Bin Laden tipped his hand

By Lenny Savino
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Original Link

WASHINGTON (Updated 7:05 PM EDT) - In hindsight, the warning signals were obvious.

Law enforcement officials knew that in 1995, two associates of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden had talked about crashing a plane into CIA headquarters outside Washington. Egypt and Italy had warned the CIA that bin Laden was plotting to fly an airplane into last June's economic summit in Genoa, Italy.

The FBI knew that bin Laden associates were taking flying lessons at U.S. schools. One school in Minnesota warned that one of its Arab students was interested only in learning to steer a commercial airliner, not in how to take off or land. French authorities identified the man, Zacarias Moussaoui, as a terrorist weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Finally, bin Laden's al-Qaida organization had tried and failed to blow up the World Trade Center, and his associates have a pattern of learning from their mistakes and trying again, as they did after a failed attempt to blow up the U.S. Navy destroyer The Sullivans. Armed with better explosives and training, they hit another destroyer, the USS Cole.

Two weeks after the attacks on the Trade Center and the Pentagon killed more than 6,000 people, intelligence and law enforcement officials are asking themselves why no one connected the dots.

"Somehow, it fell between the cracks," said one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the Pentagon and World Trade Center investigations, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We had red flags all over the place."

Officials say they never had enough intelligence to predict or pre-empt the Sept. 11 attacks, but concede they had enough pieces of the puzzle to be more alarmed about whether bin Laden was planning to use some kind of airplane as a bomb.

"We've had indications this was coming for some years," said Rusty Capps, a retired FBI counterterrorism chief.

There were other signs, Capps said. In 1994, a team of Algerian Islamic terrorists hijacked a commercial airliner, intending to attack the Eiffel Tower. Quick-thinking pilots convinced the terrorists, who lacked the flying skills of this month's hijackers, that the plane needed more fuel to reach Paris. After it landed in Marseilles, a SWAT team stormed the plane.

Thirty-seven of the Sept. 11 hijackers and their associates, all affiliated with bin Laden, took flying lessons in the United States, according to Capps.

The FBI had learned in the late 1990s that Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, had wanted to fly a private plane full of explosives into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., according to court documents.

Analyzing and assessing terrorist threats is the responsibility of the government's Counter Terrorism Center, located at CIA headquarters but staffed by officials from the intelligence community, the FBI and other agencies. The center was created in the mid-1980s, but since 1996 its top targets have been bin Laden and his al-Qaida (the Base) network of terrorist organizations. In fact, after bin Laden issued an edict that year urging all Muslims to take arms against American soldiers, the center has had a bin Laden task force.

The CIA and FBI declined to comment on events preceding the Sept. 11 attacks and what mistakes may have been made, but privately a number of intelligence officials conceded there was an intelligence and analytical failure of what one called "Pearl Harbor proportions."

The failure to stop - or even spot - the terrorists didn't result from budgetary neglect. In the last decade, the U.S. counterterrorism budget increased from $2 billion to $12 billion, allowing the FBI to hire hundreds of counterterrorism analysts. Next year's budget is expected to rise from the current $12.8 billion a year after Congress sorts out the country's new Homeland Security budget.

Paul Moore, a FBI counterintelligence analyst for 21 years who's now retired, said there are several reasons that FBI and CIA analysts couldn't piece together what now seems obvious.

"Analysts look at probabilities, not possibilities," Moore said. "They don't look at the ways of attacking the Capitol. They look at ways of how it would most likely be attacked based on prior attacks."

Thus, because no U.S. landmarks such as the Pentagon or the World Trade Center had been attacked previously by a commercial airliner hijacked by a team of suicide bombers, analysts would not consider such scenarios.

"Before Sept. 11, hijackers carried bombs and guns, which U.S. defenses were ready for," Moore said. "We weren't ready for hijackers armed with box cutters and knives."

Previous profiles of suicide bombers, Moore added, were limited to Palestinians, "17-year-olds from poor families with few prospects." In the latest attack, many of the men the FBI has identified as the hijackers were in their 30s, from middle or even upper income families.

Mohammed Atta, 33, the hijacker pilot who slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower, was the son of a prominent attorney in Cairo, Egypt.

"You can't defend against everything," Moore said. "It's a sad truth."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy San Martin contributed to this article from Washington.)