The Search for al Qaeda
Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future
By Bruce Riedel
Brookings Institution Press
Copyright © 2010 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Manhattan Raid
The coordinated suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, were the first major foreign assaults on American soil since 1814, when the British Army and Royal Navy bombarded the city of Baltimore. The attacks of 9/11, as all have come to know those events, also marked the second most violent day in U.S. history, with 2,793 deaths. Only the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, surpassed this figure. Even the casualties on D-Day and at Pearl Harbor were lower.
September 11 was a costly day not just in lives lost or families broken apart. The property damage and lost productivity alone probably exceeded $100 billion. The economic implications of the attack on Wall Street in terms of lower profits and economic volatility pushed the price tag up even further, as high as $2 trillion according to some estimates.
Americans should now know a great deal more about the origins of and planning for what al Qaeda calls the Manhattan Raid. They know when the plot was hatched, when key members of the conspiracy were informed of it, what its role model was (an earlier hijacking in Algiers), what arguments arose over the timing of the attack, who trained the plotters and where, and, most important, what their objective was. And yet many in America fail to comprehend the realities surrounding the assault. That ignorance leaves the United States vulnerable to committing the same policy errors that helped lead to 9/11 and to the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan that flowed from it.
In large part the public's ignorance and vulnerability are a result of a decision by the George W. Bush administration not to clearly explain to the American people the nature of the enemy, namely al Qaeda. The president chose to declare war not on al Qaeda, but on "terrorism," a concept that he and Vice President Dick Cheney arrived at by confusing 9/11 with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They have also argued that the attacks were motivated by a hate for America's "freedom." As former governor of Arkansas Michael Huckabee has written, "The Bush administration has never adequately explained the theology and ideology behind Islamic terrorism or convinced us of its ruthless fanaticism. The first rule of war is 'know your enemy' and most Americans do not know theirs."
One has only to look at the opinion polls on Saddam Hussein's role in the 9/11 attacks. Even two years after the attacks, seven out of ten Americans-a clear majority-believed that Saddam was personally involved. Yet by that time experts who had studied the evidence agreed almost unanimously that there was no link between Iraq and the 9/11 atrocities. The Bush-Cheney administration did nothing to disabuse Americans of these erroneous impressions.
What is more remarkable is that this misperception lingered several more years. A Zogby poll in September 2006 found 46 percent of Americans still believed Saddam was connected to the attacks, and among Republican voters the figure jumped to 65 percent. By that time the only significant evidence even remotely connecting Iraq to the attacks-an alleged meeting in Prague in mid-2001 between one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, and an Iraqi intelligence officer-had not only been generally discounted but also formally recalled by the Czech intelligence service, which had originally produced the report and subsequently admitted to a case of mistaken identity.
Indeed, even as the events were unfolding, intelligence experts like myself had no doubt that the responsibility lay with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. The attacks had all the hallmarks of al Qaeda and were preceded by months of warning that an assault on America was coming. Gary Schroen, one of my colleagues who led the first CIA team into Afghanistan after 9/11 to hunt for bin Laden, remembers the day at CIA headquarters in Langley this way: "As soon as the second aircraft smashed into the second tower, everyone said, 'Bin Laden. It was bin Laden. This isn't an accident; this isn't some tragedy that, you know, that's some tragic accident. This is the attack that bin Laden's been promising.'" I came to exactly the same conclusion at the White House at the same time and told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Al Qaeda has not been bashful about the raid. It has put out extensive commentaries on the purpose and planning of the attack on each subsequent anniversary of the crashes, often including the martyrdom testimonies of the terrorists taped before September 11 in video format. Several of 9/11's key planners, most notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been captured and debriefed and their stories made public by the 9/11 Commission. Journalists and scholars have tracked the planning and the movements of the perpetrators in detail. Key players like then CIA director George Tenet have published their memoirs of what they knew and what they learned after the fact.
What, then, are the actual facts? First, the operation was inspired by a terrorist attack that took place six years earlier. On December 24, 1994, four Algerian terrorists dressed as policemen took control of Air France's flight 8969 as it prepared for takeoff at Houari Boumediene International Airport in Algiers. On board were 220 passengers and 12 crew members bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The Algerian authorities surrounded the plane and refused to let it depart. The terrorists then began executing hostages until the plane was allowed to leave late on December 25.
