26

“That Unit Disappeared”

THE JAWBREAKER TEAM choppered out to Dushanbe, leaving Afghanistan clandestinely across the Tajikistan border. Within a few weeks, several hundred miles to the south, four young middle-class Arab men who had sworn themselves to secrecy and jihad entered Afghanistan from Pakistan. The Taliban facilitated their travel and accommodation, first in Quetta and then in Kandahar.1

Mohammed Atta, thirty-one, was a wiry, severe, taciturn Egyptian of medium height, the only son of a frustrated Cairo lawyer who had pushed his children hard. He had just earned a degree in urban planning from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, completing a 152-page thesis on development planning and historic preservation in ancient Aleppo, Syria. Ziad Jarrah was the only son of a Lebanese family that drove Mercedes cars, owned a Beirut apartment, and kept a vacation home in the country. He had emigrated to Germany to attend the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg, where he studied aircraft construction. He initially caroused and smoked hashish, fell tumultuously in and out with his Turkish girlfriend, and then grew intensely religious and withdrawn. His girlfriend challenged his Islamic beliefs; at times he hit her in frustration. Marwan al-Shehhi had been raised amid the prosperity of the United Arab Emirates in the years of the OPEC oil boom. He served as a sergeant in the U.A.E. army. His parents, too, could afford a German university education for him. Of the four conspirators, only Ramzi Binalshibh, then twenty-five, could not rely on family money. Small, wiry, talkative, and charismatic, he excelled in school and won a scholarship to college in Bonn, but his widowed mother struggled at home in rural Yemen. The Binalshibhs came from Amad, a town in the mountains of Hadramaut province—the province from which, six decades earlier, Mohammed bin Laden struck out for Saudi Arabia to make his name and fortune.2

The arrival of the four in Afghanistan suggested the complexity of al Qaeda just as American intelligence began to grasp more firmly its shape and membership. In their classified reports and assessments, analysts in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center described al Qaeda by 1999 as an extraordinarily diverse and dispersed enemy. The mid-1990s courtroom trials in the World Trade Center bombing and related cases, and evidence from the Africa bombing investigations, had revealed the organization as a paradox: tightly supervised at the top but very loosely spread at the bottom. By 1999 it had become common at the CIA to describe al Qaeda as a constellation or a series of concentric circles. Around the core bin Laden leadership group in Afghanistan—the main target of the CIA’s covert snatch operations—lay protective rings of militant regional allies. These included the Taliban, elements of Pakistani intelligence, Uzbek and Chechen exiles, extremist anti-Shia groups in Pakistan, and Kashmiri radicals. Beyond these lay softer circles of financial, recruiting, and political support: international charities, proselytizing groups, and radical Islamic mosques, education centers and political parties from Indonesia to Yemen, from Saudi Arabia to the Gaza strip, from Europe to the United States.3

Al Qaeda operated as an organization in more than sixty countries, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999. Its formal, sworn, hard-core membership might number in the hundreds.4 Thousands more joined allied militias such as the Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. These volunteers could be recruited for covert terrorist missions elsewhere if they seemed qualified. New jihadists turned up each week at al Qaeda–linked mosques and recruitment centers worldwide. They were inspired by fire-breathing local imams, satellite television news, or Internet sites devoted to jihadist violence in Palestine, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. Many of the Arab volunteers from countries such as Algeria or Yemen were poor, eager, and undereducated; they had more daring than ability and could barely afford the airfare to Pakistan. Yet some were middle class and college-educated. A few—like the four men who arrived secretly in Kandahar in the autumn of 1999: Atta, Jarrah, al-Shehhi, and Binalshibh—carried passports and visas that facilitated travel to Europe and the United States. These relatively elite volunteers moved like self-propelled shooting stars through al Qaeda’s global constellation. Their reasons to join were as diverse as their transnational biographies. In many ways they retraced the trails of radicalization followed in the early 1990s by Ramzi Yousef and Mir Amal Kasi. They were mainly intelligent, well-educated men from ambitious, prosperous families. They migrated to Europe, studied demanding technical subjects, and attempted—unsuccessfully—to establish themselves as modern professionals far from the family embrace and conservative Islamic culture they had known in their youths. As they joined a violent movement led by the alienated, itinerant son of a Saudi construction magnate and a disputatious, ostracized Egyptian doctor, they pledged their loyalty to men strikingly like themselves.

