Few journalist-authors have spent as much of their careers chronicling and analyzing terrorism, al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks as Peter Bergen and Steve Coll. As consultants to the comprehensive six-hour film, “The Road to 9/11,” they helped guide the project’s exploration of the 10-year run-up to the catastrophic World Trade Center attacks. Peter Bergen, author of “Manhunt: The 10 Year Search for Bin Laden” and “The United States of Jihad” and CNN’s national-security analyst, snagged the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in an Afghan cave in 1997. Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden” and “The Bin Ladens,” a biography of the Saudi family.
They sat down with John Marks, co-executive producer of “The Road to 9/11” to talk about the motives behind the attacks, how U.S. leaders missed so many signals and what it was like to meet Osama bin Laden.
John Marks: Sixteen years later, what was the appeal of revisiting September 11 history again in ‘The Road to 9/11’? What can be brought to the story today?
Steve Coll: I think with all major events in history, whether it’s Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the more time passes, the more perspective and information you gain.
Peter Bergen: The Trade Center was attacked before 9/11, it was attacked in late February 1993. Most Americans didn’t process that this was the beginning of something, but the people on the periphery of that were associated with bin Laden, and bin Laden was an unindicted co-conspirator and his name kept showing up.
SC: Take the plot that produced the specific 9/11 attacks and think of it as an organized crime, because it was—it was an organized act of terrorism. But it was a very intricate conspiracy that lasted in different phases and in different cells over a fairly long period of time. There was the specific conspiracy that led to the hijacking and the attacks on 9/11, but [you can] see the connections that went way back to the end of the Afghan War and the fundraising operations for jihadis even during the 1980s.
JM: In some sense, people tend to see that day in terms of a single day or one single plot, as opposed to this large web of connections.
PB: I think for most Americans, 9/11 was an event that literally came out of nowhere. In a way it had been brewing, arguably, for a decade and a half, depending where you want to begin the clock. Al Qaeda was founded in 1988, so that’s 13 years before the attack.
People should have been paying more attention, and clearly there were people paying attention. The people at the CIA who were running the bin Laden unit, the New York police and FBI who were focused on this group of jihadis in Brooklyn. There were people, people like Steve and myself, who were looking at it through a journalistic prism. But the number of people who knew what al Qaeda was on September 10, 2001, was a very small group of people.
SC: There were a lot of people scattered around Washington [the next] morning who had enough experience with the subject to recognize what had happened, but they constituted maybe, I don’t know, 100 people?
PB: It was not a large group.
SC: In the cabinet, there was virtually no one who could have defined what al Qaeda was, given you a sense of its leadership, its intentions, its record, its membership. The director of the CIA could do that, maybe Condoleezza Rice had taken a few briefings, but in general there was not expertise distributed at the highest levels of the government.
JM: The film talks about the White Houses most directly involved in the run-up to 9/11, the Clinton and the Bush White Houses, and how their handling at the time seems like a collective failure. How so?
SC: I think the resources the country mustered to prevent al Qaeda terrorism were not proportionate to the scale of the threat. That was a problem that did cross into the first nine months of the Bush administration but germinated mostly during the Clinton administration. It was also not just the White House. It was also Congress, it was also public opinion, it was the whole national leadership that had evidence in front of it.
Certainly after 1988, with the two embassy bombing attacks in Africa, followed by the conspiracy that almost produced terrible attacks at the millennium in 2000, followed by the attack on the USS Cole. It’s not as if there wasn’t a trail of evidence of a group that was able to carry out very complex conspiracies across borders, through long periods of planning. And that was essentially not being disrupted. In the end, the collective failure is a failure of recognition, but also of scale of response.
PB: I think part of it is the United States is protected by its geography. The last time the continental United States was attacked in any serious manner was when the British burned down the White House in 1814. So it had been a while—not to excuse the mistakes that were made. There was a kind of conceptualization that the Africa bombing had happened over there, the Cole attack happened in Yemen, and so people didn’t absorb it. The fact is the Trade Center had already been attacked by people loosely affiliated with the group that then attacked us on 9/11.
SC: Right, but the millennium conspiracy [organizer] Ahmed Ressam, he was detected at the U.S. border, crossing by car from Canada into the West Coast in order to attack Los Angeles. So their intention to attack inside the United States was evident in their conduct and it was also part of the analysis that was presented to President Bush at Crawford in August 2001, which famously stated, ‘Bin Laden poised to attack inside the United States.’
JM: Aside from geography, why the blindness and why to that level? What was the conceptual idea that we couldn’t see? Was it simply that we hadn’t been attacked on that scale?
SC: We had been attacked. We had been attacked like four or five times.
JM: But not on this scale.
