Post Mortem of Sep 11 Catastrophe


An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 06 January 2002

US authorities carried out extensive investigations into the intelligence failure of not detecting the terrorist attack of Sep 11. All reviews have concluded although the apocalyptic designs of Osama bin Laden wee known to all departments of the administration, yet the top leaders did not react, probably in the belief that the country was not as vulnerable as it proved to be that morning.

US investigators first detected the rising threat of the Islamic jihad movement, after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The inquiry into that attack revealed a weakness in the immigration system used by one of the terrorists, but that hole was never plugged, and it was exploited by one of the Sept 11 hijackers.

Subsequently, in 1996, a State Department dossier spelled out bin Laden's operation and his anti-American intentions. By 1997, the threat of an Islamic attack on America was so well recognized that an FBI agent warned of it in a public speech. In the same year, a strategy for tightening airline security, proposed by a vice-presidential panel, was largely ignored. In 2000, after an Algerian was caught coming into the country with explosives, a secret White House review recommended a crackdown on "potential sleeper cells in the United States." That review warned that "the threat of attack remains high" and laid out a plan for fighting terrorism. But most of that plan remained on paper.

The Sep 11 attack "was a systematic failure of the way this country protects itself," said James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence. He pinpointed the following five shortfalls in the US security system :

         The aviation security delegated to the airlines was full of holes

         Fighter aircraft deployment failed to react in time

         Foreign intelligence collection failure

         Domestic detection failure

         Visa and immigration policy failure.

Mr Clarke, until recently the White House director of counter terrorism, had warned of the threat for years and reached the conclusion that: "Democracies don't prepare well for things that have never happened before." The Clinton administration did make moves to intensify efforts against al Qaeda after two US Embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998. But by then, the terror network had gone global 末 with cells across Europe, Africa and beyond.

Lets look at the warning alarms one by one:

On 26 Feb 93 末 a month after Bill Clinton took office 末 Islamic extremists operating from Brooklyn and New Jersey bombed the World Trade Centre. Six people were killed, and hundreds injured.

This should have been the wake-up call. The implications were clear 末 young Muslims who had fought with the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980's had brought their jihad to American shores. One of the names that surfaced in the bombing case was that of a Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden, who was financing the Office of Services 末 a Pakistan-based group involved in organizing the new jihad. It turned out that the mastermind of the WTC attack, Ramzi Yousef, had stayed for several months in a Pakistani guesthouse supported by bin Laden.

The immigration laws were tightened but the concern about porous borders quickly dissipated and the new rules were never put in effect.

Clinton was made aware of the threat but the "big issues" in his first term were Russia, Eastern Bloc, Middle East peace, human rights, rogue nations and then terrorism. When it came to terrorism, Clinton administration officials continued the policy of their predecessors, who had viewed it primarily as a crime to be solved and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies. Looking back some of Clinton痴 supporters feel that the 1993 attack did not gain more attention because, in the end, it "wasn't a successful bombing."

Two years later, however, terrorism moved to the forefront of the national agenda when a truck bomb tore into the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 95, killing 168 people. Two months after the bombing Clinton ordered the government to intensify the fight against terrorism. The order did not give agencies involved in the fight more money, nor did it end the bureaucratic turf battles among them. But it did put Osama bin Laden, who had set up operations in Sudan after leaving Afghanistan in 1991, in the front and center.

As Clinton prepared his re-election bid in 1996, the administration made several crucial decisions. Recognizing the growing significance of Laden, the CIA created a virtual station, code-named Alex, to track his activities around the world. In the Middle East, American diplomats pressed the hard-line Islamic regime of Sudan to expel Laden, even if that pushed him back into Afghanistan. The State Department circulated a dossier that implicated him in several attacks on Americans, including the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Aden where American troops had stayed on their way to Somalia. It also said that Laden's associates had trained the Somalis who killed 18 American servicemen in Mogadishu in 1993. As a consequence, Sudan obliquely hinted that it might turn Laden over to US. But the Justice Department reviewed the case and concluded in the spring of 1996 that it did not have enough evidence to charge him with the attacks on American troops in Yemen and Somalia.

In May 1996, Sudan expelled bin Laden, confiscating some of his substantial fortune. He moved his organization to Afghanistan, just when the Pakistani creation of Taliban was taking control of that country. Next month in June, a suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb at the military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen. Days later, the TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island, leaving 230 people dead in a crash that was immediately viewed as terrorism.

Much ado was made about lapses in airport security and suggestions were made for a federal take over of airport screening and even deployment of the military inside the United States to fight terrorism. As a fend off, Clinton put Vice President Al Gore at the head of a commission on aviation safety and security. Within weeks, the panel had drafted more than two dozen recommendations. Its final report, in February 1997, added dozens more. Among them was a proposal that the FBI and CIA share information about suspected terrorists for the databases maintained by each airline. If a suspected terrorist bought a ticket, both the airline and the government would find out.

