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9/11 and After
Bin Laden was fixated on the idea that the United States was weak. In the years leading up to 9/11, he often spoke of its weakness to his followers, citing such examples as the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s, and from Somalia two decades later, following the Black Hawk Down incident, in which eighteen U.S. servicemen were killed. Bin Laden enjoyed recounting how al-Qaeda had slipped fighters into Somalia in 1993 to help train the Somali clans battling American forces, who were there as part of a UN mission to feed starving Somalis. “Our boys were shocked by the low morale of the American soldier, and they realized that the American soldier was just a paper tiger,” bin Laden exulted. His disciples eagerly agreed with the man they loved like a father.
Bin Laden assured his men that the Americans “love life like we love death” and would be too scared to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Look at what a drubbing bin Laden and his men had inflicted on the Soviets in Afghanistan! And America was every bit as feeble as the former Soviet Union, bin Laden told his nodding acolytes. Those in his inner circle who had any niggling doubt about this analysis largely kept it to themselves.
As plans for the 9/11 attacks took a more definite shape, some of al-Qaeda’s senior officials expressed concern that the coming attacks might anger the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to whom bin Laden had, at least notionally, sworn an oath of allegiance. During the five years that bin Laden had been the Taliban’s honored guest, Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders had made it clear that al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan to conduct a freelance war against America. Bin Laden thought he could help inoculate himself against any anger caused by the attacks on the United States by offering the Taliban a highly desirable head on a platter: that of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the storied leader of what remained of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. For the Massoud hit, bin Laden recruited two Tunisian Belgian al-Qaeda assassins, who disguised themselves as television journalists keen to interview the legendary guerrilla leader.
During the summer of 2001, while al-Qaeda groomed the Massoud assassins, the leaders of the group were putting the finishing touches on their plans for the spectacular attacks on America’s East Coast. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a key plotter based in Hamburg, sent a message to bin Laden on Thursday, September 6, saying that the attacks on Washington and New York would take place the following Tuesday. And on September 9, bin Laden heard the welcome news that his assassins had mortally wounded Massoud, for whom he had long harbored contempt. Now the stage was set for what bin Laden believed would be his greatest triumph: a spectacular strike on the country that was Islam’s greatest enemy because it propped up the godless dictatorships and monarchies of the Middle East and, of course, Israel. With one tremendous blow against America, bin Laden would get the United States to pull out of the Middle East, and then Israel would fall, as would the Arab autocracies, to be replaced by Taliban-style regimes. This was bin Laden’s fervent hope and belief.
From the day that President George W. Bush took office, January 20, 2001, every morning, six days a week, CIA official Michael Morell briefed the president about what the intelligence community believed to be the most pressing national security issues. Reed-thin and in his early forties, Morell spoke in terse, cogent paragraphs. On August 6, eight months after Bush was inaugurated, Morell met with the president at his vacation home in Texas to tell him of the CIA’s assessment that bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States. This briefing was heavily colored by the fact that Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian on the fringes of al-Qaeda, had recently pled guilty to charges that he planned to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport in mid-December 1999. The August 6 briefing noted that the FBI had come across information indicating “preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.” After the briefing, Bush continued to enjoy the longest presidential vacation in three decades.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, in Sarasota, Florida, Morell gave the President’s Daily Brief as usual. There was nothing memorable in it. Together with political advisor Karl Rove and press secretary Ari Fleischer, Morell got into the president’s motorcade to head to the local elementary school where Bush planned to meet with some students. During the ride over, Fleischer asked Morell if he had heard anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Morell said he hadn’t, but would check it out with the CIA Ops Center. Officials at the Ops Center confirmed the news and quickly demolished a widely held perception: it wasn’t a small plane that had wandered off course; it was a large commercial jet.
