COFER BLACK TRANSFERRED from London to Khartoum, Sudan, arriving as the CIA’s station chief during 1993. The United States had concluded that Sudan’s government sponsored terrorism and had imposed economic sanctions. This was not a country where the CIA’s station chief could trust the host government enough to provide official notification of his presence. Black and his case officers masqueraded as embassy-based diplomats. Khartoum was a rough station but also the kind of place where energetic young CIA case officers liked to operate. The city’s streets teemed with life, violence, and professional opportunity. The station effectively had just one subject on its Operating Directive: terrorism. In Europe, case officers might spend most of their time in bars and cafes with moody bureaucrats, trying to turn a source. In Khartoum they worked the streets, putting into practice all of the Farm’s tradecraft: surveillance, countersurveillance, electronics, and weapons.
In Cofer Black they had an ambitious chief. He was a tall man, balding, bespectacled, full-shouldered, forceful, and sometimes theatrical in manner and speech. His long career as a spy working in former British colonies in Africa had left vaguely British inflections in his voice. He had grown up in comfortable circumstances in Connecticut, attending an all-boys preparatory school called Canterbury. His father flew Boeing-747 jets as an international pilot for Pan American Airways. When he was a boy, his father would take him along during breaks in school. They would fly to Accra, Ghana, or Lagos, Nigeria, and Cofer would stay for a week or two with family friends, exploring the African countryside, while his father hopped airline routes. In college at the University of Southern California he studied international relations. He had earned a master’s degree and had begun work on a doctorate when he joined the CIA in 1974. After training in clandestine operations he volunteered for service in Africa. He was dispatched as a case officer to Lusaka, Zambia, during the Rhodesian war next door. He transferred to Somalia for two years during a Cold War–inspired conflict between Ethiopians and Somalis in the sands of the Ogaden desert. He worked in South Africa during the racist apartheid regime’s dirty war against guerrilla movements representing the black majority. While assigned to Kinshasa, Zaire, Black was involved in the Reagan administration’s covert action program to arm anticommunist guerrillas in neighboring Angola. By the time he arrived in Khartoum, he was steeped in Africa’s complexities.1
Khartoum had become a haven for exiled radicals and terrorists during the previous three years. It was a city in desperate shape. Perched on a dust-blown plain at the junction of the White Nile and Blue Nile, Khartoum had once been a British garrison town; its avenues were laid out in the form of the Union Jack. By the early 1990s the city plan had deteriorated, full of impassable craters, downed electrical lines, blinding sandstorms, and sprawling slums. Decades of civil war, runaway inflation, and violent coups had left its population prostrate. A Muslim Brotherhood–inspired political party called the National Islamic Front, led by the Sorbonne-educated theologian Hasan al-Turabi, had recently taken power. Turabi proclaimed solidarity with oppressed Muslims worldwide and advertised his country as a safe base for Hamas, Hezbollah, Egypt’s Islamic Group, and Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front. Sudan also granted asylum to secular terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal. And Turabi’s government had welcomed Osama bin Laden after his expulsion from Saudi Arabia in 1991.
