9/11 was a wake-up call for the Bush administration to correct the endemic fault lines within the US intelligence community.
London: At 8.48 on the morning of 11 September 2001, America and the world changed, probably for ever.
It was a clear and bright Tuesday morning when an American Airlines Boeing 767, loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York City, instantly killing hundreds of people in what seemed to be a freak accident. Seventeen minutes later, a second Boeing 767 appeared out of the sky, turned sharply towards the WTC and sliced into the south tower near the 60th floor. The collision caused a massive explosion, showering burning debris over surrounding buildings and onto the streets below, and it immediately became clear that this was no accident; America was under attack. At 9.37 the same morning, a third airliner slammed into the western face of the Pentagon and thirty minutes later a fourth airliner crashed into a field in southern Pennsylvania. It had been aimed at the White House, but was forced down by extraordinarily brave passengers when they learned of the earlier events.
Altogether, more than 2,600 people died at the WTC, 125 were killed at the Pentagon and 256 died on the four planes. Just nineteen young Arabs, in groups of four or five and armed with only small knives, box cutters and cans of pepper spray had caused the deaths of more Americans than the Japanese air force at Pearl Harbour seventy years earlier.
At a 9pm televised address from the White House on that fateful day, a shaken President George W. Bush assured the nation that those responsible, Islamist extremists hiding in Afghanistan, would be hunted down: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.” Bush’s face said it all—a mixture of embarrassment and anger. How could this happen to a nation with such an enormous military and intelligence infrastructure?
Had George Bush limited his objective to the capture and bringing to justice of the main culprit hiding in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, the mission would have been a success. But no, the country that harboured him also had to be punished and changed into a US-leaning democracy. Bush announced his “War on Terror”, a meaningless phrase that soon became his signature among the US electorate, and so began America’s longest war in history. We all know how that ended.
But worse was to come. Flushed with the initial success of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bush turned his attention to Iraq and the overturning of his bête-noir, Saddam Hussein. While few would raise Saddam to the level of sainthood, he presented no threat to America. He ruled Iraq as a murderous dictator, but in this respect he was not unique in the world. Once Bush acquired Saddam in his sights, he had to find a reason to invade Iraq. Two thoughts crossed his mind, which surely would provide him with the excuse to invade: Al Qaeda and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The problem was that neither existed in Iraq. But this fact didn’t prevent Bush from manufacturing a plausible scenario that they did. Saddam would therefore be an existential threat to the US and the world and should be eliminated. A devious Prime Minister Tony Blair also persuaded a gullible Westminster Parliament that Britain should join in the campaign.
The “shock and awe” of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 lasted just over a month and was a total success. The military bit at least. The problem was that no-one had given any thought to what should happen in Iraq after Saddam’s fall. This vacuum of power led to the formation of an organisation “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, which was renamed the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) in 2006. When the civil war in Syria started in 2013, the name was again changed to the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) because the group had expanded into Syria. A “victorious” President Bush had therefore created the very thing that he had gone into Iraq to defeat, but wasn’t there and didn’t exist when the war started! Irony of all ironies.
There is little doubt that the instability caused by Bush’s rash decisions in the early part of the new millennium led to the Arab Spring in December 2010, a series of pro-democracy uprisings that enveloped several largely Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. At best they turned out to be unsuccessful, at worst they were disastrous. Wars continue in Syria and Libya to this day and the lives of millions have been ruined.
The tragedy is that all this could have been prevented had there not been such a catastrophic failure of US intelligence and law enforcement leading up to 9/11. Agencies had multiple opportunities to stop the 9/11 plot, but blew them. Small dedicated teams of intelligence analysts and FBI agents had earlier toiled in obscurity as Al Qaeda and its associates attacked the World Trade Centre in 1993, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, along with several “lone wolf” attacks. But many in the intelligence community simply didn’t believe that Arab extremists were coordinated enough to work together to plot large scale attacks on the American homeland, despite the jihadists having operated jointly in Afghanistan to force Soviet withdrawal. “Arabs can’t work together, and these guys are a bunch of ragheads” was a common phrase heard around FBI buildings.
Even as Al Qaeda’s attacks grew, agencies were reluctant to fully accept that the group was willing to expand the scope to kill civilians on a large scale. Those few who could see the outlines of a bigger conspiracy had little support from highest levels, and didn’t receive the time, funding and support they needed for full investigations. When the US did launch retaliatory attacks on Al Qaeda after the USS Cole incident, they were limited enough in scope that Osama bin Laden, who had founded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the rout of the Soviet forces and the rise to power of the Taliban in 1996, felt emboldened to move forward with 9/11 plans.
In the months leading up to the attacks on Washington and New York, there were numerous opportunities to ruin bin Laden’s plans. It was more than just a failure to “connect the dots”, a phrase used in the 2004 official report on 9/11. To anyone who was associated with the intelligence agencies around Washington in the 1980s it was painfully obvious that they didn’t communicate with each other. Important information was kept within each agency as information was power, and power led to greater funding. So, the logic went, if you gave away information to other agencies, you could receive less funding the following year. In 2001, the entire US intelligence community was also still organised to follow the Soviet threat, even though the Soviet Union had ceased to exist for ten years. It was awash with Russian speakers and disastrously short of Arabic speakers, who could analyse and assess the vast amount of data collected by the spy agencies. Every day the US government was collecting vast amounts of information via its satellites and there were years of conversations waiting to be translated and photos to be looked at.
The 2004 official report lists in depth the vast number of failures that prevented the White House and Congress from knowing what was about to come. Many of the visas used by the hijackers were manipulated in a “fraudulent manner”, but the State Department responsible failed to notice. Two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were carefully monitored by the CIA as they moved internationally, but it was not brought to the FBI’s attention when they entered the US. Another hijacker, Zacarias Mussaoui, was charged with immigration violations, but it didn’t appear odd enough for anyone to report him to the FBI when he subsequently took flying lessons for take-off and attack, yet showed no interest in landing the plane!
9/11 was unquestionably a wake-up call for the Bush administration to correct the endemic fault lines within the US intelligence community. In January 2003, a newly formed US Department of Homeland Security began operations, combining twenty-two organisations into a single Cabinet Department in order to improve communications. National Defence now became a truly national function, “shared by a cop on the beat as well as the spy in the souk”. Had this been the case two years earlier the causal link between the failure of US intelligence and the situation we find ourselves in today would almost certainly not exist. Had the hijackers been spotted and their presence communicated, 9/11 would not have happened. If 9/11 had not happened, there would probably have been no invasion of Afghanistan, no war in Iraq, no Arab Spring or wars in Syria and Libya.
So the US did learn something from the experience of 9/11 and last week we heard even more. In a speech on Tuesday defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, President Biden signalled a fundamental shift in US foreign policy away from what he cited as war missions without clear achievable goals—“ones we will never reach, such as regime change”. If only former Presidents had kept to this principle.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.