Progress was slow, particularly after federal investigators determined that the crash of TWA Flight 800 resulted from a mechanical flaw, not terrorism. The commission's recommendations languished 末 until Sep11, when two people already identified by the government as suspected terrorists boarded separate American Airlines flights from Boston using their own names.

As Clinton began his second term, American intelligence agencies were assembling a clearer picture of the threat posed by bin Laden and his Al Qaeda, which was making substantial headway in Afghanistan. The first significant defector from Al Qaeda, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl had walked into an American Embassy in Africa and provided a detailed account of the organization's operations and ultimate objectives which included broadening the initial goal of overthrowing Saudi Arabia and other "infidel" Middle Eastern governments. That Al Qaeda was trying to buy a nuclear bomb and other unconventional weapons as also bin Laden was trying to form an anti-American terrorist front that would unite radical groups 末 were also important inputs given by him.

But Fadl's statements were not widely circulated within the government and their significance was not fully understood by Clinton's top advisers. The war against Al Qaeda remained disjointed. While the State Department listed bin Laden as a financier of terror in its 1996 survey of terrorism, Al Qaeda was not included on the list of terrorist organizations subject to various sanctions released by the United States in 1997.

Later, on several occasions, calls to bin Laden's satellite phone in Afghanistan were overheard. The FBI and CIA searched a house in Kenya, seizing a computer and questioning Wadih El-Hage, an American citizen working as bin Laden's personal secretary. Soon on 7 Aug 98, truck bombs were detonated outside the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injuring more than 5,000.

Stunned by the plot's ambition and precision Clinton vowed to punish the perpetrators, who were quickly identified as Al Qaeda adherents. This was the second alarm call but the political calculus had however by then changed markedly due to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the nation痴 attention was diverted from threat of terrorism to that of impeachment of a President.

Yet, thirteen days after the embassy bombings Clinton nonetheless ordered cruise missile strikes on an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was suspected to be linked to bin Laden and chemical weapons. But the volley of cruise missiles proved a setback for American counter terrorism efforts. The CIA had been told that bin Laden and his entourage were meeting at the camp, but the missiles struck just a few hours after he left. And the owner of the pharmaceutical factory came forward to claim that it had nothing to do with chemical weapons, raising questions about whether the Sudan strike had been in error.

In the two years since leaving Sudan, Laden had built a formidable base in Afghanistan. He lavished millions of dollars on the impoverished Taliban regime and in exchange was allowed to operate a network of training camps that attracted Islamic militants from all over the world. In early 1998, just as he declared war on Americans everywhere in the world, he cemented an alliance with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a ruthless and effective group whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was known for his operational skills. Although from Aug 98, bin Laden was US Enemy No1, the administration failed to act upon it due to :

         Its softness for Pakistan.

         Reluctance to press Saudi Arabia to crack down upon charities linked to radical causes.

Still between 1998 and 2000, the "Small Group" of the Cabinet-rank principals involved in national security met almost every week on terrorism, and the Counter Terrorism Security Group, led by Mr Clarke, met two or three times a week. On at least four occasions, Clinton sent the CIA a secret "memorandum of notification," authorizing the government to kill or capture bin Laden and, later, other senior operatives of Al Qaeda. On at least three occasions the CIA told the White House it had learnt where bin Laden was and where he might soon be. Each time, Clinton approved the strike but George Tenet, the director of CIA called the President to say that the information was not reliable enough to be used in an attack.

The White House also asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop plans for a commando raid to capture or kill bin Laden. But the chairman, Gen Shelton, and other senior Pentagon officers told Clinton's top national security aides that they would need to know bin Laden's whereabouts 12 to 24 hours in advance. The Pentagon could not produce plans that involved a modest number of troops. Military planners insisted that an attack on Al Qaeda required thousands of troops invading Afghanistan, something no one was interested in.

Another shortcoming was the lack of adequate number of personnel fluent in Arabic language with the result analysis of information/documents obtained from valuable sources could not be carried out in time. CIA had amassed considerable detail about Al Qaeda痴 finances but that information was used in the broad efforts to freeze its accounts only after Sept 11. Further, Michael Sheehan, the State Department's former counter terrorism coordinator is on record to have said that terrorism could be contained only if Washington devised a "comprehensive political strategy to pressure Pakistan and its neighbours and allies into isolating not only bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but the Taliban and others who provide them sanctuary. But, "our reaction was responsive, almost never proactive," he said.