Black’s station operated against all these targets. Their Operating Directive limited them in bin Laden’s case to intelligence collection. They had no White House mandate for covert action specifically to attack or disrupt the Saudi’s loose organization, nor did the CIA develop such a plan.2
The World Trade Center bombing and ongoing Islamist violence in Egypt and Algeria provided an urgent, enlivening backdrop for their work. They staked out Khartoum safehouses and office buildings, mapped the habits and movements of group leaders and foot soldiers, followed them clandestinely when they attended meetings, and recorded license plate numbers. The station penetrated local banks to obtain account numbers and details about international financial transfers, including those of bin Laden. They planted listening devices, translated conversations, and tried to identify connections. Who was working with whom? Who in the Sudanese government was being paid off? (Just about everybody who had power, the Khartoum station concluded.) What was the role of Iranian government agents in this nexus? What was the role of Iraqi agents who turned up in Khartoum occasionally during this period? Black and his colleagues cabled Cairo, Jerusalem, Tunis, Algiers, and Riyadh, trying to match up names and leads.3
Bin Laden was a significant target, but one among half a dozen. His money attracted a diverse crowd to his Khartoum compound. Pakistan announced one of its periodic crackdowns on Arab radicals in the spring of 1993, and bin Laden sent money to fly 480 of these jihadists to Khartoum. They became part of bin Laden’s local guard. In May of that year the CIA received an intelligence report from Egypt and Saudi Arabia showing that bin Laden’s businesses had begun to ship cash to Egyptian Islamists for printing presses and weapons.4
From this evidence Black and his case officers described bin Laden as an emerging leader. They saw him as determined to become a significant player in the Islamist movement. He was a financier, however, not yet an operator. Bin Laden was ready to fund and encourage a wide variety of Islamist and terrorist groups, but neither the Khartoum station nor CIA headquarters had solid evidence that he had joined directly in terrorist attacks.5
Bin Laden seemed soft, scholarly, and more of a tycoon and a lecturer than a hardened terrorist tactician. He did not behave like a typical underground terrorist leader. He was accessible and visible in Khartoum during these years; he was certainly not trying to hide. He spent many hours openly tending to his businesses. He bought a farm north of Khartoum for $250,000 and a salt farm near Port Sudan for about $180,000. At first he worked at the air-conditioned McNimr Street headquarters of his business empire, centered on a construction company, Al-Hijrah for Construction and Development. His office suite had eight or nine rooms and a phalanx of secretaries and receptionists. Later he bought a building in an upscale neighborhood called Riyadh City. Salaries for his aides ranged from $300 a month for the Sudanese to $1,500 a month for some of the favored Egyptians and Iraqis. He cut import-export deals through other companies and in partnership with Sudanese generals and government officials, whom he paid off generously. He secured a virtual monopoly on Sudanese exports of corn, sunflowers, gum, and other farm products. His agricultural subsidiary bought up hundreds of acres near Khartoum and in eastern Sudan. He rode horses with Turabi’s sons. He visited road and commercial projects that he developed in partnership with members of the Sudanese government. With some of these partners he invested an estimated $50 million in a Sudanese bank.6
It was clear to the Khartoum station that bin Laden was financing Islamist violence across North Africa through some of these businesses, but the details were difficult to nail down. At one point bin Laden wired $210,000 to a contact in Texas to purchase and import a private jet to shuttle cargo, including weapons, between Pakistan and Sudan. He bought camels to smuggle guns through the desert to Egypt.7
They watched him move around Khartoum like a prestigious sheikh, acolytes and gun-toting bodyguards at his heel. He prayed and lectured at local mosques. He lived in a walled three-story compound, continually surrounded by Arab Afghan veterans. Bin Laden liked to sit in the front yard “and talk about jihad and about Islam and about al Qaeda in general,” as one of his aides from this period recalled it. He lectured about politics and jihad every Thursday after sunset prayers. He was wary of newcomers to his inner circle, and he told his aides to watch out for agents of Middle Eastern intelligence services posing as volunteers.8
He had reason to worry. Four Arab veterans of the Afghan war tried to kill bin Laden during 1994. They apparently believed that his interpretation of Islam was not pure or radical enough. The assassins opened fire inside a Khartoum mosque where bin Laden preached. They shot several worshipers dead before they realized that bin Laden was not there. They jumped in their vehicles, drove to Riyadh City, and confronted his security guards in a shootout. Some of the attackers died; another was taken prisoner and executed.9
The failed assassination attempt ratified bin Laden’s growing stature. In Peshawar during the 1980s he had been overshadowed by Abdullah Azzam. In Saudi Arabia he was just one rich young sheikh among hundreds. But in Khartoum his wealth made him a rare and commanding figure. He was powerful enough to order men to their deaths. Yet he fashioned himself a lecturer-businessman, an activist theologian in the image of Azzam. Bin Laden was not especially harsh. Many terrorist leaders established power over their groups by routinely executing rivals or transgressors. When bin Laden caught one of his trusted aides embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, he demanded only that his aide pay the money back in installments. He talked with the man at length about improving his dedication to jihad.10
