The British and 9/11: So Near and Yet So Far
Main Image Credit Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Centre in New York during the attacks on 11 September 2001. Courtesy of Michael Foran/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
Analysis of openly available sources indicates that a British report shared with the US in December 1998 described an early stage of the 9/11 plot.
Two extracts from Presidential Daily Briefs (PDB) are given some prominence in the 9/11 Commission report into the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. One is from a PDB delivered to President Bill Clinton on 4 December 1998, and the other is from a PDB given to President George W Bush on 6 August 2001. Both are presented inside a textbox, and both contain intelligence ‘from a friendly government’ which provided the first and only significant suggestion that Al-Qa’ida (AQ) planned to hijack aircraft in the US.
Eight months after the attacks, under Congressional pressure, the Bush administration was obliged to reveal some details of the PDBs, and on 17 May 2002 the New York Times disclosed that ‘the report provided to the president on Aug. 6, which warned him that Mr. bin Laden's followers might hijack airplanes, was based on 1998 intelligence data drawn from a single British source, government officials said today’. The British government was obliged to acknowledge that the intelligence came from British sources. The Guardian reported on 18 May that ‘The memo received by Bush on 6 August contained unconfirmed information passed on by British intelligence in 1998’. The Independent ran much the same story with additional detail.
Both PDBs quoted from one British report from December 1998 (which would probably have arrived in London in late November, but will be referred to as the December 1998 report for simplicity). The key question is whether this report, with its significant deviations from what actually happened on the day, actually referred to the 9/11 operation. Subsequently published evidence points compellingly to this indeed being an early version of the 9/11 plan.
The heavily redacted British contribution was shown on pages 127 and 128 of the 9/11 Commission’s report. It reads:
‘On Friday December 4 1998 the CIA included an article in the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) describing intelligence received from a friendly government about a hijacking in the United States.
‘SUBJECT. Bin Laden preparing to hijack US aircraft. Reporting [passage redacted] suggests bin Laden and his allies are preparing for attacks in the US including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Sheikh Omar Abdal Rahman, Ramzi Yousef and Muhammad Sadiq Awda. One source quoted a senior member of the Gamaat Al-Islamiya (GI) saying that “as of late October the GI had completed planning for an operation in the US on behalf of bin Laden but that the operation was on hold. A senior bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit GI counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options – perhaps including an aircraft hijacking. GI leader Islambouli in late September was planning to hijack a US airliner during “the next couple of weeks” to free Abdal Rahman and the other prisoners according to what may be another source. The same source late last month said that bin Laden might implement plans to hijack aircraft before the beginning of Ramadan on 20 December and that two members of the operational team had evaded security checks during a recent trial run at an unidentified New York airport.’
In May 2002 the US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice issued a statement observing (correctly) that the report had mentioned ‘hijacking in the traditional sense’ with no indication that aircraft would be used as weapons of mass destruction. Her testimony to the 9/11 Commission made broadly the same point.
Indeed, even in late 1998, there was a profusion of threat reports of which the aviation strand was just one. The MI5 official history comments aptly that the Service was puzzled as to why there were so many more reports of threats than actual attacks: ‘Even the most reliably sourced intelligence received on this question usually consists of a snapshot of a proposed plan being discussed. Most of the reporting does not make clear how far advanced the plan is’ (Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, pp. 802–806). What MI5 did not realise at the time was that AQ operations could take up to three years from inception to execution.
Steve Coll writes that ‘Within the morass of intelligence lay ominous patterns. One was an interest by bin Laden’s operatives in the use of aircraft … yet at the counter terrorism security group meetings and at the CIA’s counter terrorist centre there was no special emphasis placed on bin Laden’s threat to civil aviation or on the several exposed plots where his followers had considered turning hijacked airplanes into cruise missiles’ (Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 419–420).