The arrest of Ahmed Ressam when he tried to enter US in Port Angeles on 14 Dec 99 with 130 pounds of bomb-making chemicals and detonator components inside his rental car, was the clearest sign that Osama bin Laden was trying to bring the jihad to the United States. His arrest helped reveal what intelligence officials later concluded was an Al Qaeda plot to unleash attacks during the millennium celebrations, aimed at an American ship in Yemen, tourist sites and a hotel in Jordan, and unknown targets in the United States.

That was the third and loud enough wake-up call, not for law enforcement and intelligence, but for policy makers. Just as the embassy bombings in 1998 had exposed the threat of Al Qaeda overseas, the millennium plot revealed gaping vulnerabilities at home. A White House review of American defences in March 2000 found significant shortcomings in nearly a decade of government efforts to improve defenses against terrorists at home. The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it said, should begin "high tempo, ongoing operations to arrest, detain and deport potential sleeper cells in the United States." The review identified particular weaknesses in the nation's immigration controls and called for the government to greatly expand its antiterrorism efforts inside the country, creating an additional dozen joint federal-local task forces like the one that had been set up in New York.

In June 2000, after the millennium plot was revealed, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended that the immigration service set up a system to keep tabs on foreign students. Academic institutions opposed the recommendation, fearing that a strict reporting requirement might alienate prospective foreign students.  As the commission was completing its work, the Sept 11 hijackers began entering the United States. One of the 19 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, who had traveled on a student visa, failed to show up for school and remained in the country illegally. Beginning in 1997, senior officials at the Bureau had begun to rethink their approach to terrorism, viewing it now as a crime to be prevented rather than solved. But it was the millennium plot that revealed how ill equipped the Bureau was to radically shift its culture. It lacked informers within terrorist groups. It did not have the computer and analytical capacity for integrating disparate pieces of information.

In Sep 2000, an unarmed, unmanned spy plane called the Predator flew test flights over Afghanistan, providing what several administration officials called incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of the movements of what appeared to be bin Laden and his aides. White House pressed ahead with a programme to arm the Predator with a missile, but the effort was slowed by bureaucratic infighting between the Pentagon and the CIA over who would pay for the craft and who would have ultimate authority over its use. The dispute was not resolved until after Sept 11. On 12 Oct 2000, an explosive-laden dinghy piloted by two suicide bombers exploded next to the American destroyer Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Intelligence analysts linked the bombing to Al Qaeda, but at a series of Cabinet-level meetings Mr Tenet of the CIA and senior FBI officials said the case was not conclusive.

Neither Vice President Al Gore nor George W. Bush raised Terrorism as an issue in the 2000 Presidential campaign. In October the same year, the Clinton administration took another shot at killing bin Laden. When Mr Berger, the National Security Adviser called the president to tell him the effort had failed, he recalled, Clinton cursed, "Just keep trying," the President said. Mr Berger met with his successor, Condoleezza Rice, and gave her a warning that terrorism 末 and particularly bin Laden's brand of it 末 would consume far more of her time than she had ever imagined. A month later, with the administration still getting organized, Mr Tenet, whom President Bush had asked to stay on at the CIA, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that bin Laden and Al Qaeda remained "the most immediate and serious threat" to security. But until Sept 11, the people at the top levels of the Bush administration were found to be less preoccupied by terrorism than the Clinton aides.

Mr Bush's principals did not formally meet to discuss terrorism in late spring when intercepts from Afghanistan warned that Al Qaeda was planning to attack an American target in late June or perhaps over the July 4 holiday. They did not meet even after intelligence analysts overheard conversations from a Qaeda cell in Milan suggesting that Laden's agents might be plotting to kill Bush at the European summit meeting in Genoa, Italy, in late July. The President was more concerned about the growing threat and frustrated by the halfhearted efforts to thwart Al Qaeda. In July, Ms Rice said, Mr. Bush likened the response to the al Qaeda threat to "swatting at flies." He said he wanted a plan to "bring this guy down."

The administration's draft plan for fighting Al Qaeda included a $200 million CIA programme that, among other things, would arm the Taliban's enemies. Clinton administration officials had refused to provide significant money and arms to the Northern Alliance, which was composed mostly of ethnic minorities. Officials feared that large-scale support for the rebels would involve the United States too deeply in a civil war and anger Pakistan.

President Bush's national security advisers approved the plan on Sep 4, and it was to be presented to the President on Sep 10. However, the leader of the Northern Alliance was assassinated by Al Qaeda agents on Sep 9 and Mr Bush was traveling on Sep 10 so could not receive it. The next day his senior national security aides gathered shortly before 9 am for a staff meeting. At roughly the same moment, a hijacked Boeing 767 was ploughing into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

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