“WHEN I TAKE ACTION,” President Bush heh-heh’d after the 9/11 attacks, “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
Well, by God, he was half right. Under Bush’s leadership, the United States was decisive—but ten years after the devastating Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American response hasn’t exactly been a case study in efficient counterterrorism strategy. By the time Osama bin Laden was cut down in May 2011, the global war on terror had cost more than $3 trillion, with no end of the spending—or missiles—in sight. Counting the two invasions launched in its name, the war on terror had also created 7.8 million refugees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and killed 137,000 civilians, according to a June 29 study by Brown University. That’s on top of the more than 6,000 US military personnel killed and 43,000 wounded since US troops began hunting down bin Laden in earnest in 2001.
How is it that a tiny band of psychopaths calling itself Al Qaeda, so far outside the Islamist radical mainstream that they were rejected even by the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to tie the world’s most powerful nation in knots and deplete its Treasury?
The full sweep of this calamity—from mishandling the threat of Al Qaeda to obsessing over it—supplies the backdrop for two very different new books. One account assails the United States for consigning the pre-9/11 effort to contain jihadist terrorism to warring, unproductive bureaucratic fiefdoms in the intelligence community; and the other maintains that, in the post-9/11 frenzy to subdue the Islamist enemy, American war planners badly overestimated the nature and scope of the terrorist threat. That such strikingly divergent accounts of the central terrorist action of our age are still vying for readers’ attention a decade on suggests just how much can still be insinuated—and how little still is really known—about the movements surrounding the 9/11 attacks.
In The Eleventh Day, journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, husband-and-wife authors of books on Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, argue that the attacks of September 11 might well have been prevented except for the missteps and rivalries of US intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI and CIA.
This is old ground, of course, covered by the 9/11 Commission, other official investigative bodies, and many journalists. But here the duo lends weight to a far more sensational explanation for the CIA’s failure to alert the FBI to the arrival of two known Al Qaeda operatives—future hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar—in the United States in the summer of 2001: CIA officials did not want the FBI interfering in their surveillance of the two men, whom they hoped to recruit. (Former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke suggests the same in a radio documentary timed for the anniversary). Summers and Swan suggest elsewhere in the book that the hijackers were under Saudi control.
“The speculation is not idle,” they maintain, because, over the objections of the FBI, “the CIA had on at least one occasion previously aspired to leave an Islamic suspect at large”: the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. Plus, they write, “a heavily redacted congressional document shows that, only weeks before Mihdhar’s visa came to light, top CIA officials had debated the lamentable fact that the Agency had as yet not penetrated al Qaeda.”
“Could it be,” they ask, “that the CIA concealed what it knew about Mihdhar and Hazmi because officials feared that precipitate action by the FBI would blow a unique lead?”
Anything’s possible, I suppose, although those are pretty thin reeds to build a case on. But—continuing in the spirit of the authors’ guessing game—it would be entirely customary for CIA spy catchers to want to shield their surveillance of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, whom they may well have hoped to recruit, from FBI gumshoes, who by instinct and charter opt to arrest persons suspected of planning violent crimes rather than recruit them. And although it’s not “prohibited,” as the authors have it, for the CIA to conduct domestic operations against foreign targets on US soil—it happens every day—failing to coordinate such a domestic operation with the FBI would have been a serious violation of intelligence protocol, not to mention extremely problematic should it turn out that the targets isolated for surveillance by CIA agents gave them the slip. But all this, despite the authors’ protestations, is truly idle speculation.
Even more sensationally, the authors raise the specter of a meeting between the CIA and bin Laden only weeks before the September 11 attacks. Refurbishing a ten-year-old story from the conservative French daily Le Figaro, they report that bin Laden, the object of a worldwide manhunt, met with a “local CIA officer” who went by the name of Larry Mitchell while being treated for kidney ailments in Dubai in July 2001.
The authors themselves found a former senior French intelligence official, Alain Chouet, to expand on the story. The goal of the CIA’s alleged meeting with bin Laden, Chouet told them, was to persuade the terrorist leader not to oppose discreet negotiations between the United States and the Taliban in Berlin, “and above all to leave Afghanistan and return to Saudi Arabia with a royal pardon” arranged by the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal. “In exchange,” Chouet went on, “the US would drop efforts to bring him to justice for the attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and elsewhere in Arabia.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that—but it’s ridiculous on its face. The authors also skip lightly over a response to the allegations from hospital director Bernard Koval. Summers and Swan say that Koval was “reported as having flatly denied the story.”
Why, yes, he did, in the International Herald Tribune, which quoted him as saying, “Osama bin Laden has never been here. . . . He’s never been a patient here, he’s never been treated here.”
The conspiracy-minded would say, “Of course he’d say that.” The authors concede that “straws in the historical wind” about a CIA–bin Laden meeting “may have been disinformation spread for some political purpose.” (Indeed, French intelligence was keen to take a swipe at the CIA for what it sensed was a Bush administration intent to attack Iraq, other sources have speculated.) Still, Summers and Swan’s own heavy-breathing insinuations here make a strong, if inadvertent, case that, in omitting the widespread hospital tale from its final report, the 9/11 Commission left yet another window open to the most sinister interpretation of many still-unexplained events surrounding 9/11. (Their recap of the strangely contradictory accounts officials offered in reconstructing the hours following the attacks is worth the book’s price alone.)
