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News, analysis and primary source documents on terrorism, extremism and national security.

Friday, November 7, 2008

U.S. Had 'High Confidence' Of UBL Attack In June 2001

Taliban Warned By Powell That Afghanistan Would Be Held Responsible For Harboring Terrorists Who Killed Americans

By J.M. Berger

Less than three months before September 11, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned the Taliban that American intelligence had "high confidence" that "Afghan-based and other operatives are now planning on carrying out attacks against Americans."

Powell's warning was conveyed to the Taliban by U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan William B. Milam, who specifically discussed Osama bin Laden with the Taliban's representative Abdul Salam Zaeef.

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Zaeef was arrested as an "unlawful combatant" and detained at Guantanamo Bay for three years before being released into house arrest in Afghanistan.

Two cables obtained by INTELWIRE under the Freedom of Information Act detail the warnings, as well as the specific concern about an impending attack against the United States.

A June 27, 2001, demarche from Powell outlined several specific warnings of consequences for the Taliban, which the U.S. would later fulfill. The language of the communication strongly foreshadows the "Bush doctrine" which would emerge after 9/11.

According to the communication, the Taliban were told:

  • "We believe that Afghan-based and other operatives are now planning on carrying out attacks against Americans. We have a high degree of confidence in the seriousness of this threat.
  • "You should immediately put an end to these activities."
  • "We will hold you directly responsible for any actions against American citizens taken by the terrorists you harbor."
  • "You will also be held responsible by the international community for having harbored these terrorists."
  • "The U. S. reserves the right to defend itself."
  • "[The Taliban] will be held directly responsible for any loss of life that occurs from terrorist actions related to terrorists who have trained in Afghanistan or use Afghanistan as a base of planning or operations."

    Elsewhere in the communication, the threat is specified to pertain to "Americans abroad," but this does not appear to be specified in the segment communicated to Zaeef.

    During the actual meeting, Milam walked through each point slowly, "pausing after each one to ensure that the Taliban notetaker understood," according to a June 29, 2001 cable.

    Zaeef denied that the Taliban presented any threat to the U.S.

    Although the June 27 demarche did not mention bin Laden by name, it was clear to Zaeef that the message pertained to Al Qaeda. Zaeef told Milam that the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden for "cultural" reasons and not because they shared his emnity toward the U.S.

    Zaeef lobbied for direct U.S. involvement in providing aid to Afghanistan, but Milam told him that was impossible "as long as Afghanistan continues to be a safehaven for terrorists."

    "There is no danger to a single American in Afghanistan," Zaeef told Milam.

    "We shall hold you to your word," Milam responded, concluding the meeting.

    The substance of the communication was also transmitted to the governments of Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, who were each asked to repeat and emphasize the message to the Taliban.

    Interestingly, the Saudi government was not asked to transmit the same message despite a face-to-face meeting between Powell and then-Prince Abdullah just days later.

    That meeting focused mainly on Iraq and the Palestinian territories, according to a cable obtained by INTELWIRE, although the document was substantially redacted, leaving open the possibility bin Laden or the Taliban were discussed.

    6/27/2001: State Dept. cable, threats to U.S. by Bin Laden

    6/29/2001: State Dept. cable, threats to U.S. by Bin Laden

    7/5/2001: State Dept. cable, meeting with Saudi Prince Abdullah

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    Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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    ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its potential fall, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents. Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of

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    Jihad Joe by J.M. BergerJihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam, the new book by INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger, is now available in both Kindle and hardcover editions. Order today!

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