Bin Laden was emerging now as a politician, a rising force in the underground and exiled Saudi opposition. The Islamist backlash against the Saudi royals that erupted after the Gulf War continued to gather momentum in 1994. Bin Laden allied himself early that year with a Saudi opposition group based in London that used fax machines and computer lines to denounce the royal family’s “insatiable carnal desires.” Bin Laden set up his own group, the Advisory and Reformation Committee, which also published hundreds of anti-Saudi pamphlets, all filled with bin Laden’s picture. His tracts proposed the breakup of the Saudi state. Saudi Arabia’s borders marked the reign of a single and illegitimate family, the al-Sauds, bin Laden argued. He proposed two new countries, Greater Yemen and Greater Hijaz, which would divide the Arabian Peninsula between them.11
The British and American governments were reluctant to crack down on these exiled centers of opposition Saudi politics. Some of the exiles embraced the language of democracy. It was an article of faith in Washington and London during the early 1990s that a little outside pressure, even if it came from Islamists, might help open up the Saudi kingdom to new voices, creating healthier and more stable politics in the long run.12
The Saudi royal family tried to co-opt its opposition. They had banished bin Laden, but they were reluctant to break with him entirely. Prince Turki sent a parade of delegates to Khartoum to persuade bin Laden to come home, make peace, and reclaim his full share of his family’s fortune. From 1970 to about 1994 bin Laden had received a $1 million annual allowance from his family, American investigators later reported, but now he was cut off. The emissaries included bin Laden’s mother, his eighty-year-old uncle, and some of his half-brothers. Bin Laden later recalled “almost nine visits to Khartoum” during this period, with each relative “asking me to stop and return to Arabia to apologize to King Fahd.”13
The Saudi royals were embarrassed by complaints about bin Laden and angry about his antiroyal agitation. Yet Prince Turki and other senior Saudi princes had trouble believing that bin Laden was much of a threat to anyone. They saw him as a misguided rich kid, the black sheep of a prestigious family, a self-important and immature man who would likely be persuaded as he aged to find some sort of peaceful accommodation with his homeland. But bin Laden was stubborn. Again and again he rebuffed his relatives during 1993 and 1994. At last the Saudi government revoked his citizenship. As part of a campaign to isolate bin Laden, his half-brother Bakr, now running the family business empire, publicly expressed “regret, denunciation, and condemnation” of Osama’s antiroyal politics.14
CIA analysis began by late 1994 to run in a different direction. The insights Black and his case officers could obtain into bin Laden’s inner circle were limited, but they knew that bin Laden was working closely with the Sudanese intelligence services. They knew that Sudanese intelligence, in turn, was running paramilitary and terrorist operations in Egypt and elsewhere. Bin Laden had access to Sudanese military radios, weapons, and about two hundred Sudanese passports. These passports supplemented the false documents that bin Laden acquired for his aides from the travel papers of Arab volunteers who had been killed in the Afghan jihad. Working with liaison intelligence services across North Africa, Black and his Khartoum case officers tracked bin Laden to three training camps in northern Sudan. They learned that bin Laden funded the camps and used them to house violent Egyptian, Algerian, Tunisian, and Palestinian jihadists. Increasingly the Khartoum station cabled evidence to Langley that bin Laden had developed the beginnings of a multinational private army. He was a threat.
For Cofer Black this assessment was grounded in personal experience. Toward the end of his tour in Khartoum, bin Laden’s men tried to assassinate him. They had detected CIA surveillance and traced the watchers to Black. They had learned, probably through contacts in Sudanese intelligence, that Black had played a role in the arrest and transport to France of Carlos the Jackal. From this bin Laden’s group may have deduced that Black was CIA. In any event they began to follow his routes to and from the embassy. Black and his case officers picked up this surveillance and started to watch those who were watching them.
The CIA officers saw that bin Laden’s men were setting up a “kill zone” near the U.S. embassy. They couldn’t tell whether the attack was going to be a kidnapping, a car bombing, or an ambush with assault rifles, but they were able to watch bin Laden’s group practice the operation on a Khartoum street. As the weeks passed, the surveillance and countersurveillance grew more and more intense. On one occasion they found themselves in a high-speed chase. On another the CIA officers leveled loaded shotguns at the Arabs who were following them. Eventually Black dispatched the U.S. ambassador to complain to the Sudanese government. Exposed, the plotters retreated.15
At a White House briefing early in 1995, CIA analysts described bin Laden’s Khartoum headquarters as the Ford Foundation of Sunni Islamic terrorism, a grant-giving source of cash for violent operations. Egyptian, Algerian, Tunisian, and other Islamist radicals would make proposals to bin Laden for operations, and if bin Laden approved, he would hand over the funds.16 By 1995 the CIA’s Khartoum station had no doubt that bin Laden’s own aides included some hardcore, well-trained killers. Black and his case officers wondered when and how the United States would confront bin Laden directly.
