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The Terror Timeline
Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11--and America's Response
U.S. officials, especially those in the Bush administration, have repeatedly insisted that they had no evidence that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack inside the U.S. For example, President Bush insists, "Had I known there was going to be an attack on America I would have moved mountains to stop the attack." [New York Times, 4/18/04] Officials claim that hints of an attack -- to the extent they existed -- always pointed overseas, and also claim that no one thought that terrorists would use airplanes as flying weapons against U.S. symbols. For example, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in mid-2002 that, "Even in retrospect," the Bush administration had no hints of such a form of attack. [White House, 5/16/02] What are the facts as we know them today? What did U.S. government officials know, and when did they know it? Understanding these warning signs -- and the U.S. government's response to the signs -- is paramount to understanding how 9/11 could have happened and, equally important, whether it can happen again. This chapter chronicles, based on the current public record, what people in our government did know and when they knew it. (Even more warning signs are detailed elsewhere in the book, as in chapter 3 on counterterrorism efforts before 9/11, chapter 7 on hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, and chapter 10 on Zacarias Moussaoui.) The seeds of 9/11 were planted long before the Bush administration came to power. In its quest to win the Cold War, the U.S. spent billions of dollars funding the mujahedeen resistance in Afghanistan, seeking, literally, to spend the Soviet Union to death. Focused on victory, the U.S. directly and indirectly transformed the ill-armed and overwhelmed Afghan freedom fighters into a well-armed, increasingly effective international "army." That many in this "army" were anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamists seemed irrelevant at the time, as they were fighting a common enemy.
The U.S. eventually won the Cold War -- but at what price? In Afghanistan, the communist government was eventually replaced with the tyrannical Taliban. Many from the mujahedeen resistance reconstituted into al-Qaeda and similar organizations. Their guerilla-style jihad, so effective against the Soviets, morphed into terrorist jihad against the U.S. and other Western countries. By the time Bill Clinton became president in 1993, bin Laden had already sponsored a number of successful attacks on American targets. During the Clinton administration, he sponsored more. After the simultaneous bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the U.S.'s failed retaliation attempt against him, Osama bin Laden became a household name around the world.
Each successive attack bin Laden perpetrated was a warning sign -- that his primary target was the U.S., that his primary weapon was terrorism, and that he had the resources necessary to wage his war. Each successive attack foiled was yet another warning sign -- of what he planned to do, how he planned to do it, and what he likely would try to do again.
One might fairly argue that hindsight is always 20/20, that Monday morning quarterbacking is simply unfair. Thus, in reviewing these warning signs, one should consider at least the following: How reliable would the warning have sounded at the time? From whom did the information originate -- from an anonymous stranger, a friendly foreign government, or our own governmental surveillance? How, if at all, was the new information matched up with other facts known at the time? Who received the information, and what did they do with it; how far up the chain-of-command did the information travel, and was that information shared with other relevant parties or agencies?
Unfortunately, some of these questions cannot be answered at this time. All too often, the information that is available only raises more questions than it answers. The Bush administration's continued secrecy in the name of "national security" only exacerbates this problem, leading many to cry cover-up, others to charge criminal negligence, and still others to consider conspiracy.
The purpose of this book is not to speculate or to theorize, but to compile what is known today. And what is known is quite troubling. The warning signs were innumerable, the U.S. government's response often inexplicable.
December 26, 1979: Soviet Forces, Lured in by the CIA, Invade Afghanistan
The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. They will withdraw in 1989 after a brutal ten-year war. It has been commonly believed that the invasion was unprovoked. However, in a 1998 interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, will reveal that the CIA began destabilizing the pro-Soviet Afghan government six months earlier in a deliberate attempt to get the Soviets to invade and have their own Vietnam-type costly war: "What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" [Le Nouvel Observateur, 1/98; Mirror, 1/29/02] The U.S. and Saudi Arabia give a huge amount of money (estimates range up to $40 billion total for the war) to support the mujahedeen guerrilla fighters opposing the Russians. Most of the money is managed by the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. [Nation, 2/15/99]
Early 1980: Osama bin Laden, with Saudi Backing, Supports Afghan Rebels
Osama bin Laden begins providing financial, organizational, and engineering aid for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, with the advice and support of the Saudi royal family. [New Yorker, 11/5/01] Some, including Richard Clarke, counterterrorism "tsar" during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, believe he was handpicked for the job by Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi Arabia's secret service. [Sunday Times, 8/25/02; New Yorker, 11/5/01] The Pakistani ISI want a Saudi prince as a public demonstration of the commitment of the Saudi royal family and as a way to ensure royal funds for the anti-Soviet forces. The agency fails to get royalty, but bin Laden, with his family's influential ties, is good enough for the ISI. [Miami Herald, 9/24/01] (Clarke will argue later that the Saudis and other Muslim governments used the Afghan war in an attempt to get rid of their own misfits and troublemakers.) This multinational force later coalesces into al-Qaeda. [Against All Enemies, by Richard Clarke, 3/04, p. 52]
