Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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10 Av 5764 - July 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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US Commission Studying the Al Qaeda Attacks on the World Trade Center Rewrites their History
by Mordecai Plaut

Last week, 19 months after the original attacks in late Elul 5761 (9/11/01), the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released a final, unanimous book- length report that showed that much of what had been common wisdom about the September 11 attacks was wrong.

The 567-page report of the bipartisan commission composed of five Republicans and five Democrats rewrote the history of Sept. 11, 2001, correcting the historical record in ways large and small.

Up until the report was released, it was understood that all of the hijackers had entered the country legally and done nothing to draw attention to themselves before their great crime; that Osama bin Laden had underwritten the plot with his personal fortune but had left the details to others; that American intelligence agencies never imagined that Al Qaeda was considering suicide missions using planes; and that President Bush had received a special intelligence briefing weeks before Sept. 11 about Al Qaeda threats that focused on past, but not current, threats.

The commission's report found, however, that the hijackers had repeatedly broken the law in entering the United States, that Mr. bin Laden may have closely supervised the attacks but did not pay for them, that intelligence agencies had considered the threat of suicide hijackings, and that Mr. Bush received an August 2001 briefing on evidence of continuing domestic terrorist threats from Al Qaeda.

Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey said that he believes that the report provides closure. If there are unanswered questions it is mostly because "the people who were at the heart of the plot are dead."

What Really Happened

"Each of the hijackers, apparently purposely selected to avoid notice, came easily and lawfully from abroad," Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the FBI, testified to Congress in October 2002. "While here, the hijackers effectively operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that alerted law enforcement." This assertion was repeated by several other senior officials at various times.

But the commission found that as many as 13 of the hijackers had entered the United States with passports that had been fraudulently altered, using criminal methods previously associated with Al Qaeda. The commission also found that the visa applications of many of the hijackers had been filled out improperly. The names of at least three of the terrorists were found after Sept. 11 in the databases of American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies.

After entering the United States, several of the main hijackers should have drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies because of their behavior but they did not. Mohammed Atta, the plot's Egyptian-born ringleader, overstayed his tourist visa. One of the terrorist pilots, Ziad al-Jarrah, attended school in 2000 in violation of his immigration status, which should have been enough to block him from ever reentering the United States. Nonetheless he left and re- entered the US at least six more times before 9/11.

The leaders of the nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies insisted publicly that they never considered the nightmare of passenger planes turned into guided missiles. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center," Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, said in May 2002.

But in its investigation, the commission found that an attack of the kind that took place had in fact been imagined, and in fact considered repeatedly. The commission said that several threat reports in the late 1990s raised the explicit possibility of an attack using airliners as missiles.

Moreover, someone walked into an American consulate in East Asia and, "mentioned a possible plot to fly an explosives- laden aircraft into a U.S. city." In the same year, it said, an intelligence agency received information that a group of Libyans hoped to crash a plane into the World Trade Center.

American intelligence agencies had known for years that the United States had much to fear from Osama bin Laden, but it was based more on Mr. bin Laden's power as a global symbol of Islamic fundamentalist rage than as a terrorist operations mastermind.

But the commission found that Mr. bin Laden was described by captured al Qaeda terrorists as being involved in almost every detail of the September 11 plot. He was reported to have been eager to hit the White House.

Mr. bin Laden was cut off from his family's wealth after the early 1990s and he financed Al Qaeda's operations through a core group of wealthy Muslim donors, mainly in the Persian Gulf. The report said that from 1970 to 1994, Mr. bin Laden received about $1 million a year from family funds -- a sizable sum, but not enough to finance such an ambitious terrorist network.

The Bush administration has long maintained that there was a close working relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq. But the bipartisan commission found no evidence of close collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

"Saudi Arabia has long been considered the principal source of Al Qaeda financing," the commission wrote in its final report. "But we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization."