The Hamburg cell, as it came to be known, coalesced at a shabby mosque in the urban heart of Germany’s gray, industrial, northern port city. A coffee shop and a gymnasium for bodybuilders squeezed the Al Quds Mosque where Arab men in exile gathered for prayers, sermons, and conspiracy. Prostitutes, heroin dealers, and underemployed immigrants shared the streets. A 330-pound Syrian car mechanic who was a veteran of Afghanistan’s wars championed bin Laden’s message at the mosque. Mohammed Haydar Zammar was one of perhaps hundreds of such self-appointed soapbox preachers for al Qaeda scattered in city mosques and Islamic centers around the world. Zammar was well known to CIA and FBI counterterrorist officers based in Germany. The CIA repeatedly produced reports on Zammar and asked German police to challenge him. But German laws enacted after the Holocaust elaborately protected religious freedom, and German police did not see al Qaeda as a grave threat. The young men who came to pray with Zammar gradually embraced his ideas and his politics; Zammar, in turn, saw their potential as operatives.5

Even in the dim cement block dormitories and rental apartments of polytechnic Hamburg, the Al Quds crew saw themselves as members of a global Islamist underground. They used cell phones, the Internet, and prepaid calling cards to communicate with other mosques, guest houses in Afghanistan, and dissident preachers in Saudi Arabia, including Safar al-Hawali and Saman al-Auda, the original “Awakening Sheikhs” whose vitriolic attacks on the Saudi royal family in 1991 had stimulated bin Laden’s revolutionary ambitions.6

Atta was among the oldest in the Hamburg group. Born in the Egyptian countryside, he had moved at a young age with his parents and two sisters to a small apartment in a crowded, decaying neighborhood of colonial-era Cairo. They could afford seaside vacations, but they did not live extravagantly. His striving, austere father created “a house of study—no playing, no entertainment, just study,” a family friend recalled. His father saw Atta, with some derision, as “a very sensitive man; he is soft and was extremely attached to his mother,” as he put it years later. Atta sat affectionately on his mother’s lap well into his twenties. His father used to chide his mother “that she is raising him as a girl, and that I have three girls, but she never stopped pampering him,” as he recalled it. Atta’s older sisters thrived under their father’s pressure; one became a botanist, the other a doctor. Atta shut out all distraction to follow them into higher studies, to meet his father’s expectations or his own. If a belly dancer came on the family television, he shaded his eyes and walked out of the room. Worried that his son would languish forever in Egypt, wallowing in his mother’s pampering, Atta’s father “almost tricked him,” as he later put it, into continuing his education in Germany. Once there, his son grew steadily more angry and withdrawn. He worked four years as a draftsman, never questioning his assignments or offering ideas. His supervisor later said that Atta “embodied the idea of drawing. ‘I am the drawer. I draw.’ ” His roommates found him intolerant, sullen, sloppy, and inconsiderate.While traveling in the Arab world Atta could be relaxed, even playful, but the Europeans who knew him in Germany found him alienated and closed. Increasingly he seemed to use Islam and its precepts—prayer, segregation from women, a calendar of ritual—as a shield between himself and Hamburg.7

By late 1999, Atta and others in the Al Quds group had committed themselves to martyrdom through jihad. Ramzi Binalshibh, who shared roots with bin Laden and seemed to know his people, helped make their contacts in Afghanistan. Binalshibh ranted at a wedding that October about the “danger” Jews posed to the Islamic world. Handwritten notes made by Ziad Jarrah just before the quartet’s autumn trip to Kandahar describe their gathering zeal: “The morning will come. The victors will come. We swear to beat you.” A week later he wrote: “I came to you with men who love the death just as you love life. . . . Oh, the smell of paradise is rising.”8

Bin Laden and his senior planners had already seized on the idea of using airplanes to attack the United States when Jarrah, Atta, al-Shehhi, and Binal-shibh turned up in Kandahar that autumn, according to admissions under interrogation later made by Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the plot’s mastermind. A fugitive from an American indictment because of his earlier work with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, Mohammed found sanctuary in Afghanistan in mid-1996, just as bin Laden arrived from Sudan. He had known bin Laden during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad and used that connection to win a meeting. Mohammed pitched bin Laden and his Egyptian military chief, Mohammed Atef, on several plans to attack American targets. One of his ideas, he told interrogators later, was an ambitious plot to hijack ten passenger jets with trained pilots and fly them kamikaze-style into the White House or the Capitol, the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA and the FBI, the two towers of the World Trade Center, the tallest buildings in California and Washington state, and perhaps a nuclear power plant. Mohammed said he proposed to hijack and pilot the tenth plane himself. Rather than crash it into a target, he planned to kill all the male adult passengers, land the plane at a U.S. airport, issue statements denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East, and then release the surviving women and children.9

By Mohammed’s account, bin Laden and his aide listened to his ideas but declined to commit their support. Bin Laden had barely settled in Afghanistan. The country was in turmoil, his finances were under pressure, and he lacked a stable headquarters. Only after the Africa embassy bombings in 1998 did Mohammed realize that bin Laden might be ready to renew their ambitious talks—and he was right. They met again in Kandahar in early 1999 and bin Laden declared that Mohammed’s suicide hijacking plan now had al Qaeda’s backing. Bin Laden wanted to scale back the attack to make it more manageable. He also said he preferred the White House to the Capitol as a target and that he favored hitting the Pentagon. Mohammed pushed for the World Trade Center. His nephew had bombed the towers six years before but had failed to bring them down, and now languished in an American high-security prison; Mohammed sought to finish the job.

