Could 11 September have been Prevented?

The White House has recently admitted that President George Bush received a brief from the CIA, in August 2001, to the effect that there was a credible threat of aircraft hijacking by Osama bin Laden's Al Qa'ida organization. The assessment was based on information gathered over the previous three months. Earlier disclosures by FBI personnel in Arizona and Minnesota suggested that suicide hijackings might a possibility. Moreover, it would seem that a number of other sources also indicated that there was a high probability of an Al Qa'ida attack specifically against continental US targets, rather than the more usual and general attacks against US interests abroad.

Until now, it has been suggested that the failure to predict and take action against these threats was a consequence of intelligence agencies not sharing their information with one another and the lack of a central analytical and decision-making focus. While it still seems likely that there are major weaknesses within and between the many US informationgathering agencies there was, in fact, a centralized recipient for all the strands of intelligence material: the White House itself. Condoleeza Rice, the President's National Security Adviser, has suggested that the reports she received related to 'conventional hijacking' not a 'suicide hijacking' where the seized aircraft might be used as a weapon. But this explanation is hardly sufficient, for it highlights at least two additional deficiencies.

Responses which could have been considered

First, if the intent of Al Qa'ida, or indeed any other terrorist organization, was a 'conventional hijacking', it would have been entirely appropriate to implement preventative measures even if the actual purpose of the attack was still unknown. 'Conventional hijackings' have, after all, one of two primary objectives: to reach a destination of the hijackers' choosing - invariably a diversion from the programmed flight path - either in order to escape from or to another country, or as a means of coercing a government into yielding to the hijackers' demands. In the case of terrorist organizations, the most common objective is to bring about the release of imprisoned colleagues. Realizing this objective may involve the killing of passengers or crew, coupled with the destruction or the permanent seizure of the aircraft. A government's response consists of either compliance with or a compromise over the terrorists' demands, or a prolonged stand-off which concludes with the storming of the aircraft or another compromise. Either way, a significant impact on the airline industry can be anticipated, and a substantial involvement of special forces as well as the entire machinery of government is to be expected. Thus, even if the White House foresaw only a 'conventional hijacking', this was still a danger which required prompt action.

The other potential deficiency relates to discounting the use of an aircraft as a weapon, rather than just a platform for the advancement of political demands. Intelligence analysts should have considered this possibility. Suicide attackers in the form of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots achieved some success when ranged against a significantly superior enemy toward the end of the Second World War. Kamikaze missions not only had to locate their targets but also had to overcome the protective screen provided by fighter aircraft and ships' own self defence weaponry. The targets of these attacks were the Allied Fleets and those who performed such deeds were motivated by a fanatical desire to protect their beliefs, an unswerving allegiance to their leader and belief in the subsequent reward of the status of hero for making the supreme sacrifice. The precedent for the manned flying bomb had therefore been established; indeed, one of those who experienced Kamikaze attacks was none other than a former Second World War US pilot, who subsequently served as head of the CIA, president of the US and is the father of the current American president. True, this method had not been used since 1945, nor had civilian aircraft been employed, but Al Qa'ida's declared war against the US was well-known. So were the organization's previous attacks against US interests both at home and abroad and its proclivity to use suicide techniques.

The past which pointed to the future

The story of Al Qa'ida's fight against the US is by now familiar. In 1993 a massive explosion shook the World Trade Centre in New York. The arrest of the perpetrators of this terrorist attack resulted in the identification of links to Al Qa'ida and the curtailment of other strikes against key infrastructure and economic targets. In 1998, successful simultaneous attacks were mounted against the Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Both used suicide attackers. An even closer parallel to the events of 11 September was the suicide attack against the USS Cole in Aden in 2000. It is true that the bomb on this occasion was an explosive-laden boat and the target a US warship in a foreign port. But the principle that suicide bombers were a very effective mechanism for ensuring perfect delivery of explosives to their intended target with a high probability of success was established. It did not require a massive leap in imagination to conclude that, having attacked US targets overseas - very often by puncturing defences which were much stronger than those operating in the US itself - Al Qa'ida would ultimately be turning to attacks on continental America. Clearly, US planners were looking at the world in terms of states and organized armies, where America's supremacy could ensure the relative invulnerability of its own territory. Whether the 11 September attacks were a consequence of the feeble US responses to the earlier bombings or the inevitable part of a strategy of escalation by the terrorists will remain a matter of conjecture. It is appropriate, however, to query Washington's failure to make certain deductions from Al Qa'ida's previous behaviour. The assumption that, somehow, Al Qa'ida would confine itself to US overseas targets was always suspect.

