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“At 8:46 am on 11 September the US became a nation transformed”

23 July 2004: “At 8.46 on the morning of 11 September 2001, the US became a nation transformed. An airliner travelling at hundreds of miles an hour and carrying 10,000 gallons of jet fuel ploughed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan. At 9.03, a second airliner hit the south tower. Fire and smoke billowed upward. Steel, glass, ash, and bodies fell below. The twin towers, where up to 50,000 people worked, both collapsed less than 90 minutes later.”

With these dramatic images the independent commission investigating the circumstances of the al-Qa’ida attacks on New York and Washington yesterday issued its report into the worst terrorism attack against America in its history.

The report listed a series of recommendations designed to prevent a repeat of that day’s events, when four passenger jets were hijacked by Islamic extremists and turned into weapons that killed more Americans than the attack at Pearl Harbour more than half a century earlier. It also detailed a series of missed opportunities that, had law enforcement agencies acted differently, may have provided a chance to prevent the attack. But while the report talked of an institutional failure, a failure of the intelligence community to communicate internally and said that both the administrations of George Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, could have done more to stand up to Osama bin Laden, there was a distinct lack of criticism directed at any individual.

Among the recommendations made by the bi-partisan commission were the creation of a new intelligence centre and a high-level intelligence director to oversee and improve the nation’s ability to disrupt future terrorist attacks. These were the positive aspects to the report, the elements that the current and future governments will be able to draw from as the nation collectively continues to deal with the visceral shock inflicted by the 19 attackers who struck at the soft underbelly of a country more used to its position of military superiority.


But for all its recommendations for the future, the 567-page report is overwhelmingly a narrative of missed opportunities over many years to spot and stop al-Qa’ida and what it called a “failure of imagination” to conceive what the extremists were plotting. “The 9-11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise,” it said.

“Islamic extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers. Although Osama bin Laden himself would not emerge as a signal threat until the late 1990s, the threat of Islamic terrorism grew over the decade.” The journey that led to the events of 11 September, 2001 - destined to be forever remembered simply by the shorthand of 9-11 - began in the early 1990s, said the report, with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, which was carried out by Ramzi Yousef, probably the first attack by Islamic extremists on US soil.


The report continued to list other examples of extremist attacks, including the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993, when 18 Americans were killed by extremists supported by al-Qa’ida, and the 1995 plot uncovered by authorities in the Philippines to blow up US airliners crossing the Pacific.

At this stage, said the report, the US intelligence community judged Bin Laden as a financer of terrorism rather than a terrorist leader. In February 1998 this view somewhat shifted, initially with the issuing of Bin Laden’s fatwa that declared it was every Muslim’s duty to kill any American. In the months after this, two US embassies in Africa were destroyed and hundreds of people were killed by al-Qa’ida bombs. Then, in 2000, al-Qa’ida struck again, this time attacking the US Cole as it was docked in Aden.


By 11 September 2001, the report said that al-Qa’ida possessed leaders able to evaluate, approve and supervise the planning and direction of a major operation; a personnel system that could recruit and indoctrinate candidates; communications sufficient to enable the planning and direction of operatives; an intelligence effort to gather information it required; the ability move people great distances and the ability to raise the money needed to fund an attack.”

The report’s executive summary concluded: “The 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were more elaborate, precise and destructive than any of these earlier assaults. But by 11 September 2001, the executive branch of the US government, the Congress, the news media and the American public had received clear warning that Islamic terrorists meant to kill Americans in high numbers.”

Much of the commission’s report relies on evidence provided by the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), an alleged senior al-Qa’ida operative now in US custody, who is generally considered the mastermind of the attacks.


KSM said he would personally pilot the 10th plane and land it at a US airport in a dramatic gesture. Having killed all of the male passengers on board, he would have contacted the media, released all the women and children and made a speech denouncing the US. The report said that for KSM “this was theatre, a spectacle of destruction with [him] as the self-cast star - the super-terrorist”.

