When the world as most of us knew it began to fall apart on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at my home in Washington, D.C. not many blocks from the United States Capitol. If United Airlines Flight 93 had been allowed by its passengers to fly on to its intended destination, I would have heard it crash into the White House. If the target had been the Capitol, and it might have been, I would have felt the crash as well.
For me, the irony of the situation was hard to miss. After two decades in some of earth’s true hellholes, I had returned only recently to the heart of the most powerful nation on earth, protected by a military force such as the work has never known, watched over by domestic and foreign security services that number in the hundreds of thousands. And what had saved the city I was living in? Not the CIA. Not the FBI. Not the air force of navy or marines or army. But the raw courage and determination of a fistful of average Americans. As I said about the beginning of this book, the lapse made me furious to think about. All of us have a right to expect more form those in whom we vest such power.
But there’s one more thing I felt in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, as I watched the deaths unfold on TV and the horror mount both in New York and across the Potomac Rover in Virginia. If it weren’t for personal commitments, I would have gotten the hell out of Dodge, and in a big hurry. The people who planned this attack are good. Very good. I’d found out too much about their capabilities, from sophisticated chemical warheads to portable nuclear weapons. I also knew that they wouldn’t be discouraged if Osama bin Laden were captured and paraded down the streets of Lower Manhattan in a cage or if Afghanistan were bombed back into the Stone Age.
Were the attacks of September 11 conceived in the fertile imagination of Osama bin Laden? I don’t know for certain, and I’m not sure anyone ever will. But I am absolutely sure that it’s in Osama bin Laden’s best interests for us to believe that is so. Terrorist campaigns aren’t directed just against the enemy. They are campaigns of recruitment as well, and by demonizing bin Laden, by holding him up as the mastermind of the attacks and as the archenemy, we have assure that the disillusioned, the angry, the desperate young men of the Muslim world will flock to his case, whether he’s dead or alive to lead it. And yes, there are more men like that than we could ever count.
Did Osama bin Laden act along, through his own Al Qaeda network, in launching the attacks? About that I’m far more certain and emphatic: no. Even before I left the CIA in late 1997, we had learned that bin Laden had suggested to the Iranians that they drop their efforts to undermine central Asian governments and instead join him in a campaign against the United States. We knew, too, that in July 1996 bin Laden’s allies, the Egyptian Gama’at, had been in touch with ‘Imad Mughniyah, whom my own research had shown to be behind the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Throw bin Laden’s connections to the Egyptian fundamentalists, and what we have is the most formidable terrorist coalition in history.
We also have to keep in mind that he Islamic terrorists hat we’re up against are hampered by self-protective bureaucracies. They don’t care about institutions and egos. In pursuit of their goals, the form ad hoc networks that dissolve as soon as the mission is accomplished, only to be reconstituted later in some new permutation or combination. And Osama bin Laden had all the right connections to put together perhaps the most dangerous as hoc network ever. Once he set up show in Afghanistan, opened his training camps there, and sent out work that he was ready to take violence across the ocean, it was only a matter of time until he and his colleagues stuck. The questions were always how and how big, what and where, and when, not if.
In the aftermath of the attacks, I had my own piece of the puzzle to add.
After resigning from the agency, I moved to Beirut and set up shop with another ex-CIA officer as a consultant. It was territory I knew and understood, far better than I understood official Washington. It was also where I had my best contacts, including some I wasn’t very keen on. At the height of the Internet-bubble stock market, for instance, one of Mughniyah’s former associates proposed forming a dot-com company with me.
But, more interesting, among the clients we attracted (and I use the work advisedly) was a member of a Gulf royal family who was then living in Damascus, having tried unsuccessfully to overthrow his cousin, who was the emir. We would meet him irregularly at a desert location between our office and his, and one night in December 1997, as we sat huddled by a fire to hold off the night cold he told us this story:
When he’d been working as chief of police in his government, he has become aware than his government was harboring an Osama bin Laden cell. The two main members of the cell, he said, were Shawqi Islambuli, whose brother had assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, and Khalid Shaykh Muhammed, whose area of expertise was airplane hijackings. The prince went on to tell us that when the FBI attempted to arrest Muhammed and Islambuli, his government had equipped them with alias passports and spirited them out of the country; Islambuli settled, at least temporarily, in Prague.
Getting out of the spy business proved a lot harder than I thought it would be. As if I’d never left, I passed everything I had learned from the ex-police chief back to the CIA in early 1998. Not surprisingly, there was no follow-up. No response. No indication that my message even got to anyone that bothered reading it. It was just like the coup in Iraq.
It wasn’t until three years later, in the early summer of 2001, that an associate of my prince, a military officer still working for his government, informed me that he was aware of a spectacular operation about to occur. He claimed to posses the name of Osama bin Laden operatives in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He provided us with a computer record of hundreds of secret bin Laden operatives in the Gulf. In August 2001, at the military officer’s request, I met with an aide to the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin’Abd-al-‘Aziz. The aide refused to look at the list or to pass them on to the Sultan. Apparently Saudi Arabia was following the same see-no-evil operating manual the CIA was.
It all comes down to the point that we have to start listening to people again, no matter how unpleasant the message is. The CIA doesn’t have a choice but to once again go out and start talking to people – people who can go where it can’t, see what it can’t, and hear what it can’t. That’s the CIA I joined in 1976, not one enamored of satellite technology and scared of its own shadow, but one with the guts to walk into the wilderness and deal with what it finds there. That’s the CIA we need today. And until we have that CIA – one with thousands of human ears and eyes, out listening where the ones who will do us harm hatch their evil schemes – I don’t think any of us should feel safe again.
We are at was in America and throughout the Western world, at was with an enemy with no infrastructure to attack, with no planes to shoot out of the sky, wit no boats to sink to the bottom of the sea and precious few tanks to blow up for the amusement of the viewers of CNN. The only way to defeat such an enemy is by intelligence, by knowing what they plan to do next, and by being ready for them when they arrive. And the only way to gather such intelligence is by having the political will to let those who know how to learn secrets perform their jobs, no matter how murky the swamp is. I wish I had the confidence that we were willing to walk down that path and stay on it.