Missed chance: UK considered supporting US strike on Bin Laden months before 9/11

Prime minister Tony Blair's aide proposed discussing a hit on the terrorist leader with the US president

(FILES) This undated file picture shows Saudi dissident Osama bin Ladin speaking at an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed late on May 1, 2011 in a firefight with covert US forces deep inside Pakistan, prompting President Barack Obama to declare "justice has been done" a decade after the September 11 attacks.   AFP PHOTO / FILES
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Former British prime minister Tony Blair was urged to raise the issue of assassinating Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a meeting with the US nine months before the September 11 attacks, newly released archives show.

In a briefing letter sent to Mr Blair on December 13, 2000, from his private secretary Sir John Sawers, who later became head of MI6 and a British diplomat to Egypt, he was urged to use an upcoming meeting with US president Bill Clinton to discuss the topic of killing Bin Laden.

The new information is revealed in the latest declassification of secret files by the National Archives.

On the topic of Bin Laden and terrorism, Sir John advised the prime minister to inform the president the UK was in favour of "whacking" the terrorist leader.

Britain's stance was partly a response to a terrorist attack a few months earlier on the US missile destroyer, USS Cole, while it was moored in Yemen's port of Aden.

In the attack on October 12, 2000, a rubber boat loaded with explosives was blown up as it rounded the bow of the destroyer, which had just pulled into the port for a refuelling stop.

The explosion killed 17 US Navy sailors and injured 37 others.

Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack and the US had been considering military action.

"The Americans do not yet have proof that UBL [sic] was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole," Sir John wrote to Mr Blair.

"They won’t launch strikes until they have a smoking gun. And that may not be until after January 20.

"You should tell him that you might be in the Gulf in the first week of January, and would not want air strikes then. They also need to be reminded that our personnel, eg in Pakistan, will be vulnerable to reprisals if the Americans have longer notice than us.

"We’re all in favour of whacking UBL, but we need a bit of notice and a chance to influence timings."

In June 2001, an Al Qaeda recruitment video featuring Osama bin Laden boasted about the attack and encouraged similar attacks.

Mr Clinton and his successor, George W Bush, were later criticised for not taking action after the USS Cole attack and before September 11, 2001, an atrocity that killed almost 3,000 people.

A report commissioned to investigate the September 11 attacks, was told by president Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that when the Republican administration took office on January20, 2001 the evidence against Al Qaeda was "not clear".

"We knew that there was speculation that the 2000 Cole attack was Al Qaeda," she had said. "We received, I think, on January 25 the same assessment [of Al Qaeda responsibility]. It was preliminary. It was not clear."

Updated: December 30, 2022, 12:01 AM