PB: The people who came into the Bush administration were Cold War warriors. They were focused on Iraq and Russia and China, and they didn’t have their first meeting about al Qaeda until the week before 9/11. They literally didn’t process it as a real issue. I think the Clinton folks, because they lived through it, were more concerned.
SC: But that period, ‘98 to 2000, of course, was characterized by the Monica Lewinsky matter, impeachment, the trial in the Senate. When the Clinton administration retaliated for the embassy attack in Africa with cruise missile strikes on camps in Afghanistan, they were accused of politicizing and trying to distract the country from the scandal that was engulfing the president. The country was prosperous, the economy was growing, the federal budget was coming into balance. There was not a sense of urgency.
JM: You actually met bin Laden years earlier when you went to interview him. How did that come about? Walk us through that.
PB: He was hard to find. But he had made a decision to do a television interview because they declared war on the United States, and no one noticed because they did it in this rather obscure Arabic-language newspaper. I think partly for religious reasons, they wanted to say, “We are actually going to do something.” I spent a lot of time with people associated with bin Laden in London, his acquaintances, friends.
Eventually, after a long process we traveled to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, check into this sort of zero-star hotel, then waited around while bin Laden’s media advisors were checking us out all the time. When it came to interviewing bin Laden, I didn’t even really know what it was going to look like, because he was not a public figure at the time. I thought he might be your [standard] table-thumping revolutionary, but he was rather mild-mannered, he spoke in a very low-key way. He delivered this diatribe against the United States, but it sounded like he was reading from the phone book, there was little emotion. He had a rather feline quality actually.
After the interview, I thought, “Well, very interesting.” Lots of guys, all armed, very serious. They’ve declared war on the United States, but how do you operationalize that. The answer came a little over a year later, when they blew up two U.S. embassies within nine minutes of each other, killed 200 people, plus had shown no compunction about massive civilian casualties.
JM: In terms of the motive behind 9/11, why would bin Laden decide to take such a drastic step? Why would people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mastermind such a thing? Is this a political statement? Is it a cultural/religious statement? Where does this come from?
PB: We talked to bin Laden directly about his motivations about what he was planning to do. We didn’t know 9/11 was going to be the outcome, but he’s been pretty consistent. His analysis after his involvement in the Afghan War against the Soviets, was that we were kind of weak and a paper tiger. He based that on our withdrawal from Vietnam, our withdrawal from Beirut in 1983 after the attacks on the Marine barracks and our withdrawal from Mogadishu after the Black Hawk Down incident.
This was a very naïve analysis, and he was surrounded by a group of yes-men, essentially, saying, “Yeah, you’re right.” They admired him. There were a few naysayers also within al Qaeda who said, “You know, this might not be so smart, it might also be against Islam.” But he ran it as a dictatorship and his analysis was, you apply enough military pressure to the United States, they will pull out. His idea was we would pull out of the Middle East, and the regimes [the U.S. had supported] would fall: Saudi Arabia, Egypt.
It made no sense.
We’re more involved in the Middle East than we’ve been in our history, so it backfired spectacularly. Bin Laden didn’t intend us to be in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, fighting in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Libya. We have huge bases in Qatar and Kuwait and the UAE. Perhaps, in one way, though, it didn’t backfire: Its ideology continues. ISIS admires bin Laden. This ideology is going to be hard to kill unfortunately. It’s not going to achieve any of its main goals, but it’s going to be very hard to [extinguish] completely.
JM: What about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
SC: He was this sort of producer, who was commissioned by the executive producer, bin Laden, to imagine this attack. When you see the story of his evolution, and the diabolical, almost Hollywood-influenced theatrical, egotistical side of his contribution to this plot, then you can see where this moonshot really came from—the ambition of it, the sheer ambition and the ego.
According to the 9/11 commission report, which draws on testimony he gave in custody—but under circumstances that make his testimony not fully reliable—there’s this sense of him proposing a version of the plot to Bin Laden that figures [KSM] as a star. More hijackings, and in the last one, he lands at an airport and gives a press conference. Bin Laden’s like, “No, no, no. Let’s scale this thing back. We don’t really need you as a protagonist in the story.” So I think one of the advantages of having this distance [before going] back to the story, is to be able to put into full perspective his role in the plot, which was simply not understood in the immediate aftermath of September 11.
JM: Tell us about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Who is this guy? I think a lot of people will be surprised to find that he went to school in North Carolina for a part of his education.
SC: He was born in Pakistan but grew up in Kuwait. He got involved with politicized Islamic activity as a teenager in Kuwait, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—a typical kind of Islamist teenage-radicalization story. In those settings that kind of adoption of radical ideas is orthodox, it’s not unusual. But having this way of thinking about politics and Jihad and faith, he went to the United States for higher education in North Carolina.