Bin Laden and others opposed the scale of the plan, the report said, saying it would be too complicated. “Bin Laden was receiving numerous ideas for potential operations. KSM’s proposal to attack US targets with commercial airplanes was only one of many.” The report, the culmination of a 20-month investigation into the plot that killed almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, described the meticulous planning of the team of hijackers, led by the student Mohammed Atta.

A surveillance video that surfaced last Wednesday showed four of the hijackers passing through security gates at Washington Dulles international airport shortly before boarding the plane they would crash into the Pentagon. In the video, the hijackers could be seen undergoing additional scrutiny after setting off metal detectors, then being permitted to continue to their gate.


The report added: “[11 September] began with the 19 hijackers getting through a security checkpoint system that they had analysed and knew how to defeat. Their success rate was 19 out of 19. They took over the four flights, taking advantage of air crews and cockpits that were not prepared for the contingency of a suicide hijacking.” But the report said that the security slip at Dulles was simply one of several missed opportunities to have stopped the al-Qa’ida plot. “We write with the benefit and handicap of hindsight,” the commissioners wrote.


“Nonetheless, there were specific points of vulnerability in the plot and opportunities to disrupt it.” In bullet-point form the report listed nine “operational failures” that allowed the hijackers to proceed seamlessly with their plot, which had been in the planning stages for years and which cost as little as $500,000 (£270,000). “To date we have not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9-11 attacks,” the report added elsewhere. “Al-Qa’ida had many sources of funding and a pre-9-11 annual budget estimated at $30m. These specific failures were:

* Not watch-listing two of the future hijackers - both known al-Qa’ida suspects - Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar - who had been spotted at a meeting of suspects in south-east Asia and not informing the FBI of their travel to the US;

* Not sharing information linking al-Qa’ida operatives involved in the attack on the USS Cole with Mihdhar;

* Not taking adequate steps in time to find Mihdhar and Hamzi once they entered the US and were living in California;

* Not linking the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui - the so-called “20th hijacker” - who was arrested in the mid-West in August 2001 after he aroused suspicions at a flight school, to the heightened indications and intelligence “chatter” than an attack was imminent;

* Not discovering false statements made on visa applications by the hijackers;

* Not expanding the no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watch-lists;

* Not searching airline passengers identified by a computer-based screening system;

* Not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings.


In addition to these specific instances, the report also highlighted a general failure of the intelligence community to appreciate the growing threat presented by terrorists groups such as al-Qa’ida.

“The intelligence community struggled throughout the 1990s and up to 9-11 to collect intelligence on and analyse the phenomenon of transnational terrorism,” it said. “Many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece together the growing body of evidence on al-Qa’ida and to understand the threats. Yet, while there were many reports on Bin Laden and his organisation, there was no comprehensive review of what the intelligence community knew and what that meant.”

Of the CIA, whose director at the time of the attacks, George Tenet, recently resigned, it added: “Before 9-11 no agency did more to attack al-Qa’ida than the CIA. But there were limits to what the CIA was able to achieve by disrupting terrorist activities abroad by using proxies to try and capture Bin Laden and his lieutenants in Afghanistan.

“CIA officers were aware of those limitations.” The executive summary of the report also addressed the question of whether America was more or less safe since 9-11. It conclusion was not encouraging.


“Since [the attacks] the US and its allies have killed or captured a majority of al-Qa’ida’s leadership, toppled the Taliban and severely damaged the organisation” it said. “But terrorist attacks continue. The problem is that al-Qa’ida represents an ideological movement, not a finite group of people. It initiates and inspires even if it no longer directs. In this sense it has transformed itself into a decentralised force.

“Because of offensive actions against al-Qa’ida since 9-11 and defensive actions to improve homeland security we believe we are safer today.” Turning to the future, the report recommended the creation of a new intelligence centre and high-level intelligence director to improve the nation’s ability to disrupt future terrorist attacks.

Running and overseeing the centre would be a new Senate-confirmed national intelligence director, reporting directly to the president at just below full cabinet rank, with control over intelligence budgets and the ability to hire and fire deputies, including the CIA director and top intelligence officials at the FBI, Homeland Security Department and Defence Department.


