Read an Excerpt
Twenty Years of Terror
Did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, come as a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky? To many Americans, the answer seems to be yes, but to those of us in the security business the answer is a resounding no.
Over the last twenty years there have been a series of increasingly audacious and destructive strikes against America and her allies by Islamic fundamentalists. America has tended to view these as discrete, unconnected blips on the radar screen, minor tragedies that usually happened in places we couldn't point to on a map. Impatient, optimistic, naive, and fast-moving, most of us didn't take the time to put together the pieces that were forming a complex pattern, one that, viewed carefully, showed a deadly, well-funded, highly organized, global terrorist conspiracy.
Some of us did see the emerging pattern and shouted out in alarm. John O'Neill, for example, who was named the head of security at the World Trade Center in New York two weeks before September 11, was one. I knew and respected John; Kroll helped to place him in the job that cost him his life. He and a handful of other experts were convinced that another attack on the Twin Towers was inevitable. But like Cassandra's unheard cries, their warnings about the gathering terrorist threat were ignored.
One day John was telling Chris Isham, a senior producer at ABC News, about his new position. Chris kidded him, saying that heading security at the World Trade Center "will be an easy job. They're not going to bomb that place again." (Chris was referring to the failed 1993 bombing of the towers, of course.) But John did not laugh. "Actually, they've always wanted to finish that job," he said. "I think they're going to try again." He was right.
When I watched the televised images of the hijacked planes slamming into the twin towers on September 11, I was filled with rage, grief, disappointment, and frustration, to the point of tears. Not only did I know people, including John O'Neill, who died that day, but I knew beforehand that such an attack was possible and indeed likely. And so did a lot of other people. This is a generally acknowledged truism today, but I am still angry about it. Even now, after the bloodiest attack on our soil since the Civil War, I am not convinced that America fully understands that we are in a state of war, and have been for close to twenty years.
Perhaps what hurts most is the knowledge that a few Americans had all of the evidence in hand--the al-Qaeda manual with instructions on how to make bombs, reams of intelligence, testimony from turncoats, even notes documenting our enemies' intentions and photographs of their targets--but didn't take it seriously enough. The threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack has been staring us in the face for a very long time, yet we chose to look away.
We no longer have that luxury. Now more than ever, I feel it is imperative that we take a hard look at the pattern formed over the last twenty years, acknowledge the mistakes we've made and the successes we've had, and try to learn from both of them. To put the material in the rest of this book in context, I will use this chapter to run through a few of the most significant attacks leading up to September 11. Most readers will be aware of at least some of these facts, but very few will have put the pieces together and studied the overall pattern. I have included this material as evidence of the ongoing terrorist threat, not as an encyclopedic retelling of every terrorist-related incident that has ever occurred. My aim is to highlight the most significant pieces of the puzzle, the worst attacks, and to connect them in order to give an understanding of who our enemies are, why they hate us, and what lengths they are willing to go to. The only way to avoid repeating our mistakes is to learn from the past; we can no longer look away, and we can no longer plead ignorance. In order to move ahead with confidence, we must first understand the threat we have been facing for over twenty years.
"I Have Killed Pharaoh!"
October 6, 1981, was a beautiful day in Cairo, Egypt, with cloudless blue skies and a light breeze. Late that morning Norb Garrett, the CIA station chief there, sat on a reviewing stand watching the annual military parade commemorating the 1973 war against Israel. About a hundred feet to his right sat Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat.
A decade earlier, Sadat had succeeded the strongman Gamal Abdal Nasser as president, and over the next few years had opened Egypt to diplomatic, business, and cultural ties to the West. Although he had led the Egyptian war against Israel in 1973, Sadat negotiated the Camp David accords with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin five years later, and together they were awarded the 1978 Nobel peace prize. But Sadat's diplomatic success and his opening of Egypt to foreign business and culture had infuriated Muslim fundamentalists, particularly a group called al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) and a number of radical clerics who had been preaching a fiery vision of Islamic revolution in the streets and mosques.