He fell in with a group of other Muslim students, who studied engineering there. You get the sense throughout the story of how he became more and more violent, and more and more ambitious. That he had a kind of raconteur’s personality, a little bit more of a charismatic active personality than bin Laden.
Peter described bin Laden as low key, a very characteristic Saudi Arabian or Gulf cultural style of not thumping the table and not demanding attention. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isn’t like that. Even today when he appears occasionally in court in Guantanamo, where he’s now held, he tries to take over the courtroom a little bit. You can sense that part of the story that he played.
JM: Afghanistan for him played a role as well—in his transformation into someone who might be objecting to the United States policies, objecting to American culture in some way.
PB: I think Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a bit of a puzzle, because I think bin Laden is a genuinely ideological religious fanatic. From when he was a 13-year-old who was fasting twice a week and praying seven times a day and chanting religious songs about Palestine, even in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. That’s not a typical teenager. I think for bin Laden this was really ideological. For Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I think it’s more puzzling, because I like the metaphor that Steve used, which was, bin Laden executive producer and KSM the producer. But I think he was an impresario who’s basically maybe…is he a sociopath?
JM: He likes the action.
PB: He likes the action. We haven’t heard a great deal from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about the kinds of things that bin Laden would talk about. Bin Laden had big ideas, they were wrong ideas…
SC: He sort of positioned himself around these ideas now that he’s in custody for the rest of life, but the record doesn’t contain anything like that discourse that you see from bin Laden.Bin Laden wrote down his ideas repeatedly, and positioned himself as an ideologue. He wasn’t a very consistent or impressive thinker, but there’s no question that he was an ideologue from a young age. These convictions were the basis of his decision making.
PB: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed I think was having fun doing these things.
SC: Well, the FBI agents who were chasing him found that some of their best sources were nightclub girls in the Philippines. I don’t see Osama bin Laden even in all of his humanity living that large at any stage of his life.
JM: Can we look back now and say with any certainty that 9/11 could have been prevented, given the talent, skill and will to commit these acts that is on display in this story?
SC: There are lots of what-ifs in the detective work that could have prevented the attacks. It would have required some different decisions, it would have required some luck, it would have required any number of threads being pulled—and in a timely way. So, there’s no question that you can, in the benefit of hindsight, see moments of missed opportunity that might have prevented the plot. What’s so heartbreaking about that is not just the loss of life on September 11, but what we now understand—which is that this was the maximum capacity that al Qaeda was likely to be able to muster.
They got lucky. If the scale of this attack had been prevented—even if the hijackings had been limited to a single one—it would not have changed the course of American history the way September 11 did. The capacity that they brought to this, the long planning cycle, the multinational conspiracy, the ability to operate without detection, crossing borders, living in the United States. That turned out to be their highest military achievement. If it had been prevented, history might have turn in a different way.
PB: And of course the U.S. government processed it as, “This is actually the standard… So therefore, we’ll invade Iraq and we’ll do a lot of other things.” Obviously there were multiple times when this could have been derailed. Something else would have happened, but it might not have been of this scale. The fact that there were two members of al Qaeda known to the CIA, living in the United States, who were two of the hijackers—and the FBI was only told about this about two weeks before the actual attack?
SC: You have this testimony [in the film] from FBI agents who were deployed to the CIA. That they tried to send this information out of the CIA to the FBI and that they were turned down. It really isn’t known exactly why that decision was made. There’s speculation about it, but we don’t know. It was a different era. The CIA didn’t share; the FBI was not built to share either. The whole intelligence community was organized in stove pipes. That was just the way it worked. A lot of this got rewritten after September 11 and so it’s a different world now, but it is heartbreaking for everyone who lived this. Some of them are wracked by guilt or at least regret.
JM: Are there lessons that have been learned and absorbed into how intelligence is gathered now? There’s a renewed attention on the CIA. They’ve come under scrutiny and attack recently from the White House, among other places.
PB: The environment for intelligence collection around terrorism and every other subject is now much more oriented towards signals intelligence. There’s so much information in the world and there are so many different ways to obtain it, the challenge is to make sense of it. Human recruiting and detective work is still a part of the landscape, but the bulk of where the opportunities lie is now in the digital world.
SC: Everything has changed. I think mostly for the better. There was no national counter-terrorism center, there was no Department of Homeland Security, there was no TSA, there were relatively few joint terrorism taskforce members. You can make an argument and say we’ve gone too far in the other direction, which is we have this giant national security apparatus, some of which has done things that turned out be not in the American tradition, for instance the NSA warrantless wiretapping.
Overkill sometimes is fine. There’s certainly a lot of redundancy, but the likelihood of an attack like 9/11 happening is very, very low because of the defensive structures we have and also the offensive things we’ve done. Also the public knowledge: Everybody [now] actually thinks this is an issue that deserves attention.