French counterterrorism authorities learned that the terrorists were planning to crash the aircraft into the Eiffel Tower to cause a mass-casualty disaster in Paris. They persuaded the terrorists to let the plane land in Marseilles on the pretext that it was running short of fuel. Once in Marseilles, the terrorists demanded that the plane be fueled to its maximum capacity: 27 tons of jet fuel, far more than needed to get to Paris and a clear indication of their intention to crash into the tower. Elite French commandos then stormed the aircraft and in an intense firefight killed all four terrorists and saved the hostages. Eleven commandos, thirteen passengers, and three crew members were injured. Although filled with explosives, the aircraft did not blow up because the detonators were not properly wired together.
At the time, I was serving as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, with a special concern for Algeria because of the growing strength of the Islamist jihadist movement there. As I followed the events in Algeria and France, it was clear to me and other observers that the idea of using an aircraft as a guided missile to attack a target on the ground meant a new and horrific threshold had been crossed in international terrorism. Save for the French commandos and their counterterrorism expertise, 9/11 would have happened on Christmas 1994.
The counterterrorism community was not the only one keeping an eye on this incident. Terrorists were watching too-including Osama bin Laden and a young Pakistani, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM, as he is known in the intelligence world-and were inspired by it. In 1994 KSM was already planning terrorist operations involving aircraft. He and the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yusuf, were working on a plot to blow up several American aircraft flying over the Pacific.
The plot to attack the United States began in earnest in 1999, after al Qaeda carried out its first major operations against American targets, the simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden and KSM began hatching their plan after meeting at bin Laden's headquarters in Kandahar, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The original idea was of even greater proportions than what transpired on 9/11: it was to have a West Coast component to match the attacks on the East Coast, with a total of ten aircraft smashing into targets in the District of Columbia, Virginia, New York, California, and Washington State. KSM was eager to use his connections with jihadists in Southeast Asia, particularly the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, with which he had developed a close personal connection while in Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Bin Laden decided this was too ambitious and ordered the plotters to focus on the East Coast but to keep open the option to follow it up with a second wave in California. The first two operatives entered the United States from Malaysia on January 15, 2000, at Los Angeles International Airport, ironically the target of an earlier foiled al Qaeda plot, in December 1999.
In early 2000 bin Laden personally recruited the plot's tactical leader, Mohammed Atta, in Afghanistan. Atta was an Egyptian architect studying in Hamburg, Germany, who came to Kandahar with several colleagues to join al Qaeda. He immediately impressed bin Laden as a smart and ruthless individual, eager to achieve martyrdom. Bin Laden made him the emir of the Manhattan Raid and dispatched him back to Germany to learn to fly an aircraft. Atta chose to take his flight training in Venice, Florida, instead and arrived in the United States in June 2000.
Bin Laden also personally recruited all the so-called muscle terrorists-the fifteen operatives who would control the passengers during the hijackings-from the large pool of Saudi al Qaeda volunteers in Afghanistan. Fourteen were Saudis and one was from the United Arab Emirates. They entered the United States in late 2000. KSM arranged the logistics and the funding for their travels and those of the pilots, while Atta commanded the team on the ground in the United States. KSM also supervised the training of the muscle in a safe house in Karachi, Pakistan, and in camps in Afghanistan.
The prerecorded wills and final statements of the terrorists reveal a great deal about their motivation. Over the years, al Qaeda has gradually released some of these details on the anniversaries of the attacks. Other such information comes from the testimony of KSM himself after his capture and from bin Laden's own remarks on the attack in several messages since 9/11. In addition, al Qaeda has commented on the attacks extensively in audio and video messages on every anniversary since 2001.
Taken together, these statements clearly indicate that the Arab conflict with Israel, especially the perceived grievances of the Palestinian people, is the all-consuming issue for the terrorists. The Palestinian intifada, the fierce uprising in the fall of 2000 on the West Bank and in Gaza, was a particularly powerful motivating event for the terrorists, KSM, and bin Laden. It had been sparked by the visit of Israeli Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the holy mosque in Jerusalem in September 2000. The wills of the terrorists reflect their outrage at the thought of Israelis, especially females, violating the sanctity of Islamic shrines and holy mosques. As terrorist Walid al Shihri put it in his will, released in 2007, "The condition of Islam at present makes one cry.... The daughter of Zion plays in the mosques. Dance with pride, daughter of Zion, over our scattered limbs, for we are slaves." Other grievances mentioned include the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and Saudi support for the repression of jihad in Syria in 1982.
