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Two hours’ drive from Kandahar, in the southern Afghan desert city where the Taliban were born and where Osama bin Laden maintained his operational base, a February 2001 wedding ceremony became the stage for bin Laden’s first public appearance in several years.
Seated in the shade of palm trees was the Al Qaeda leader’s seventeen-year-old son, Mohammed, his father’s personal protector and likely successor. To his left was Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian comrade of Zawahiri who acted as the chief military strategist of Al Qaeda—the brains behind its operations. To Mohammed’s right sat his father, who smiled proudly as his son prepared to marry Atef’s fourteen-year-old daughter.
Ahmad Zaidan, a correspondent for the Qatari outlet Al Jazeera, was ferried to the wedding with a camera crew in an effort to provide bin Laden with the publicity he had been denied by the Taliban. Zaidan witnessed bin Laden rise before the guests to deliver verses of jihadist poetry: “She sails into the waves flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and false power. To her doom she moves slowly,” the wealthy sheikh exclaimed. “Your the management of savagery 76 brothers in the East readied themselves. And the war camels prepared to move.”
In his verse, bin Laden appeared to be alluding to the October 2000 attack by two Al Qaeda assets on the USS Cole, a naval destroyer stationed in Yemen’s Aden harbor—another daring strike at the strategic point of access for the US military to its bases across the Gulf states.
The bombs, detonated from a fiberglass boat piloted by two suicide attackers, had torn a forty-foot hole in the hull of the Cole and caused it to nearly capsize. Seventeen sailors were killed and thirty-eight more wounded, most of them blown apart while taking lunch. “The destroyer represented the West,” bin Laden said. “The small boat represented Muhammad.”
Later, Atef took Zaidan aside to detail Al Qaeda’s plan to drag the West into an endless war. “He was explaining to me what will happen in the coming five years,” Zaidan recalled, “and he said, ‘Look, there are two or three places in the world which are the most suitable places to fight America: Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. We are expecting the United States to invade Afghanistan and we are preparing for that. We want the United States to invade Afghanistan.”
The strategy to trigger a series of American interventions and bleed an overstretched empire represented an especially ironic adaptation of Brzezinski’s “Afghan trap.” Bin Laden and his lieutenants reasoned that it would only require a single violent cataclysm to draw the Americans in. His goal was to enact the very thing that the neocon authors of the Project for a New American Century ’s first letter envisioned: “some catastrophic and catalyzing event.”
Early in 2000, an operation was set into motion to fulfill the American trap. An Al Qaeda operative named Khalid al-Mihdhar was deployed into the faceless suburbs of Southern California alongside his friend, Nawaf al-Hazmi.
Both men were sons of Saudi Arabia, products of its Wahhabi-influenced school system, and had followed the jihadi trail through Bosnia and Chechnya during the 1990s. Mihdhar later trained in Afghanistan, likely under the watch of Ali Mohamed. The two landed at Los Angeles International Airport on January 15, 2000, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Together, they represented part of the team that would execute what Al Qaeda informally referred to as “the planes operation.”
While the two were in Malaysia, CIA operatives broke into Mihdhar’s hotel room and photographed his passport. Mihdhar was known to Saudi intelligence as a jihadist and had been photographed by Malaysian secret police at a planning meeting for the “planes operation.” Also in attendance at the meeting was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, widely considered the “mastermind” behind the plot. The photos were immediately shared with the CIA.
Two months later, the agency learned that Mihdhar, now a known Al Qaeda member, had traveled to Los Angeles on a multiple-entry visa, and that he was seated next to Hazmi on the flight. Curiously, the CIA refused to supply the information to the FBI.
Why did the agency sit on its hands? Lawrence Wright, a chronicler of Al Qaeda’s rise, speculated that, “Mihdhar and Hazmi could have seemed like attractive recruitment possibilities—the CIA was desperate for a source inside Al Qaeda, having failed to penetrate the inner circle or even to place someone in the training camps, even though they were largely open to anyone who showed up.”
Neither Mihdhar nor Hazmi spoke English or were familiar with American culture. When they arrived in Los Angeles, they were met at the airport by Omar Bayoumi, a Saudi civil aviation authority official who did no known work for the bureau — he was a ghost employee.
Bayoumi had held a mysterious closed-door meeting at the Saudi consulate just moments before meeting the two men. Though he had never met Mihdhar or Hazmi before, he was clearly acting as their advance man. Upon arrival, the two worshipped at the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles, a Saudi-funded institution. There, they met Fahad Al-Thumairy, an accredited Saudi consular official who served as the mosque’s imam.