Although the December 1998 report appears fragmentary, there were a number of aspects of particular interest. The first was the name Ramzi Yousef. Yousef had studied electrical engineering at Swansea Institute from 1986 to 1990 before exploding a massive bomb under the World Trade Centre in February 1993 and then planning the Bojinka Plot against airliners in the Philippines in 1994. Yousef had been arrested in Islamabad in February 1995 and sent to the US, where he was tried and imprisoned for life. He was an energetic and imaginative terrorist, and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was also known to move in terrorist circles.
The aviation link must have struck a chord, too. The British were also interested in Hussain Kherchtou, who had been in Kenya at the time of the Embassy bombings and was himself a pilot. He later provided a debrief to the FBI. His story and his courtship by the British came into the public domain because of a subsequent US court case and a talkative FBI officer.
The Egyptian angle also would have provoked little surprise. On 19 November 1995 Egyptian terrorists had blown up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, killing 13 – only yards from the British High Commission compound with its exposed staff housing and kindergarten. The British had a miraculous escape that day.
The concern for the release of Sheikh Abdal Rahman, ‘the Blind Sheikh’, was consistent with the widespread devotion which the preacher inspired among Islamist radicals and particularly Egyptians. His imprisonment in New York for his part in Yousef’s attack on the World Trade Centre had caused significant distress among his many adherents, who all wanted his release.
The idea that AQ would strike the US had first surfaced in 1997 and felt like the logical next step. Only a month beforehand (in November 1998), AQ had attacked two US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people including 12 US citizens. These operations had served as a wake-up call for those who thought the AQ threat was being exaggerated, and some who even conceived of Osama bin Laden himself as a benign figure who had somehow got out of his depth.
There were also some puzzling elements in the report. The first was the rather outdated idea of hijacking an aircraft to demand the release of the Blind Sheikh. It felt more in tune with Palestinian terrorist methods of the 1970s, and it was already known that Ramzi Yousef had developed the idea of exploding full airliners in flight.
The involvement of Gama'at Islamiya (GI) seemed odd. Bin Laden was known to be close to Ayman Al-Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), with whom GI were usually at daggers drawn. At the time GI were conceived of more as domestic Egyptian terrorists compared to the internationalist EIJ. Indeed, GI’s most recent operation had been the Luxor Massacre of November 1997, which killed 56 foreign tourists.
The name Islambouli carried great resonance. This was Mohammed Shawqi Islambouli, who had tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. His brother Khalid had been one of the assassins of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and had been tried and executed in Cairo. However, although Mohammed was thought to be in Afghanistan, he was not then known to be close to bin Laden, let alone Al-Zawahiri.
The dates made little sense. On the one hand an attack seemed imminent, but on the other hand it was ‘on hold’. But such is the nature of counterterrorist reporting: small fragments of a much bigger jigsaw.
Nonetheless, the report was taken very seriously on its receipt in the US. President Bill Clinton’s counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke summoned his Counterterrorism Security Group (p.130): ‘To address the hijacking warning, the group agreed that New York airports should go to maximum security starting that weekend. They agreed to boost security at other East coast airports. The CIA agreed to distribute versions of the report to the FBI and FAA to pass to the New York Police Department and the airlines. The FAA issued a security directive on December 8, with specific requirements for more intensive air carrier screening of passengers and more oversight of the screening process, at all three New York City area airports.’
Of course, when 9/11 happened nearly three years later, there were two very significant differences. Although aircraft were indeed hijacked, they were used as missiles rather than as bargaining chips, and the terrorists were mainly Saudi and not Egyptian. So what happened between December 1998 and September 2001 which could explain these changes?
The 9/11 Commission report (drawing on material from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) provides a fascinating section on AQ’s development of aviation methodology. Even before bin Laden had left Sudan in mid-1996, he had allegedly discussed the use of aircraft with Mohammed Atef (pp. 153–154): ‘(1) they rejected hijackings aimed at gaining the release of imprisoned comrades as too complex, because al Qaeda had no friendly countries in which to land a plane and then negotiate; (2) they considered the bombing of commercial flights in midair, as carried out against Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a promising means to inflict massive casualties; and (3) they did not yet consider using hijacked aircraft as weapons against other targets.’
