he approved of terrorist actions on civilians, he claimed, "We believe the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans…We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets’” (9/11 Commission Report, p. 47). This was an overt sign of his intentions and feelings toward America. However, no military or investigatory action was taken as a result of this interview.

With that overt message in mind, it is important to take a step back to the beginning of the Clinton administration. In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by an Islamist extremist group with clear ties to Bin Laden (intelligence gained in 1996-7 would make his involvement clear), and this fact was recorded and subsequently led to the National Intelligence Estimate two years later in 1995, which noted that a group of terrorists who “lacked strong organization but rather loose affiliations” could be a threat to national security interests (9/11 Commission Report, p. 341). Here again, these facts were seemingly ignored by the government.

Another clear piece of intelligence of Bin Laden's intentions came in 1996, and this was the infamous fatwa issued by Bin Laden himself. In it, he was “calling for Muslims to drive out American soldiers out of Saudi Arabia.” He also praised the 1983 suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 241 marines, a 1992 bombing in Aden, and especially the 1993 firefight in Somalia resulting in Americans leaving “the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat, and dead” (9/11 Commission Report, p. 48).

So why didn't Clinton move more swiftly and decisively to stop Bin Laden? The Clinton administration was embroiled in many military actions around the world already at that time, specifically the looming possibility of military strike in Iraq (1996-1999), the Balkans, Kosovo, and Serbia (9/11 Commission Report, p. 119). The 9/11 Commission Report also notes that while Clinton’s security team believed that the emerging Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda threat was novel yet serious, in order to fully act, they needed to garner broader support to get the military involved in any way.

Clinton was not blind to the risks Bin Laden posed. In the Clinton years alone, the killing of 19 Americans in the Khobar Towers bombing and the coordinated attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were all linked clearly to Bin Laden and his associates. The Clinton administration was merely dedicated to addressing this threat on paper, not with military force. With hindsight as our guide, this lack of action was a mistake, no matter how much we understand Clinton’s perspective in retrospect (i.e. a fear of getting embroiled in more international military actions).

The authors of the 9/11 Commission Report noted that there was potentially good reason not to apply the formal name of the organization Al-Qaeda to the early infractions caused by the terrorists previously mentioned. Nonetheless, they still noted, “It would also be misleading to ignore the significance of these connections. And in this network, Bin Laden's agenda stood out. While his allied Islamist groups were focused on local battles…Bin Ladin concentrated on attacking the ‘far enemy’ — the United States” (9/11 Commission Report, p. 59). We can learn a crucial lesson from these failures to act: Take action if there is real and mounting evidence against a threat. There was a backlog of intelligence implicating Bin Laden prior to the attacks on 9/11. Yet, due to political pressures, a variety of human factors, and other reasons perhaps never to be uncovered, the Clinton administration did not choose to act.