Bin Laden provided two potential Saudi suicide pilots who were veterans of jihadist fighting in Bosnia, as well as two Yemeni volunteers who ultimately were unable to obtain visas to the United States. Mohammed taught several of them how to live and travel in the United States, drawing on his own experiences as a college student there. He showed them how to use the Internet, book plane flights, read telephone directories, and communicate with headquarters. They practiced with flight simulators on personal computers and began to puzzle out how to hijack multiple flights that would be in the air at the same time. As this training proceeded the four volunteers from Hamburg arrived in Kandahar, traveling separately. They pledged formal allegiance to bin Laden. Binalshibh, Atta, and Jarrah met with military chief Atef, who instructed them to go back to Germany and start training as pilots. After Atta was selected as the mission’s leader he met with bin Laden personally to discuss targets. The Hamburg group already knew how to operate comfortably in Western society, but before returning to Europe some of them spent time with Mohammed in Karachi, studying airline schedules and discussing life in the United States.10

The four returned to Hamburg late that winter. Jarrah announced to his girlfriend that after years of drift he had at last discovered his life’s ambition: He wanted to fly passenger jets. Atta used his Hotmail account to email American pilot schools. “We are a small group (2–3) of young men from different arab [sic] countries,” he wrote. “Now we are living in Germany since a while for study purposes. We would like to start training for the career of airline professional pilots. In this field we haven’t yet any knowledge, but we are ready to undergo an intensive training program.”11

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF’S DAUGHTER married a documentary filmmaker. His son worked in Boston as a financial analyst. His father was a successful civil servant of secular mind. His mother did not hide behind a veil. She was a lively, talkative woman who orchestrated her family like the conductor of a chamber symphony. Doctors, diplomats, businessmen, and modernizers filled her family albums. Musharraf himself was typically called a liberal, which in Pakistan’s political vernacular meant he did not blanch at whiskey, danced when the mood was upon him, and believed Pakistan should be a normal country—Islamic in some respects but also capitalistic and to some extent democratic. Yet Pervez Musharraf, chief of Pakistan’s army staff, also believed firmly in the necessity of the Taliban in Afghanistan, for all of their medieval and illiberal practices. He believed, too, in the strategic value of their allied jihadists, especially those fighting in Kashmir.12

This was the aspect of the Pakistani officer corps that sometimes eluded American analysts, in the opinion of some Pakistani civilian liberals. Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten, flummox, and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking Islamist guerrillas. What more could Pakistan ask? The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical day-to-day strategic defense against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear bomb. To the west, in Afghanistan, the Taliban provided geopolitical “strategic depth” against India and protection from rebellion by Pakistan’s own restive Pashtun population. For Musharraf, as for many other liberal Pakistani generals, jihad was not a calling, it was a professional imperative. It was something he did at the office. At quitting time he packed up his briefcase, straightened the braid on his uniform, and went home to his normal life.

To the extent it was personal or emotional for him, it was about India. He was a small, compact man with round cheeks, a boyish face, a neat mustache, and graying hair parted in the middle. He exuded a certain puffed-up vanity, but he could also be disarmingly casual and relaxed in private. Born in New Delhi in 1943, the son of an imperial bureaucrat, he and his family migrated to Pakistan unscathed amid the bloodshed of partition. He attended elite Christian boys’ schools in Karachi and Lahore, then won a place at Pakistan’s leading military academy. As a young officer he fought artillery duels in the second of his country’s three wars with India. In the catastrophic war of 1971, when Pakistan lost almost half its territory as Bangladesh won independence, Musharraf served as a gung-ho major in the elite commandos. When he heard of the final humiliating cease-fire with India, a friend remembered, “he took off his commando jacket and threw it on the floor. . . . He thought it a defeat. We all did.” Like hundreds of his colleagues, Musharraf’s commitment to revenge hardened. On sabbatical at a British military college in 1990, now a brigadier general, he argued in his thesis that Pakistan only wanted “down to earth, respectable survival” while India arrogantly sought “dominant power status” in South Asia. As army chief in 1999, it was his role, Musharraf believed, to craft and execute his country’s survival strategy even if that meant defending the Taliban or tolerating bin Laden as the Saudi trained and inspired self-sacrificing fighters in Kashmir.13

