What We Learned From the Report of the 911 Commission IX.

In February 1999, there seems to have been no confusion among the NSC and CIA people about what they wanted to accomplish: they prepared to use intelligence about Bin Laden visiting a desert hunting camp favored by some important people from the United Arab Emirates to launch another cruise missile strike (and tough luck for any Emiratis who happened to be present). The report seems to me to suggest that Clarke first blocked this strike because he saw the UAE as America’s ally in the fight against terrorism, then in March 1999 basically exposed to the Emiratis the CIA’s knowledge that the campers welcomed Bin Laden. The camp immediately folded up and Bin Laden never passed through there again. (p. 202.)

In February 1999 Tenet persuaded President Clinton to allow the CIA to try to recruit the Northern Alliance to capture or kill Bin Laden. The Northern Alliance leader showed little enthusiasm for capturing an enemy and, besides, the Northern Alliance had no ready access to the areas where Bin Laden was located. (pp. 203-204.)

In May 1999 the CIA thought it had a 50-50 chance of nailing Bin Laden in Kandahar, but they had just botched the targeting of a “smart bomb” in Belgrade and had hit the Chinese embassy. Naturally a little touchy about accuracy, Tenet seems to have backed away when it looked like everyone was getting ready to John-the-Baptist him if the attack did not succeed. (pp. 205-206.)

The rest of 1999 got frittered away trying to come up with a plan to get Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Nothing emerged. However, in 1999, and again in 2000, a group of Americans from different agencies traveled to Saudi Arabia in an effort to sort out the source of al Qaeda’s money. To their surprise they discovered that Bin Laden was not financing operations out of a vast private fortune—as had long been the assumption. Belatedly, they discovered that Bin Laden had rebuilt the “Golden Chain” of donations. How to penetrate, let alone destroy, that network remained a mystery to the CIA. (p. 268.)

These developments really left the US with no option but to try to disrupt any offensive operations outside of Afghanistan. What were they doing on this front during 1998-2001? For one thing, the National Security Agency kept watch on the communications of known terrorists.

Real trouble was at hand. In 1994 a group of Algerian terrorists had hijacked a jet, possibly with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower. Later in 1994, Ramzi Yousef, then based in the Philippines, plotted to bomb twelve US airliners flying over the Pacific. (p. 90.) This plot was broken up. In early 1995, Ramzi Yousef’s accomplice in the Manila airlines plot told interrogators that the two men had discussed crashing a plane into CIA HQ. Khalid Sheik Mohammed had adopted this plan.

In mid-1996 KSM had pitched OBL on a plan to crash airliners into American buildings. (pp. 214-215.) OBL did not commit and KSM seems to have doubted that OBL was serious about attacking the Americans.

Then the embassy bombings persuaded KSM that OBL was serious about attacking the United States. He renewed his proposal for al Qaeda support for the “planes operation.” In March or April 1999, OBL agreed to support the plan. (pp. 216, 223.)

Thus, during 1999 both the Americans and al Qaeda were searching for ways to get at one another to deadly effect. Of the two, al Qaeda operated with fewer restraints and more imagination.

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