BRAIN PARR STOOD in the darkness beside an American military transport jet on the tarmac of Islamabad’s civil-military airport. Parr was a six-year Secret Service veteran assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York. He was a specialist in transporting dangerous prisoners. Twenty-four hours earlier he had been summoned to Washington and told to scramble for a flight to Pakistan. His prize now approached in a vehicle driven by Pakistani army and intelligence officers. It was just after sunset, February 8, 1995. From the back of the vehicle stepped Ramzi Yousef. He wore a mustard color military jumpsuit and a blindfold. A belly chain manacled his hands and feet.17
With FBI agents Bradley Garrett and Charles Stern, Parr escorted Yousef into the American plane. The day before, Pakistani intelligence officers and commandos had burst into Room 16 of the Su Casa guest house in Islamabad, arresting Yousef as he prepared to leave the capital. Pakistan’s government had agreed immediately to turn Yousef over to the United States to face charges in the World Trade Center bombing. The Pakistanis waived formal extradition proceedings. This “rendition” technique, in which a detained terrorist was shipped from one country to another without appearing in court, had lately become a preferred CIA method. It allowed the agency to ship suspects to allied countries for interrogation or back to the United States for trial, as it pleased. The practice, illegal within the United States but permitted overseas, drew on national security policy that dated to the Reagan administration, reaffirmed and revitalized by President Clinton.18
Aboard the plane the FBI team stripped Yousef of his clothes, searched him, and photographed him. A medical doctor examined Yousef and pronounced him fit. The agents reclothed Yousef, shackled him, and took him to a compartment in the back of the plane. A makeshift interview room had been shielded with blankets and fitted with airline seats.
Yousef had already begun to talk to several FBI agents. He spoke English well, and he seemed relaxed. He was curious about the American legal process and eager to be credited as a terrorist innovator. Asked by Garrett whether he had committed the World Trade Center bombing, Yousef replied, “I masterminded the explosion.”19
Aboard the plane they talked for six hours of the twenty-hour flight. Garrett and Parr plumbed Yousef about his motivations. For two years the FBI and the CIA had speculated and argued about Yousef’s role in the World Trade Center plot. Was he a government agent? Part of a network of Islamic radicals? A lone wolf? Some blend of these? Finally they could hear from Yousef himself.
Their prisoner explained that some Muslim leaders had philosophies similar to his own, but he considered himself an independent operator. Muslim leaders provided inspiration, but none controlled his work. Garrett asked which leaders Yousef was talking about. He refused to answer.20
Yousef said he took no thrill from killing American citizens and felt guilty about the civilian deaths he had caused. But his conscience was overridden by the strength of his desire to stop the killing of Arabs by Israeli troops. “It’s nothing personal,” he said, but bombing American targets was the “only way to cause change.” He had come to the conclusion that only extreme acts could change the minds of people and the policies of nations. He cited as one example the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1984, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of American troops from that country. As another example he mentioned the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a shock tactic that forced Japan to surrender quickly. Yousef said he “would like it to be different,” but only terrible violence could force this kind of abrupt political change. He said that he truly believed his actions had been rational and logical in pursuit of a change in U.S. policy toward Israel.21 He mentioned no other motivation during the flight and no other issue in American foreign policy that concerned him.
He told them about his desire to topple one of the World Trade Center towers into the other, a feat he thought would take about 250,000 lives. But he lacked the money and the equipment to make a bomb that was strong enough to bring the first tower down, and he complained about the quality of his confederates. The FBI agents asked why one of Yousef’s partners had returned a rental car to pick up a deposit after the bombing, a move that had led to his arrest. “Stupid,” Yousef said with a weary grin.22
He mentioned that when he escaped to Pakistan, he bought a first-class ticket because he had discovered the first-class passengers received less scrutiny than those in coach.
He was cagey when he talked about those who had aided him. In a Manila apartment where Yousef had hidden as a fugitive, investigators found a business card belonging to Mohammad Khalifa, a relative by marriage of Osama bin Laden. Yousef said only that the card had been given to him by one of his colleagues as a contact in case he needed help.
