What We Learned From the Report of the 911 Commission X

In the mid- to late-Eighties, Khadr Abu Hoshar, a Palestinian terrorist resident in Jordan, was recruiting young men who had been through the Afghan training camps. In 1996 Abu Hoshar was imprisoned for a time by the Jordanians. By 1998 he had been released and was back to his old tricks. During 1998 he and a group of 15 fellow terrorists worked up an ambitious plan for attacks. During 1999 he got in contact with some Islamic terrorist jihadis in Afghanistan who had some sort of ties to OBL. They were providing technical advice and training to Abu Hoshar’s group. (pp. 252-253.)

Abu Hoshar’s security practices had not improved during his stretch in a Jordanian prison, however, because the Jordanian intelligence service spiked his phone and kept his whole group under observation. On 30 November 1999 the Jordanians intercepted a conversation between Abu Hoshar and Abu Zubaydah, the Afghan with connections to OBL, which seemed to herald an imminent attack. They rolled up all but one of the group, turned the screws on the prisoners until they got a bunch of intelligence in short order, and told the Americans what was up. (pp. 252-253.)

The CIA situated this report in a larger context during the first few days of December 1999 by reporting the possibility of a planned series of attacks by OBL at the “millennium,” some of which might involve weapons of mass destruction. (pp. 253-254.) Various efforts were made to hinder any such attacks by various means: by diplomacy (the Taliban were threatened, the Paks were cozened); by disruption in cooperation with friendly intelligence services; by loosening the leash on CIA operations. (pp. 254-255.) In December 1999 the leader of the Northern Alliance offered to plaster al Qaeda’s training camp at Derunta with rockets. Again, the CIA thought that this would violate a ban on assassinations, so they waved him off. (p. 270-271.)

Canada was awash in terrorists and aspiring terrorists in the late Nineties. Ahmed Ressam, a Moroccan petty criminal who had managed to find refuge in Canada in 1994, was recruited in 1998 by another jihadi then resident in Canada. Ressam spent part of 1998 training an Afghanistan terrorist camp. Here he joined a group of other Algerian jihadis who had been recruited for anti-American terrorist action. Back in Canada in the first half of 1999, Ressam received assistance from three other Algerians who were hiding out in Canada from French authorities, who wanted to talk to them about some stuff that had happened in France. By December 1999 he was in Vancouver, BC, preparing to enter the United States to attack LAX. (p. 255.)

On 14 December 1999 Ressam behaved oddly when attempting to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington, and was arrested. (p. 257.) The Ressam arrest coming on top of the report of the Jordanian plot caused great alarm in Washington. The FBI started tapping numerous telephones under FISA warrants. Richard Clarke’s office warned that “Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks in the US are likely.” Clarke also asked Berger rhetorically “Is there a threat to civilian aircraft?” (pp. 258-259.) In late December 1999 the US received a report from a foreign intelligence service that OBL planned to bomb several transatlantic flights. (p. 259.)


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.

What We Learned form the Report of the 9/11 Commission VI.

“The modest national effort exerted to contain Serbia and its depredations in the Balkans between 1995 and 1999, for example, was orders of magnitude larger than that devoted to al Qaeda.” (p. 487.) Neither the American public nor American leaders seemed to even notice terrorism as a problem in the post-Cold War environment.


Crisis: August 1998.

Immediately after the embassy bombings CIA Director George Tenet knew that there would be a big gathering of terrorist leaders at Khowst in Afghanistan on 20 August 1998, and CentCOM commander Tony Zinni had his cruise missile plan already to go. The responsible decision-makers talked over the issues until 20 May and sent the Vice-Chairman of the JCS to warn the Pakistanis that the cruise missiles flying through their air space were not an Indian attack. Nobody wanted a nuclear war on the sub-continent as an unintended by-product of the strike at Bin Laden, but this probably constituted a serious breach of security. The missiles missed Bin Laden by a few hours and some people think that he was warned off by Pakistan’s intelligence service. (pp. 169-171.)

Clarke wanted the cruise missiles strikes of 20 August 1998 to be the opening act for continuous efforts to kill Bin Laden. It was not to be. (pp. 175-176.)

Although JCS Chairman Hugh Shelton ordered CENTCOM to plan for additional measures, he “did not recommend any of them.” “Shelton felt that the August 1998 attacks had been a waste of good ordnance and thereafter consistently opposed firing expensive Tomahawk missiles merely at ‘jungle gym’ terrorist training infrastructure. In this view, he had complete support from Defense Secretary William Cohen. Shelton was prepared to plan other options, but he was also prepared to make perfectly clear his own strong doubts about the wisdom of any military action that risked U.S. lives unless the intelligence was ‘actionable.’”(pp. 502, 503.)