At the elementary school, where Bush was reading a story about a pet goat to a group of second-graders, the news came on TV that a second jet had hit the Trade Center. Bush was hustled out of the school to head to Air Force One, which took off for Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana. Fleischer was keeping careful notes that day, and the first time he recorded bin Laden’s name was at 10:41 a.m., when Chief of Staff Andy Card said to Bush on Air Force One, “It smells like Osama bin Laden to me.” By then, both towers of the Trade Center had collapsed and one of the hijacked planes had plowed into the Pentagon. Bush’s blood was boiling, and he vowed to himself, “We are going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.”
That same morning, bin Laden told Ali al-Bahlul, a bodyguard who doubled as his media maven, that it was “very important to see the news today.” Bahlul was eager to comply with his boss’s wishes; bin Laden ruled al-Qaeda just as he lorded over his own household, as an unquestioned absolute monarch. On this day, al-Qaeda’s leader was, as always, surrounded by his most trustworthy bodyguards, mostly Yemenis and Saudis. Like other members of al-Qaeda, the bodyguards had sworn a religious oath of personal obedience to bin Laden, rather than to his militant organization. (Similarly, those who joined the Nazi party swore an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler, rather than to Nazism.)
Bin Laden had founded al-Qaeda in 1988, and since then he had consolidated more and more power as the unquestioned, absolute leader of the group. The conventional view is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and al-Qaeda’s longtime second in command, was bin Laden’s “brain.” But in making the most important strategic shift in al-Qaeda’s history--identifying the United States as its key enemy, rather than Middle Eastern regimes--bin Laden brushed aside Zawahiri’s obsessive focus on overthrowing the Egyptian government. Bin Laden also kept Zawahiri in the dark for years about al-Qaeda’s most important operation--the planning for the 9/11 attacks--apprising his deputy only during the summer of 2001.
To his followers bin Laden was truly a hero, someone who they knew had given up a life of luxury as the son of a Saudi billionaire. Instead, he was living a life of danger and poverty in the service of holy war, and in person he was both disarmingly modest and deeply devout. Members of al-Qaeda modeled themselves on the man they called “the Sheikh,” hanging on his every pronouncement, and when they addressed him, they asked his permission to speak. His followers loved him. Abu Jandal, a Yemeni who was one of his bodyguards, described his first meeting with bin Laden in 1997 as “beautiful.” Another of bin Laden’s bodyguards characterized his boss as “a very charismatic person who could persuade people simply by his way of talking. One could say that he ‘seduced’ many young men.”
So, on the morning of September 11, bin Laden’s crew of bodyguards eagerly set out with the man they regarded as their “father,” leaving his main base near the southern city of Kandahar for the mountainous region of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. Bahlul rigged up a TV satellite receiver in a minibus that was part of bin Laden’s caravan of vehicles, but when they reached Khost, he found it hard to get a television signal, so bin Laden tuned his radio to the BBC’s Arabic service.
Bin Laden told his followers, “If he [the newsreader] says: ‘We have just received this . . .’ it means the brothers have struck.” At about 5:30 in the evening local time, the BBC announcer said, “I have just received this news. Reports from the United States say that an airliner was destroyed upon crashing into the World Trade Center in New York.” Bin Laden told his men to “be patient.” Soon came the news of a second jet flying into the South Tower of the Trade Center. Bin Laden’s bodyguards exploded with joy; their leader truly was conducting a great cosmic war against the infidels!
About eight hundred miles to the south, in the heaving Pakistani megacity of Karachi, some of bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants had also gathered to watch television coverage of the attacks. They were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the portly commander of the 9/11 operation; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an intensely religious Yemeni who was a key coordinator of the attacks; and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, the Saudi paymaster who had transferred tens of thousands of dollars to the hijackers living in the States for their flight lessons and living expenses.
Also watching TV with the three architects of 9/11 were some other al-Qaeda “brothers.” As the television showed the hijacked planes flying into the Trade Center, the brothers started weeping with joy, prostrating themselves, and shouting “God is great!” Bin al-Shibh admonished them, “Patience! Patience! Follow the news! The matter is not over yet!” Then came the attack on the Pentagon and the news of the fourth aircraft, which went down in Pennsylvania. The men from al-Qaeda embraced each other and wept again, this time in sadness for the brothers who had died on the hijacked planes.
