Tarnak Farm, near Kandahar, where Mohammed Atta’s video was shot, has a special place in the history of Al-Qaeda: it was once Osama Bin Laden’s personal kingdom within Afghanistan.
Exclusively Arab, it was home for Bin Laden’s wives and children, as well as for the elite fighters being trained for special operations. And, as we now know, for a few weeks in early 2000 it was home to Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers.
The farm, which covered about 100 acres, lay on a patch of desert about three miles south of Kandahar airport. It had originally been constructed by the Afghan government as an agricultural co-operative.
A mud-brick wall was built 10ft high to create a compound; inside there were about 80 one and two-storey buildings, including dormitories, storehouses, a small mosque and a building that Bin Laden converted into a medical clinic for his family and followers.
US intelligence knew Bin Laden, already a wanted terrorist, used Tarnak as his base, and in spring 1998 the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center began working on a plan to capture him at the compound, partly with the help of Afghan tribal fighters.
Afghans scouted and mapped the farm, and the CIA photographed it from space. The plan called for about 30 fighters to assemble at a staging post before driving to a second position a few miles from Tarnak.
From there the main raiding party would walk to the farm, arriving at 2am and avoiding minefields by crawling through drainage ditches. A second group would make its way towards the front gate, taking out the two guards as the main party attacked the group of huts where Bin Laden’s wives slept.
The plan was to bundle Bin Laden into a Toyota Land Cruiser and drive him to to a cave complex 30 miles away already stocked with food and water.
However, getting the plan accepted at CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, was not straightforward. It was known that dozens of women and children lived in the compound, and security chiefs feared there would be many casualties.
By June 1998, much to the disappointment of the field officers responsible for devising the plan, nobody at a senior level within the CIA seemed willing to support it. Nor was there any support within the White House.
The plan was called off shortly afterwards.