That spring, in secret meetings with his senior commanders at Rawalpindi, Musharraf went further. Perhaps it was his commando background. Perhaps it was the success his army had recently enjoyed in Afghanistan when it inserted clandestine officers and volunteers to fight secretly with the Taliban against Ahmed Shah Massoud. Perhaps it was the unremitting popular pressure in Pakistan to score a breakthrough against Indian troops in Kashmir. In any case, as the U.S. embassy in Islamabad later pieced it together, Musharraf pulled off his shelf a years-old army plan for a secret strike against a fifteen-thousand-foot strategic height in Kashmir known as Kargil. The idea was to send Pakistani army officers and soldiers in civilian disguise to the area, seize it, and hold it against Indian counterattack. Then Pakistan would possess an impregnable firing position above a strategic road in Indian-held Kashmir, cutting off a section of the disputed territory called Ladakh. With one stiletto thrust, Musharraf calculated, his army could sever a piece of Kashmir from Indian control.14

He briefed this audacious plan to the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who approved. As one longtime analyst of the Pakistani army later observed, it was perhaps the greatest strategic error by an overmatched military since Pearl Harbor, yet neither Sharif nor Musharraf seemed able to imagine how India or the world would react.15

In early May, Pakistani commandos disguised as jihadist volunteers seized Kargil without a fight. The disaster unfolded quickly. Pakistani army officers summoned ambassadors to a meeting in Islamabad and admitted the Kargil attackers were regular Pakistani army troops in disguise—even as other government spokesmen publicly insisted the incursion was an independent guerrilla uprising. Stunned, Bill Milam, the U.S. ambassador, poured classified cables into Washington reporting that Pakistan had in effect started a war. India launched aerial bombardments and a worldwide campaign to whip up outrage about Pakistan’s aggression. Its politicians threatened a wider conflict to finish off Pakistan’s army once and for all. Fearing nuclear escalation, Clinton delivered a dozen secret letters to Sharif and Pakistani generals in as many weeks, each time imploring them to see their folly and withdraw. He also pressured Sharif on the Taliban and al Qaeda. “I urge you in the strongest way to get the Taliban to expel bin Laden,” Clinton wrote Sharif on June 19. But the crisis only deepened. In early July the CIA picked up intelligence that Pakistan’s army was preparing nuclear-tipped missiles for launch against India if necessary.16

An overwhelmed Sharif feared he had lost his shaky grip. He flew hurriedly to Washington to meet with Clinton on July 4. He brought his wife and children, as if he might be flying into exile.17

At Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue, with only a National Security Council note taker present, Clinton ripped into Pakistan’s prime minister. Clinton had “asked repeatedly for Pakistani help to bring Osama bin Laden to justice from Afghanistan,” the president ranted. Sharif had “promised often to do so but had done nothing. Instead the ISI worked with bin Laden and the Taliban to foment terrorists.” It was an outrage, Clinton said. He was going to release a statement calling worldwide attention to Pakistan’s support for terrorists. Is that what Sharif wanted? Clinton demanded. Did Sharif order the Pakistani nuclear missile force to get ready for action? Did he realize how crazy that was?

“You’ve put me in the middle today, set the U.S. up to fail, and I won’t let it happen,” Clinton said. “Pakistan is messing with nuclear war.”18

Doughy and evasive, Sharif gave in. He had already been working with Saudi Arabia, Europe, and by back channels with India to find a way to climb down. He announced a total withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kargil. By doing so he ended the crisis, but he took heavy heat at home. Sharif blamed the army for getting him into this mess. The generals let it be known that it was all the prime minister’s fault. An army-led coup attempt seemed possible, perhaps likely, the U.S. embassy reported.

But Musharraf hung back. In late summer he and the prime minister traveled to an army celebration near the Kashmir line of control. The general and Sharif ate, talked, and even danced, and they tried to patch things up. On a walk back to their hotel rooms, Sharif pulled an adviser aside and asked, referring to Musharraf, “What do you think?” In English, self-consciously quoting what Margaret Thatcher had once said of Mikhail Gorbachev, the minister replied: “I think he’s a guy you can do business with.”19

Sharif hoped that Pakistani intelligence might yet rescue him. The prime minister remained much closer to his intelligence chief, Khwaja Ziauddin, his family’s friend and political protégé, than to Musharraf.

Clinton’s rant at Blair House spurred Pakistan to deliver on a plan to train commandos who might be sent into Afghanistan to snatch bin Laden. Sharif tried to shore up his connection to the CIA. Nearly every politician in Pakistan believed, at least some of the time, that the CIA decided who served as prime minister in Islamabad. In September, Ziauddin flew to Washington to meet with Cofer Black, the new head of the Counterterrorist Center, and Gary Schroen. Ziauddin carried a message: “I want to help you. We want to get bin Laden. . . . If you find him, we’ll help you.” The Pakistani commando training accelerated, and the agency brought the snatch team to “a pretty good standard,” as an American official recalled. The commandos moved up to the Afghanistan border. A staging camp was constructed. From Langley and the Islamabad station, the Counterterrorist Center was positioning its agents and collection assets and “getting ready to provide intelligence for action,” the American official recalled.20

