hunting bin laden
Judith Miller

A correspondent for The New York Times since 1977, she has covered Osama bin Laden since 1993. In this interview, conducted September 12, 2001, Miller discusses what was learned about bin Laden's network from the trials of the 1998 U.S. embassy terrorists and from the failed series of terrorist attacks planned to coincide with the millennium celebrations. She also discusses the warnings prior to the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and destruction of the World Trade Center.
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Why should we think that this attack of September 11, 2001, was an attack directed by Osama bin Laden?

I think it has a lot of his earmarks. I think the enormity of the strike, a strike designed to amaze the world, to astonish the world, that's always one of his goals, to outdo his last effort. I think the fact that there was no claim of credit, no one claimed credit for this attack, that's a typical bin Laden network trait. Three, the fact that it was very sophisticated. I think we're beginning to see signs that it may have been compartmentalized the way the other operations have been. Four, the statement that he did make recently, apparently -- we're still verifying it -- that while he did not claim credit for it, in fact suggested that he did not do it, he was pleased with the outcome. That tends to be what they have normally said.

That's what he said after the 1998 Africa bombings.

After the Africa bombings, after the USS Cole. Always that same, "I cannot take credit, but I am delighted and the Arab world should be and Muslims everywhere should be."

Can you remind us what happened with the USS Cole warship?

Well, I think you have to go back before the Cole, to the USS The Sullivans, and I think the lesson of the Cole is that these guys don't give up. They learn from their mistakes. It seems that the Cole was actually supposed to be part of the series of attacks that were planned to coincide with the millennium celebrations. The Islamists were going to ring in the century, in their own inimitable fashion, by setting off explosions in several capitals, on the border of Israel, Jordan, Seattle, probably New York, Chicago perhaps, and in Yemen with a U.S. warship -- not the Cole -- but another ship that was visiting the area at that time, the USS The Sullivans. And in what seemed to us a kind of comic presentation of what happened, the would-be martyrs loaded up their boat with explosives and set the little dingy out to meet The Sullivans and the [dingy] was overloaded and sank. And they scrambled to shore. They left the explosives. They raced off. They abandoned the place. One of them went scurrying back to Afghanistan from whence he had come and they disappeared and no one ever made the connection. Had the Yemeni authorities--

No one ever made which connection?

The connection of the group that had tried to send a dingy out to The Sullivans with the effort to bring down an American warship, which is what happened only a few months later [in October 2000].

The lesson being that in 1993, they failed to topple the World Trade Center and they came back on September 11, 2001, and succeeded. And so, like The Sullivans, they came back and hit the Cole.

Well, we're not absolutely certain, I believe, that the same people who did the World Trade Center bombing 1 were the same people who came back and did the Trade Center bombing 2 this time. There are indications that there were links between the original group and the Osama bin Laden networks. But there are still some questions about how the World Trade Center group was connected to Osama bin Laden and whether or not in fact Osama bin Laden had given the order for that operation. I don't think we know that firmly yet.

What happened in the USS Cole attack?

In the attack on the Cole, 17 sailors were killed and a U.S. warship was severely damaged, so much so that it took years of repair and work to get the ship to sea again, to make it sea-worthy. And it was done by a small group, once again a suicide operation, of in some cases very experienced people from the bin Laden organization. And they filled a dingy up with explosives, unmarked dingy, sailed out to the Cole, waved at the people on the deck of the Cole, sailed right up to the ship and blew it apart.

And what did the investigation teach us about bin Laden?

That he is relentless, that he learns from his mistakes, that he is patient, and that he doesn't give up.

There was frustration on the part of our intelligence agencies in terms of really getting to the bottom of that investigation?

I think the U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement people were hugely frustrated by their experience with working with the Yemenis. Yemeni law enforcement has its own set of ethics and standards and ways of operating and even in the best of times, it was always a very difficult relationship between Yemen, which we must recall supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. They're newfound American allies and friends. This was bound to be a relationship fraught with tension because of the very strong Islamist movement that controls a lot of very important activities and sectors of Yemeni society. It was fraught with tension and peril.

The trial starts off a few months later, in January. What do we learn in the trial of the 1998 embassy bombers about the bin Laden organization that's significant?

I think what I've learned about the way in which they operate is how good they were, how resourceful they are, and how the image that so many of us have of kind of wild-eyed, bearded, Kalashnikov-waving militants is not this bin Laden organization or his networks. Many of the people who have been indicted and are being tried in New York are middle class, rather well-connected young men -- and they're almost always men, by the way -- whom one would have never thought of as potential terrorists, suicide candidates.