The agents asked if Yousef was familiar with the name Osama bin Laden. He said he knew that bin Laden was a relative of Khalifa. He refused to say anything more.23
Pakistani investigators eventually learned that for many months after the World Trade Center bombing Yousef had lived in a Pakistani guest house funded by bin Laden. They passed this information to the FBI and the CIA.24
On the plane that night Yousef asked several times whether he would face a death sentence in the United States. He expected to be put to death, he said. His only worry was whether he would have enough time to write a book about his exploits.25
FROM THE START the plan was to try Yousef in open court. Mary Jo White, the United States attorney overseeing terrorism prosecutions in Manhattan, presented evidence against Yousef to a federal grand jury. As these and related investigations unfolded, the FBI and CIA gathered new facts about Yousef’s multinational support network. Among other things they discovered that in the two years since the World Trade Center attack, Yousef and his coconspirators had focused heavily on airplanes and airports.
The evidence of these aerial plots surfaced first in the Philippines. Police responded to a fire at the Tiffany Mansion apartments in Manila on January 7, 1995. The apartment belonged to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Baluchi Islamist who was Yousef’s uncle.26Inside the apartment police found one of Yousef’s cohorts, Abdul Hakim Murad. They also found residue from bomb-making chemicals and laptop computers with encrypted files. Murad confessed that he had been working with Yousef on multiple terrorist plots: to bomb up to a dozen American commercial airliners flying over the Pacific, to assassinate President Clinton during a visit to the Philippines, to assassinate the Pope when he visited Manila, and to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the headquarters of the CIA.
The plot to bomb American passenger planes over the Pacific was far along. Yousef had concocted a timing device fashioned from a Casio watch and a mix of explosives that could not be detected by airport security screeners. He planned to board an interlocking sequence of civilian flights. He would place the explosives on board, set the timers, and exit at layover stops before the bombs went off. He had already killed a Japanese businessman when he detonated a small bomb during a practice run, planting the device in an airplane seat and exiting the flight at a stopover before it exploded. If his larger plan had not been disrupted, as many as a thousand Americans might have died in the attacks during the first months of 1995.
The plot to crash a plane into CIA headquarters was described in a briefing report written by the Manila police and sent to American investigators. Murad said the idea arose in conversation between himself and Yousef. The Filipino police wrote that winter that Murad planned “to board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger. Then he will hijack said aircraft, control its cockpit, and dive it at the CIA headquarters. There will be no bomb or any explosive that he will use in its execution. It is simply a suicidal mission that he is very much willing to execute.”27
THESE WERE NOT the only indications early in 1995 that the United States faced a newly potent terrorist threat in the Sunni Islamic world. Islamist violence connected to Arab veterans of the Afghan jihad surged worldwide.
The attacks were diverse and the perpetrators often mysterious. Suicidal attacks became a more common motif. Increasingly, the attacks came from insurgent groups in North Africa, Egypt, Sudan, and Pakistan. Increasingly, evidence surfaced that Islamist terrorists had experimented with weapons of mass destruction. Increasingly, Osama bin Laden loomed in the background of the attacks as a source of inspiration or financial support or both.
In August 1994 three hooded North Africans killed two Spanish tourists in a Marrakesh hotel. The attackers and their handlers had trained in Afghanistan. Bombings of the Paris Metro later that year were traced to Algerians trained in Afghan camps. In December 1994 four Algerian terrorists from the Armed Islamic Group hijacked an Air France jet. They planned to fly to Paris and slam the plane kamikaze-style into the Eiffel Tower. French authorities fooled the hijackers into believing that they did not have enough fuel to reach Paris, so they diverted to Marseilles where all four were shot dead by French commandos. In March 1995, Belgian investigators seized a terrorist training manual from Algerian militants. The document explained how to make a bomb using a wristwatch as a timer, and its preface was dedicated to bin Laden. In April, Filipino guerrillas swearing loyalty to the Afghan mujahedin leader Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf sacked the Mindanao island town of Ipil. They killed sixty-three people, robbed four banks, and took fifty-three hostages, killing a dozen of them. On June 26, 1995, Egyptian guerrillas with the Islamic Group, equipped with Sudanese passports, unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. A month later a member of the Egyptian extremist group al-Jihad said in a published interview that bin Laden sometimes knew about their specific terrorist operations against Egyptian targets. On November 13, 1995, a car bomb loaded with about 250 pounds of explosives blew up near the three-story headquarters of the office of the program manager of the Saudi Arabian national guard in Riyadh. Five Americans died, and thirty-four were wounded. Months later one of the perpetrators confessed in a Saudi television broadcast that he was influenced by bin Laden and the Egyptian Islamist groups, and that he had learned how to make the car bomb because of “my experiences in explosives which I had during my participation in the Afghan jihad operations.” One week after the Riyadh bombing, Islamist terrorists drove a suicide truck bomb into the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, killing fifteen people and injuring eighty.28
Imprinted in these events was an outline of the future. The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the FBI’s analytical units recognized essential parts of the new pattern, but they did not see it all.
