"We're very good at listening on satellites or taking pictures from the sky of
the former Soviet Union," asserts Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, chairman of
the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Where we have fallen down is the ability to deal with
these much smaller, more flexible, and more violent terrorist groups that are now our
enemy. ... There were serious breakdowns. ... We'd not been attacked in our
homeland since Pearl Harbor. We did not feel that America itself was a target
of terrorist activities. We were somewhat lax in that regard."
"We had lots of scenarios about what terrorists might try to do," former
Assistant FBI Director Lew Schiliro told me, "But not that -- not what happened Sept. 11."
That's surprising because of a confession wrung out of an Al Qaeda terrorist
named Abdul Hakim Murad, arrested in 1995 by Philippine investigators. Murad, a
pilot trained in the U.S., confessed he had a plan for dive-bombing a plane
into CIA headquarters. That report was passed on to U.S. authorities, but the
FBI and CIA discounted this as the hare-brained scheme of a single terrorist.
It's also surprising because, as Lew Schiliro reports, the FBI and CIA had
noticed a trend of steadily escalating and increasingly sophisticated Al Qaeda
attacks against American targets, dating from the truck-bombing of the World
Trade Towers in 1993. Osama bin Laden openly declared war on the United States
-- on civilian as well as military targets.
In the mid 1990s, the FBI blocked a plot to bomb the World Trade Center and
other economic targets in New York. But in 1998, Al Qaeda pulled off the
bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and later, an attack on the
American destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. In 2000, an Al Qaeda-backed
terrorist, Ahmed Ressam, was caught sneaking into America, planning to bomb the Los Angeles
It's also surprising because American intelligence knew that Al Qaeda had its
sights on destroying the World Trade towers, as a symbol of America's wealth
and economic might. In fact, on Sept. 11, Bob Blitzer, longtime chief of FBI
counterterrorism until 1998, immediately understood the connection to two
earlier Al Qaeda attacks.
"When I saw those planes hit the World Trade towers, I was not surprised,"
Blitzer told me. "The first thought on my mind was, 'My God, they finished the
job.' I knew it was these guys because they are so committed. They have so much
hatred of the West. Incredible determination. Incredible people."
But broadly speaking, Al Qaeda's determination and bin Laden's obsession with
the World Trade towers were underestimated by U.S. intelligence. After the
attack, I kept hearing from U.S. terrorism specialists that prior to Sept. 11,
they were convinced that terrorism could not be "exported" over long distances
and long periods of time.
In short, our experts' mindset was that terrorist cells had to operate close to
their bases -- as in the case of Palestinian suicide bombers, recruited, trained and kept
motivated right at home. Or the bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in East
Africa, operating out of nearby Somalia. Or the Yemeni terrorists who attacked
the USS Cole, encamped near the harbor in Aden.
By that mistaken theory, the U.S. was safe.
In that mindset, our intelligence experts were predisposed to look for bin
Laden to strike once again overseas. They did not imagine that Al Qaeda could
recruit, train, and send to the U.S. a handful of well-educated Arabs in their
20s and 30s for 15 months, who would learn to fly small planes, get familiar with jet
airliners, scout the actual flights they were going to hijack, slip in and out
of the U.S., and use the Internet to communicate with each other and Al Qaeda,
without our detecting them or their defecting.
That failure of imagination may have persuaded the FBI there was no need to
comb the rosters of U.S. flight schools for potential hijackers. It may have
made high FBI officials in August 2001 less keen to push to the hilt an
investigation of a tip from the Pan Am Flight School in Minnesota that Zacarias
Moussaoui had the earmarks of a potential hijacker planning to ram a fully
fueled jet airliner into a big building.
The FBI arrested Moussaoui but did not aggressively probe his motives or
connections, even though French intelligence supplied Washington a dossier
connecting Moussaoui to known terrorist groups -- before Sept. 11.
A similar failure to understand the world we live in led the immigration
service to take an over-simplified view of our friends and foes in the Middle
East. It kept a wary eye on young men from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Algeria, and
Yemen, but was lenient about visas for others from Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi
Arabia. Al Qaeda knew the holes in our system and exploited them.
Also, when U.S. flight schools reported oddities about Arabic student pilots,
the FAA showed little concern. When the FAA was told that future hijacker pilot
Hani Hanjour was so poor in English that it was dangerous to let him fly
aircraft, the FAA suggested providing Hanjour with an English language
Equally puzzling was the FAA's seeming disinterest when two of the future
hijackers, barely out of flight school, left their plane in the busy traffic at
Miami airport. The FAA bawled out the plane's owner but did not investigate the
"The fact that that incident didn't cause some bells to ring is hard to
believe," Sen. Graham asserts in hindsight. "If those bells had rung, it
might have led to a series of investigations that would have peeled back the
plot that was beginning to develop and potentially could have avoided Sept. 11."
That same failure to perceive real danger afflicted ordinary Americans, too: some flight schools not bothering to demand the right kind of visas from
foreign flight students; a martial arts trainer instructing a hijacker in
hand-to-hand combat, including the use of knives, without questioning the
motive; a motel manager suspicious of the tense urgency with which two
hijacker pilots demanded untraceable, 24-hour Internet access telling his boss but not the FBI.
In short, as the Sept. 11 plot built to its horrendous climax, it was our
mindset that was America's Achilles Heel -- our disbelief that the U.S. could be
reached by Al Qaeda terrorists smart, sophisticated, and dedicated enough to
strike us at home. This mindset made it hard to read the warning signs.
We can only hope now that part of what lies buried beneath the
ashes at Ground Zero are America's illusions that we can be safe while
continuing to ignore large parts of the world and without working to understand
what kind of people are so alienated from America -- and why -- that they would
die to destroy us.
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