According to an FBI investigation carried out years later, they were “immediately assigned an individual to take care of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar during their time in the the Los Angeles area.” That individual was almost certainly Bayoumi.
In February, Bayoumi took Mihdhar and Hazmi to San Diego, where they co-signed an apartment lease under his name. Neither man had any credit. Bayoumi was able to muster up large amounts of cash to cover his guests’ expenses, far more than any ordinary government worker should have had access to. As soon as he took Mihdhar and Hazmi in his charge, his salary shot up from $500 a month to $3,500.
“One of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego informed the bureau that he thought that al-Bayoumi must be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power,’’ a heavily redacted congressional investigative committee report later concluded.
Bayoumi and Thumairy’s phones registered twenty-one calls between them spanning from Mihdhar and Hazmi’s arrival to May 2000. Bayoumi logged nearly 100 calls to Saudi officials in that period and traveled frequently to Saudi consular offices in Los Angeles and Washington during that time.
At a welcoming party Bayoumi organized for Mihdhar and Hazmi, he introduced them to Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the more notable Muslim religious figures in San Diego. On the day that Bayoumi helped Mihdhar and Hazmi find a local apartment, he logged four calls to al-Awlaki.
Al-Awlaki was a charismatic imam from Yemen whose flawless English and engaging style made him a star among many younger Muslims raised in the West. The cleric betrayed little sign of extremism, though he would later turn up in Yemen as top propagandist of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, Mihdhar and Hazmi each considered him a kind of spiritual advisor, worshipping at his Al-Ribat Al-Islami mosque in La Mesa and meeting in private with him.
It may never be known if al-Awlaki was aware that the two represented the advance team for a handful of operatives preparing a deadly operation. But neighbors of Mihdhar and Hazmi suspected some sort of criminal plot was underway: “There was always a series of cars driving up to the house late at night,” said one neighbor. “Sometimes they were nice cars. Sometimes they had darkened windows. They’d stay about 10 minutes.”
On March 5, 2000, a cable arrived to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, alerting the agency to Hazmi’s presence in the United States. It read, “Action Required: None.”
The FBI had eyes and ears on Mihdhar and Hazmi almost as soon as they arrived in California. Indeed, a bureau informant had extensive contacts with the two men, reporting back to his handler about them, but the bureau did nothing. The FBI’s inaction might have been understandable considering the CIA had inexplicably withheld evidence of Mihdhar and Hazmi’s presence at what the agency knew to be a gathering of top Al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur.
It was not until August 2001 that Mihdhar was placed on a terror watch list. By then, the “day of the planes” plot was in its final stages.
George W. Bush entered the White House after months of friendly coverage from the Washington press corps. With only a few exceptions, the pundits portrayed Bush as the consummate centrist, a uniter who could calm a badly divided nation.
ABC’s Dean Reynolds called him a “different kind of Republican [who could] show middle of the road voters—both white and black— that he is more moderate than they would have suspected.” The New York Times’ Jim Yardley praised Bush’s “bipartisan, above-the-fray image,” while CNN trumpeted Bush’s supposed steps toward “healing a divided nation.”
On Bush’s selection as vice president, Representative Bill Paxon assured a CNN audience that “Dick Cheney is the ultimate man of moderation.” As for Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, CNN’s Tony Clark insisted she “doesn’t not believe the US military should be what is described as a 911 global police force.”
The neoconservatives that honeycombed the Bush administration had also flown almost entirely under the media’s radar. A close look at the civilian wing of the Pentagon or the State Department’s Middle East handlers revealed a virtual government the management of savagery 80 jobs program for the signers of PNAC. They included Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s undersecretary of Middle East affairs; Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; Douglas Feith, a “Clean Break” author hired as undersecretary of defense for policy; his mentor, Richard Perle, now chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; and David Wurmser, an advisor to Cheney on Middle East policy.
Having burrowed deep within the administration’s bureaucracy without any real scrutiny, these figures maintained their laser-like focus on Iraq, bringing in Laurie Mylroie, the crank conspiracist who blamed Saddam for the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, as a terror consultant in the Pentagon.
On June 6, 2001, Wolfowitz appeared before an auditorium full of cadets to deliver the commencement address at the West Point Academy in New York state. His remarks centered on the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor and its relevance at the time. Years later, his words are chilling.
“Interestingly,” Wolfowitz said, “that surprise attack was preceded by an astonishing number of unheeded warnings and missed signals … Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re surprised by it. Very few of these surprises are the product of simple blindness or simple stupidity. Almost always, there have been warnings and signals that have been missed, sometimes because there were just too many warnings to pick the right one out.”