Murad’s confession about a plan to hijack a civilian airliner and crash it into the CIA received little attention at the FBI because that plot was not part of the evidentiary case the bureau was building for courtroom prosecution. The FBI was distracted. Domestic terrorism overshadowed Islamist attacks during 1995. In April, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and wounding hundreds more. The bombing galvanized the Clinton administration to focus on terrorism, but the long investigation drained FBI resources. The bureau never followed up with a detailed investigation of the airplane kamikaze plan.29
The CIA remained focused on Iranian and Shiite terrorist threats. Late in 1994 the CIA station in Riyadh reported on surveillance of American targets in the kingdom by Iranian agents and their radical Saudi Shiite allies. Woolsey visited the kingdom in December and huddled with Prince Turki. They discussed joint plans to monitor and disrupt the Iranian threat in the months ahead. CIA reporting about Iranian-sponsored terrorist threats inside Saudi Arabia continued at a high tempo throughout 1995. In October the White House received intelligence that the Iranian-backed, Shiite-dominated Hezbollah terrorist organization had dispatched a hit squad to assassinate National Security Adviser Tony Lake. He moved out of his home temporarily and into safehouses in Washington. Because the Saudi intelligence service was so heavily focused on the Shiites, Prince Turki recalled, the Riyadh bombing in November by bin Laden–inspired Afghan veterans came “out of nowhere.” Even after that attack, Iran remained a major threat, drawing attention and resources away from bin Laden and his followers.30
The CIA’s Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations, responsible for much of the Sunni Muslim world, also was distracted by Iraq. Its ambitious covert operations to overthrow Saddam Hussein from bases in northern Iraq were collapsing that spring.
All of this turmoil swirled in the weeks and months after Yousef’s arrest, presenting investigators with a rich cache of evidence. The essential analytical questions remained the same as they had been for several years. Were terrorists like Ramzi Yousef best seen as solo entrepreneurs or as operatives of a larger movement? Where were the key nodes of leadership and resource support? Was CIA analyst Paul Pillar’s notion of ad hoc terrorism adequate anymore, or did the United States now confront a more organized and potent circle of Sunni Muslim jihadists bent on spectacular attacks?
Hardly anyone in Washington or at Langley yet saw the full significance of bin Laden and al Qaeda. When President Clinton signed Executive Order 12947 on January 23, 1995, imposing sanctions on twelve terrorist groups because of their role in disrupting the Middle East peace process, neither al Qaeda nor bin Laden made the list.31
These blind spots among American intelligence analysts partly reflected the fragmentary, contradictory evidence they had to work with. Cofer Black’s cables from Khartoum showed the diversity of bin Laden’s multinational allies. Clearly bin Laden’s network did not operate as a conventional hierarchical group.
Many American analysts clung to preconceived ideas about who in the Middle East was an ally and who was an enemy. American strategy in 1995, ratified by Clinton’s National Security Council, was to contain and frustrate Iran and Iraq. In this mission Saudi Arabia was an elusive but essential ally. It was an embedded assumption of Amerian foreign policy that Iraq and Iran could not be managed without Saudi cooperation. Then, too, there was the crucial importance of Saudi Arabia in the global oil markets. There was strong reluctance in Washington to challenge the Saudi royal family over its funding of Islamist radicals, its appeasement of anti-American preachers, or its ardent worldwide proselytizing. There was little impetus to step back and ask big, uncomfortable questions about whether Saudi charities represented a fundamental threat to American national security. The Saudis worked assiduously to maintain diverse contacts within the CIA, outside of official channels. Several retired Riyadh station chiefs and senior Near East Division managers went on the Saudi payroll as consultants during the mid-1990s.32
American Arabists had studied the Middle East for decades through a Cold War lens, their vision narrowed by continuous intimate contact with secular Arab elites. American spies and strategists rarely entered the lower-middle-class mosques of Algiers, Tunis, Cairo,Karachi, or Jedda, where anti-American cassette tape sermons were for sale on folding tables at the door.