Bin Laden was confident that the United States would respond to the attacks on New York and Washington only with cruise missile strikes, as it had done three years earlier, following al-Qaeda’s attacks against two American embassies in Africa in 1998. At most, he expected the kind of air strikes that the United States and NATO had employed against the Serbs during the air war in Kosovo in 1999. The paper tiger might bare its fangs, but it wouldn’t go in for the kill.
In Washington, news soon circulated that a Palestinian terrorist organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had claimed responsibility for the attacks. Bush summoned Morell, asking, “What do you make of this?”
Morell replied, “The DFLP has a history of terrorism against Israel, but its capabilities are limited. It does not have the resources and reach to do this.”
In the early afternoon, Air Force One headed from Louisiana to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, home of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls America’s nuclear missiles. Bush asked to see Morell again, and pushed him for his opinion about who was behind the attacks. “I don’t have any intelligence as yet, so what I am going to say is my personal view,” Morell said. “There are two terrorist states capable of conducting such a complex operation--Iran and Iraq--but neither has much to gain and everything to lose from attacking the U.S.” He added, “The responsible party is almost certainly a nonstate actor, and I have no doubt the trail will lead to bin Laden and al-Qaeda.”
“How soon will we know for sure?” Bush asked.
Morell reviewed how long it took for the United States to determine the culprits in several previous terrorist attacks. “We knew it was al-Qaeda within two days of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, but it took months in the case of the Cole bombing. Bottom line, sir, we may know very soon or it may take some time,” Morell concluded.
In fact, it would be only a matter of hours. When Bush landed in Nebraska at around 3:30 p.m., he spoke for the first time to CIA director George Tenet. Tenet told him that the attacks “looked, smelled, and tasted like bin Laden,” particularly because the names of two known al-Qaeda associates, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had been found on the passenger manifests of one of the crashed planes. For the past several months, as many as sixty CIA employees had known that Hamzi and Mihdhar were living in the United States, but they had inexplicably failed to inform the FBI.
Over the next few days, Bush and his war cabinet set in motion a plan to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan--unconventional in that it relied on only some four hundred U.S. Green Berets, Special Operations forces, and CIA personnel on the ground, combined with massive American firepower from the air. And on September 17, Bush signed a highly classified authorization to hunt down and, if necessary, kill the leaders of al-Qaeda, allowing the CIA great leeway as to how to get the job done. One of the top lawyers at the Agency, John Rizzo, who had joined the CIA at the height of the Cold War and who helped draft the authorization, says, “I had never in my experience been part of or ever seen a presidential authorization as far-reaching and as aggressive in scope. It was simply extraordinary.” The same day that Bush signed this “finding,” he spoke with reporters at the Pentagon, saying, “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’ ”
On September 12, at his office in Islamabad, Jamal Ismail, Abu Dhabi Television’s correspondent in Pakistan, received a messenger from bin Laden, who told him, “Jamal, I came last night in a hurry from Afghanistan.” The messenger read a statement from bin Laden that, while it did not claim responsibility for the attacks, endorsed them heartily: “We believe what happened in Washington and elsewhere against the Americans was punishment from Almighty Allah, and they were good people who did this. We agree with them.” Ismail quickly read this message out on Abu Dhabi TV.
Ismail, a savvy Palestinian journalist long based in Pakistan, had known bin Laden on and off over the course of a decade and a half, having worked as a reporter in the mid-1980s for Jihad magazine, an organ funded by bin Laden that publicized the exploits of the Arabs then fighting the Soviets. Ismail had recently resumed his relationship with bin Laden when he interviewed him at length for a documentary profile that aired on Al Jazeera in 1999. Ismail thought that the message from bin Laden about the 9/11 attacks meant that bin Laden likely knew far more than he was publicly saying about the hijackers. “Osama never praised anyone who is non-Muslim. From this I determined he knows something, and he’s confident of their identity. They have links,” Ismail said.