That same week Sharif sent his brother and confidential adviser, Shahbaz, to Washington. Ensconced at the Willard Hotel, all Shahbaz wanted to discuss was “what the U.S. could do to help his brother stay in power,” as Bruce Riedel of the National Security Council recalled it. “He all but said that they knew a military coup was coming.”21 The State Department’s Rick Inderfurth, speaking to reporters on background, warned against any “extraconstitutional” measures by Pakistan’s army. In Rawalpindi, Musharraf and his officers fumed. Why did they need another lecture about democracy from the Americans? Who said they were about to launch a coup anyway? It was Sharif who was the greater danger to Pakistan. And what kind of game was his crony, General Ziauddin, cooking up at the CIA? In the parlors of Islamabad’s and Rawalpindi’s elite, where conspiracy talk is appetizer and aperitif, suspicion piled upon suspicion as September ended.

Ziauddin heard an earful at Foggy Bottom from Undersecretary of State Pickering, who urged the ISI chief to intervene personally with Mullah Omar about bin Laden. In desperate need of allies, Sharif and his intelligence chief wanted to do all they could to ingratiate themselves with the CIA. Ziauddin flew into Kandahar on October 7 and met with Omar to tell him how strongly the Americans felt about bin Laden. The Taliban leader, as he had so many times before, rebuffed him.22

Sharif tried again to ease the tension. He appointed Musharraf to the additional post of chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff. This was a largely symbolic job, but Sharif had left it open for a year, creating the impression that he might use it to kick Musharraf upstairs, out of direct army command. Now Sharif seemed to make clear that he did not want Musharraf to go. The general felt relaxed enough to take his wife on a working golf junket to Sri Lanka. Bill Milam forecast a temporary peace and left for vacation in California.

On October 12, 1999, as Musharraf flew back to Karachi on a Pakistan International Airlines jet, Nawaz Sharif announced that he was firing his army chief. Against all protocol, he elevated Ziauddin to take Musharraf’s place. Ziauddin had few friends among the powerful army corps commanders. He had risen as an engineer on the army’s margins, and his turn at ISI had won him more allies in Langley than in Rawalpindi. He had so few connections in General Headquarters that when Sharif told him of his promotion, Ziauddin had to shop for the proper epaulets in a commercial market in Rawalpindi, according to accounts that later reached the U.S. embassy.

The first hours after Sharif’s stunning decision unfolded in confusion. It took time for word of Musharraf’s dismissal to circulate among senior generals and for them to discuss a response. They intended to hold to military discipline. Musharraf was still in charge, but he was airborne and difficult to reach.

The CIA-funded secret anti–bin Laden commando force on the Afghan border now teetered in the balance. As the new army chief on paper, Ziauddin called the commandos to the capital to help defend his new office and Nawaz Sharif. There were not many of them, but they could provide a lethal bodyguard.23

The commando team’s leaders knew that in political terms they were Ziauddin’s men. If they moved now on his behalf, they might reap rewards. But if they tried to defend the general against a hostile army command, they could find themselves under arrest or worse. In the first hours several of the commando team’s officers, dressed in plain clothes, moved quietly into Rawalpindi to assess how Ziauddin’s faction was doing. They did not want to commit until they could estimate their chances of success.

According to accounts later circulated by the CIA, the commando team leaders quickly discovered the army’s outrage about Musharraf’s dismissal. The high command intended to move against Sharif and his allies. The army’s Tenth Corps, the politically sensitive unit barracked nearest to Islamabad, soon rolled into the streets to detain Sharif and his political allies, including Ziauddin. Without calling attention to themselves, the commando leaders hurriedly communicated to their men: This is a losing cause.

“That unit disappeared” almost overnight, an American official recalled. “I mean, it just dissolved.” By one Pakistani account, some of the commandos had become uneasy about their mission against bin Laden. Another U.S. official who was managing the coup crisis in Washington remembered: “The expression I did hear was that they were heading for the hills and haven’t been heard from since.”24

Desperate, Sharif ordered the Karachi airport to refuse permission for Musharraf’s plane to land. The jet had only twenty minutes of fuel left, the pilot reported. Circling above the Arabian Sea, the airplane pitched and turned. “The hostess was white as a sheet,” recalled Musharraf’s wife, Sheba. “Two anti-hijacking guards had come forward.We were gaining and losing height. I could see the lights of Karachi receding.”25

The army prevailed on the controllers and the plane landed. Musharraf barely had time to absorb that he was now Pakistan’s supreme leader.Wearing mismatched civilian clothes hurriedly borrowed, he interrupted the bland folk dancing that had soothed viewers of state-run television during the crisis. Backed by tanks now spreading across Pakistan’s major cities, Musharraf declared that a new political era in Pakistan had begun and that Sharif had been dismissed. A day later he issued an emergency decree and appointed himself chief executive.