One of the most outspoken of these Egyptian clerics was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who later became notorious in America as "the Blind Sheikh," a hate-mongering fundamentalist around whom violence-prone Islamic militants gathered. These Islamists, I would later learn, were a small and tightly knit group of fanatics who claimed to represent an ancient, conservative, patriarchal, and deeply religious culture; they believed that the open, pluralistic West, America in particular, was Satan, an omnivorous devil that was consuming their children and destroying their traditional way of life in a cultural genocide.
In October 1981, Norb Garrett, who was the CIA's man in Cairo (and is now a colleague of mine at Kroll), was monitoring Middle Eastern groups that might pose a threat to U.S. interests. Garrett had been keeping a wary eye on al-Gama'a because it seemed a growing threat to Egypt's modernization and opening to the West. In the days leading up to the parade, the Egyptian Internal Service had learned that members of the group had traveled to Cairo from the provinces and had contacted local cells, for unknown reasons. This was a matter for concern but not for panic. The members of al-Gama'a were considered a bunch of wild-eyed, disorganized zealots from Upper Egypt rather than dangerous terrorists. Garrett was much more concerned about Iran's efforts to export its brand of Islamic revolution to the rest of the Arab world. Less than two years earlier, Garrett had coordinated the CIA's information collection in support of the ultimately failed operation to rescue the fifty-two American hostages held in Iran.
The parade in Cairo was a festive occasion. As the tanks rolled by, parachutists dropped from the sky and jets roared overhead trailing colored smoke; soldiers would occasionally break from their ranks, run up to Sadat, who was sitting in the front row behind a low stone wall, and salute. "It was like a big circus event," Garrett recalls. "We weren't sure what was going to happen next."
A military vehicle towing a large gun stopped in front of the reviewing stand, and about eight soldiers jumped out and began to run toward Sadat. It seemed like more of the same kind of thing they had already seen, but then the soldiers dropped to their knees and began shooting their Kalashnikovs wildly into the crowd--pop, pop, pop (the Russian gun makes a distinctive sound)--to cause a diversion and suppress any return fire. At first Garrett thought it was part of the show. But then a U.S. Air Force major general sitting behind him noticed a colleague had been shot in the ankle, and shouted, "That's live ammo, get down!" Women began screaming, and Garrett hit the deck. He lay there for what seemed like a very long time but was probably less than a minute. When he poked his head up, he saw a soldier, later identified as twenty-four-year-old army lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, leaning over the stone wall and firing point blank into Sadat's already lifeless body.
"I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death!" Islambouli shouted. Expecting, even hoping to die as martyrs, and with no escape plan, the assassins were easily rounded up and imprisoned. Later, they revealed details of the plot, the names of the key planners, and the deep roots of their movement. The fact that Islamic extremists were among the army's rank and file came as a rude shock to the Egyptian elite. Today this may not sound very surprising, but twenty years ago the rise of extreme Islam as a revolutionary force in the Middle East was in its infancy. Very few people, even among the region's leaders, understood its widespread appeal on the Arab street.
The same applies to the meaning of Sadat's assassination. This was not a random act; it was a coolly calculated, politically motivated murder. As the winner of the Nobel peace prize, a perceived collaborator with Israel, and the man who had opened the doors of the Holy Land to what the Islamic fundamentalists referred to as Western "infidels," Sadat had been specifically targeted in order to make a statement. In the attack, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya's fanatics also killed the Cuban ambassador, a Greek Orthodox priest, and many innocent bystanders (although they did not kill vice president Hosni Mubarak, who was sitting next to Sadat, and who has been Egypt's president ever since). Their murders, too, were part of the statement. The vast majority of Arabs are moderates, and the fundamentalists had marked them and their allies as primary targets of intimidation.
