The road to 9/11 was littered with opportunities that the United States missed to cripple al Qaeda and to avert the attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the 1990s, small dedicated teams of intelligence analysts and FBI agents toiled in obscurity, as al Qaeda and its associates attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, along with several smaller “lone wolf” attacks.
HISTORY talked to five intelligence and law-enforcement veterans of those investigations about the challenges they faced convincing others in the government of the threat posed by al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist groups.
Cynthia Storer, Former analyst with the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center
One of first big missed opportunities was just losing most of our intelligence collection after the Soviets began to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988. It was that peace dividend that [President Bill] Clinton wanted, that the American people wanted after the Soviet Union collapsed, so we fired all of our Afghan assets and ramped down our signals-intelligence collection and everything else. If you don’t get the information to follow something closely, then you’re going to be behind the curve, which is what happened.
Everybody needed to have a change of mindset. At the end of the Cold War, the beginning of this international Sunni terrorist organization was something nobody imagined could happen, because ‘Arabs can’t work together, and these guys are a bunch of ragheads who’ve been fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan.’ Except that we knew there was a lot of very well-educated people who had been hanging out together in Afghanistan for 10 years.
Those of us who worked it weren’t under those illusions, but that was the conventional wisdom—that they weren’t capable of doing anything. We were in the Counterterrorist Center, which was the first center in the CIA [established in 1986], so the rest of the organization didn’t really understand what we did, and we were looked down on. So that combination of factors, and having women, frankly, be in the forefront of this, made it hard to convince people. My experience is, from studying these things academically, it takes about 10 years to turn people’s mindsets around. We didn’t have 10 years.
[The skepticism over al Qaeda’s threat] was bad enough that the week of the Africa bombings in ’98, I was supposed to go on rotation to another office, because I was tired of swimming upstream or battling uphill or whatever you want to call it. I was exhausted. And I was tired of being talked down to… I actually got counseled by my branch chief on my performance review that I was spending too much time on bin Laden.
It’s the first-through-the-door problem. The first people that notice something are going to be in the minority and people are going to pooh-pooh them until they get everybody on board.
Ali Soufan, FBI agent who worked on the Cole and 9/11 investigations
There’s lots of political missed opportunities. Seriously, where do you start? Bin Laden declared jihad on America in 1996, they did the East Africa embassy bombing, we were not serious about our response. We launched a few cruise missiles that did not have any significant damage on al Qaeda. At the time, we didn’t have domestic unity. A lot of people did not believe that there was something called terrorism… When we had the USS Cole attack, there was no response whatsoever… Bin Laden was emboldened more and more because he took that as a sign of weakness.
Jack Cloonan, FBI agent who worked on the CIA-FBI Osama bin Laden unit from 1996-2002
You could say that while [al Qaeda] was beating up on the Soviets and helping us, that was terrific. But after the Soviets departed Afghanistan, the question [for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement] then was, ‘Well, who are these people? What are they doing? What’s their focus? And was it the United States? If it was, when did that occur, and what were we doing about it?’
One of the things that I think about often is how these individual acts [like the 1990 assassination of ultra-nationalist orthodox rabbi Meir Kahane] were investigated, but not necessarily seen as part of a much broader, foreign-based radical Islam that was launching this and that the United States was Target Number One.
Matthew Besheer, Port Authority detective assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force
When we identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] as the person who wired money to Ramzi Yousef for the ’93 World Trade Center bombing, we indicted him and started looking for him. But as far as the greater, bigger role that he had, it was very difficult at the time to convince higher ups what we were doing… A lot of the upper echelon within the government want a CSI-type of investigation where you start the investigation at 9 o’clock and by 10 o’clock you’re all out having a beer because you’ve made an arrest and had a trial. But many times with these terrorist investigations, you’re chasing people that basically disappear into the wind, and you’ve got to find out all their different names, you’ve got to find out their contacts—and it takes time, it takes a huge amount of effort, and it takes a lot of money.
John Anticev, FBI agent who was part of the effort to build a case against bin Laden
Only folks in New York and a handful of really good analysts and mid-level bosses in FBI headquarters knew how important—prior to the ’93 World Trade Center bombing—how important this group was.
I try to explain to people, when they go, ‘Why didn’t they do anything more?’ I just tell people, if you live on a certain street, and you know down the block is a dangerous intersection, and you go to your local official, and you say, ‘Let’s put a stop sign or a light there,’ they always tell you ‘no’ until a school bus crashes into something over there, and then they’ll put something up. The federal government works kind of the same way. You can tell them that this group is dangerous, and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know, we know,’ but they’re just not going to shift money and resources into it from drugs and organized crime because John Anticev says these guys are dangerous…That’s just the way it goes.
HISTORY asked our sources what they learned during their time chasing al Qaeda in the 1990s that they would pass on to their present-day counterparts:
Storer: You need subject-matter experts whose job is only to look at the information—not to collect it, not to go to meetings, not to play politics. You need the experts to give you a sound read on what’s happening that’s free of political considerations. If you don’t get that, then it’s one of the way things kind of go off the rails.
Anticev: Work hard, become a subject-matter expert in what you’re doing, because the FBI now has become so transient, people are moving from one squad to another or one division to another. If you want to work with terrorism, stay with terrorism. There is no substitute for experience, sticking with a certain subject and becoming an expert in it, because it is so apparent to your adversaries—your competency when you talk to them.
Soufan: The importance of remembering we’re all on the same team. The importance of sharing information with each other, but also the importance of focusing on the ideology and focusing on the narrative, and not just getting blinded with names: ‘Is it al Qaeda? Is it ISIS? Is it Ansar al-Sharia? Is it AQIM? Is it AQAP?’ We are still fighting the same global jihadi narrative and there is no small little bit of information that’s irrelevant. Every bit of information, as small as it gets, might be important one day, and might be the piece that you need in order to put a big plot together.
Cloonan: You have to understand psychology, you have to understand their religion, you have to understand their motivation. You can’t just look at this like, ‘Oh, I’ve been given a case, I’ve got 90 days to do x, y and z.’ You need education, learning so much more about your target, and adding a level of sophistication that just wasn’t there. You need language skills. We’d be better served if we had a lot of cross-training with the CIA, if we had people of different color and many more Muslim agents. Lastly, do we think this threat is going to end any time soon? If there’s anything I’ve learned from speaking to these people, it’s that their sense of time is a lot different than ours. Their sense of revenge is a lot different, meaning that revenge in their mind extends for centuries. And if we’re going to do anything to counter this stuff, you’d better be prepared to be in this for the long haul.
Besheer: Do not think that any stone is not important. You have to look under every rock. If it takes six months’ worth of investigation to find out that he’s not connected, well then it takes six months of investigation, but you need to do it. Because in the very early days nobody was really giving a lot of credence to KSM as being a big player in all of this. And you know how it turned out later on. We also don’t need to be fighting over budgetary constraints when conducting these investigations. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money.
My daughter just had identical twin boys, and deep down in my heart I fear for what these guys are going to be fighting for in 20 years, because we still have our heads in the sand. We don’t see it…The terrorists are telling us, ‘We’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming,’ and we’re not doing anything about it. It’s frustrating to me because I lost 37 good friends on 9/11 and every night I dream of them and every night I go to bed doubting myself that I didn’t do everything I could possibly have done, and because of that these guys are dead. It’s a terrible, terrible burden.