In the first hours after the Sept. 11 attacks and ever since, the White House has consistently insisted that President Bush and his deputies had no credible evidence before the attacks to suggest that Al Qaeda was about to strike on American soil.

But a special intelligence briefing had been presented to the president at his Texas ranch on Aug. 6, 2001, a month before the attacks. The name of the two-page briefing paper: "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S."

The document was not released by the White House for a long time, but eventually the commission forced it out. It contained passages referring to FBI reports of "suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." The commission's final report also revealed that two CIA analysts involved in preparing the brief had wanted to make clear to Mr. Bush that, far from being only a historical threat, the threat that Al Qaeda would strike on American soil was "both current and serious."

The Jewish Angle

In the summer of 2001, shortly before the September 11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the terrorist plot against the US, suggested to Osama bin Laden that al Qaida recruit a Saudi pilot "to commandeer a Saudi fighter jet and attack the Israeli city of Eilat," the final report says. Bin Laden reportedly "liked this proposal" but urged Mohammed to focus on the 9/11 operation first.

Earlier in 2001, at Bin Laden's direction, Mohammed had also dispatched an al-Qaida operative "to case potential economic and `Jewish targets' in New York City." Scattered through the report are references to al Qaida's desire to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets as well as at American ones. Bin Laden urged Mohammed to advance the date of the attacks so they could coincide with the anniversary of Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

Bin Laden was keeping a close eye on the intifadah in Israel. "One senior al Qaida operative claims to recall Bin Laden arguing that attacks against the United States needed to be carried out immediately to support insurgency in the Israeli- occupied territories and protest the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia," the report says.

The report also says that Mullah Omar, the ousted and now fugitive Taliban leader, pressed al Qaida to attack Jews, "not necessarily the United States," perhaps out of fear of retaliation.

The report speculates that Daniel Lewin, a former IDF officer who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the first to be hijacked and subsequently piloted into the World Trade Center, may have been the first to try to stop the hijackers.

As Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, and Abdul Aziz al Omari moved toward the cockpit, "passenger Daniel Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari, was stabbed by one of the hijackers -- probably Satam al Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin," the report says. "Lewin had served four years as an officer in the Israeli military. He may have made an attempt to stop the hijackers in front of him, not realizing that another was sitting behind him," it adds. Lewin, 31, had served in the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), and was a hi-tech entrepreneur. Lewin was severely wounded or possibly murdered by the stabbing.

Other Israeli victims of the attack were Hagai Shefi, 34, who had moved to New Jersey in 1992 along with his wife Sigal. He was director-general of the GoldTier Technologies Inc. The other Israeli victims who died in the crash were Leon Lebor, 51, Alona Abraham, 30, and Shay Levinhar, 29.


Overall, the commission blamed institutional failures and "a failure of imagination" rather than individuals.

"[On] that September day, we were unprepared. We did not grasp the magnitude of a threat that had been gathering over a considerable period of time. As we detail in our report, this was a failure of policy, management, capability, and above all, a failure of imagination," Kean told reporters. "[Since] the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them.

Among the report's key recommendations is a call for the creation of a national intelligence chief to coordinate all intelligence gathering, and that a joint congressional committee be created to oversee homeland security.

Summing up the substance of the reports conclusions, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that the commission maintains that the US is in the midst of an ideological conflict. It faces a loose confederation of people who believe in a perverted stream of Islam. Terrorism is the means they use to win converts to their cause.

The enemies are thus primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army. They are laying the groundwork for decades of struggle. There is no territory they must protect. The struggle is really fought in mass media, and they are very skilled in using them.

There is apparently a long struggle ahead.

Beyond the Commission

The Commission did not address the nonhuman factors that contributed to the effectiveness of the attacks. For example, no one could or would have predicted that the attacks would bring down both towers. Though the commission has apparently done an admirable job of assessing the social and material factors that led to the horrible attack, those who want to can see how clearly the hand of Hashem showed itself.


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