19841994: U.S. Supports Militant Textbooks for Afghanistan The U.S., through USAID and the University of Nebraska, spends millions of dollars developing and printing textbooks for Afghan schoolchildren. The textbooks are filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. For instance, children are taught to count with illustrations showing tanks, missiles, and land mines. Lacking any alternative, millions of these textbooks are used long after 1994; the Taliban are still using them in 2001. In 2002, the U.S. will start producing less violent versions of the same books, which President Bush says will have "respect for human dignity, instead of indoctrinating students with fanaticism and bigotry." (He will fail to mention who created those earlier books. [Washington Post, 3/23/02; Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 5/6/02]
March 1985: U.S. Escalates War in Afghanistan
The CIA, British MI6 (Britain's intelligence agency), and the Pakistani ISI agree to launch guerrilla attacks from Afghanistan into then Soviet-controlled Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, attacking military installations, factories, and storage depots within Soviet territory, and do so until the end of the war. The CIA also begins supporting the ISI in recruiting radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan mujahedeen. The CIA gives subversive literature and Korans to the ISI, who carry them into the Soviet Union. Eventually, around 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries will fight with the Afghan mujahedeen. Tens of thousands more will study in the hundreds of new madrassas funded by the ISI and CIA in Pakistan. Their main logistical base is in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. [Washington Post, 7/19/92; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/23/01; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 9/23/01; The Hindu, 9/27/01] In the late 1980s, Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, feeling the mujahedeen network has grown too strong, tells President George H. W. Bush, "You are creating a Frankenstein." However, the warning goes unheeded. [Newsweek, 9/24/01] By 1993, President Bhutto tells Egyptian President Hasni Mubarak that Peshawar is under de facto control of the mujahedeen, and unsuccessfully asks for military help in reasserting Pakistani control over the city. Thousands of mujahedeen fighters return to their home countries after the war is over and engage in multiple acts of terrorism. One Western diplomat notes these thousands would never have been trained or united without U.S. help, and says, "The consequences for all of us are astronomical." [Atlantic Monthly, 5/96]
19851989: Precursor to al-Qaeda Puts Down U.S. Roots Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden's mentor, makes repeated trips to the U.S. and other countries, building up his organization, Makhtab al-Khidimat (MAK), also known as the Services Office. Branches of the MAK open in over 30 U.S. cities, as Muslim-Americans donate millions of dollars to support the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. Azzam is assassinated in a car bomb attack in late 1989. Some U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden ordered the killing. Bin Laden soon takes over the MAK, which morphs into al-Qaeda. His followers take over MAK's offices in the U.S., and they become financial conduits for al-Qaeda terrorist operations. [1000 Years for Revenge, by Peter Lance, 9/03, pp. 4041]
1986: Bin Laden Works with CIA, at Least Indirectly The CIA, ISI, and bin Laden build the Khost tunnel complex in Afghanistan. This will be a major target of bombing and fighting when the U.S. attacks the Taliban in 2001. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/23/01; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 9/23/01; The Hindu, 9/27/01] It will be reported in June 2001 that "bin Laden worked closely with Saudi, Pakistani, and U.S. intelligence services to recruit mujahedeen from many Muslim countries," but this information has not been reported much since 9/11. [UPI, 6/14/01] A CIA spokesperson will later claim, "For the record, you should know that the CIA never employed, paid, or maintained any relationship whatsoever with bin Laden." [Ananova, 10/31/01]
September 1986: CIA Provides Afghan Rebels Stinger Missiles Worried that the Soviets are winning the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. decides to train and arm the mujahedeen with Stinger missiles. The Soviets are forced to stop using the attack helicopters that were being used to devastating effect. Some claim the Stingers turn the tide of the war and lead directly to Soviet withdrawal. Now the mujahedeen are better trained and armed than ever before. [Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll, 2/04, pp. 11, 14951; Against All Enemies, by Richard Clarke, 3/04, pp. 4850]
September 1987March 1989: Head U.S. Consular Official Claims He's Told to Issue Visas to Unqualified Applicants Michael Springmann, head U.S. consular official in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, later claims that during this period he is "repeatedly told to issue visas to unqualified applicants." He turns them down, but is repeatedly overruled by superiors. Springmann loudly complains to numerous government offices, but no action is taken. He is fired and his files on these applicants are destroyed. He later learns that recruits from many countries fighting for bin Laden against Russia in Afghanistan were funneled through the Jeddah office to get visas to come to the U.S., where the recruits would travel to train for the Afghan war. According to Springmann, the Jeddah consulate was run by the CIA and staffed almost entirely by intelligence agents. This visa system may have continued at least through 9/11, and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers received their visas through Jeddah, possibly as part of this program. [BBC, 11/6/01; Associated Press, 7/17/02 (B); Fox News, 7/18/02]
