KARACHI – Prior to September 11, although United States intelligence had wind of several possible al-Qaeda schemes involving an attack on the World Trade Center and the highjacking or destruction of airplanes, the precise plans for that fateful day were so closely guarded that even Osama bin Laden didn’t know the details until September 1.
This emerges from an Asia Times Online investigation involving intelligence sources closely connected to the interrogation of at least three senior al-Qaeda members after their arrest in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
If the beads are placed on the thread, the bombing of the World Trade Center’s car park basement on February 26, 1993, in which six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured, kicked off the planning that culminated in al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 1993 bombing was carried out by a group headed by Ramzi Yousef, who is serving a 240-year prison term. US federal authorities say that Yousef’s group received financial support from al-Qaeda via Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks. But a direct al-Qaeda role in the 1993 attack hasn’t been established.
However, after the 1993 attack, al-Qaeda members concluded that, given the architecture of the twin towers, they could not be destroyed from their base. And so the seeds of the outrageous plan for a plane attack on the building were planted.
The plan gathers pace
In August 1998, the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles through Pakistani airspace into Afghanistan in an abortive strike meant to kill Osama bin Laden in retaliation for suspected al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Africa.
Earlier that year, bin Laden, after forming the “Coalition against Crusaders, Christians and Jews” – the International Islamic Front – issued a fatwa declaring that it was the “duty of Muslims everywhere to kill Americans, including civilians”.
The attack on Afghanistan is believed to have acted as a catalyst for several al-Qaeda cells to seriously begin planning a major attack on US soil. Details of this have emerged from intelligence sources familiar with the case of al-Qaeda operative Ramzi Binal Shib, who was arrested after a shootout with Pakistani security forces in Karachi on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He was interrogated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), jointly and separately. After these sessions, he was finally handed over to US authorities.
Ramzi’s account of events discloses several new aspects which clearly show why US intelligence failed to detect the of September 11 plot. Ramzi was supposed to be the 20th hijacker, but he failed to obtain a US visa. He claims that his non-participation was “the greatest regret in my life”.
His revelations show that the final execution of the attacks were plotted in Hamburg, Germany, where an important al-Qaeda cell was based. Its members had never carried out any missions against US interests, and they were highly motivated and extremely secretive. Beyond the team members, no one knew of their plans, and apparently bin Laden was only informed 10 days before September 11 of the actual nature of the attack.
Ramzi Binal Shib informed his interrogators that he was assigned to tell bin Laden of the plan. He travelled from Germany via Bangkok to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden. From Afghanistan he returned to Germany, where he learned that his application for a US visa had been refused. He rushed to Spain to submit a fresh application, but was again unsuccessful, so he returned to Afghanistan, only leaving when Kabul fell in late 2001. He ended up in Karachi, where he was arrested on September 11, 2002.
The nature of the Hamburg cell is typical of the manner in which al-Qaeda operates. Once members of a particular cell are assigned a specific task, the details of the planning and execution remain with them alone, and they do not know what other cells are doing.
Take the case of Khalid Bin al-Attash. He was arrested on April 29 last year in Karachi, and was regarded as the biggest-ever catch in the “war on terror” as a hardcore al-Qaeda member and a close associate of bin Laden.
The one-legged operative was a suspect in the attack on the warship USS Cole at Aden, Yemen, in October 2000. At the time of his arrest by Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau, al-Attash was mistakenly taken for a local Pakistani jihadi, but under interrogation his real identity emerged. He was later passed on to the ISI and then the FBI, but after exhaustive questioning it became obvious that he did not have a clue about the September 11 planning.
Similarly, Ramzi Binal Shib was part of the September 11 team, but interrogators soon realized that he was unaware of any other al-Qaeda activities. The same was true of Abu Zubaida, arrested in 2002 by a joint team of Pakistani security officials and the FBI and known to be a part of bin Laden’s inner circle. He was unable to supply any information on September 11, or on future plans, except for some general information.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that the September 11 plan went undetected. According to Asia Times Online sources, a Central Intelligence Agency memo of August 6, 2001, indicating that al-Qaeda wanted to attack the US, was no more than a piece of intelligence analysis, primarily extracted from al-Qaeda’s track record and bin Laden’s call for an attack on the US.
Beyond that, no specifics were available. This raises the strong possibility that, just like before in Hamburg, a highly secretive al-Qaeda cell might at this very moment be in the throes of planning another major attack.