Special Reports

Decades of Muslim unrest, failed intelligence met at WTC

WASHINGTON - Americans had every reason, the experts say, to see it coming - and still, somehow, did not.

After all, the twin towers had been shaken once before, in 1993. But that did not stop the border services from admitting more soldiers against American targets, as they had earlier given a visa to the blind Egyptian sheik who gave religious sanction for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

As embassies exploded overseas, as American military barracks and bases were bombed, as American warships were attacked by skiffs full of nitrates and diesel oil, as intelligence agencies learned of plots to blow up a dozen jumbo jets over the Pacific, and as a millennium bomb plot was stopped at the Canadian border, the country was still not able to defend itself.

What some members of Congress have called the greatest failure in American intelligence since Pearl Harbor was also the failure to recognize an open and determined enemy. Osama bin Laden announced publicly that he was going to smite the empire. He assured Americans that he had motive, means and opportunity.

There were the attacks on embassies in Africa in 1998 and on the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 to demonstrate his low-tech ingenuity, radiating out from the mud-brick huts of Afghanistan.

Since last Sept. 11, the authorities have disclosed how the hijackers trained at American flight schools; one suspected conspirator was arrested a month before the attacks for his erratic statements and terrorist links in France; an alert agent with the FBI in Arizona theorized that what occurred on Sept. 11 could occur, but this premonition never reached the White House terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, who during summer 2001 was frantically trying to determine the vector from which the next attack would come. There were shards from the intelligence services of Egypt and other nations: A big attack was coming. There was a message from bin Laden to one of his wives to return home quickly to Saudi Arabia.

Add to that the long degradation of American intelligence gathering, what some dissident intelligence officers call a retreat from traditional espionage under a succession of directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, even as Washington spent record amounts for spy satellites.

The system was on yellow alert, but the system was flawed.

Powerful yet ineffective

It is impossible to look at Sept. 11 in isolation from the five decades of crisis, confrontation and eruption in the Islamic world. Four Arab-Israeli wars since the creation of the Jewish state have laid a foundation of intractable conflict in the region. The Iranian revolution of 1979, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Sadat's assassination in 1981; Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, followed by Syria's - all were major events that set off waves of terrorism and the spread of extremist ideology. The ripple effects spread as far as the Russian republic of Chechnya and the Philippines.

All the while, in Iran, a Persian sandstorm was rising with the return from exile in February 1979 of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini awakened the latent rage of impoverished and devout Muslims in Iran, sweeping from power the Westernized and corrupt court of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, America's ally on the southern flank of the Soviet Union.

The old ayatollah blamed the Great Satan for Iran's ills and whipped up a storm of terror that has yet to exhaust itself. Ever since Iranian students breached the wall of the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, taking 62 Americans hostage, American interests have been prominent targets.

The trail to New York

To dismiss the 1993 bombing in New York is to miss the profile of migration by Islamic extremists to America. Their circles were interlocking, connecting the blind Egyptian sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, then largely unknown, and El Sayyid A. Nosair. Nosair was the extremist who in 1990 organized the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League in New York, and then began plotting the 1993 assault on the World Trade Center with Ramzi Yousef.

Defensively, America, too, played in the swamp of extremism. Presidents Carter, Reagan and the first Bush helped to galvanize, finance and arm an Islamic war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. A strong current of jihad already existed in South Asia, binding Saudi Arabia with Pakistan, first against Indian hegemony, but second in Afghanistan, where an Islamic movement for years had been agitating against "godless" Communist rule.

Egypt and China served as weapons suppliers while Saudi Arabia was the guardian of Muslim orthodoxy. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the chief of Saudi intelligence, worked with American CIA directors to support the "freedom fighters" who came from all over the Muslim world. The Afghan mujahedeen gathered devout young men willing to die defending their faith and land. The CIA provided them with arms, and others taught them guerrilla tactics. America and Saudi Arabia exploited this culture of jihad, Turki says today. In hindsight, he adds, bin Laden, the Taliban and al-Qaida all are manifestations of the extremism it promoted. Abandoned, it eventually turned against its sponsors.

The crucial event that led to bin Laden's decision to turn on his homeland and on the United States may well have been the Persian Gulf War, when he rushed to the Saudi leadership and offered to raise an army of mujahedeen to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. When American and allied forces came instead, and stayed, bin Laden - rejected - reconfigured his enemies to include the Saudi royal family and America.

Bin Laden spent much of the decade maneuvering in the Islamic fringe he yearned to lead. In Afghanistan, he allied himself with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and integrated forces into the militia. He erected networks in Yemen and Sudan. Neither thought him dangerous enough to arrest.

A simple failure

The CIA and Pentagon have spent billions on new collection hardware, spy satellites with real-time imagery of the globe. From space, ground and sea based antennae, the National Security Agency sucks voice and data streams like a fire hose and feeds them to computer buffers for analysis. Most of the data gathers electronic dust there.

The chronic shortage of language experts is NSA's Achilles' heel, so much so that one of the most sensitive bits of intelligence about Sept. 11 was that the NSA had intercepted an al-Qaida message Sept. 10 saying, "Tomorrow is zero hour." But no one translated it until after it was over.

Some intelligence veterans say that the reorganization of the CIA and FBI are not as important as getting back to the basics of espionage and counterespionage: recruiting valuable agents in Middle Eastern countries to penetrate terrorist organizations.

Some of the fixes are obvious. In the computer age, law enforcement is not wired properly. After the attack on the Cole in August 2000, the FBI was searching for two al-Qaida suspects, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi, because Malaysian intelligence had placed them at a meeting of terrorists in December 1999. They were living openly in San Diego. Hazmi was listed in the telephone directory. Midhar used a credit card in his own name and they were active at the San Diego Islamic Center, and both participated in the Sept. 11 attacks.

American embassies abroad repeatedly issued visas to known terror suspects. State Department computers were not linked to the CIA or FBI, or to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.