It’s 1996 and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, aka KSM, is in motion.
He’s fresh off a business meeting with Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, which went pretty well. They discussed partnering on a new venture: attacking the United States using suicide pilots in planes. But his first draft of the plan was so elaborate, and had so many targets, that even bin Laden found it too much. So they tabled it and parted ways.
Now KSM is back on the circuit, drumming up gigs as a terrorist-for-hire. Car bombings, hijackings, reservoir poisonings -- he’s got the full skill set.
He travels to Indonesia, where he meets with the leader of a violent militia whose goal is to turn all of Southeast Asia into a single Islamic state. Then keeps moving. He wears disguises, cycles through aliases, flashes forged papers at border crossings. He avoids electronics and uses personal couriers to communicate with clients. He pushes on to India, then Pakistan, then Iran for meetings. If jihad had a frequent flyer program, KSM would have a platinum card.
But he’s not the only one racking up airline miles. So is a pair of men who are looking for him -- our investigators from Episode Five: Detective Matthew Besheer …
MATTHEW BESHEER: Our travels took us to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand.
… And FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: We went to the Philippines.
MATT BESHEER: Johannesburg, South Africa.
They’re a two-man team on the Joint Terrorism Task Force and they’re carrying a sealed indictment of KSM on seven counts of terror conspiracy. It connects him to the Bojinka plot -- a scheme to down a dozen passenger jets en route to the U.S. U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has obtained it after showing a grand jury that KSM helped pay for the plot by transferring money to his nephew, master bomber Ramzi Yousef. KSM already knows that U.S. authorities are looking for him. What he doesn’t know is that they’re now legally permitted -- and determined -- to arrest him.
MARY JO WHITE: We considered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed highly, highly dangerous. He was as high on our radar screen as he could possibly have been.
That’s why Pellegrino and Besheer are now living out of suitcases.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Japan,
MATT BESHEER: Cape Town, South Africa…
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Madagascar.
MATT BESHEER: I lost track at 21 or 22 trips. This was not the type of investigation where you could put a drone up or you could just rely on electronic surveillance. You have to get out onto the street. You gotta pound that pavement and you got to look for it.
But, as soon as they catch glimpse of KSM around a corner, figuratively speaking, he disappears. They give him a nickname, “The Ghost.”
MATT BESHEER: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has the ability to appear in one country, and just as we’re building information on him in that country, he’s all of a sudden someplace else. He kept appearing and then disappearing. He would look like a businessman one day. He would look like an Arab sheikh the next. He was a chameleon.
And then, in Manila, they meet what they call a “bar girl,” one of the women KSM and Ramzi Yousef hung out with while they were in the city. Pellegrino says she has little to gain from cooperating with a couple of American dudes in dress shirts who are asking a lot of questions. But she does, anyway. She hands Pellegrino a stack of Christmas cards ...
FRANK PELLEGRINO: She went to a, uh, Catholic school.
… from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He sent her Christmas cards. And, uh, I think he was trying to play himself off as a Catholic to some extent. And a salesman. And who knows what. But he was just keeping in touch.
The “bar girl” introduces the detectives to other young women who’d partied with Yousef and KSM … while they made preparations to blow human beings from the sky and drop them in the ocean.
MATT BESHEER: The young ladies were not involved in what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi were doing, but they held bank accounts for them.
KSM put money in the women’s accounts and then used them, without the womens’ knowledge, to send funds to multiple terror cells and projects. That way, the money couldn’t be traced to him.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Some of the stuff we were able to get in the Philippines by just being nice because we didn't have any subpoena power. You know, especially with some of these girls, I mean, you just be nice to them.
MATT BESHEER: And by gaining confidence and trust, they turned over to us banking records. Which showed transfers of money, which aided in the investigation.
And then, one of the Filipino women hands Pellegrino and Besheer a stack of letters … from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He whited out the return address on these envelopes. We sent the envelopes down to the lab, they were able to take off the – the white out and it came back to the Ministry of Water and Electricity in Qatar.
The small Middle Eastern state of Qatar.
MATT BESHEER: And at that point, we knew that that was probably his home base.
When the information about KSM in Qatar reaches counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke at the White House, he moves quickly.
RICHARD CLARKE: We in the White House asked the FBI if they could put together a team to go out and arrest him. They said they couldn’t do that without the permission or cooperation of the local government. We asked the CIA if they could do that. The CIA said no, they couldn’t do it either, because they had no on the ground capability.