The coup severely disrupted the Clinton administration’s covert campaign against bin Laden. Musharraf immediately arrested Ziauddin. The ISI-supplied, CIA-trained commando team was lost. Richard Clarke and others at the National Security Council had invested little hope in the group, but some CIA officers thought there was at least a 25 percent chance it might have gone into action around Kandahar.

Pakistani intelligence was in for another leadership upheaval. Musharraf had personal cause for suspicion of his own intelligence service. ISI’s internal security group had investigated the general’s suitability for high office when Sharif was considering him for army chief, Musharraf complained angrily. Now he would have to clean house at ISI to make sure that it was under control, loyal to his new government, and not off running private errands for Clinton or the CIA.

Bill Milam flew back hurriedly to Islamabad and met Musharraf privately at 11 A.M. on Friday, October 15, at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Musharraf wore his uniform and surrounded himself with aides. He seemed uncomfortable. Milam had met with Musharraf monthly over the previous year. At first the discussions had been formal and constrained. Gradually they evolved into private, more candid talks. Now Milam handed Musharraf a letter from President Clinton. It chastised the general for taking power and urged him to establish a “roadmap” for restoring democracy. If they discussed any issue besides the army takeover, it was only in passing. Musharraf explained his reasons: Sharif had pulled Pakistan down to one of the lowest points in its history. The general unfurled a long account of his hours on the PIA jet, uncertain of his fate. “He was actually, clearly quite angry with Nawaz,” recalled an American involved. “He thought Nawaz was trying to kill him.”26

Milam knew from his previous meetings that Musharraf had traditional, uncompromising views about Afghanistan and Kashmir. By the time of the coup, Musharraf and his corps commanders felt that “the Americans had adopted a certain approach towards the Taliban without really understanding what the Taliban was all about,” as one senior Pakistani official close to the general put it. Musharraf believed that “by marginalizing the Taliban” the Clinton administration had “made them more dependent on the Arabs,” and therefore the United States “had ended up with a self-fulfilling prophecy” of rising terrorism. Musharraf wanted Clinton to engage with the Taliban, to seek their moderation, and “to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.”27

Clinton’s Cabinet split over how to react to Musharraf’s takeover. Richard Clarke and his allies in the counterterrorism bureaucracy did not want to alienate Musharraf for fear that he would make a difficult bin Laden problem even worse. Albright and others argued that, given Clinton’s emphasis on the promotion of democracy worldwide, it would be hypocritical to accept an army-led coup against an elected prime minister, however great Sharif’s flaws. Musharraf was the architect of Kargil, she and other skeptics pointed out. He facilitated terrorism in Kashmir. The whole debate about how bad Musharraf might be “diverted the discussion” about counterterrorism in the Cabinet and at the White House, one participant recalled. The coup “introduced a whole new issue in our bilateral relationship; in addition to Kashmir, in addition to proliferation, now there was the issue about the return to democracy.”28

With Pakistan, at least, bin Laden and al Qaeda were slipping yet further down the list.

AS CELEBRATIONS of the end of the millennium and the dawn of 2000 neared, George Tenet called his old mentor from his days on Capitol Hill, the former senator from Oklahoma, David Boren.

“Don’t travel,” Tenet told him. “Don’t go anyplace where there are big crowds.”

Boren was incredulous. “Oh, come on, George,” he said dismissively.

“No, no, no,” Tenet answered, serious. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand people like bin Laden.” Boren thought Tenet sounded obsessive, but he paid attention.29

It had been a rough autumn for the threat-reporting managers at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Beginning in September they picked up multiple signs that bin Laden had set in motion major terrorist attacks timed to the turn of the year. Jordan’s security services tapped telephones of suspected al Qaeda members and began to gather evidence about one apparent plot to hit American and Israeli targets. There were many other ominous fragments in the CIA’s daily threat matrix.

Tenet went to the White House to deliver a forecast: He expected between five and fifteen terrorist attacks around the millennium. “Because the U.S. is [bin Laden’s] ultimate goal,” Tenet reported, “we must assume that several of these targets will be in the U.S.”30 He grabbed the National Security Council’s attention with that prediction. Yet there was still an undercurrent of tension between Richard Clarke’s office at the White House and the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA over how much threat reporting was too much. Clarke’s two principal aides at the time, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, wrote later that the CIA was still “overloading the President’s Daily Brief” that autumn with alarming but inconclusive threat reports, “so great was the fear of failing to give timely notice.” This sort of caustic skepticism about CIA motivations frustrated Langley’s officers. They believed the White House—especially Clarke’s office—would be the first to pounce on them if they failed to pass along a relevant warning.31