Speaking of holes in the official story, Summers and Swan are considerably more successful in drawing a web of connections between bin Laden and Saudi intelligence officials, including members of the royal family who, the authors persuasively write, were buying off bin Laden in hopes of deflecting his attention to “the far enemy,” i.e., the United States, from “the near enemy,” i.e., themselves.
Among the authors’ many damning accounts is the record of close, multiple contacts between future hijackers al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi and agents of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks.
“We had known for years, that Saudi royals—I should say elements of the royal family—were funding al Qaeda,” former CIA officer John Kiriakou flatly told Summers and Swan. Kiriakou also said that, under interrogation, Al Qaeda captive Abu Zubaydah “had come up with the names of several Saudi princes” who had aided the terrorists, three of whom would soon die under mysterious circumstances.
Of course, Kiriakou also famously told ABC in 2007 that one waterboarding instantly loosed Zubaydah’s tongue—and that turned out to be nothing but watercooler gossip. But in this case, Kiriakou is backed up by a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida, who has stated for the record that the hijackers “received assistance from a foreign government which further facilitated their ability to be so lethal.”
He wasn’t talking about Iraq, or even Iran (which did have some relations with Al Qaeda). But he and other members of the congressional joint inquiry into the 9/11 attacks have been blocked from discussing the Saudis—largely thanks to “a yawning gap,” as Summers and Swan put it, of some twenty-eight pages in their report that detail “specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.” The pages were classified on the orders of President Bush, the authors say.
No matter that Graham; his Republican cochair, Alabama senator Richard Shelby; and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi all thought that those pages should be declassified. They remain in cold storage, reportedly at the CIA’s insistence.
And no wonder. “If the twenty-eight pages were to be made public,” an official who was “privy” to them told the New Republic in 2003, a claim repeated here, “I have no question that the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia would change overnight.”
STILL, FOR ALL THE GOOSED-UP INTRIGUE that chroniclers such as Summers and Swan are still able to rouse around the incomplete accounts of the events surrounding September 11, there’s an equally important, but little-noted, angle to the episode that Western readers would do well to ponder on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Although it’s not readily apparent, the attacks were a disaster for Al Qaeda, argues Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, in a slim volume recounting the group’s bumpy journey across the jihadist firmament.
“Even before the smoke cleared over the September 11 attacks, internal dissension had already begun to take its toll on al-Qaeda,” he maintains. “The umma” —or worldwide Muslim commune—“did not respond the way bin Laden had expected, and like-minded jihadist groups accused him of heresy and treachery.”
Indeed, despite the attention-getting pictures of Palestinians celebrating in the streets, the overwhelming reaction of Muslims the world over was of grief, sympathy for Americans attacked, and—among Arabs in particular—a knowing sorrow at how the United States would respond. They knew that winds of war were going to blow their way.
Long before then, bin Laden and his Egyptian sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been considered so far outside the mainstream of even Islamic jihadist politics that they had as much a chance of leading a global movement as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, says Gerges, a US citizen of Lebanese Christian stock.
It’s true that the successful execution of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks gave Al Qaeda a jolt of prestige, at least in some militant Islamist circles. But by 2003, Gerges contends, the group was on the ropes. The problem is that few in the West were paying attention to the decline in its standing: Al Qaeda had become America’s bogeyman, not to mention a spur to lavish counterterrorism spending.
This made it all the more tragic, then, that the Bush administration would give Al Qaeda new life by invading Iraq. “Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 was a godsend to al-Qaeda, allowing it to regroup, reorganize itself militarily, and decentralize its decision-making process,” Gerges writes. It was “a recruitment bonanza and an opportunity to gain credibility in Muslims’ eyes, to be perceived as an armed vanguard of the umma.”
The thinking in alarmist circles is that Al Qaeda has metastasized since then, its tendrils reaching into Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and, again, Iraq. In reality, according to Gerges and many other scholars, violent local jihadis may be humming Al Qaeda’s tune, but they’re following their own lyrics. In this newer incarnation, they have little interest in attacking the United States.
Of course, Gerges also argued only a year before the September 11 attacks that bin Laden was “preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets.” Today, Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, at least, shows a continued interest in striking the United States, judging by its own statements and the deployment of the so-called underwear bomber on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009, as does the Pakistani Taliban, who sponsored the attempted Times Square bombing five months later.
One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is Gerges’s view of the outsize legacy that the fanatical leaders of Al Qaeda were able to create a decade ago. On September 11, 2001, he writes, “the radical politics of a small band of Muslim extremists became everyone’s business, and their actions . . . set into motion reactions and counter-reactions that continue to dominate headlines, guide foreign policy, and define domestic agendas.”
When will it end? How will it end? No one has a clue, really. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unleashed by the 9/11 attacks, continue not only to resist US management, but also to create new terrorist enemies daily. Pakistan, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, teeters on the brink of anarchy, due in no small measure to its official alliance with Washington. Ironically, only the still-evolving, revolutionary Arab Spring offers reason to hope for stability and the final end for Al Qaeda and its imitators in the Middle East.
Excluding, for now, of course, Saudi Arabia. And perhaps only with the downfall of the monarchy will the still-hidden keys to the 9/11 attacks finally emerge.
Jeff Stein is the author of A Murder in Wartime (St. Martin's Press, 1992), and writes the SpyTalk blog.