Even before the most recent horrific attacks, every eye and ear of the U.S. government was trained on Afghanistan, these networks..s.This is the toughest kind of intelligence to get, because these are people whose sole aim in life is to defeat such efforts.

These were people who usually had a college education. One of them, Ihab Ali, who has now turned state's witness and is going to cooperate with the U.S. government in its prosecution, was actually an airline pilot. And he was trained at [a] flight school in Norman, Oklahoma. He was Osama bin Laden's personal pilot. He spoke of training others, of helping to protect bin Laden in Sudan. And he paints a portrait of an organization which is highly disciplined, very compartmented, fraught with the kind of normal rivalries that make life in any bureaucracy, if you will, stressful at times. An organization in which people were often asked to pay for themselves or carry their own weight. And an organization which is kind of well-conceived and effective.

Do you want to highlight anybody else that emerges in that trial as really advancing our understanding of the bin Laden network?

See, I didn't cover the trial. I think what I know, I really know from the millennium cases. Those are the guys who really just knock my socks off. The millennium bombing case, you've got two Americans, Palestinian origin, once again, one a product of business school in California, well-connected Palestinian family, educated in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, college, everything to look forward to. And then a fellow student in northern California convinces him that he can't really experience life as a Muslim without going to Afghanistan. He does and he comes back an absolutely changed man.

I think people don't realize how much of an operation the millennium bombing plot really was, and how close it was to pulling off a major terrorist attack.

Oh, absolutely. ... The millennium bombing [attacks] failed. And we completely forgot about them. So people didn't really study the lessons of them, study what it told us about their organizations, showed us what we needed to know about the importance of intelligence cooperation between Arab governments, which know these people much better than Americans ever will, and U.S. intelligence, which in this case helped prevent a terrible tragedy from occurring. And yet the moment it's over, it was forgotten about. And my efforts, and the efforts of my newspaper to pursue it, ran into a lot of indifference, even in U.S. government circles, except for a small group of FBI and White House officials in the Clinton administration who were absolutely convinced that what they were seeing in the millennium bombing attempts would be a prescription for the future. They were the ones who helped me and helped tell the story.

How do we grade the intelligence community in the United States?

You know, it's so easy in retrospect to look back and say, "Would've, could've, should've." I can't say that, because I think we're spending now over $10 billion a year on counterterrorism. Even before the most recent horrific attacks, even before that, every eye and ear of the U.S. government was trained on this part of the world -- Afghanistan, on these networks, in Europe, in the Middle East. This is really hard work. It's hard as a journalist and it's even hard when you're a government official armed with electronic eyes and ears and search warrants. This is the toughest kind of reporting and the toughest kind of intelligence to get because these are people whose sole aim in life is to defeat such efforts. They are experts at protecting themselves. Let me give you an example.

In the Jordan-American part of the millennium bombing case, this was the effort to blow up holy sites, bridge crossings into Israel, and the Radisson Hotel in Amman over the millennium. Each cell was highly compartmentalized. In most cases, the people who were members of the cell had no idea what the real names were of other people in their own cell. There was also no communication between members of the two different cells. They did not know what their missions were, who was financing them, what their activities were, or the other names and identities and even addresses. So you had an enormous degree of discipline and of organization and of decentralization.

The criticism that is being made of our intelligence services is that we have a lot of eavesdropping equipment, we have a lot of technology at work, but we have failed on the level of human intelligence, basically, spies.

Probably true. And do you know how hard it would be to get an American spy into these camps? I think that our Arab allies in this instance are much better placed than is American intelligence to accomplish that mission. And I think what the experience of the most recent attacks shows us is that what is absolutely essential in preventing such attacks is close cooperation between the human intelligence that the Arab governments have and the American enormous prowess and ability and electronic and signal intelligence.

Why have we not had more human intelligence coordination and cooperation?

I think in the millennium bombing plots you saw such cooperation and that was what was partly responsible for the failure of those attacks. Jordan warned the United States and without that warning, I'm not sure we would've ever caught that young man as he crossed into our border from Canada, Ahmed Ressam, who fortunately did not speak English and panicked at just the right moment. But I would point out that there was an alert on at that border, and the reason for that alert was the Jordanian warning to us that something, somewhere was threatening us. They didn't know where it would come from. They believed it might come from Canada. Apparently, there was some very vague guidance from Jordan, which helped trigger the alert, which I think saved us from a terrible catastrophe.

But the $10 billion to $11 billion that we're spending a year, why aren't we getting better cooperation? Is it a valid criticism that's being made by former CIA officers that we've failed on the human intelligence side?