So, why was the idea of a traditional hijacking still being discussed as late as December 1998? The answer must lie in the Egyptian jihadists’ determination to win the release of the Blind Sheikh. Mustafa Hamid, a journalist who was with bin Laden in Afghanistan, provides illuminating insight into the wrangling between EIJ and GI in Afghanistan. Hamid documents the tortuous process by which GI, with some reluctance, formed a union (‘The World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders’) with AQ, EIJ and others, but recounts how GI insisted on secrecy about their involvement. Hamid also describes GI’s determination to obtain the Blind Sheikh’s release and the involvement of one of their operatives in the African Embassy bombings (Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, p. 241 and pp. 263–266). So GI was indeed part of bin Laden’s group in Afghanistan and was involved in operations at the time of the December 1998 report.
However, bin Laden became increasingly irritated by the endless squabbling among the two Egyptian groups. Lawrence Wright, drawing upon a variety of sources, chronicles the disastrous attack on Luxor, which had the effect of alienating the Egyptian population from both groups. When on 23 February 1998 bin Laden’s second fatwa announcing the ‘World Islamic Front’ was published in an Arabic newspaper in London, GI were appalled, and some members tried to have Rahman pronounced emir instead of bin Laden. No wonder that Wright concludes that ‘bin Laden had had enough of the in-fighting between the Egyptian factions. He told both groups that their operations in Egypt were ineffectual and too expensive and that it was time for them to turn their guns on the United States and Israel’ (Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 290–296). This may explain why the December 1998 report mentions the operation being ‘on hold’. Between December and the spring of 1999, the GI team and Islambouli must have been stood down.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, in March or April 1999, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) – who had hitherto allegedly been on the fringes of AQ – was summoned to Kandahar, where he discussed the aircraft plan with bin Laden and Mohammed Atef (p. 156). Four operatives were chosen to begin work on the US project. However, ‘travel issues … played a part in al Qaeda's operational planning from the very start. During the spring and summer of 1999, KSM realized that Khallad and Abu Bara, both of whom were Yemenis, would not be able to obtain US visas as easily as Saudi operatives like Mihdhar and Hazmi’. And so the 9/11 plot developed with 15 of the 19 terrorists being Saudi nationals. Only Mohammed Atta was Egyptian.
KSM’s key involvement in the 9/11 plot makes it evident that there could not have been a second GI plot running in parallel, because KSM and Islambouli were close associates. Robert Baer and the 9/11 Commission report agree that KSM and Islambouli were working together in Qatar in the mid-1990s. For KSM it must have been difficult to abandon the rescue of his nephew, but he would have known that a traditional hostage release operation had none of the ambition or scale of bin Laden’s new thinking.
On 6 August 2001, only five weeks before the attacks, the December 1998 report featured once again in the PDB given to George W Bush at Crawford, Texas, entitled ‘Bin Laden determined to strike in US’ (see 9/11 Commission report, pp. 261–262). It began: ‘Clandestine foreign government and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US’, and concluded: ‘We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting such as that from a [redacted] Service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdal Rahman and other US-held extremists … Nevertheless FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.’
The PDB of 6 August caused some discomfort to the Bush administration and led to a National Security Archive page devoted to that one PDB (of which the December 1998 British report was just one constituent part).
The CIA Director George Tenet, who had been a tireless pursuer of the AQ threat before 9/11 and a regular correspondent with and visitor to London, regretted that more had not been done ‘to protect the United States against the threat. To cite two obvious and tragic failures, only after 9/11 were cockpit doors hardened and passengers forbidden from carrying box-cutters aboard US commercial airliners’ (George Tenet, At the Centre of the Storm, p. 205).
The British report of December 1998 was fragmentary, and while it was certainly ‘sensational’, it was not half as sensational as the actual events of that unforgettable and tragic day.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. From 1996 to 1999 he was senior advisor to the British government on overseas counterterrorism.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Two decades on, we reflect on the profound impact the 9/11 attacks had on security and global strategy.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG
Senior Associate Fellow