August 9, 2022

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The British and 9/11

Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat. From 1996 to 1999 he was senior advisor to the British authorities on abroad counterterrorism.  This piece was first revealed by RUSI in London.  The views don’t signify these of RUSI.

Analysis of overtly out there sources signifies {that a} British report shared with the US in December 1998 described an early stage of the 9/11 plot.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Two extracts from Presidential Daily Briefs (PDB) are given some prominence within the 9/11 Commission report into the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. One is from a PDB delivered to President Bill Clinton on 4 December 1998, and the opposite is from a PDB given to President George W Bush on 6 August 2001. Both are offered inside a textbox and each comprise intelligence ‘from a friendly government’ which offered the primary and solely important suggestion that Al-Qa’ida (AQ) deliberate to hijack plane within the US.

Eight months after the assaults, beneath Congressional stress, the Bush administration was obliged to disclose some particulars of the PDBs, and on 17 May 2002 the New York Times disclosed that ‘the report provided to the president on Aug. 6, which warned him that Mr. bin Laden’s followers may hijack airplanes, was primarily based on 1998 intelligence knowledge drawn from a single British supply, authorities officers stated right this moment’. The British authorities was obliged to acknowledge that the intelligence got here from British sources. The Guardian reported on 18 May that ‘The memo received by Bush on 6 August contained unconfirmed information passed on by British intelligence in 1998’. The Independent ran much the same story with further element.

Both PDBs quoted from one British report from December 1998. The key query is whether or not this report, with its important deviations from what truly occurred on the day, truly referred to the 9/11 operation. Subsequently revealed proof factors compellingly to this certainly being an early model of the 9/11 plan.

The heavily redacted British contribution was proven on pages 127 and 128 of the 9/11 Commission’s report. It reads:

‘On Friday December 4 1998 the CIA included an article within the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) describing intelligence acquired from a pleasant authorities a few hijacking within the United States.

‘SUBJECT. Bin Laden preparing to hijack US aircraft. Reporting [passage redacted] suggests bin Laden and his allies are preparing for attacks in the US including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Sheikh Omar Abdal Rahman,  Ramzi Yousef and Muhammad Sadiq Awda. One source quoted a senior member of the Gamaat Al-Islamiya (GI) saying that “as of late October the GI had completed planning for an operation in the US on behalf of bin Laden but that the operation was on hold. A senior bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit GI counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options – perhaps including an aircraft hijacking. GI leader Islambouli in late September was planning to hijack a US airliner during “the next couple of weeks” to free Abdal Rahman and the other prisoners according to what may be another source. The same source late last month said that bin Laden might implement plans to hijack aircraft before the beginning of Ramadan on 20 December and that two members of the operational team had evaded security checks during a recent trial run at an unidentified New York airport.’

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In May 2002 the US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice issued a press release observing (appropriately) that the report had talked about ‘hijacking in the traditional sense’ with no indication that plane can be used as weapons of mass destruction. Her testimony to the 9/11 Commission made broadly the identical level.

Indeed, even in late 1998, there was a profusion of risk experiences of which the aviation strand was only one. The MI5 official historical past feedback aptly that the Service was puzzled as to why there have been so many extra experiences of threats than precise assaults: ‘Even the most reliably sourced intelligence received on this question usually consists of a snapshot of a proposed plan being discussed. Most of the reporting does not make clear how far advanced the plan is’ (Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, pp. 802–806). What MI5 didn’t realise on the time was that AQ operations may take as much as three years from inception to execution.

Steve Coll writes that ‘Within the morass of intelligence lay ominous patterns. One was an interest by bin Laden’s operatives in using plane … but on the counter terrorism safety group conferences and on the CIA’s counter terrorist centre there was no particular emphasis positioned on bin Laden’s risk to civil aviation or on the a number of uncovered plots the place his followers had thought-about turning hijacked airplanes into cruise missiles’ (Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 419–420).