August 11, 1988: Bin Laden Forms al-Qaeda Bin Laden conducts a meeting to discuss "the establishment of a new military group," according to notes that are found later. Over time, this group becomes known as al-Qaeda, roughly meaning "the base" or "the foundation." [Associated Press, 2/19/03 (B)] It will take U.S. intelligence years even to realize a group named al-Qaeda exists. February 15, 1989: Soviet Forces Withdraw from Afghanistan Soviet forces withdraw from Afghanistan, but Afghan communists retain control of Kabul, the capital, until April 1992. [Washington Post, 7/19/92] Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism official during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and the counterterrorism "tsar" by 9/11, later claims that the huge amount of U.S. aid provided to Afghanistan drops off drastically as soon as the Soviets withdraw, abandoning the country to civil war and chaos. The new powers in Afghanistan are tribal chiefs, the Pakistani ISI, and the Arab war veterans coalescing into al-Qaeda. [Against All Enemies, by Richard Clarke, 3/04, pp. 5253]
July 1990: Blind Sheikh on Terrorist Watch List Enters U.S. Despite being on a U.S. terrorist watch list for three years, radical Muslim leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman enters the U.S. on a "much-disputed" tourist visa issued by an undercover CIA agent. [Village Voice, 3/30/93; Atlantic Monthly, 5/96; 1000 Years for Revenge, by Peter Lance, 9/03, p. 42] Abdul-Rahman was heavily involved with the CIA and Pakistani ISI efforts to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, and became famous traveling all over the world for five years recruiting new mujahedeen. However, he never hid his prime goals to overthrow the governments of the U.S. and Egypt. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/96] He is "infamous throughout the Arab world for his alleged role in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat." Abdul-Rahman immediately begins setting up a terrorist network in the U.S. [Village Voice, 3/30/93] He is believed to have befriended bin Laden while in Afghanistan, and bin Laden secretly pays Abdul-Rahman's U.S. living expenses. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/96; ABC News, 8/16/02] Abdul-Rahman's ties to the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 are later ignored. As one FBI agent will say in 1993, he is "hands-off. It was no accident that the sheikh obtained a visa and that he is still in the country. He's here under the banner of national security, the State Department, the NSA, and the CIA." According to a very high-ranking Egyptian official, Abdul-Rahman continues to assist the CIA in recruiting new mujahedeen after moving to the U.S.: "We begged America not to coddle the sheikh." Egyptian intelligence warns the U.S. that Abdul-Rahman is planning new terrorist attacks, and on November 12, 1992, terrorists connected to him machine-gun a busload of Western tourists in Egypt. Still, he will continue to live freely in New York City. [Village Voice, 3/30/93] He will finally be arrested in 1993 and convicted of assisting in the 1993 WTC bombing. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/96]
November 5, 1990: First bin LadenRelated Terror Attack on U.S. Egyptian-American El Sayyid Nosair assassinates controversial right-wing Zionist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane's organization, the Jewish Defense League, was linked to dozens of bombings and is ranked by the FBI as the most lethal domestic terrorist group in the U.S. at the time. Nosair is captured after a police shoot-out. An FBI informant says he saw Nosair meeting with Muslim leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman a few days before the attack, and evidence indicating a wider plot with additional targets is found. [Village Voice, 3/30/93] Files found in Nosair's possession give details of a terrorist cell, mention al-Qaeda, and discuss the destruction of tall U.S. buildings. Incredibly, this vital information is not translated until years later. [ABC News, 8/16/02] Instead, within 12 hours of the assassination, New York police declare the assassination the work of a "lone gunman" and they stick with that story. In Nosair's subsequent trial, prosecutors will choose not to introduce his incriminating possessions or his confession as evidence, and an apparent "open-and-shut case" will end with his acquittal. However, he will be sentenced to 22 years on other lesser charges. [Village Voice, 3/30/93] Bin Laden contributes to Nosair's defense fund. Many of those involved in Kahane's assassination will plan the 1993 WTC bombing. As one FBI agent puts it, "The fact is that in 1990, myself and my detectives, we had in our office in handcuffs, the people who blew up the World Trade Center in '93. We were told to release them." [ABC News, 8/16/02]
19921996: Bin Laden Attacks U.S. Interests Using Sudanese Base With a personal fortune of around $250 million (estimates range from $50 to $800 million [Miami Herald, 9/24/01]), bin Laden begins plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. from his new base in Sudan. The first attack kills two tourists in Yemen at the end of 1992. [New Yorker, 1/24/00] The CIA learns of his involvement in that attack in 1993, and learns that same year that he is channeling money to Egyptian extremists. U.S. intelligence also learns that by January 1994 he is financing at least three terrorist training camps in North Sudan. [New York Times, 8/14/96; pbs Frontline 9/01; 9/11 Congressional Inquiry 7/24/03 (B)]The Terror Timeline
Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11--and America's Response. Copyright © by Paul Thompson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.