What was possible?

If it is assumed that the executive arm of the US government was in possession of the facts, namely that Al Qa'ida operatives were interested in flying but not taking off or landing large passenger jets, that Osama bin Laden had stated his intention to attack targets in the continental US, and that an aircraft might be used as a flying bomb, what could they have done? Even if the only concrete information available, as Condoleeza Rice asserts, pointed to a 'conventional hijack', what train of actions might one reasonably expect to be set in motion?

To mount a successful terrorist attack requires resources, capability, opportunity and intent. Terrorist resources constitute a range of items and assets, from weapons to personnel and information to finances. A terrorist is provided with opportunity when afforded time and space to train, and to reconnoitre and execute a plan, unencumbered by idle curiosity, targeted surveillance and either offensive or defensive protective security measures.

On receipt of intelligence indicating the possibility of a terrorist attack, the first action that might be expected from any government would be the calling together of the heads of the intelligence agencies to establish its provenance. This should result in confirmation of its quality and provide the opportunity of piecing together the strands from a variety of sources and activating further intelligence gathering and analysis. It is true that threats against transport systems are a regular event and the potential shutdown on every occasion would have a major negative impact on even the strongest of economies. However, the decision to shut down transport systems is the final and most extreme of the courses of action available and one that is only considered once the credibility of the intelligence, including the probable date for any attack, has been established. In short, there were preventive measures the US government could have taken, even if the information received was patchy, and even if a decision was taken not to resort to radical courses such as a complete overhaul of all the airline transport arrangements.

The movement of at least some of the terrorists to the US appears to have roused a degree of curiosity in some quarters; indeed, several individuals were known by European security organisations to be Al Qa'ida members, but they were nevertheless able to gather and to concentrate all their required critical resources. Had effective surveillance operations been initiated at this very early point, or when suspicions were raised by the men undertaking flying training, it is probable that links between terrorist team members would have been established and the involvement of aircraft and specific airports as a component of the operation could have been identified. Initially, all aircraft threat options would need to have been considered; as a target for a ground missile attack, a 'conventional hijack' or a 'suicide hijack' but when coupled with the requirement to fly, but neither takeoff nor land, the most likely conclusion - that of a suicide hijack - would surely have been highlighted. Working on the assumption that not all terrorists might be known or adequately documented, and to provide a backstop in the event of the target individuals being unseen to the surveillance teams, the next step would have been to increase awareness and security at airports. The overt presence of increased numbers of security personnel acts as a major deterrent, as does greater scrutiny of travel documents, the questioning of passengers and the searching of passengers and their carry-on baggage. To execute a hijack requires a means of coercion and the most usual means of coercion comes in the form of a weapon. To have access to a weapon aboard an aircraft requires the weapon to be carried on the person or in cabin bags, to be placed onboard by an accomplice with airside access or to use an onboard item. In the case of the 11 September hijackers, it appears that they took their box cutters onboard with them. Had a systematic search regime, involving trained searchers who were aware of what constitutes a possible weapon, been implemented it is highly likely that either the weapons would have been located or this final level of deterrence would have caused a sufficient degree of unease in at least one of the hijackers to cause their operation to be aborted. In the event, the Al Qa'ida hijackers were allowed to undertake the necessary training and reconnaissance to execute their plan without becoming the targets of either a covert or overt operation. Unencumbered by surveillance, enhanced security, effective search regimes or the ultimate preventative measure of grounding aircraft, the final barrier to launching their attack was boarding the nominated aircraft, an activity made straightforward by the then traditionally lax standards of security at US domestic and international airports. Hindsight is, as observers remark, a wonderful advantage. Nevertheless, even the snippets of intelligence, which Washington itself admits were available, could have been connected with relative ease, and their conclusion would not have been very far off the mark.

Garth Whitty is Head of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience Programme

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