Notice the difference between this operation and the story in the last episode about whether to take a shot at Osama bin Laden when he was hunting with falcons in Afghanistan. Richard Clarke opposed that attack. But now with KSM, he sees a golden opportunity to arrest an A-list terrorist.
There’s just one more thing to do.
Convince Qatar to go along with it. That means a set of foreign officials must allow a team of Americans to come into their country and spirit KSM away. That might sound like a lot to ask but it’s not unusual between allied countries with a defense cooperation agreement. All that’s needed is the right U.S. diplomat to ask the right question in the right way.
How hard could that be? Surely the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar can do it -- even if he has no idea that -- if he gets it right -- he could be preventing the biggest terrorist attack of all.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. The story of the long, strange wind-up to the attack that remade the world … and the chances we had to stop it. I’m Jim O’Grady.
BARBARA SUDE: Their intent is definitely to attack. They have the capability.
COFER BLACK: And their objective is the destruction of the United States.
CYNTHIA STORER: Everybody was talking about, “Something’s going on.”
FRANK PELLEGRINO: I couldn’t believe it. How could you lose the guy?
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: We were dealing with a ticking time bomb.
STEVE HADLEY: “Mr. President, there’s a threat.”
BARBARA SUDE: But we don’t know what it all means.
Episode Eight: The Ghost.
He didn’t know it, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was cornered. Investigators had found out he was living in Qatar’s capital city, Doha. And there was a plan in the works to grab him covertly.
Counterrorism advisor Richard Clarke wanted the FBI or the CIA to do it … but the agencies told him they couldn’t without permission from Qatar. Clarke writes in his book, Against All Enemies, that he then turned to the Pentagon. But “as usual,” Clarke says, their plan “involved a force more appropriate for conquering the entire nation than for arresting one man.” And he worried the Qataris might mistake it for an invasion.
So the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar got a call.
PATRICK THEROS: It’s Patrick Theros, T-H-E-R-O-S. I joined the foreign service in 1963.
Clarke says he believed in Ambassador Theros’s professionalism. That’s why he tapped him for the job.
Theros was told to get buy-in from the top. That would be Qatar’s Emir. But the request would need to be discreet: a number of Qatar’s bureaucrats, and at least one royal family member, were known to be Al Qaeda sympathizers. They might want to protect their fellow jihadist.
And the CIA knew that KSM was on the government’s payroll as an engineer in the Ministry of Water and Electricity. Technically, he was working for Qatar.
PATRICK THEROS: I was asked to go to the Qatari government and say, “We’ve identified this person. We believe he’s involved in a terrorist action and we would like you to give him to us.” But there was no extradition treaty, there was no agreement. In Qatar, we had a brand new relationship with a relatively new government that had just taken over.
And so the Qataris hesitated … but Frank Pellegrino didn’t panic. He understood the politics were delicate.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: Local authorities they were a little bit concerned of having their fingerprints on actually helping us. Not that they were unwilling, but they didn’t want it to be overt.
As negotiations continued in secret, Pellegrino was on standby in the nearby country of Oman. But now he was getting antsy. KSM was a ghost. There was no telling how long this window would stay open.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: We were ready to pick him up, and we had a plane ready. It was in Oman, at the air force base there. But we weren’t allowed to go to any meetings with the, uh, locals. They’d come back and give us an update. It was frustrating not to be able to go to let them know how we felt about it and how important it was.
Days passed … nothing happened.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: I never thought the ambassador quite understood the importance of picking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed up.
PATRICK THEROS: Until then, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had not gotten on my screen at all.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: The ambassador would always downplay the whole thing, at one point actually asking me if the indictment was really that important.
PATRICK THEROS: I had no reason to have noticed him or even to think that he was important. If anybody in Washington felt that he was a major player at the time, they never told me.
And then, the window closed. Richard Clarke:
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, we thought the Qatari government was pretty well infiltrated with sympathizers for the, uh, Al Qaeda movement. And that turned out to be true.
MATT BESHEER: Someone tipped off Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
PATRICK THEROS: I was informed that he was no longer there.
MATT BESHEER: He was gone.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: I couldn’t believe it. I mean, a country the size of, I don’t know, Rhode Island, and – and you lose the guy? How could – how could you lose the guy? I was furious. And I, you know, I think I uttered some questionable comments at the ambassador. I think I called him a motherfucker.
Ambassador Theros sees it differently.
PATRICK THEROS: Could we have done something different? We could always have done something different. But no one in Washington communicated to me that I had just presided over a major disaster in the American counterterrorism effort.
It’s one of the biggest what-ifs of this whole story.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: 9/11 was Khalid’s invention. But when you look at it through the 9/11 lens, it’s- you look at it as a real- a real missed opportunity.