Although the December 1998 report seems fragmentary, there have been quite a lot of points of explicit curiosity. The first was the title Ramzi Yousef. Yousef had studied electrical engineering at Swansea Institute from 1986 to 1990 earlier than exploding an enormous bomb beneath the World Trade Centre in February 1993 after which planning the Bojinka Plot in opposition to airliners within the Philippines in 1994. Yousef had been arrested in Islamabad in February 1995 and despatched to the US, the place he was tried and imprisoned for all times. He was an brisk and imaginative terrorist, and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was additionally recognized to maneuver in terrorist circles.

The aviation hyperlink will need to have struck a chord, too. The British have been additionally considering Hussain Kherchtou, who had been in Kenya on the time of the Embassy bombings and was himself a pilot. He later offered a debrief to the FBI. His story and his courtship by the British got here into the general public area due to a subsequent US court docket case and a talkative FBI officer.

The Egyptian angle additionally would have provoked little shock. On 19 November 1995 Egyptian terrorists had blown up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, killing 13 – solely yards from the British High Commission compound with its uncovered workers housing and kindergarten. The British had a miraculous escape that day.

The concern for the discharge of Sheikh Abdal Rahman, ‘the Blind Sheikh’, was in step with the widespread devotion which the preacher impressed amongst Islamist radicals and notably Egyptians. His imprisonment in New York for his half in Yousef’s assault on the World Trade Centre had brought about important misery amongst his many adherents, who all needed his launch.

The concept that AQ would strike the US had first surfaced in 1997 and felt just like the logical subsequent step. Only a month beforehand (in November 1998), AQ had attacked two US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 folks together with 12 US residents. These operations had served as a wake-up name for many who thought the AQ risk was being exaggerated, and a few who even conceived of Osama bin Laden himself as a benign determine who had one way or the other acquired out of his depth.

There have been additionally some puzzling parts within the report. The first was the reasonably outdated concept of hijacking an plane to demand the discharge of the Blind Sheikh. It felt extra in tune with Palestinian terrorist strategies of the Seventies, and it was already recognized that Ramzi Yousef had developed the thought of exploding full airliners in flight.

The involvement of Gama’at Islamiya (GI) appeared odd. Bin Laden was recognized to be near Ayman Al-Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), with whom GI have been normally at daggers drawn. At the time GI have been conceived of extra as home Egyptian terrorists in comparison with the internationalist EIJ. Indeed, GI’s most up-to-date operation had been the Luxor Massacre of November 1997, which killed 56 overseas vacationers.

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The title Islambouli carried nice resonance. This was Mohammed Shawqi Islambouli, who had tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. His brother Khalid had been one of many assassins of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and had been tried and executed in Cairo. However, though Mohammed was considered in Afghanistan, he was not then recognized to be near bin Laden, not to mention Al-Zawahiri.

The dates made little sense. On the one hand an assault appeared imminent, however alternatively it was ‘on hold’. But such is the character of counterterrorist reporting: small fragments of a a lot larger jigsaw.

Nonetheless, the report was taken very severely on its receipt within the US. President Bill Clinton’s counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke summoned his Counterterrorism Security Group. ‘To address the hijacking warning, the group agreed that New York airports should go to maximum security starting that weekend. They agreed to boost security at other East coast airports. The CIA agreed to distribute versions of the report to the FBI and FAA to pass to the New York Police Department and the airlines. The FAA issued a security directive on December 8, with specific requirements for more intensive air carrier screening of passengers and more oversight of the screening process, at all three New York City area airports.’

Of course, when 9/11 occurred practically three years later, there have been two very important variations. Although plane have been certainly hijacked, they have been used as missiles reasonably than as bargaining chips, and the terrorists have been primarily Saudi and never Egyptian. So what occurred between December 1998 and September 2001 which may clarify these modifications?

The 9/11 Commission report (drawing on materials from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) supplies a captivating part on AQ’s growth of aviation methodology. Even earlier than bin Laden had left Sudan in mid-1996, he had allegedly discussed using plane with Mohammed Atef: ‘(1) they rejected hijackings aimed at gaining the release of imprisoned comrades as too complex, because al Qaeda had no friendly countries in which to land a plane and then negotiate; (2) they considered the bombing of commercial flights in midair, as carried out against Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a promising means to inflict massive casualties; and (3) they did not yet consider using hijacked aircraft as weapons against other targets.’

