THE CIA may have had the chance to kill or capture Osama bin Laden a year before the 11 September attacks on the United States, it emerged last night.
Secret spy footage taken from an unmanned drone over Afghanistan in autumn 2000 shows what some intelligence analysts believe was bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaeda terror network behind the New York attacks.
The tall figure, dressed in white robes, appears to be surrounded by guards at a known al-Qaeda training camp.
Although the footage was taken before 11 September, bin Laden was already wanted over the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, which killed six people, and the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa, which killed 224.
Some claim the footage, beamed live to CIA agents in the US, represented a missed opportunity by the administration of Bill Clinton, then president, to kill or capture bin Laden.
But the quality of the images make it impossible to be certain whether the figure dressed in white is the Saudi-born terrorist leader.
"It’s dynamite. It’s putting together all of the pieces, and that doesn’t happen every day," said William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now a military analyst.
The figure certainly could be bin Laden. He is 6ft 5in tall and the man on the film towers over those around him. The footage was shot over Tarnak Farm, the walled compound where bin Laden was known to live. He is also dressed in flowing white robes, while the body language of those around him suggests they are subordinate.
The existence of the footage proves the CIA was aggressively tracking bin Laden in the year before 11 September.
That has led to questions about why he able to escape after being spotted.
"We were not prepared to take the military action necessary," a retired general, Wayne Downing, told NBC. "We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence, certainly cruise missiles, either air or sea-launched."
Gary Schroen, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, added that the White House told the agency to capture rather than kill bin Laden.
That halved the odds "that we were going to be able to get him", he said.
Former Clinton administration officials defended their actions and said al-Qaeda was a top national security issue.
But one unnamed cabinet official told the network: "We did a lot, but we did not see the gathering storm that was out there."
Coalition troops and Pakistan forces have been reportedly closing in on bin Laden in recent weeks.