Mary Jo White would not get her wish of seeing KSM walk out of an FBI elevator in handcuffs.
MARY JO WHITE: We saw it as tragic then, and obviously not knowing as much about KSM as we were all later to learn. But he’d escaped the net. And we had the net there.
Call it the case of the lackadaisical ambassador. Or was it the White House’s fault for failing to let him know, This mission is urgent?
Either way, the attempt had revealed something: Al Qaeda sympathizers had opened an escape hatch and let KSM slip away. That suggested a growing affinity between KSM and bin Laden’s global war … and perhaps with bin Laden himself.
So now the CIA knew … right?
You’d think so … but no. After the boondoggle had concluded, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center did not assign KSM’s case to the special unit tracking bin Laden, called Alec Station. Analysts at Alec Station might’ve uncovered further connections between the two but it wasn’t to be. The CIA viewed KSM the way it always had: he was a dangerous extremist, sure … but a lone wolf.
That was about to change.
CLINTON: These acts of terrorist violence are abhorrent, they are inhuman.
1998: Al Qaeda bombs two U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. KSM is impressed. Now he’s convinced that Al Qaeda is -quote- “truly committed to attacking the United States.” So he makes his way to Kandahar and officially joins Al Qaeda.
A year later, KSM was staffed up and working full-time on the planes operation. The 9/11 Commission Report describes him using lingo from a professional performance review. It says he was an “even-tempered manager who approached his projects with a single-minded dedication that he expected his colleagues to share.” He could also bend people to his agenda, according to Frank Pellegrino.
FRANK PELLEGRINO: He could definitely pull people in who might not be as strong-willed as others, that he could pull them into things.
By 2000, the FBI had placed KSM on its Most Wanted List with a $2 million dollar reward. But the American public? We were focused on a more immediate drama.
MALE ANNOUNCER: The Chair proudly announces George W. Bush of Texas!
It’s an election year.
AL GORE: It is the time to break down barriers and write history.
There’s a neck-in-neck race for president. Al Gore is pushing, “prosperity and progress.” George W. Bush counters with “compassionate conservatism.”
GEORGE W. BUSH: I proudly accept your nomination!
Little is said about terrorism.
AL GORE: I ask for your vote! I ask for your enthusiasm!
Then, on October 12:
NEWS ANCHOR: Word coming into the CNN center of an explosion that has rocked the U.S.S. Cole, which is a destroyer that was on a routine refueling mission in Aden, off the coast of Yemen, in the Middle East. We understand that…
The blast cuts a gash in the steel hull more than 40 feet across.
ALI SOUFAN: We had a very good feeling that it was most probably an Al Qaeda operation.
That’s Ali Soufan, an FBI special agent with expertise in bin Laden. At the time, he’s one of only a handful of Arabic-speaking agents in the whole country. And he’s one of the first U.S. officials on the scene.
ALI SOUFAN: The moment you go in, you see the carnage. We had seventeen sailors murdered, and these bodies were- have been there for more than a day. 100 degree humidity. You can imagine. That smell will stay with you forever, that smell of death.
Soufan and his team quickly trace the attack to an Al Qaeda cell in Yemen. Meanwhile...
GEORGE W. BUSH: I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.
… Seven thousand miles from the Port of Aden, the incoming Bush Administration seems indifferent to the threat. John McLaughlin was deputy director of the CIA at the time.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: One of the administration’s first reactions is to ask, “Why is the counterterrorism operation here so big?”
RICHARD CLARKE: They had not heard of Al Qaeda, many of them. They’d only heard of bin Laden. They didn’t know how big the organization was. They didn't know that it posed a major threat to the United States.
It was his job to convince them.
In his book, Clarke describes a much-delayed briefing at the White House. It was supposed to have been with Bush Administration cabinet members but they sent their deputies instead. Clarke says he tried to raise the hair on the back of their necks by describing Al Qaeda’s agenda in plain words. It “plans major acts of terrorism against the U.S.,” he said. “It plans to overthrow Islamic governments and set up a radical multinational Caliphate, and then go to war with non-Muslim states.”
He paused to scan the faces in the small, wood-paneled conference room.
RICHARD CLARKE: It was very disturbing to see the reaction. They looked at us like we were crazy. They really thought we were a little nuts.
In other words, incoming Bush Administration officials found it hard to imagine … so they didn’t.
Back in Kandahar, KSM was managing his project. He needed to build four teams of five men.
YOSRI FOUDA: For Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, his problem was not where to find enough people to take part in the operation.
