The United States launched a series of surprise missile strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and an alleged weapons facility in Sudan on Thursday, contending they had been instrumental in the Aug. 7 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and were about to become the launching points for other attacks on Americans worldwide.
The U.S. attacks, carried out with 75 to 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships, targeted groups loyal to Osama bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi exile who intelligence officials said has sponsored other terrorist operations against Americans during the past 10 years.
President Clinton, who personally ordered the strikes, said U.S. intelligence agencies had amassed "convincing" evidence that the terrorist groups had "played the key role" in the embassy bombings. Although it is clear that the missile strikes were, in part, an act of retaliation, officials said a major reason Washington acted so quickly was that it had evidence that Bin Laden was planning a series of terrorist operations against "very specific [U.S.] targets" around the world, possibly during the next several days.
Another reason the strikes were launched Thursday, officials said, was that intelligence agencies had received information that several hundred terrorist operatives, including members of Egypt's Islamic Jihad and the Gamaa al Islamiya, would be meeting at one of the bases. Some said the facility can accommodate as many as 3,000 people.
In an interview with The Times less than 90 minutes before the missile strikes, an associate of Bin Laden read a statement from the suspected terrorist leader both denying responsibility for the embassy bombings and calling on Muslims worldwide to wage a holy war against the United States and Jews. The message was broadcast via satellite by a Bin Laden lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, from "somewhere in Afghanistan."
Clinton, in a brief statement before interrupting a vacation on Martha's Vineyard, called the overall threat from Bin Laden's network "as dangerous as any we face." He said Americans "saw its twisted mentality at work" in the embassy bombings. "Today, we have struck back."
A few hours later, in a televised address from Washington, he recited a list of terrorist activities in which he said Bin Laden was involved: the recent U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks on U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia, the killing of German tourists in Egypt, plans to bomb six U.S. 747s over the Pacific, and plots to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the pope.
The missile strikes, begun about 10:30 a.m. PDT, were planned and carried out with exceptional secrecy. Even after the attacks had been completed, Pentagon officials were unusually reticent about disclosing details for fear of tipping their hand to terrorist leaders about what the United States had learned and what it may be planning.
Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the missile targets included seven training and logistics facilities in Afghanistan and a chemical complex in northeast Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He said the plant had been involved in producing chemical agents, including precursors for nerve gases such as VX.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the Pentagon still had not obtained complete bomb-damage assessment reports, but he hinted that the damage may have been limited. "We recognize that these strikes will not eliminate the problem," he said, "but our message is clear: There will be no sanctuary for terrorists."
Sudanese television footage of the chemical plant hit by U.S. missiles showed the facility in flames, and eyewitnesses in Khartoum said it was essentially destroyed. Elfatih Mohammed Ahmed Erwa, Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations, contended later that the facility was a pharmaceutical plant. He said Sudan will file a formal complaint with the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. officials also indicated that Bin Laden himself was "not specifically targeted" in the attacks and apparently was not present at any of the sites. Abdul Hya Mutmain, a spokesman for the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslims who control Afghanistan, told The Times in a telephone interview after the raids that Bin Laden survived the attack.
"Osama bin Laden is safe," he said. He also asserted that American missiles had missed their targets in the Afghan cities of Khost and Jalalabad, although there were some casualties as a result of the raids. "The Afghan people and government will not be overawed by such attacks, and we will defend our homeland," he said.
The bases in Afghanistan contained tanks, armored personnel carriers, firing ranges, obstacle courses and large caches of explosives and specialized missiles, officials said. One intelligence officer called it "the preeminent Sunni [Muslim] training facility in the world."
Officials familiar with the situation said the Clinton administration's decision to launch the attacks was based on information provided by defectors from Bin Laden's cell, including one who was recruited relatively recently. "We've had a number of successes with this group," one U.S. source said.
They said the United States still was not sure how serious the blow to Bin Laden was. "We're waiting to see to what extent we had good fortune in hitting the gathering of bad guys," one source said.
Although officials in both countries denied it, there was immediate speculation that the links to Bin Laden may have been discovered with the cooperation of authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which are each close to one of the target areas. Either government would face a substantial threat from domestic terrorist groups if any evidence of such help were disclosed.