These several issues form the backdrop of the narrative and ideology of al Qaeda explored in this book. The intifada's power over bin Laden's thinking about the 9/11 raid is underscored by his repeated attempts to push KSM to advance the timing of the crashes. In September of 2000 he urged KSM to tell Atta to attack immediately to respond to the Sharon visit to the holy sites in Jerusalem; Atta told bin Laden he was not ready yet.
When bin Laden learned that Sharon, who had become Israel's prime minister in March 2001, was going to visit the White House early that summer, he again pressed Atta to attack immediately. And again Atta demurred, arguing he needed more time to get the plan and the team ready to go. Bin Laden agreed to give his emir more time, probably because another key aspect of the plan-the assassination of al Qaeda's main enemy in Afghanistan, the strongest leader in the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud-was not fully ripe for action either.
Bin Laden was also intimately involved in the selection of targets for the Manhattan Raid. He pushed repeatedly to include the White House (where I happened to be sitting the morning of the attacks), despite the difficulty posed by its small size, in contrast to the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Capitol Building. Bin Laden personally handled other essential elements of the plot as well, bringing on board the Taliban-the Afghan militia that hosts al Qaeda in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan-and its leader, Mullah Omar. In his interrogation, KSM suggests the Taliban were uninformed about the Manhattan Raid until the last moment and even pressed bin Laden not to attack American targets. However, other evidence strongly suggests Mullah Omar was well inside the loop much earlier and a partner in the overall plan, if not the details.
For the Taliban leadership, the critical prerequisite to an attack on the United States was another al Qaeda plot in which they had a vital interest, the murder of Massoud, their principal enemy in Afghanistan (see chapter 4). Bin Laden was also in direct command of this plan, which began in 2000 with his recruitment of the Belgian operatives who would carry out the assassination. In her memoirs, the widow of the team leader has given an extensive account of the family's visit to Kandahar, where they stayed at the bin Laden home to prepare and train for the attack on Massoud.
The timing was critical because it had to coincide with the U.S. strike, which in the end it did. Bin Laden and Omar wanted Massoud killed on the eve of 9/11 to decapitate Afghanistan's Northern Alliance and thus render it impotent when America would need it to retaliate. The two operations were interdependent. This, too, was clear to many experts by midmorning on September 11. Gary Schroen connected those two things as soon as the second aircraft hit: "I was standing in the parking lot at the CIA, saying, 'Ah, that's what Massoud's death was about. It made Mullah Omar indebted to bin Laden for removing his only major enemy.'"
The connection is also hinted at in the memoirs of Pakistan's military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who says Mullah Omar was aware of the plot against America in 2000 and was initially not pleased with the idea of taking on the United States so directly. In time, however, probably after being briefed on the plot to kill his rival in the north, Omar apparently came around. In any case, as Musharraf notes, he did nothing to stop bin Laden once he learned of the plan.
Osama was in Kandahar on September 11 and gathered some of his closest lieutenants together to watch the plot unfold on television. Apparently he alone anticipated the magnitude of the destruction, perhaps because of his work in construction for his father, although he was surprised at the total collapse of the two towers. Meanwhile Khalid Sheikh Mohammed watched events unfold in an Internet café in Karachi. He returned to Kandahar later in the month and immediately began working on another plot, this time to repeat 9/11 in London, targeting Heathrow and Canary Wharf and using aircraft hijacked in Eastern Europe. The al Qaeda infrastructure in Saudi Arabia was tasked to find the pilots, but KSM's capture in Pakistan upset the plot.
From all that bin Laden and other al Qaeda spokesmen have said since 9/11 and the testimony of captured lieutenants like KSM, their objective was to provoke the United States and it allies to retaliate: specifically, to invade Afghanistan and enter into a long and bloody war of occupation in a repeat of the Soviet struggle there in the 1980s. Al Qaeda believed that the United States would bleed to death in the mountains of Afghanistan just as the Soviet Union had bled into collapse at the hands of Afghanistan's Muslim guerrilla warriors, the mujahedin.
The jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a defining event in the lives of the al Qaeda leadership-bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and KSM-and their Taliban host, Mullah Omar. The experience shaped their perception of history and politics. To them, the defeat of the Soviet Fortieth Army was an act of God, and they were the instruments used to accomplish this holy duty, a successful jihad against a superpower. They were (and are) convinced that it would happen again, that the Manhattan Raid was the opening sortie in a long war that will destroy the United States and compel it to leave the Muslim world and abandon its allies, especially Israel, to their fate.
Excerpted from The Search for al Qaeda by Bruce Riedel Copyright © 2010 by Brookings Institution Press. Excerpted by permission.
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