But the report added: “The enemy is not just “terrorism”. It is the threat posed specifically by Islamist terrorism, by Bin Laden and others who draw on a long tradition of extremeintolerance within a minority strain of Islam that does not distinguish politics from religion, and distorts both.

“The enemy is not Islam, the great world faith, but a perversion of Islam. The enemy goes beyond al-Qa’ida to include the radical ideological movement, inspired in part by al-Qa’ida, that has spawned other terrorist groups and violence. Thus our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al-Qa’ida network and, in the long term, prevailing over the ideology that contributes to Islamist terrorism.” In addition to the specifics it listed, the report also called for what it called a “global strategy” for dealing with the problem at a ground level. “The first phase of our post-9/11 efforts rightly included military action to topple the Taliban and pursue al-Qa’ida. This work continues,” it said.

“But long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defence. If we favour one tool while neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our national effort.” Calling for a three-dimensional approach that would attack terrorists, prevent the continued growth of Islamic terrorism and protect and prepare for more attacks, the report listed a series of measures the commissioners believe could be effective.


* Root out sanctuaries. The US government should identify potential terrorist sanctuaries and have realistic country or regional strategies for each;

* Strengthen long-term US and international commitments to the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan;

* Stand as an example of moral leadership in the world. To Muslim parents, terrorists like Bin Laden have nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death;

* Where Muslim governments, even those who are friends, do not offer opportunity, respect the rule of law, or tolerate differences, then the US needs to stand for a better future;

* Communicate and defend American ideals in the Islamic world, through much stronger public diplomacy to reach more people, including students and leaders outside of government;

* Devote a maximum effort to the parallel task of countering the proliferation of WMD. Expect less from trying to dry up terrorist money and more from following money for intelligence.

The report outlined other measures with which the US could prevent further attacks:

* Target terrorist travel, an intelligence and security strategy that the 9-11 story showed could be at least as powerful as the effort devoted to terrorist finance. Address problems of screening people with biometric identifiers across agencies and governments;

* Set standards for the issuing of birth certificates and sources of identification. Develop strategies for neglected parts of our transportation security system. Since 9/11, 90 per cent of the nation’s $5bn annual investment in transportation security has gone to aviation, to fight the last war;

* Prevent arguments about a new computerised profiling system from delaying vital improvements in the “no-fly” and “automatic selectee” lists. Also, give priority to the improvement of checkpoint screening.


The commissioners’ report is the most exhaustive and thorough to look at the circumstances surrounding the events of 11 September 2001. There was an appeal to the American public to remember that day as a way of trying to ensure it was not repeated.

“We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9-11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we all came together as a nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren.”


Osama bin Laden began exploring an alliance with Iraq in the early 1990s. An Iraqi delegation travelled to Afghanistan in 1998 to meet the Taliban and Bin Laden. Iraq may have offered Bin Laden a safe haven, but he chose to stay in Afghanistan. Efforts to make Pakistan apply pressure on the Taliban failed.

The US failed to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia or develop a joint effort to disrupt al-Qa’ida. Between 1997 and 2001, the US government tried but failed to persuade the Taliban to expel Bin Laden. Military strikes against Bin Laden were considered but rejected on the grounds of insufficient actionable intelligence.

The attacks cost between $400,000 (£217,000) and $500,000. Al-Qa’ida had an overall estimated budget of $30m. Bin Laden adopted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s idea of a “plane operation” involving 10 aircraft attacking targets on both the east and west coasts of America (the plan was later modified).

Training for the attacks began in autumn 1999. Mohammed Atta became tactical commander of the operation in the US.

Two operatives were identified as part of the US’s “Millennium alert” Having been spotted in Kuala Lumpur in early 2000, they were lost in Bangkok and were later able to live in
San Diego.

After the attack in October 2000 on the USS Cole, evidence against al-Qa’ida mounted. But the Clinton administration decided against military action.

The following spring, US intelligence agencies warned of “something very, very, very big”­ “The system was blinking red,” the CIA director George Tenet said. But the information pointed to an attack outside the US.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the “19th hijacker”, was arrested on 16 August for immigration offences. Officials realised the operatives spotted earlier were in the US. This was not linked with the high level
of threat.

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