Two arrests—one made public at the time, the other kept secret initially—shocked them all into panicked cooperation. On November 30, Jordanian intelligence listened as one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants, Abu Zubaydah, gave orders by international telephone to begin carrying out an attack he called “the day of the millennium.” Jordanian police swooped down on the Amman houses they had under surveillance. In the early hours of December 5, a militant in custody led them to a house with a false floor covered by cinder blocks. Beneath an iron hatch and down a ladder they found seventy-one plastic containers of nitric acid and sulfuric acid. It was enough for explosives as powerful as sixteen tons of TNT, enough to destroy a hotel and the neighborhood around it. The Islamists arrested confessed they had already picked a target: a Radisson Hotel that expected to host American and Israeli tourists for a gala millennium party. The suspects admitted to another plan: They intended to release cyanide gas inside a crowded movie theater that was popular with foreigners.32

National Security Adviser Sandy Berger convened daily hour-long White House meetings to review every thread of intelligence, surveillance, and warning available. The interagency group issued streams of nationwide and international alerts. From Langley, Tenet and Cofer Black cabled stations worldwide. They ordered intensified collection and disruption campaigns against any known Islamist individuals or groups whose record suggested they might be involved in the millennium attacks. They sought to target “operations we knew were being planned for the millennium turnover,” as one CIA officer at the Counterterrorist Center recalled, “and that we suspected would carry over to the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan in early January 2000.”33

Nine days after the explosives cache was unearthed in Jordan, a watchful customs agent named Diane Dean saw a Middle Eastern man sweat profusely as he sat in the back of a line of cars exiting a ferry from Canada, through Port Angeles, Washington. She popped the trunk of the man’s Chrysler and found enough explosives to level a section of the Los Angeles International Airport, which he later admitted was his target.

Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian, had migrated to Canada, fallen in with a cell of Montreal Islamists, and then traveled to Afghanistan to enroll in camps run by bin Laden. His proximity to America attracted bin Laden’s recruiters, and he was enrolled in graduate-level training in explosives at Derunta, a camp near Jalalabad. In mid-January 1999, Ressam departed from Afghanistan with $12,000 in cash and extensive course notes about how to build a devastating bomb.34

After Ressam’s arrest Clinton telephoned General Musharraf in Pakistan. He demanded that Musharraf find a way to disrupt or arrest bin Laden, according to notes of the conversation kept by the American side. Musharraf’s coup offered a potential fresh start in U.S.-Pakistan relations, Clinton said, but the potential benefits of a renewal—economic aid and trade relief—depended on whether Pakistan’s army helped remove bin Laden as a threat. Musharraf pledged to cooperate, but he was “unwilling to take the political heat at home,” cabled U.S. ambassador William Milam.35

Clarke and the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center spent New Year’s Eve in restless watch for last-minute evidence of an attack. Midnight struck, but no terrorists did. As it happened, they had missed one bin Laden team on the verge of an assault. In Yemen a team of suicide bombers moved against the USS The Sullivans, an American destroyer, as it docked at Aden just after New Year’s Day. But the plotters overloaded their suicide skiff with explosives and struggled helplessly as it sank in the harbor. They salvaged the boat, but it would be months before they could organize another attack. Nobody noticed them.36

At the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, “We were frantic,” Cofer Black recalled. “Nobody was sleeping. We were going full tilt.” They had launched “the largest collection and disruption activity in the history of mankind against terrorism,” he recalled, with “hundreds” of operations under way simultaneously.37

In the midst of this surge a piece of intelligence originally turned up by the FBI during its investigations of the Africa embassy bombings “provided a kind of tuning fork that buzzed,” as one CIA officer later put it. A phone tap in the Middle East indicated that two Arab men with links to al Qaeda planned a trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A Counterterrorist Center officer noticed the connections and sought approval for surveillance operations to try to learn the men’s names and, “ideally, what they were doing,” as the CIA officer put it.38

By January 5, 2000, the CIA had obtained a copy of one of their target’s passports. Khalid al-Mihdhar, a middle-class Saudi Arabian with no known links to terrorism, had been issued a U.S. B1/B2 multiple-entry visa in Jedda the previous spring, a visa that would not expire until April 6, 2000, the passport showed.39

Working with a Malaysian internal security unit that cooperated regularly with the CIA station in Kuala Lumpur, officers photographed the suspects in and around a golf course condominium owned by an Islamic radical named Yazid Sofaat. The group included a number of known or suspected al Qaeda terrorists. “We surveil them. We surveil the guy they’re there to meet,” Black recalled. “Not close enough to hear what they’re actually saying, but we’re covering, taking pictures, watching their behavior. They’re acting kind of spooky. They’re not using the phone in the apartment. They’re going around, walking in circles, just like junior spies. Going up to phone booths, making a lot of calls. It’s like, ‘Who are these dudes?’ ”40

