The 9/11 Plot
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KWAME HOLMAN: The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks opened this morning’s hearing with a staff report tracing the 15-year emergence of al-Qaida to become the global terrorist network it is today. While the commission found evidence of state-sponsored support for al-Qaida in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Sudan, it said it found no such support from Iraq.
DOUGLAS MAC EACHIN, Staff, 9/11 Commission: A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan and finally met with bin Laden in 1994. At that time, bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, assistance in procuring weapons. But Iraq apparently never responded.
There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq. And so far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Fred fielding followed up with a question to witness Patrick Fitzgerald, a U.S. Attorney and the lead prosecutor in several terrorism cases, including one specifically brought against Osama bin Laden.
FRED FIELDING, 9/11 Commission: The indictment reads, “al-Qaida reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al-Qaida would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaida would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.” So, my question to you is what evidence was that indictment based upon and what was this understanding that’s referenced in it?
PATRICK FITZGERALD, U.S. Attorney: We understood there was a very, very intimate relationship between al-Qaida and the Sudan. They work hand-in-hand. We understood there was a working relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, and they shared training. We also understood that there had been antipathy between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein because Saddam Hussein was not viewed as being religious.
Clearly, we put Sudan in the first order at that time as being a part of al-Qaida. We understood a relationship with Iran, but Iraq, we understood, went from a position where they were working against each other to standing down against each other, and we understood they were going to explore the possibility of working on weapons together. That’s my piece of what I know. I don’t represent to know everything else, so I can’t tell you what we learned since then, but there was that relationship that went from… not from opposing each other to not opposing each other to possibly working with each other.
KWAME HOLMAN: A CIA Official identified by the name “Ted Davis” added this comment.
TED DAVIS: Sir, I think the staff statement… we are in full agreement with the staff statement in terms of the Iraq- al-Qaida relationship at this time. It is an issue that we aggressively pursue in tracking down all new leads to try and deepen our understanding of what that relationship might have been.
KWAME HOLMAN: Other commissioners asked about the terrorism threat posed by al-Qaida today. Commissioner Jamie Gorelick.
JAMIE GORELICK: Our staff statement concludes about al-Qaida now that it’s a loose confederation of regional networks with greatly weakened central organization. And so my question for the panel is this: Does that mean that it is less capable of harming us or is it more a multi-headed snake that is, in fact, more potent?
TED DAVIS: The one thing that I would have added to the staff statement because it is true: Al-Qaida is a much more decentralized organization today. But bin Laden, Zawahiri and the al-Qaida leadership that remains is in South Asia. It is actively pooling whatever resources it has left at its disposal and, in a very centralized and methodical way, we believe that it is plotting an attack and moving an attack forward using what capabilities it has left to attack the homeland in the next few months. So that you face threats from multiple sources and multiple directions.
I think the challenge with the more decentralized al-Qaida is that it’s probably a more clandestine, smaller threat. It’s more difficult to find, and that’s probably– as we deal with al-Qaida as a centralized organization– that’s the challenge that we face in the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: A second statement read by commission staff detailed the intricacies of the 9/11 plot which began to hatch in 1996.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: The idea for the Sept. 11 attacks appears to have originated with a veteran Jihadist named Khalid sheikh Mohammed, or KSM.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mohammed was captured in Pakistan 15 months ago and reportedly has supplied valuable information about the plot.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: At a meeting with bin Laden and Mohammad Atef, al-Qaida’s chief of operations, Khalid sheikh Mohammed presented several ideas for attacks against the United States. One of the operations he pitched, according to Khalid sheikh Mohammed, was a scaled-up version of what would become the attacks of September 11. Bin Laden listened but did not yet commit himself.
According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 1998 east Africa embassy bombings demonstrated to him that bin Laden was willing to attack the United States. In early 1999, bin Laden summoned Khalid sheikh Mohammed to Kandahar to tell him that his proposal to use aircraft as weapons now had al-Qaida’s full support. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed met again with bin Laden and Atef at Kandahar in the spring of 1999 to develop an initial list of targets. The list included the White House and the Pentagon, which bin Laden wanted; the U.S. Capitol; and the World Trade Center, a target favored by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
KWAME HOLMAN: The staff report also contained new details about the timing of the attacks.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Bin Laden had been pressuring KSM for months to advance the attack date. According to KSM, bin Laden had even asked that the attacks occur as early as mid-2000, after Israeli opposition party leader Ariel Sharon caused an outcry in the Middle East by visiting a sensitive and contested holy site in Jerusalem that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Although bin Laden recognized that Atta and the other pilots had only just arrived in the United States to begin their flight training, the al-Qaida leader wanted to punish the United States for supporting Israel. He allegedly told KSM it would be sufficient simply to down the planes and not hit specific targets. KSM withstood this pressure, arguing that the operation would not be successful unless the pilots were fully trained and the hijacking teams were larger.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the commission staff also reported that several al-Qaida leaders opposed the attacks, as did Taliban leader Mullah Omar, bin Laden’s host in Afghanistan.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: KSM claims that Omar opposed attacking the United States for ideological reasons but permitted attacks against Jewish targets. KSM denies that Omar’s opposition reflected concern about U.S. Retaliation but notes that the Taliban leader was under pressure from the Pakistani government to keep al-Qaida from engaging in operations outside Afghanistan.
While some senior al-Qaida figures opposed the 9/11 operation out of deference to Omar, others reportedly expressed concern that the U.S. would respond militarily. Bin Laden, on the other hand, reportedly argued that attacks against the United States needed to be carried out immediately to support the insurgency in the Israeli occupied territories and to protest the presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden also thought that an attack against the United States would reap al-Qaida a recruiting and fundraising bonanza. In his thinking, the more al-Qaida did, the more support it would gain. Although he faced opposition from many of his most senior advisers– including Shura Council members Shaykh Saeed, Sayf al Adl; and Abu Hafs, the Mauritanian– bin Laden effectively overruled their objections, and the attacks went forward.
KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Tim Roemer said a good deal of information about Khalid sheik Mohammed was known months before the 9/11 attacks. Roemer asked the panel of FBI And CIA Witnesses how that information was shared.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: According to the staff report .KSM was widely known to be planning some kind of an operation against the United States. The staff statement says, quote, many were even aware that he had been preparing operatives to go to the United States as reported by a CIA source in June of 2001. What did the CIA specifically do with that type of threat coming in from KSM, who is at the top of the rendition list, who is widely known to have associated with these terrorists and been involved in different activities, and he’s sending people to the United States to do an operation. How would you prioritize that? What happened to this?
RUDOLPH ROUSSEAU: The first thing that happened with it was that it was disseminated to the FBI, to other consumers so that we made folks aware that this threat was out there.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: You’re disseminating this information to the domestic agency.
RUDOLPH ROUSSEAU: Correct.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: Who should be looking at this threat internally.
RUDOLPH ROUSSEAU: Correct.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: Let me skip quickly to see if we have anybody in the FBI That recalls seeing that. Do we have anybody here that can… do you have any awareness of this being disseminated to the FBI? Mr. Fitzgerald?
FITGERALD: No, sir.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: Mr. Drucker?
DRUCKER: No, sir.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: Ms. Maguire.
MAGUIRE: No, sir.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: This is pretty jarring. Most of the common… the common knowledge at that point was it probably was… the attack was going to take place probably outside the United States. This pointed to the possibility of KSM doing something inside the United States. We’re not quite sure what happens to it at that point.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow the committee will hold its final hearing, examining the immediate response to the Sept. 11 attacks by the Federal Aviation Administration and by the military.