Yosri Fouda is one of the most prominent television journalists in the Arab world, and the only reporter to have interviewed KSM. They talked after 9/11 and KSM described this period in 2000, when he was planning the attacks.
YOSRI FOUDA: His main problem, as he told me, was to find the right ones to take part.
I’ll focus now on two recruits who found their way to Al Qaeda. They met as students at a technical university in the port city of Hamburg, Germany. They formed a cell with two others after being radicalized at a Hamburg mosque by jihadist speakers.
YOSRI FOUDA: It was that kind of mosque which actually was a venue to talk about the political situation in the Middle East, corrupt leaders, calling for jihad.
The two men were Mohamed Atta, a 31 year-old Egyptian, and Ziad Jarrah, a 24 year-old Lebanese.
YOSRI FOUDA: Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah both came from middle class. They both were very well educated, they both were very intelligent They both had a- a rosy future in front of them.
There’s the stereotype of the terrorist as someone desperate, with nothing to lose. But it’s not the case with Atta and Jarrah.
YOSRI FOUDA: Ziad Jarrah was very much into life. He had a girlfriend. He drank beer. But you look at someone like, uh, Mohamed Atta, for instance?
A New Yorker story described Atta as a “finicky, dour man whose chief attributes were obedience and a capacity for detail.”
YOSRI FOUDA: He was a very good boy, a student, but was rather to himself. Uh, I don’t think that Mohamed Atta really gave himself the opportunity to integrate within the society. He had some black smoke inside him.
Led by Mohammed Atta, the four Hamburg students then traveled to Afghanistan. They were answering the call to join Al Qaeda, which was in a growth phase. FBI Special Agent Adam Drucker later reconstructed their movements.
ADAM DRUCKER: We think that likely that was their first time in Afghanistan. And we believe there they met with bin Laden.
Atta and Jarrah arrived at precisely the time that Al Qaeda was looking for men who could train to be pilots. Drucker’s partner was FBI Special Agent Jackie Maguire.
JACKIE MAGUIRE: The Hamburg Cell had experience living in Western society. They apparently had English language skills. So given those characteristics,
ADAM DRUCKER: They were chosen for the 9/11 operation.
ADAM DRUCKER: After meeting with bin Laden several times, they were deployed out into Pakistan, where we believe they met with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to get further details of what to do.
And to record their wills.
JACKIE MAGUIRE: Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah had filmed their- what is known as “martyr videos.” So that’s a pretty good indication that they knew what they were headed for, and that they knew they had been selected for a suicide operation.
L/R TAPE OF ZIAD JARRAH (in translation): America is a great evil, and it runs the affairs of the world behind the scenes. You should first hit the head not the tail. As soon as we can hit the head, we will do so without delay. God willing, we will be victorious.
The men returned to Germany. KSM had given them strict instructions about preparing for the next part of their mission.
ADAM DRUCKER: Right from when they got back, they all reported their passports stolen, so they can get clean passports that did not have the markings from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Applied for US visas. They shaved their beards, became more westernized, and then come to the United States to start their training.
Training to fly planes.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
It’s summer, 2001. Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah have moved to Florida’s west coast -- a tabletop landscape dotted with airstrips -- and settled into a sleepy little town called, Venice.
MARK MIKARTS: We train people from all over the world: Spain, Italy, England, people from the Middle East.
Flight instructor Mark Mikarts.
MARK MIKARTS: So having an international crowd wasn't really a big deal to us. It was just the norm.
And then one day...
MARK MIKARTS: My chief pilot had introduced me to Mr. Atta and he was assigned to me as a primary flight student. Mohamed Atta would come in and he would be dressed in easily $200 shoes, uh, silk pants and silk shirt, so he was obviously dressed for the nines. He was an educated individual. But I would say he was very cold. The way he treated other people was not kind.
At a neighboring flight center, instructor Frank Miller welcomed new student Ziad Jarrah.
FRANK MILLER: He was a good student, pleasant, very social. We could joke very easily about almost everything. We had no boundaries. It was easy.
Arne Kruithof, the owner of the flight school, met Jarrah, too.
ARNE KRUITHOF: Ziad Jarrah spent a total of 7 or 8 months here. When I met him, I was very much impressed with this young man. He spoke fluent German, fluent English, and I think he even spoke French.
And they bonded. After Kruithof underwent knee surgery, Jarrah visited him at home and brought him flowers.
ARNE KRUITHOF: You know, there’s these people in life that look at something, and you make that eye contact and you both have exactly the same thoughts. I felt that with him.