CENTCOM commander Tony Zinni, who actually had to come up with a possible scheme, believed that a long-term development of relationships with neighboring countries made the most sense. Covert action of any kind would require some kind of local base. Zinni got the feeling that Washington was picky about doing business with dictators merely because they could help out the United States. (p. 197.)

Already haunted by memories of “Desert One” and “Black Hawk Down,” decision-makers probably became even more cautious about using force to solve the Bin Laden problem in the wake of the failed cruise missile strikes of 20 August 1998. (pp. 172-173.)

In addition to missing Bin Laden, there were serious downsides to this attack: international opinion heaped abuse on the US for being “bomb-happy”; the Republicans ridiculed Clinton for “pinpricks.” (pp. 172-173.)

Soon afterward, American diplomatic and military power was being applied in the Balkans against Serbia (October 1998-March 1999) and in the Middle East against Iraq (December 1998). This distracted most of the key people from problem of terrorism.

At the same time it is important to note that people working for Allen Holmes, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, produced a paper calling on the Defense Department to assume the lead in the global fight against terrorism. (pp. 176-177.) This paper did not get very far up the chain of approval during the Clinton Administration, but it may have lain dormant until Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon.

What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? III

Osama bin Laden seems to have encountered Sayidd Qutb’s philosophy through the tape recordings of a Palestinian evangelist named Abdullah Azzam, while attending Saudi Arabia’s Abdul Aziz University in the late Seventies. (p. 82.) Bin Laden adopted this worldview and only the conversion of everyone everywhere to his version of Islam would end his war with them. (pp. 76-77.)

Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a threatened Communist regime. The Afghans fought back and devout Muslims from all over the world came to participate in the “jihad” against the Soviets. While the CIA channeled immense amounts of American aid to the “mujahideen through the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), a parallel private network—the so-called “Golden Chain”—also raised money in Saudi Arabia and recruited fighters for Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam played an important part in this latter effort.

At some point Bin Laden developed “a vision of himself as head of an international jihad confederation.” (p. 86.) When, in April 1988, the Soviets cried uncle and announced their plans to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, Bin Laden and Azzam cast around for a new enemy to attack. Azzam argued for struggling to create a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan, then attacking Israel; Bin Laden argued for a global war. (p. 84.)

In fall 1989 Hassan al Turabi, an important Islamic fundamentalist leader in Sudan, invited Bin Laden to use Sudan as a base of operations. Turabi had a vision of Sunni and Shi’a putting aside their religious differences to make common cause against Israel and the United States. (p. 90.) Did Azzam oppose this move? On 24 November 1989 Azzam died in a car bombing. At the time, the bombing was attributed, but which now looks suspiciously like Bin Laden settling the debate.

Bin Laden then accepted al Turabi’s invitation. He sent men to begin buying property, while he himself returned to Saudi Arabia. Soon afterward, Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. A broad international coalition formed, led by the United States, to oppose a move that threatened the stability of the world oil market. Between August 1990 and April 1991 Bin Laden made himself deeply unpopular with the Saudi government by bitterly criticizing its decision to ally with the United States rather than calling on Islamic volunteers to oppose the invasion of Kuwait. By this time he was already profoundly anti-American. (p. 87.)

In April 1991 he escaped from Saudi Arabia and established himself in the Sudan. For the next few years Bin Laden worked hard at building covert international networks for finance and operations. He called his group al Qaeda. In this effort he seems to have had the strong support of Hassan al Turabi. The Sudanese leader created a “Popular Arab and Islamic Conference” as a forum for “violent Islamist extremists” who came to confer in the Sudan. Most of these groups forged links to al Qaeda. (p. 90.) Sudan also provided a safe haven for other terrorists who would attack surrounding Arab countries.


Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? II

Westernized elites (lawyers, bureaucrats, soldiers) provided the leadership for the successful nationalist movements in the Middle East after the Second World War. The initial economic situation of the new states did not appear unpromising: “The established commercial, financial, and industrial sectors.., supported by an entrepreneurial spirit and widespread understanding of free enterprise, augured well.” (p. 79.) However, the secular variant of the new states failed to deliver on the extravagant promises made in the early period of independence. The governments of many new states followed policies that slowly stifled all economic progress.

In the Arab world the oil shocks of the 1970s inflicted grave damage in the disguise of a great blessing. The enormous profits proved transient, but the governments used them for efforts to transform Arab society that had long-term consequences. Governments spent heavily on “huge infrastructure projects, vastly expanded education, and…subsidized social welfare programs. Cronyism meant that lots of money stuck to members of the ruling elites, as well.

Modern medical care led to a soaring birthrate all across the Muslim world. This large, young population needed jobs to be created at a rapid rate, but the stagnant economies of all the Muslim states failed to fulfill their tasks. The result was the proliferation of angry, frustrated, aggrieved, half-educated or mis-educated young men. (p. 80.) Rather than yield power or turn to new policies, the ruling elites settled for repressing dissent.