The Counterterrorist Center briefed Tenet and FBI Director Louis Freeh, but when al-Mihdhar and his companions flew out of Kuala Lumpur, the CIA lost their trail. “Thus far, a lot of suspicious activity has been observed, but nothing that would indicate evidence of an impending attack or criminal enterprise,” one CIA officer wrote to another that week.41

The email’s author had recently been posted to the Counterterrorist Center to help improve communication with the FBI. The officer reported that the FBI had been told “as soon as something concrete is developed leading us into the criminal arena or to known FBI cases, we will immediately bring FBI into the loop.”42

None of the CIA officers at the Counterterrorist Center, who knew about al-Mihdhar’s valid American visa, and none of the FBI officers who were briefed thought to place al-Mihdhar on official American terrorist watch lists. A Counterterrorist Center circular had reminded officers of proper watch-listing procedures only weeks earlier. These lists were designed to alert customs, law enforcement, and immigration officers to the names of those whose entry to the United States should be blocked or reviewed. The CIA at the time was adding several hundred names to the watch list every month.

The agency’s “lapse” in al-Mihdhar’s case, Tenet said later, “was caused by a combination of inadequate training of some of our officers, their intense focus on achieving the objectives of the operation itself, determining whether the Kuala Lumpur meeting was a prelude to a terrorist attack, and the extraordinary pace of operational activity at the time.” The first error in January was compounded by another weeks later when the CIA discovered that the second Saudi identified in Malaysia, Nawaf al-Hazmi, had flown to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000, and entered the United States. A March 5 cable to Langley from a CIA station abroad reporting this fact did not trigger a review of either of the Saudis. Nor was either of them placed on the watch list at this second opportunity. As it happened, both men were al Qaeda veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia.43

Without the watch list there was little chance the suspects would face scrutiny. Under the State Department’s consular policies, as one investigator later put it, “Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that did not fit the profile for terrorism or illegal immigration.”44For all of its sour experiences with the Saudi government on terrorism issues and for all of the mutual frustration and suspicion dating back two decades, the United States was still loath to reexamine any of the core assumptions governing its alliance with Riyadh.

Beyond the names of the two mysterious Saudis and the inconclusive photography relayed from Kuala Lumpur, the CIA knew nothing at this stage about the multistranded plot that bin Laden had set in motion in Kandahar late in 1999 to attack American aviation.45 What Tenet did know about al Qaeda that winter frightened him more than ever before. The cyanide plot in Jordan and the evidence of populous Algerian networks in Canada and Europe stunned the CIA director and his senior colleagues. Among other things, the new cases reinforced Tenet’s fears about bin Laden’s ambitions to use weapons of mass destruction. Taken together, the evidence “confirms our conviction,” Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 2, that bin Laden “wants to strike further blows against America” and is “placing increased emphasis on developing surrogates to carry out attacks in an effort to avoid detection.” Al Qaeda had now emerged as “an intricate web of alliances among Sunni extremists worldwide, including North Africans, radical Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Central Asians,” Tenet warned. The Taliban was an increasingly obvious part of the problem, he said. Illicit profits that the Taliban reaped from opium trafficking reached extremists such as bin Laden “to support their campaign of terrorism.”46

Still, in this briefing and others to the intelligence committees that winter, as he delivered his warnings in rough order of priority, Tenet continued to place the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction just ahead of the danger of terrorism. “It is simply not enough to look at al Qaeda in isolation,” Tenet explained later. The 1990s “saw a number of conflicting and competing trends.” He felt he could not concentrate only on terrorism. The CIA had to provide intelligence for American military forces deployed worldwide. It had to watch nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons, tensions in the Middle East, and other pressing issues—and do so with “far fewer intelligence dollars and manpower” than in the past.47

The senators, for their part, spent more time that February grilling Tenet about a controversy over the use of classified information by his predecessor at the CIA, John Deutch, than they did asking questions about bin Laden, Afghanistan, or the threat of spectacular terrorism.

For all of the CIA’s global surge that winter, none of the wiretaps or interrogation reports picked up evidence of the four Arab men from Hamburg who had moved quietly in and out of Afghanistan that winter. The CIA and FBI pressed Germany’s police continually for help in watching Islamists in that country, including in Hamburg, but the efforts were frustrated by German laws and attitudes. Only half a century removed from the Nazi Gestapo, German courts adamantly limited police spying. Many German politicians and intellectuals saw American fears of Islamic terrorism as overblown, even naïve. Nor did CIA cooperation with Pakistani intelligence yield day-to-day exchanges about Arab men entering and leaving the country on Taliban-sponsored visits to Afghanistan. In any event, the Hamburg four finalized their plans for pilot training in the United States without attracting attention from police or intelligence agencies.48

Marwan al-Shehhi fell into conversation that spring with a Hamburg librarian, Angela Duile, as he prepared to depart for America. “Something will happen and there will be thousands dead,” he told her. He mentioned the World Trade Center, she recalled. She did not think he was serious.

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