But Mohamed Atta, according to Mikarts, wasn’t there to bond with anyone.
MARK MIKARTS: The five times that I flew with him, he wasn't really a very quick learner at all. He had trouble getting past the second lesson. It was tough for him, you know, I mean, it was very frustrating to him. So he got upset, he got mad. And uh, he went and complained to my chief pilot. And that was it. He was given to somebody else. And the instructor over there said all he wanted to do was fly straight and level, and did he want to learn how to fly? No. The fact that he only wanted to learn how to basically maybe take off, or just fly it straight and level, was, uh, was kind of odd.
No one reported this odd behavior. But what’s the complaint? Do you call the FBI and say, “I have a man here and he’s taking a poor approach to flying?” And Ziad Jarrah, for his part, showed promise.
ARNE KRUITHOF: We all saw him as a very successful future aviator.
Then Jarrah does something baffling. Before he’s even mastered takeoffs and landings, he goes to Miami to train on a flight simulator for pilots flying jumbo jets. That seems strange to Frank Miller …
FRANK MILLER: Where is this guy? Where has he gone? That doesn’t make sense in the training. That didn’t fit in with the curriculum at all. You know, it’s not the correct step. You’re not even completed with your training in order to go to the next phase.
Al Qaeda had come a long way since 1996, when bin Laden was reduced to running it from a cave in Tora Bora. By 2000, his attacks against U.S. installations in Africa had placed him at the helm of global Islamist jihad. And it had gotten the attention of the CIA. They started tracking Al Qaeda operatives more closely.
Deputy director John McLaughlin says two of those operatives -- who were not from the Hamburg cell -- especially interested them. The men seemed to be involved in preparations for a major Al Qaeda attack. So agents in Southeast Asia began following them.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: We discovered they’re going to Kuala Lumpur.
The CIA didn’t know it, but the two men had recently been trained to hijack planes.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: In Kuala Lumpur, we do some surveillance and we discover that they are meeting with some people related to Al Qaeda.
The CIA is alarmed by the mere fact of the meeting. Al Qaeda leaders are talking to Al Qaeda operatives ... and agents suspect that orders are being given. They observe from a distance and report back.
Counterterrorism advisor, Richard Clarke.
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, there was a lot of intelligence coming in that suggested Al Qaeda was planning something big somewhere, that Al Qaeda was the major threat and was in fact trying to kill large numbers of Americans.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The volume of reporting indicating an Al Qaeda intention to carry out a serious attack was of such a magnitude that you could not fail to notice it. The system was blinking red.
CIA Deputy Director John McLauglin says that, soon after the 4th of July, his agents picked up even more distressing signs.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The reporting shows Al Qaeda operatives moving, leaving their bases. It shows preparation for attacks directed at the United States, either at a facility overseas or somewhere in the homeland. That was a tipping point in the thinking of our counterterrorism specialists. And they showed up in George Tenet’s office.
George Tenet was the CIA director.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: And George, who was a very decisive guy, picked up the phone on his desk that connected him to the White House, and said to Condi Rice, “We need to come and see you right now.”
Condaleeza Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: She cleared her calendar, to her credit, and uh, George and several people jumped in a car and raced down there.
Cofer Black was director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center.
COFER BLACK: Dick Clarke went through what the intelligence said. They’re expecting 8 attacks to go off. It’s gonna be, you know, a world-class event. And this is real, and their objective is the destruction of the United States.After this, Condi Rice turned to Dick and said, “Dick, do you agree?” And Dick put his head between his two hands and put his elbows on his knees and shook his head and said, “Yes.” She turned to me and said, “Cofer, what do we do?” I said in a very loud voice, “This country’s gotta go on a war footing, now.” And then I, uh, used my fists and slammed the table. And um, she said, “OK.” Afterwards Rich and I congratulated each other, in the sense that we’d finally gotten through to these people.
But John McLaughlin says, not so fast.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: As it turned out, uh, not much really changed as a result of that- that meeting.
The White House received dire warnings from the FBI and CIA. But President Bush and his Cabinet didn ot act. Steven Hadley was Rice’s deputy.
STEVEN HADLEY: When Cofer Black, who’s with the intelligence community, says, “We oughta be on a war footing,” and when intelligence community all the time comes in and says, “Mr. President, there’s a threat,” the question then becomes, “Okay, what are you recommending we do about it?” That’s the question. And I don’t think we ever got a real answer for that.
It’s hard to make a recommendation about countering a threat if you don’t know where the threat is coming from … or what form it might take. U.S. intelligence scrambled to figure it out.
