INDIA DEFENCE CONSULTANTS
Mortem of Sep 11 Catastrophe
An IDC Analysis
New Delhi, 06 January 2002
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.
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.
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.
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
Fighter aircraft deployment failed to react in time
Foreign intelligence collection failure
Domestic detection failure
Visa and immigration policy failure.
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.
look at the warning alarms one by one:
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.
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.
immigration laws were tightened but the concern about porous borders
quickly dissipated and the new rules were never put in effect.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.