In the tireless quest to retroactively cherry-pick intelligence to prove that someone in the Bush administration should have known that 9/11 was coming, critics are particularly fond of the following piece of fruit, which will most likely be used against National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at Thursday’s 9/11 Commission hearings:
Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House.
Chilling, yes? The quote is from a report entitled “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?” by Rex A. Hudson (Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, September 1999). It is a lengthy (178 page) and scholarly overview of some of the major terrorist groups, their motives, and the possible threats they pose. It is a useful study, and I have assigned it as a reading in classes I have taught on terrorism.
The quote in question is often used to prove that someone in a position of authority should have been, could have been, or maybe was aware of the possibility of aircraft being used as weapons by terrorists. This assumes, of course, that they had happened across this particular report. (I’m wondering: How many of the Bush administration’s critics had read it before 9/11?) Unlikely, but let’s assume that they did, and that they read more than just that one sentence. The full quote, taken in context, gives a more detailed perspective on the possible range of threats:
Al-Qaida’s expected retaliation for the U.S. cruise missile attack against al-Qaida’s training facilities in Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, could take several forms of terrorist attack in the nation’s capital. Al-Qaida could detonate a Chechen-type building-buster bomb at a federal building. Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House. Ramzi Yousef had planned to do this against the CIA headquarters. In addition, both al-Qaida and Yousef were linked to a plot to assassinate President Clinton during his visit to the Philippines in early 1995. Following the August 1998 cruise missile attack, at least one Islamic religious leader called for Clinton’s assassination, and another stated that “the time is not far off” for when the White House will be destroyed by a nuclear bomb. A horrendous scenario consonant with al-Qaida’s mindset would be its use of a nuclear suitcase bomb against any number of targets in the nation’s capital. Bin Laden allegedly has already purchased a number of nuclear suitcase bombs from the Chechen Mafia. Al-Qaida’s retaliation, however, is more likely to take the lower-risk form of bombing one or more U.S. airliners with time-bombs. [Emphasis added] Yousef was planning simultaneous bombings of 11 U.S. airliners prior to his capture. Whatever form an attack may take, bin Laden will most likely retaliate in a spectacular way for the cruise missile attack against his Afghan camp in August 1998. [pp. 7-8]
What one takes away from the speculation above is that there were a variety of ways al Qaeda might have taken revenge for President Clinton’s failed 1998 cruise-missile strike. The “crashing aircraft into buildings” suicide attack was not singled out especially for concern, nor was it considered the most likely. The probable scenario was blowing up airplanes using time bombs.
The report also discusses a possible nuclear attack on the U.S. The Chechen mafia might supply the weapons; or perhaps state sponsors like Iraq. One of the rationales for liberating Iraq was to disrupt the nexus between terrorists, state sponsors, and weapons of mass destruction. Critics maintain that the idea of a cooperative relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda was an invention of the Bush team, pushed on an unwilling intelligence community. But this same scenario was highlighted on the same page of the 1999 report:
If Iran’s mullahs or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein decide to use terrorists to attack the continental United States, they would likely turn to bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is among the Islamic groups recruiting increasingly skilled professionals, such as computer and communications technicians, engineers, pharmacists, and physicists, as well as Ukrainian chemists and biologists, Iraqi chemical weapons experts, and others capable of helping to develop WMD. Al-Qaida poses the most serious terrorist threat to U.S. security interests, for al-Qaida’s well-trained terrorists are actively engaged in a terrorist jihad against U.S. interests worldwide. [p. 7]
The scenario was referred to later when discussing possible safeguards against attack:
[A] case could be made that U.S. Customs personnel should give extra scrutiny to the passports of young foreigners claiming to be “students” and meeting the following general description: physically fit males in their early twenties of Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Algerian, Syrian, or Sudanese nationality, or Arabs bearing valid British passports, in that order. These characteristics generally describe the core membership of Osama bin Laden’s Arab “Afghans” (see Glossary), also known as the Armed Islamic Movement (AIM), who are being trained to attack the United States with WMD.” [p. 64]
The report also discusses in some detail Iraq’s links to 1993 WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef, a bin Laden acolyte and original proponent of the Bojinka plan, which Khalid Sheik Mohammed later morphed into the 9/11 attack plan.
Intellectual honesty requires that anyone who is particularly enamored of the particular sentence regarding airliners crashing into buildings at least acknowledge the context in which it was written. Moreover, they might try reading the full report. They might learn something.