Despite all these limitations, American intelligence analysts developed by mid-1995 a clearer picture of the new terrorist enemy. For the first time the image of a global network began to emerge. The FBI and the CIA each produced ambitious classified intelligence reports during the second half of 1995 that sifted the evidence in the Yousef case and pushed strong new forecasts.
As part of a long review of global terrorism circulated by the FBI, classified Secret, the bureau’s analysts assessed the emerging threat under the heading “Ramzi Ahmed Yousef: A New Generation of Sunni Islamic Terrorists.”33 The Yousef case “has led us to conclude that a new generation of terrorists has appeared on the world stage over the past few years,” the FBI’s analysts wrote. Yousef and his associates “have access to a worldwide network of support for funding, training and safe haven.” Increasingly, “Islamic extremists are working together to further their cause.” It was “no coincidence” that their terrorism increased as the anti-Soviet Afghan war ended. Afghanistan’s training camps were crucial to Yousef. The camps provided technical resources and allowed him to meet and recruit like-minded radicals. Pakistan and Bosnia had also become important bases for the jihadists.
The FBI’s report noted the vulnerability of the American homeland to attacks. It specifically cited Murad’s confessed plot to hijack a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters as an example.
“Unlike traditional forms of terrorism, such as state-sponsored or the Iran/Hezbollah model, Sunni extremists are neither surrogates of nor strongly influenced by one nation,” the FBI’s analysts wrote. “They are autonomous and indigenous.” There was now reason to “suspect Yousef and his associates receive support from Osama bin Laden and may be able to tap into bin Laden’s mujahedin support network.” In addition, they may also have been able to draw on Islamic charities for support. The FBI analysis listed the huge semiofficial Saudi Arabian charity, the International Islamic Relief Organization, and the largest government-sponsored Saudi religious proselytizing organization, the Muslim World League, as important resources for the new terrorists. The cable concluded: “Yousef’s group fits the mold for this new generation of Sunni Islamic terrorists. . . . The WTC bombing, the Manila plot, and the recent [Islamic Group] attack against Mubarak demonstrate that Islamic extremists can operate anywhere in the world. We believe the threat is not over.”34
The CIA also saw Yousef’s gang as independent from any hierachy. “As far as we know,” reported a classified agency cable in 1995, “Yousef and his confederates . . . are not allied with an organized terrorist group and cannot readily call upon such an organized unit to execute retaliatory strikes against the U.S. or countries that have cooperated with the U.S. in the extradition of Yousef and his associates.” That same year, working through the National Intelligence Council, the CIA circulated to Clinton’s Cabinet an annual National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism classified Secret. The estimate was titled “The Foreign Terrorist Threat in the United States” and drew on cables and analyses from across the American intelligence community. Echoing the FBI’s language, the estimate called Yousef’s gang a “new breed” of radical Sunni Islamic terrorist. This “new terrorist phenomenon” involved fluid, transient, multinational groupings of Islamic extremists who saw the United States as their enemy, the estimate warned. It then speculated about future attacks inside the United States. “Several targets are especially at risk: national symbols such as the White House and the Capitol, and symbols of U.S. capitalism such as Wall Street,” the estimate predicted. “We assess that civil aviation will figure prominently among possible terrorist targets in the United States. This stems from the increasing domestic threat posed by foreign terrorists, the continuing appeal of civil aviation as a target, and a domestic aviation security system [whose weaknesses have] been the focus of media attention.”35
It was now clear that Yousef and his colleagues had developed their terrorist plans by studying American airline security procedures. “If terrorists operating in this country are similarly methodical, they will identify serious vulnerabilities in the security system for domestic flights.” The National Intelligence Estimate made no mention of Osama bin Laden.36