I think, given what's happened in the last couple of days, in the last week here in New York, it's going to be very hard for intelligence agencies, to defend themselves, but as for me, I'm keeping an open mind because I do not yet know what we knew. What I do know is that there were indications that something big was coming. I've been told this reliably. And I've also been told that this is what triggered the alert last June. All American armed forces around the globe, but particularly those in the Middle East, were on alert in a heightened state of alert, in some cases what they call Delta State of Readiness and Security, because the Americans were suspecting something.

You know, with a group as disparate and as decentralized as these networks, as the Osama bin Laden networks, you can be listening and monitoring one cell and one group of the network, one part of the network that seems to be very active and seems to be preparing something, and that could actually be disinformation or a cover for another part of the network that is not being monitored. One of the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden is that he picks and chooses from the enormous range of militant groups that are affiliated with him. And if he thinks the Americans are watching, say, a cell in Italy, as we were this past year, he doesn't use or rely on a cell in Italy. He'll call on a Malaysian cell or a cell operating in Canada. And that's why this is the toughest kind of reporting to do. I don't think it serves anybody's interest at this point to start playing the blame game. It's only going to be a waste of time and energy that we desperately need focused on what is going to be a long-term effort to root out these networks, which are even in our country, and to really fight terrorism.

What indications were there that bin Laden was up to something?

... I think we've had plenty of warnings from Osama bin Laden recently that something was up. One of the most recent was a supposedly 90-minute video tape in which he not only repeated the call he had made, initially in February of '98, calling on all good Muslims to kill American soldiers and civilians wherever they are in any part of the world. He also said that he was specifically going to bring the jihad to America's shores.

This was the MBC [Middle East Broadcasting Center] tape?

This was the MBC tape, only portions of which were broadcast in the Arab world, and only some of which have been seen here. I think the American reaction, or at least some of the American news media, was, "There he goes again." Actually, these warnings from bin Laden himself have been very rare. They are relatively few and in-between. And I think the people in intelligence and law enforcement that I know were rattled by this warning, but they didn't quite know what to do about it. Once again, you have to know where to look.

They took these warnings--this was a specific--

Yes, they took these warnings seriously. ... I know people at the White House last July 4 who didn't sleep for days. They were so worried about what might be coming our way and at the end of the holiday, people were talking about dodging bullets, about how lucky we were this time. I think that the difficulty in a democracy of stopping an attack like this cannot and should not be underestimated. It's really not fair to the government.

Are we expecting too much from our intelligence agencies and too much from our enforcement people and not enough from our policy makers?

Well, I think after the '98 embassy bombings, there were calls for retribution and that retribution was not long in coming. It took the form of the cruise missile attacks in Afghanistan and it made people temporarily feel very good. And when I went to Afghanistan myself after the cruise missile revenge attacks as they were called in the Middle East, I saw that they had done virtually nothing to stop bin Laden or his networks. These are people who are used to, so to speak, folding up their tents and moving on. They travel light.

They made a martyr of him to some to degree, or at least a symbol of him to the--

Every time he survives one of these bombings, every time he survives what is described as an American-inspired attack against him, he becomes stronger. He becomes more of a symbol and he becomes harder to defeat.

In '98 when the U.S. embassies were bombed, people in America immediately think of the West Bank and Gaza. But indeed it was not because of that so much as because of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. We've had a simmering problem in Palestine, Israel. What are we to think? Is that related to this?

Well I think Osama bin Laden and his networks are very fond of wrapping themselves in the Palestinian cause, and that they say that they're doing this in part to help liberate Palestine from Israeli oppression. My last book looked at the causes of Islamic militancy and I found as I studied militant Islam in 10 different countries that Palestine was very marginal in the thinking of most of these groups and the bin Laden groups. Palestine is a convenient justification for their hatred of the United States, but it is not the cause of their hatred. And I think that if we look to the Middle East and say, "Oh, if we could only solve the Palestinian problem, we would end these kinds of suicide attacks against America," I think that's naïve and I think it's dangerous.

What is the cause of bin Laden's anger at the United States?

In his case -- and in each of these countries, I think the roots are slightly different -- but in his case, I think it traces back to his hatred of America for what he considered our defiling sacred Saudi soil by sending our troops to defend his country, paradoxically. This was a wealthy man of privilege, well educated, but who really believed that Muslims could defend themselves and should defend themselves. And when his king had to humiliate the Arab and the Muslim peoples by asking infidels to come to their holy land, their holy soil and fight for them, he was humiliated, and he felt his people ought to be. And I think when we study his early speeches and writing, that's what you get, this kind of brewing resentment based on humiliation.

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