When a sharp rise in population intersected precipitously declining oil revenues in the 1990s, the government had to sharply reduce spending. The generous programs of the early 1980s “established a wide-spread feeling of entitlement without a corresponding sense of social obligation.”   The later effort to cut spending “created enormous resentment among recipients who had come to see government largesse as their right.” (p. 79.)

Many people turned to religion. As is the case with Christianity, Islam has been subject to periodic reform movements that could be called “fundamentalist” or “revivalist.” One exponent of reform was the 14th century scholar Ibn Taimiyyah, who “condemned both corrupt rulers and the clerics who failed to criticize them. He urged Muslims to read the Qur’an and the Hadith for themselves, not to depend solely on learned interpreters like himself but to hold one another to account for the quality of their observance.” (p. 75.) NB: In short, Calvin’s Geneva.

In the 1940s, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar had visited the United States at the behest of his government and returned to Egypt deeply estranged from everything Western. (pp. 75-76.) Qutb espoused a Manichaean worldview in which pervasive, corrosive “unbelief” (jahiliyya) among non-Muslims and Muslims alike threatened to overwhelm true belief. True believers had to fight the unbelievers by all means and to the death. (pp. 76-77.) “The extreme Islamist version of history blames the decline from Islam’s golden age on the rulers and people who turned away from the true path of their religion, thereby leaving Islam vulnerable to encroaching foreign powers eager to steal their land, wealth, and even their souls.” (p. 75.)

By the late Seventies and early Eighties there had arisen a powerful religious movement among young men in the Muslim world. Osama Bin Laden was inspired by a preacher in the late Seventies. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became attracted to “jihadism” in the early Eighties. In the early Eighties “Hambali” became attracted to Islamist preaching in Malaysia. Young jihadis went to fight in Afghanistan (1980s), in Bosnia (1990s),

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

The Origins of al Qaeda

In the beginning all Muslims were supposed to belong to one community, not to many communities, and there was to be no division between politics and religion.  By the start of the Twentieth Century the Ottoman Empire expressed these unities.  At the same time, the Ottoman Empire—called the “Sick Man of Europe”—fell farther and farther behind Western countries, while the Turks bullied the Arabs inside the empire.

Then secular (non-religious) nationalism (which divided Muslims into Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Saudi Arabians, etc.) created the first countries in the Muslim world.  Secularism and nationalism were Western ideas, so this amounted to Westernization.  Turkey provided the example here after the First World War.  Many other countries followed it after the Second World War.  Unfortunately, many of these governments did not serve the interests of their people.  The early nationalist leaders held on to power in ways that looked like dictatorship.  Economic development and the opportunity to make a better life did not keep pace with population growth.  Countries often seemed to cringe before the Western countries.

The dissatisfaction with secular nationalist governments made their religious critics the natural alternative in the eyes of many people.  Religious feeling became increasingly strong throughout the Muslim world.  However, the emergence of leaders with a strong religious motivation did not begin in the Arab world.  Rather, the movement which overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1978-1979 put power into the hands of religious leaders.  Subsequently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sparked a rebellion by Afghans which drew in many Muslims from all over the Middle East to wage “jihad” against the Russians.  Among them was a Saudi Arabian soccer enthusiast named Osama bin Laden.  ObL’s father was rich, but he wasn’t.  He fought some, but mostly he organized people to fight and raised money to give people the weapons with which to fight.  In 1989 the Afghans succeeded in driving out the Russkies.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia ObL suggested that the “Afghan Arabs” who had defeated the Soviets should now fight the Iraqis.  The Saudis preferred to put their faith in the Americans.  Enraged by allowing these “unbelievers” into Islam’s holy land, bin Laden turned his attention to the “far enemy”—America.  Again he served as an organizer/fund-raiser.  (A National Endowment for Inhumanity.)

First, he based himself in Sudan.  When that got too hot, he moved to Afghanistan.  The Taliban, a movement of Muslim fundamentalists which had gained control of Afghanistan, protected ObL.  From these bases he organized the simultaneous bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanganyika, then the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, an American warship visiting Yemen.  Then he agreed to support the “planes operation,” which had been pitched to him—purportedly—by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.  This—purportedly–involved hijacking a bunch of planes in America and crashing them into buildings and hijacking a bunch of planes over the Pacific and crashing them into the ocean.  The second part of the plan had to be abandoned because the CIA snagged a bunch of the Pacific Ocean plotters in the Philippines.  Bin Laden concentrated on the American part of the operation.

On 9/11/2001 the attack came off as planned.  The Americans then invaded Afghanistan.  ObL fled to the lawless border regions of Pakistan.  Then the US invaded Iraq in 2003.  Eventually the Americans killed ObL.  The war in Afghanistan goes on to prevent the Taliban from coming back.