Reaction in official Washington was mixed.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and several key lawmakers of both parties strongly supported the president's action. Gingrich said Clinton "did exactly the right thing," and he expressed hopes that the administration would take additional action "to ensure that . . . our interests remain secure."
However, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.), apparently angry because some members of Congress had not been briefed on the attacks before they were launched, raised the possibility that the move may have been timed to divert public attention from the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, much as was depicted in the recent movie "Wag the Dog."
Administration officials immediately dismissed such suggestions as ludicrous. Cohen, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said the "only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities. That is the sole motivation."
In his speech from Washington, Clinton said, "Our target was terror; our mission was clear." He said that "a few months ago and again this week, Bin Laden publicly vowed to wage a terrorist war against America, saying--and I quote--'We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians. They're all targets.' "
Both Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took pains to assert that while Bin Laden is a Saudi exile, the U.S. missile strikes "were not aimed against Islam," which Clinton called "the faith of hundreds of millions of good, peace-loving people around the world, including the United States."
"No religion condones the murder of innocent men, women and children," he said.
Rather, Clinton insisted, "Our actions were aimed at fanatics and killers who wrap murder in the cloak of righteousness and, in so doing, profane the great religion in whose name they plan to act." He also said Afghanistan and Sudan both had "been warned for years" that the United States wanted them to stop harboring terrorists.
The swiftness of the United States' retaliation--only two weeks after the Aug. 7 bombings--was stunning by historical standards. A U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, known as Khobar Towers, was leveled by terrorists two years ago, and the administration has yet to identify those who carried out the operation.
However, senior U.S. officials said this case is different because they were able to secure more help in tracing the perpetrators of the embassy bombings and because they uncovered evidence that Bin Laden's group was planning additional, imminent attacks on Americans.
"Rarely have we come to some conclusions as fast as we did," a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters at a briefing here. "Rarely has the quality of what we collected been as high as it has been," he said.
As for its criminal investigation of the embassy bombings, the FBI still has not developed hard information linking Bin Laden to a suspect detained in Kenya, a source familiar with the investigation said.
Thus, the attack on Bin Laden-linked facilities was based not on information developed during the criminal investigation of the bombings, but on intelligence collected by the National Security Council.
Washington has reacted quickly as the intelligence about additional terrorist attacks has come in, closing other U.S. embassies and stepping up protection of U.S. citizens in other countries. American personnel were ordered to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum a week ago, for example.
In a reflection of concern about possible retaliation against targets inside the United States, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, said the FBI has issued an alert to all local law enforcement officials suggesting that they exercise a "heightened degree of concern."
Albright also dismissed suggestions that the military strikes might backfire and spur radical groups into more acts of terrorism. "While our actions are not perfect insurance [against future terrorism]," she said, "inaction would be an invitation to further horror."
Clinton spent much of the evening meeting with his national security advisors and making telephone calls to leaders of other countries with interests in the region. White House officials said he planned to return to Martha's Vineyard today to resume his vacation with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers John Daniszewski, Stanley Meisler, Ronald J. Ostrow, Judy Pasternak, Paul Richter, Jodi Wilgoren and Robin Wright in Washington; Dexter Filkins in Islamabad, Pakistan; special correspondents Rahimullah Yusefzai in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Javed Rana in Islamabad; and researcher Robin Cochran in Washington.
Video of President Clinton's announcement of U.S. airstrikes on terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan can be seen on The Times' Web site. Go to: http://www.latimes.com/airstrikes.
* 'WAG THE DOG': Scandal-plagued Clinton's order to attack sites has some saying life imitates art. A17
* TARGETS SAID TO BE LINKED: Targets formed a pipeline and were tied to Saudi militant Bin Laden, U.S. experts say. A17
* MORE: A16-17, A19-22
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE REASONS U.S. CITED
* There was evidence groups funded by Saudi militant were involved in embassy bombings in Africa
* The groups had attacked Americans in the past.
* The U.S. had information that more attacks were planned.
* The groups were apparently seeking chemical and other dangerous weapons.