At the time I, like most Americans, had only a passing interest in the Sadat murder, viewing it a little smugly as more evidence of instability in a third world country. But in retrospect I view Sadat's murder as the first act of the new, long-term war we are engaged in today, a deadly thrust by a small group of Muslim extremists bent on cowing the Arab majority and driving the West out of Islamic countries. Sadat's killing was considered a worldwide tragedy in 1981, but it would take me years, and much bitter experience, to understand just how significant it really was.
You can pick any one of a number of dates or incidents to mark the start of the terrorists' war. Some choose November 4, 1979, when Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Teheran and took hostages. Others pick the October 23, 1983, car bombing that killed 241 U.S. marines in Beirut, Lebanon. But to me, the Iranian hostage crisis was a student revolt that an opportunistic Ayatollah Khomeini used to gain a worldwide audience, while the Beirut attack was not part of a larger conspiracy.
I point to the assassination of Anwar Sadat as the beginning of the new terror war because it was a carefully planned operation by a radical cell, al-Gama'a, that would become affiliated with a much larger organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group we in the United States were only dimly aware of at the time, but which would come to play an important role in many subsequent acts of terrorism, and encouraged by radical clerics such as Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, who were bent on creating a new "caliphate," a pan-Arabic state run according to the dictates of the Quran.
Norb Garrett points to another aspect of October 6, 1981, that is an instructive as it is chilling. As in the case of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the tragedy was exacerbated by a failure of intelligence and a failure of protection. Before the assassination, the CIA and the Egyptians had good information on al-Gama'a, but it wasn't sifted and analyzed correctly. In short, we didn't take the threat seriously enough. Furthermore, Sadat's protection was haphazard: His bodyguards were not seasoned and came from three different services, each of which jealously guarded its turf, just as our CIA and FBI have not functioned in sync for decades, which led to confusion and vulnerability in the moment of crisis.
At the time, these omissions seemed like incidental details, but in light of later attacks they seem like the start of a pattern that would be repeated over and over again, with tragic results.
Not Just Another Murder
Fast-forward now to November 5, 1990, in New York City. That evening, Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the right-wing Jewish Defense League, was giving a rousing speech to supporters in the ballroom of the New York Marriott East Side hotel in midtown. As Kahane stepped away from the podium, a thickset man wearing a yarmulke approached, drew a .357 Magnum revolver from under his coat, shot Kahane in the chest and neck, and ran out the door.
The assassin, covered with blood and still carrying his gun, shoved his way through the midtown crowd. Years later, we would discover that he was looking for his two co-conspirators, one of whom had wandered off, while the other, the driver of the getaway car, had also disappeared. The assassin--a thirty-five-year-old Egyptian named El Sayyid Nosair, who worked as a janitor at the Manhattan Criminal Court--tried to commandeer a taxi. In the melee, he shot, and was shot by, a U.S. postal police officer and was captured. The crime was almost laughably inept, except that Kahane had been murdered.
I was head of the district attorney's Investigations Division at the time, and we were struggling with a heavy caseload. When the call about Rabbi Kahane's murder came in that night, we all knew it would be a high-profile case, splashed across front pages everywhere. Kahane was a prominent if not well-loved figure in the city. Our office scrambled to respond.
As far as the DA's office was concerned, this was a typical homicide. One man had killed another; we had apprehended the killer, and now we had to decide which division would lead the prosecution. If we decided the shooting was part of an extensive conspiracy, my Investigations Division might take the lead; if we thought it was an isolated act, which most murders are, the Trial Division would handle the case. We briefly discussed the fact that Nosair was an Arab and that Kahane was a Jewish hawk, a former member of the Israeli parliament who had demanded that all Palestinians be removed from the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, among other things. But we quickly dismissed the idea that the murder was part of a broad-based international conspiracy. We had no evidence of that. To us it appeared that Nosair was a lone gunman: Kahane had been so inflammatory that it was entirely believable that an angry Arab had shot him, and so the case was assigned to the Trial Division.