Remember Cynthia Storer? She’s the CIA analyst from the last episode who sifted a mountain of data to come up with a rough sketch of Al Qaeda’s organizational structure. She and her colleagues were working overtime now.
CYNTHIA STORER: By that time, I had come fully into panic mode, along with everybody else. Not panic so you can’t work, but really, really scared that we weren’t going to be able to stop whatever it was. You know, we were trying to get the policymakers to understand that Al Qaeda was about to up their game.
John McLaughlin, deputy director of the CIA:
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: August 6th, President Bush is on vacation in Crawford, Texas. He’s hearing about, episodically, the reporting we have about an attack. And he says, uh, “Can you bring me up to date on this? Where do we stand on all of this?”
CIA Analyst Barbara Sude wrote a President’s Daily Brief -- or PDB -- on the situation. The brief’s pointed warning became pretty famous when Condoleezza Rice was asked to recall it at a federal hearing ... after 9/11. When it was too late.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I believe the title was, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
BARBARA SUDE: That President’s Daily Brief stressed their intent is definitely to attack. They have the capability.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: There have been observations of terrorists doing casing and surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
BARBARA SUDE: And there’s mysterious stuff going on right now, but we don’t know what it all means.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: So it is a very alarming report.
CYNTHIA STORER: Everybody was talking about, “Something’s going on,” trying to figure out how to connect the bits. It’s like the sky is going to fall and we can’t stop it.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: I don’t remember a time in a 32-year career when I felt everyday like we were dealing with a ticking time bomb scenario. We could not define the method, the timing, but we could feel it coming.
And it was coming.
Now here’s the odd part: CIA agents watched two of the hijackers enter the United States but didn’t tell the FBI. These were the guys they’d followed to the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. The meeting of several important Al Qaeda operatives. The meeting that signalled a serious operation was in the works. Their names are Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. They’re both Saudis. And after the meeting, they leave Kuala Lumpur.
John McLaughlin describes their next moves.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: These two people then go to Bangkok. And at some point they leave Bangkok and come to the United States. They have U.S. visas.
It’s not clear why but the CIA did not immediately place al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar on the terrorist watch list. The two men get an apartment in California.
OK, now we’re back at Alec Station, the CIA unit in northern Virginia devoted to tracking Osama bin Laden. You’ll remember from the last episode that the idea was for the CIA to share information with FBI agents assigned to the station. And that it didn’t always happen.
FBI Agent Mark Rossini was at Alec Station when an alarming report came in.
MARK ROSSINI: A cable came in from the Malaysia station that spoke about the arrival of Khalid al-Mihdhar and other terrorists into the U.S.
Rossini had just learned that they were here, and that the CIA knew they were here. Rossini shows the cable to his partner, Doug Miller, who writes up his own cable and enters it into the Alec Station communications system. His list of recipients includes FBI headquarters.
MARK ROSSINI: In the CIA everything is electronic. There’s no paper, okay? And when you write any cable, you have an electronic queue of people that you know that it’s gotta go to this person, that person, that person, for them to chop off on it and check the box.
“Chop off” meaning sign off on it.
MARK ROSSINI: And then eventually it goes out the door – pshoomf – and it goes to who it was directed to. Obviously in this case, the FBI.
Rossini says he was trying to alert his supervisors, who could then send FBI agents to question al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. And because the men were on U.S. soil, they might even arrest them.
MARK ROSSINI: So Doug puts on the list of people to chop off on it. Me, the first, pshht. And then it goes to the person after me. And it sits there for about- I think like a day or two. So Doug says, “Hey, can you find out- my cable’s not moving out of so-and-so’s cable queue. Talk to her? Find out what’s going on?” Now, I go to this person’s desk. “Hey, Doug’s cable, what’s going on? You’re not sending it.” “No, we’re not gonna send it.” “Well, why not?” “It’s CIA information.”
The cable in the queue had just hit the longstanding firewall between the CIA and FBI. It wasn’t going anywhere. You might ask, why? When it comes to stopping terrorists, aren’t we on the same team? Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, says, Yeah. But he’d like to remind you about the built-in tension between the agencies.
STEVE COLL: The CIA is supposed to stay out of domestic spying, and the FBI is in charge of keeping track of domestic radicals. And there was a long tradition of rivalry between the two agencies. There were not laws that encouraged them to cooperate.
This at a time when cooperation was crucial … because Al Qaeda was a new kind of threat.
STEVE COLL: The problem was that these terrorism networks were crossing borders, so they were challenging the stove-piped American system. that made it difficult for the CIA and the FBI to cooperate fluidly as people they were targeting crossed borders.
