For the first time since September 11, the Bush administration is on the defensive about how it handled warnings of possible hijackings by Osama bin Laden’s network. The Bush team claims the warnings were too vague to have thwarted the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, but some intelligence experts aren‘t so sure.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says no one could have predicted that hijackers would turn airliners into missiles and crash them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But Larry Johnson, who was deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter-Terrorism from 1989 to 1993, calls Rice‘s statement “ridiculous.”
The possibility that terrorists would use aircraft as missiles is well-documented in court records and police interviews around the world. “If George W. Bush didn’t know enough to ask the right questions, his advisers should have,” said Johnson, now a partner at BERG Associates, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, who does occasional work for the Department of Defense and the CIA. “These warnings should have triggered hard questions about the state of airline security, and his advisers should have followed up to find the answers.”
Now, as warnings of potential targets come out almost daily, Johnson finds especially troubling the 1996 statements of Abdul Hakim Murad, a Pakistani terrorist affiliated with al Qaeda, who confessed to police in the Philippines that he intended to use his American flight training to crash an explosives-laden plane into CIA headquarters in Virginia. Johnson says he recently examined Murad‘s confession, and it includes talk of plots to blow up U.S. nuclear facilities. He says the parallels between airline safety, pre–September 11, and security at nuclear facilities in 2002 is chilling.
“So here it is. We have known since 1995 that these are targets of bin Laden’s network. Now, what have we been doing about it?” he asks. Johnson says the government should have been reviewing safety and making improvements at nuclear plants.
“Do we know who is working at these plants, what their backgrounds are? How is the guard force trained? What are their security standards? Are these plants physically secure? Is the security coordinated by the federal government or, as in the case of utilities, is it left up to private industry, like it was with the airlines?
”These are the questions we should be asking right now,“ he adds. ”So we don‘t have to say after an attack, ’Gee, we couldn‘t imagine this ever happening.’ Because there is no imagination required.“ (Officials at the Department of Justice declined to respond to the questions posed by Johnson.)
Johnson lays much of the blame for the nation‘s security lapses on the FBI. ”People have seen too many Tom Clancy movies,“ he says. ”That is not reality. The FBI is not equipped to analyze intelligence. Their job is to gathera information in support of an ongoing prosecution or in preparation for one.“
All this information that has been out there for years should have been passed on to the CIA, he adds. ”They have the people and the expertise to handle it, but they didn’t get it. That needs to change now, if it already hasn‘t.“
The record supports Johnson’s contention. There are the well-known tips, such as the CIA‘s briefing to Bush last August that warned of possible hijackings by Osama bin Laden, and a memo last July from FBI Special Agent Kenneth Williams documenting his suspicions regarding numerous Middle Eastern men taking flight lessons at a school in Arizona. But other, lesser-known developments have been circulating for years. They include:
• October 2000: Former U.S. Special Forces Sergeant Ali Mohammed, also known as Abu Mohammed ali Amriki, pleads guilty to five counts of conspiracy to murder and kidnap U.S. nationals and government employees in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. The former bin Laden lieutenant testifies that he provided security for a 1994 meeting between bin Laden and Imad Mugniyah in Sudan. Mugniyah, the security chief for the Lebanese Hezbollah, discussed upcoming operations with the al Qaeda leader. Mugniyah is believed to have planned a series of hijackings, including the 1999 pirating of an Air India jet, in which the hijackers used knives to take over the plane. Air India passengers were exchanged for five militants, including Ahmad Omar Saeed, who is being tried for reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources believe that Mugniyah, whose whereabouts are unknown, may have conspired with Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden‘s top commander, to plan the September 11 attacks.
• September 2000: A defecting Iraqi intelligence officer tells Iraqi National Congress representatives about Islamists being trained in hijacking techniques, including the use of one’s hands and knives to take over airliners. The training was conducted aboard a Boeing 707 parked at Salman Pal, a secret Iraqi camp. The information has been corroborated, post–911, by Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami, a former Iraqi captain who was a military instructor at Salman Pak from 1994 to 1998. Post–911, U.S. intelligence releases an aerial photo of a 707 parked at Salman Pak.
• September 2000: FBI agents learn that L‘Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan, had been sent to flight school by al Qaeda. His mission, he tells them, was to learn how to fly crop-dusters. He describes a meeting between an Egyptian member of the network and a fellow pilot that took place in 1993 or 1994 in the Sudan. The Egyptian was briefing the pilot on Western air-traffic-control procedures.
• June 2000: Mohammed Atta, the alleged 911 ringleader, is in Prague for the first of two meetings with Colonel Muhammed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani. Al-Ani is one of Iraq’s most highly decorated intelligence officers and a reported senior official in the Department for Special Operations, which specializes in sabotage, terrorism and assassinations.
• September 1999: The National Intelligence Council prepares a report for the CIA and the Clinton administration entitled ”The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why.“ In addition to detailing the motives behind religiously inspired terrorism, the council reported that suicide bombers belonging to ”al Qaeda‘s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA or the White House.“
• 1999: Ihab Mahammed Ali, an al Qaeda member arrested in Orlando, Florida, and later named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, is called before a grand jury. He denies participation in bin Laden’s network and is charged with perjury. The FBI learns that Ali had obtained flight training at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma. Ali became al Qaeda‘s first pilot. Accused September 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui also took flight lessons at the Airman school.
• 1996: Abdul Hakim Murad, a Pakistani terrorist affiliated with al Qaeda and Ramzi Yousef, confesses to Filipino police that he intended to use his American flight training to crash a plane filled with explosives into the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia. Murad was arrested in Manila in 1995 after accidentally setting his apartment on fire while making a bomb. He also told investigators about Yousef‘s plot to blow up 12 airliners over the ocean. Yousef was convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Murad was convicted in New York of conspiring with Yousef to blow up the airliners.
• 1994: French intelligence thwarts a plan by Algerian Islamic militants to hijack a plane and crash it into the Eiffel Tower or blow it up over Paris.
• 1993: Yossef Bodansky, executive director of the U.S. House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, and the author of six books, including Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, publishes Target America. In it, Bodansky details an alleged terror program devised by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, in which suicide pilots were trained to fly small jets, loaded with explosives, into targets. The program, started in the early 1980s, reportedly zeroed in on Gulf state palaces and the U.S. Sixth Fleet. A number of training accidents eventually stalled the program.