So, why was the thought of a conventional hijacking nonetheless being mentioned as late as December 1998? The reply should lie within the Egyptian jihadists’ willpower to win the discharge of the Blind Sheikh. Mustafa Hamid, a journalist who was with bin Laden in Afghanistan, supplies illuminating perception into the wrangling between EIJ and GI in Afghanistan. Hamid paperwork the tortuous course of by which GI, with some reluctance, fashioned a union (‘The World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders’) with AQ, EIJ and others, however recounts how GI insisted on secrecy about their involvement. Hamid additionally describes GI’s willpower to acquire the Blind Sheikh’s launch and the involvement of certainly one of their operatives within the African Embassy bombings (Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, p. 241 and pp. 263–266). So GI was certainly a part of bin Laden’s group in Afghanistan and was concerned in operations on the time of the December 1998 report.

However, bin Laden turned more and more irritated by the limitless squabbling among the many two Egyptian teams. Lawrence Wright, drawing upon a wide range of sources, chronicles the disastrous assault on Luxor, which had the impact of alienating the Egyptian inhabitants from each teams. When on 23 February 1998 bin Laden’s second fatwa asserting the ‘World Islamic Front’ was revealed in an Arabic newspaper in London, GI have been appalled, and a few members tried to have Rahman pronounced emir as an alternative of bin Laden. No marvel that Wright concludes that ‘bin Laden had had enough of the in-fighting between the Egyptian factions. He told both groups that their operations in Egypt were ineffectual and too expensive and that it was time for them to turn their guns on the United States and Israel’ (Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 290–296). This could clarify why the December 1998 report mentions the operation being ‘on hold’. Between December and the spring of 1999, the GI group and Islambouli will need to have been stood down.

According to the 9/11 Commission report, in March or April 1999, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) – who had hitherto allegedly been on the fringes of AQ – was summoned to Kandahar, the place he mentioned the plane plan with bin Laden and Mohammed Atef. Four operatives have been chosen to start work on the US venture. However, ‘travel issues … played a part in al Qaeda’s operational planning from the very begin. During the spring and summer time of 1999, KSM realized that Khallad and Abu Bara, each of whom have been Yemenis, wouldn’t be capable of get hold of US visas as simply as Saudi operatives like Mihdhar and Hazmi’. And so, the 9/11 plot developed with 15 of the 19 terrorists being Saudi nationals. Only Mohammed Atta was Egyptian.

KSM’s key involvement within the 9/11 plot makes it evident that there couldn’t have been a second GI plot working in parallel, as a result of KSM and Islambouli have been shut associates. Robert Baer and the 9/11 Commission report agree that KSM and Islambouli have been working collectively in Qatar within the mid-Nineties. For KSM it will need to have been troublesome to desert the rescue of his nephew, however he would have recognized {that a} conventional hostage launch operation had not one of the ambition or scale of bin Laden’s new considering.

On 6 August 2001, solely 5 weeks earlier than the assaults, the December 1998 report featured once again within the PDB given to George W Bush at Crawford, Texas, entitled ‘Bin Laden determined to strike in US’. It started: ‘Clandestine foreign government and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US’, and concluded: ‘We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting such as that from a [redacted] Service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdal Rahman and other US-held extremists … Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.’

The PDB of 6 August brought about some discomfort to the Bush administration and led to a National Security Archive page dedicated to that one PDB (of which the December 1998 British report was only one constituent half).

The CIA Director George Tenet, who had been a tireless pursuer of the AQ risk earlier than 9/11 and a daily correspondent with and customer to London, regretted that extra had not been carried out ‘to protect the United States against the threat. To cite two obvious and tragic failures, only after 9/11 were cockpit doors hardened and passengers forbidden from carrying box-cutters aboard US commercial airliners’ (George Tenet, At the Centre of the Storm, p. 205).

The British report of December 1998 was fragmentary, and whereas it was actually ‘sensational’, it was not half as sensational because the precise occasions of that unforgettable and tragic day.

The views expressed on this Commentary are the authors, and don’t signify these of RUSI or some other establishment.

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