Today is the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon which killed 2,977 innocent people – 574 more than were killed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – as well as the 19 jihadists who pulled off the most consequential terrorist operation in history. Al-Qa’ida’s infamous “Big Wedding” undoubtedly changed the world and countless lives, including this author’s, setting off the Global War on Terrorism which still continues today in some fashion, our recent embarrassing retreat from Afghanistan notwithstanding.*
Witnessing the Taliban back in power, placing their victorious jihad banners on our former embassy in Kabul, is a shock to many of us who experienced 9/11 and the wars that came in its wake. Judging from social media reactions, the fleeing moment of national, indeed international unity which followed the fall of the Twin Towers is long gone and wholly forgotten. Solemn remembrance of the innocent dead is out, while vicious partisan sniping without regard for basic facts is in, which is pretty on-brand for America in 2021.
This author’s negative views regarding many of the Pentagon’s reactions to 9/11, especially our bungled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are on the record, and with the benefit of hindsight it’s evident that Washington’s responses to those attacks were deeply flawed in any strategic sense: but that’s a critique for another day.
Today’s question is: How did 9/11 really happen?
This has been asked countless times over the last 20 years, not least by the official 9/11 Commission, whose report runs past 500 dense pages, and the outline of the answer has long been abundantly clear. Al-Qa’ida in the late 1990s assessed that the only way to achieve their goal of overthrowing Arab governments with the aim of establishing their desired Caliphate, was to punish America badly enough that it withdraws from the Middle East. Without American political and military support, local regimes, above all the House of Saud, would tumble. Hence the “Planes Operation” of 9/11, which was designed to convince the United States to get out of the Muslim world. That certainly failed in the short-to-medium term, but perhaps the jury’s still out on that one.
Much has been made of the “intelligence failures” of 9/11 but, with the passing of time, these seem smaller than they did in late 2001 (I state this not as someone who had skin in the game either: my track record of blowing the whistle on spook screw-ups speaks for itself). While there were intelligence pieces missed in the summer of 2001, it’s difficult to see how much difference they would have made, given the bureaucratic realities of the time. The simple if unappealing truth is that in the run-up to 9/11, our Intelligence Community worked more or less as it was supposed to. The vaunted “wall” between foreign intelligence (think CIA and NSA) and domestic intelligence (think FBI) stood rather high, precisely as Congress wanted back in the 1970s, when IC reforms made sure that early-to-mid Cold War abuses of privacy by our spy agencies could not reoccur. After 9/11, that wall got significantly lowered per public demand, perhaps too low, but that too is another story.
In the months before the Twin Towers fell, various foreign intelligence agencies shared warnings with the IC about possible terrorist attacks on the American “homeland” (a word which always struck me as unpleasantly Teutonic, yet which was puzzlingly adopted for a new and dumb federal department after 9/11). However, none of these warnings were specific or actionable, as the spies like to say. Similarly, the President’s Daily Brief on August 6, 2001 included a segment a little more than a page long that explicitly warned of AQ attacks on the United States but this, too, was rather vague, beyond the mention of an uncorroborated 1998 statement by Osama Bin Laden that he wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to obtain the release of jihadists already in American custody. The PDB is always highly classified but this threat reporting cannot be considered definitive; nevertheless it was released to the public in 2004 to show that President George W. Bush didn’t exactly “know about 9/11” in advance.
I say “exactly” intentionally. The truth is that everybody who seriously followed terrorism issues in the summer of 2001 knew that bin Laden and his legions wanted to attack the American homeland and were working hard to do so. After all, they had already tried. The PDB warning is only somewhat more detailed than what anyone could have come up with by following press reports closely. After all, jihadists who were affiliated with AQ hijacked an Air France jetliner at the end of 1994 with the intention of taking down the Eiffel Tower with it, a disaster which was narrowly averted.
The forgotten truth is that the IC had been on something close to a war footing against AQ for three years before 9/11. Bin Laden’s bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, which killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans, convinced the spooks of the seriousness of this rising terrorist threat to Americans worldwide. CIA and NSA were trying hard to track the movements of known or suspected Sunni jihadists, particularly any possessing links to AQ. Nevertheless, the terrorists struck again on October 12, 2000, when two of bin Laden’s suicide bombers rammed their boat packed with explosives into the destroyer USS Cole as it was refueling in Yemen’s Aden harbor. The resulting explosion ripped a massive hole in the Cole’s port side, killing 17 Navy sailors and wounding 37 more. After this attack, the IC devoted maximum effort to finding AQ cells worldwide, but that was easier to accomplish abroad than inside the United States, due to that “wall” which firmly separated the IC’s foreign and domestic intelligence sides.
If jihadists managed to infiltrate the U.S., it would become difficult to locate them, given legal and operational realities. Fortunately, we got lucky at the end of 1999; unfortunately, that stroke of luck never got the public and political attention that it merited, with baleful consequences on 9/11. I’m talking about AQ’s Millennium Plot, which involved several planned attacks to coincide with the holiday season at the end of the year. This included planned bombings of tourist sites in Jordan (thwarted by Jordanian intelligence), the hijacking of an Indian airliner (which ended without casualties), and the bombing of the destroyer USS The Sullivans in Aden harbor (the overloaded bomb-boat sank before reaching the target: AQ did better against the USS Cole 10 months later).