And the result was -- what’s the word?
STEVE COLL: Well, it was a failure. It was a collective failure. The information wasn’t missed, it just wasn’t acted upon the right way.
Agent Mark Rossini still laments the lost cable and the missed opportunity.
MARK ROSSINI: The FBI should’ve been notified because if the FBI had known about the guys coming from Malaysia landing in LA, we would’ve followed them, and maybe would’ve arrested them or disrupted them.
The CIA’s own inspector general concluded in a 2014 report that at least 50 people knew about the hijackers’ arrival and didn’t share it. But CIA officials like Cofer Black insist they didn’t withhold anything from the FBI.
COFER BLACK: This information should have been released sooner than it was. Our people did it as hard and as fast as they could. But this idea that we were trying to, you know, hide information is – is nonsense.
The CIA did put the two men on the terrorism watch list -- but not until August 23, 2001. Only then did it send a bulletin to the FBI with that information. Soon after that, the men left California for the East Coast.
MARK ROSSINI: The FBI in New York was requested to find Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi. Routine. Not with any urgency. “Find the following guys.” Just his name, his date of birth, maybe his passport, I don’t know. And their last known destination, in particular of Khalid al-Mihdhar, was the Marriott Hotel in New York. The detail about why they’re important and why they’re evil is not given. And it was too late. And they weren’t found.
John McLaughlin, of the CIA:
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Back then, it was a different time. Different priorities, different policy machinery. Across the intelligence community as a whole, there was not the same atmosphere of sharing that developed after 9/11. Were we as good as we could’ve been? No. Were we as bad as everyone thinks we were? No.
This brings up an issue from Episode Two.
In 1990, the CIA chose not to stop the Blind Sheikh from entering the United States, even though he was on a watch list. The mistake has never been adequately explained. Some have wondered, Was the CIA trying to turn the Blind Sheikh into an asset? Richard Clarke sees something similar in the CIA’s approach to Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar.
RICHARD CLARKE: I believe that what happened was, the CIA learned that there were two Al Qaeda operatives that had flown from Bangkok and were in Los Angeles at the time. I believe they saw that as an opportunity to approach them and see if they could develop them as intelligence sources. Probably violated the rules about what CIA can do. But more importantly, it took an enormous risk, if it happened. Because it risked allowing Al Qaeda operatives to be in the United States.
The CIA declined to comment on Richard Clarke’s theory. But former FBI Agent Mark Rossini shares Clarke’s suspicions. He’s blunt about it.
MARK ROSSINI: A group of people had a delusional fucking belief that they could recruit somebody in a cell, and it got out of hand. And they kept the FBI purposely out of it, because they didn’t want the FBI interfering with their little fucking fantasy James Bond operation. The 9/11 attack did not have to happen. I can’t get it out of my head that it didn’t have to happen. This is why I wake up at night. This is why I think about it all the time. My heart is permanently broken.
There were signs that the 9/11 attacks were barrelling toward us. But the signs arrived in fragments and were not assembled in time. Steve Coll:
STEVE COLL: The frustrating part of this history is that we wouldn’t have had to stop every attack Al Qaeda attempted, we just had to stop this one. This was an attack of unprecedented scale. This was the one that changed the world.
Former CIA director Leon Panetta:
LEON PANETTA: Everybody asks the question, “How the hell could this happen?” But I- having been on the inside, I think in many ways, the responsibility rests on all of us. The fact is that, as a country, we were focused on other potential threats to this country. And that’s what our leaders were focused on."
It is true that from late 2000 through 2001, Americans were tuned into issues besides terrorism. One example: Bush versus Gore, the presidential election that took months to sort out … as the 9/11 plot was moving forward.
LEON PANETTA: People do their jobs, they focus on what they think is important, they do the best they can, and it’s very hard for me to suddenly say, you know, this person is responsible or that person is responsible, or someone else is responsible.
Richard Clarke is Leon Panetta’s peer. They were part of the same tribe of high-ranking decision-makers. But unlike Panetta, Clarke will say who’s responsible. He writes in Against All Enemies of -quote- “failures in the organizations that we entrusted to protect us, failures to get information to the right place at the right time, earlier failures to act boldly to reduce or eliminate the threat.”
And then a sobering addendum. Clarke writes: Even “if we had stopped those nineteen deluded fools who acted on September 11, as we should have done, there would have been more later.” Al Qaeda had emerged from the soil after the Cold War like some long-dormant plague … it would not be swayed.”
We know what happened on the day.
Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar helped hijack the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Ziad Jarrah was piloting United Airlines Flight 93 toward Washington, D.C., probably intending to strike the U.S. Capitol. But when passengers broke into the cockpit, he ditched the plane in a field in Pennsylvania. Mohamed Atta flew his plane into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. And hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi was at the controls of the plane that flew past me as I stood on a hill in Staten Island … and watched it explode into the South Tower.
Four attacks. 2,977 deaths. Incalculable loss.
Followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But a fundamental of geopolitics hasn’t changed since 9/11: the United States is still a superpower. And we’re pursuing our interests around the world backed by the most powerful military in history. We have something like 800 bases in 70 countries. In 2016, U.S. special forces deployed to 138 nations. That’s about 70 percent of the world.
Despite whatever good that’s accomplishing, you can’t do that without making enemies. And some of those enemies, when they attack us, will choose a classic weapon that the weak use against the strong: terrorism. The terrorist, like the assassin, strives to create a gruesome spectacle that provokes an over-reaction.
A report by Brown University estimated that over the first 17 years of the War on Terror, half a million people had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Some argue that response, or at least part of it, was warranted. Others see it as grotesquely disproportionate, and based in large part on a lie about weapons of mass destruction. What’s not arguable is that the spectacle of 9/11 set it in motion. And it’s not over yet.
Osama bin Laden has become shorthand in this country for evil criminal … or is sometimes caricatured as a joke.
But terrorism expert Peter Bergen says bin Laden was neither the devil nor deranged. He was -quote- “an intelligent political actor fighting a deeply felt religious war against the West.” I agree. I think bin Laden was both evil and quite sane. I’ve just described the leading jihadists in the lead-up 9/11, and how each had his own distinctive mix of motivations. But they all believed in this: murdering civilians. They belonged to a cult of death and its high priest was Osama bin Laden.
So much death, it’s hard to measure.
After 9/11, my then-colleagues at The New York Times made a wise decision about covering it. Rather than straining to express the magnitude of the loss, they went small, so to speak. They began a feature called, “Portraits of Grief.” Brief profiles of the victims, in all their motley and lovely humanity.
One of them is for Gregory E. Rodriguez.
Greg was my friend when I lived in Staten Island. I knew him when he was broke and working as a driver for a car service. Then he was hired at a financial services firm in the North Tower. On September 11th, he got up early and took the ferry to Manhattan. He probably walked down that hill with the clear view of the harbor a couple of hours before I stood on it, watching his building burn.
He was 31. His “Portrait of Grief” said he liked to scuba-dive around shipwrecks off Brooklyn and Long Island … and that it made his wife Elizabeth nervous. Greg was sensitive and protective of his friends. When I told him I was worried about credit card debt, he cursed the banks and reassured me I’d be solvent in the end. He didn’t know that, he was basing that all on his affection for me … but it was oddly comforting.
When I’m at the memorial at Ground Zero, I visit him. I run my hand across the granite. I let my fingertips rest in the empty spaces of the carved letters of his name. That, too, is oddly comforting. In that place, Greg is one of many … but he’s the one I knew.
“Blindspot: The Road to 9/11” is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team -- and what a team -- includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, Jennifer Goren, Michelle Harris, and Bill Moss. The music was by Isaac Jones and performed by Carrie Frey.
This podcast is based on the TV documentary “Road to 9/11” produced by Left/Right for HISTORY, and was made possible by executive producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. Special thanks to Eli Lehrer, Jessie Katz, Celia Muller, Andy Lanset, and David Lewis. Additional archival footage from CNN. All of our Arabic language tape was independently translated by Lara Atallah. Our voice over actor this episode was Louis Sallan.
And, you know, there are so many more people we’d like to thank for their help with this podcast, including: Heba Elkobaitry, Paul Kamolnick, Abdur Raheem Kidwai, Jon Myersohn, Rose Donnelly, Mark Garner, Ray Chao, Emily Mann, and the wonderful teams at WNYC, A+E, and Left/Right. And Tim Voell, owner of the Suminski Innski -- everything I've said in this podcast was recorded in Room 2, including this. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thank you for listening.
JIM: Alright, here’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,
YAROSH: What is it?
JIM: You know all this time I’m working on something here?
JIM: It’s a story about something called 9/11. What do you know about 9/11?
YAROSH: About the buildings?
JIM: What do you know about that?
YAROSH: The bad guys crashed in there, and it killed so much people.
YAROSH: Now those buildings are two big waterfalls.
JIM: Yeah, they’re waterfalls.
[Ground Zero ambient sound]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.