Yet the biggest part of the Millennium Plot was the attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport with a plus-sized bomb. It was thwarted on December 14, 1999, by a diligent Customs inspector named Diana Dean who was working at the border post at Port Angeles, Washington. She felt that a Canadian driver named Benni Noris who was attempting to enter the United States seemed off somehow. This was just a hunch, Dean had no intelligence in hand, but when she asked Noris a few questions, he got nervous and fled the car, which turned out to contain the makings of a very big bomb. The suspect was quickly apprehended, and he was really named Ahmed Ressam, an AQ terrorist from Algeria who was living in Montreal. A year later, Ressam started talking and he revealed that he was part of a jihadist cell of Algerians who were living in Canada, committing crimes (mainly credit card fraud) and plotting terrorism while collecting welfare. Eventually, the Ressam case led to dozens of arrests in the United States and Canada, and under FBI questioning Ressam admitted the existence of AQ sleeper cells in North America, though he knew no details (this made it into the August 6, 2001 PDB, without specifics).**
Why did this sensational case not wake America up? This was a major AQ terrorist plot to blow up a significant American civilian target, LAX, involving aviation plus jihadists operating inside the country. Diana Dean stopped that, saving countless lives, but we were not so lucky regarding the 9/11 terrorists, who entered the U.S. without incident and perpetrated their Big Wedding, as planned. Terrorist attacks that get thwarted sometimes fall between the cracks in public consciousness, and that’s what happened with the Millennium Plot. It animated the FBI and parts of the IC, convincing them that the jihadist threat at home was gravely serious, but not American politicians or citizens.
Perhaps everybody was too busy partying like it was 1999 to pay attention to AQ’s narrowly averted mass-casualty attack on LAX. No doubt the messaging wasn’t helpful either. Narratives often matter more than facts do, particularly regarding media packaging of stories, and here the Millennium Plot and Ahmed Ressam just weren’t an easy sell at the time. First, it’s difficult to conceive of a major terrorist attack coming from Canada. That’s a nice country, they’re always saying sorry, it can’t be a haven for terrorists, right? Plus, this ugly conspiracy involved immigrants, who are supposed to be pleasant, hard-working people, not welfare cheats who are scamming the taxpayer and robbing from citizens to support their mass murder plots. Last, the Ressam cell in Montreal was under the operational control of AQ elements located in Bosnia, and two decades ago the American public wasn’t ready for any discussion of how that unfortunate country became a Jihadistan during the bloody 1992-95 war there. The Clinton administration considered its 1995 intervention in that conflict, to save Bosnia’s Muslims from the genocide-perpetrating Serbs, one of their signature foreign policy successes, and they certainly didn’t want light shed on the complex reality that jihadists were using Bosnia as an operational base for their international terrorism.
Hence the plot to blow up LAX fell down the memory hole and had really no impact on public awareness of the rising AQ threat to the United States as 9/11 approached. Indeed, the political debate at the time reflected the opposite viewpoint. As difficult as it may be for people who grew to hate George W. Bush as the invader of Iraq and waterboarder-in-chief to believe, Dubya initially ran for president on what might be termed an anti-anti-terrorism platform. On several occasions during the 2000 race, in an effort to win Muslim and Arab votes, Governor Bush denounced “racial profiling” of Arab Americans citing alleged harassment by airport security of Middle Eastern-looking travelers, as well as castigating the U.S. government’s use of “secret evidence” in immigration hearings for suspected terrorists. In a remarkable October 11, 2000 debate with his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, Bush turned a discussion of racial profiling of African Americans into an effort to pander for votes by stating, “Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what’s called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that…My friend, Sen. Spence Abraham, is pushing a law to make sure that, you know, Arab-Americans are treated with respect. So racial profiling isn’t just an issue at the local police forces. It’s an issue throughout our society. And as we become a diverse society, we’re going to have to deal with it more and more.”
The next day, bin Laden’s terrorists nearly sank the USS Cole, but Bush’s gambit worked: he won the endorsement of the Arab American Political Action Committee. Neither was Bush’s rhetoric mere talk. In the early months of his administration, there were moves to ensure that Arab Americans weren’t facing “racial profiling” at airports. Just three months before 9/11, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta announced that his department was looking into allegations of discrimination by airport security, with emphasis on Detroit, given its large Arab and Muslim population.
Did this matter on 9/11? It’s impossible to say but it turned out that the ticket agent who checked in lead terrorist Mohammed Atta and one of the other jihadists who took over American Airlines Flight 11 (the first airliner to strike the World Trade Center), had a bad feeling about them, between Atta’s sinister expression and the pair’s anomalous purchase of expensive first-class one-way tickets. As Michael Tuohey recalled, “I said to myself, ’If this guy doesn’t look like an Arab terrorist, then nothing does’.” But he stopped himself and let the terrorists board without any enhanced security screening: “I gave myself a mental slap, because in this day and age, it’s not nice to say things like this. You’ve checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you’ve never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed.” Over 1,600 people – one of them was Norberto Hernandez, the tragic “falling man” – died horrible deaths as a result of Atta’s seizure of Flight 11.
The 9/11 Commission pinpointed a “failure of imagination” regarding the Intelligence Community’s inability to prevent Al-Qa’ida’s murder of 2,977 innocent people two decades ago today. But that’s hardly accurate. There were plenty of people in the IC and beyond who were aware of AQ’s deep desire to strike the United States directly. They lacked specific intelligence about the Planes Operation, for many reasons, but they knew what the enemy wanted to do generally. The thwarted Millennium Plot ought to have awakened the American public and our political class to the direct threat AQ posed to our homeland, with emphasis on aviation and high-profile targets, yet it did not. Mainly because it was the wrong Narrative and many people need those structures to think about complex problems such as security threats.
What looming threats are Americans ignoring right now because they don’t fit comfortably into our preset politically motivated, media-driven Narratives?