The following month, a senior executive intelligence brief was delivered to the White House entitled “Bin Laden Threats Are Real.” Wolfowitz dismissed the report out of hand, insisting to the deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, that bin Laden was simply trying to study Washington’s reactions by leveling empty threats.
The US media spent the summer of 2001 swarming around the office of Representative Gary Condit, a previously unknown Democratic backbencher who was wrongly suspected of murdering Chandra Levy, his former intern and mistress who had disappeared while jogging in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park.
In between fever-pitched dispatches about Condit’s whereabouts, the networks declared the weeks after July 4, 2001, “the summer of the shark,” blitzing viewers with reports of an unprecedented wave of Jaws-level carnage.
The number of shark attacks was actually down from the year before, but without any other source of sensational storylines, American media ginned up a Sharknado epidemic that was leaving half-chewed appendages bobbing in bloody seas.
George Burgess, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said he fielded thirty to fifty calls from reporters every day that summer. At the time, according to CIA director George Tenet, “the system was blinking red” with warnings about an imminent, massive terror attack on American soil.
Bush spent the summer of 2001 on the longest recorded vacation in presidential history. Tenet and National Security Council chief Condoleezza Rice were not present at his luxury ranch in Crawford, Texas, when he reviewed presidential daily briefings (PDBs) on August 6. That afternoon, Bush was handed one PDB with a headline that should have sent him rushing back to Washington. It read, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the US.”
The document was a page and a half — an exceptional length that highlighted its importance. Its source was described as an “Egyptian Islamic Jihad [EIJ] operative … a senior EIJ member [who] lived in California in the mid-1990s.” According to the brief, he warned that “a Bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim American youth for attacks.”
There was no doubt that that source was Ali Mohamed, who by then been disappeared into federal custody. The “bin Laden cell” was a clear reference to the remnants of the Al-Kifah Center, which had served as one of the CIA’s major pipelines for sending jihadist fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then Bosnia and Chechnya throughout the ’90s. Deep within the federal prison system, where Mohamed had been registered as “John Doe,” the former triple spy appeared to be dishing everything he knew about Al Qaeda’s infrastructure and agenda.
While Bush reviewed the briefing document, several Al Qaeda operatives who had recently entered the country for the “Day of the the Planes” plot maintained mailboxes at the Jersey City–based Sphinx Trading Company. This was the same mailbox center where Mohamed’s trainees and the Blind Sheikh exchanged dead drop messages.
The owner of Sphinx, Waleed al-Noor, was well known to the FBI; he had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of the Blind Sheikh in 1995. But the bureau’s New York office was not paying attention to Sphinx or to al-Noor’s longtime business partner, Mohamed el-Atriss, who was selling fake IDs to several of the plotters, including Mihdhar. (During el-Atriss’s 2003 trial, where he was sentenced to six months’ probation, Passaic County detectives accused then US Attorney Chris Christie, later the Republican governor of New Jersey and failed Republican presidential candidate, of bullying them into ending an investigation into el-Atriss’s links to the 9/11 hijackers.)
Bush did not appear to take the PDB seriously. He exuded an “expansive mood,” according to two Washington Post reporters, as he took a round of golf the day after reviewing the document. One week later, at the Pentagon’s annual convention on counterterrorism, CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black concluded his briefing by exclaiming, “we are going to be struck soon, many Americans are going to die, and it could be in the US.”
Despite the doomsday predictions, Bush did not meet with his cabinet heads to discuss terrorism until September 4, his first meeting after returning from vacation. The “Day of Planes” plot would be executed a week later.
The catastrophic and catalyzing events of September 11, 2001, unfolded live on one of New York City’s top morning talk shows.
At 9:01, Howard Stern delivered a brief update about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, gashing open the face of the tower and sending plumes of smoke into the sky. “I don’t even know how you begin to fight that fire,” he commented. Then, without missing a beat, the legendary shock jock returned to an inane yarn about his date with former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson at a seedy Midtown bar called Scores.
“I felt her butt,” Stern bragged to his randy co-hosts. A highly involved discussion ensued about his failure to “bang Pam Anderson.”
“I wasn’t gonna sit there and work it all night,” Stern explained moments before the second plane hit. Then, as soon as Tower 2 caught fire, he quipped, “I’m telling you, it was Pam Anderson’s jet.”
Minutes later, Stern’s producers began piping in audio from the local CBS affiliate, setting a traumatizing aural atmosphere that recalled Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.” Stern apparently realized the flames were the product of a terror attack, probably by Muslim extremists. Confronted with a national calamity, he and his shrieking sidekick Robin Quivers immediately shifted gears.
“We’ve gotta go bomb everything over there,” Quivers insisted. “We’ve gotta bomb the hell out of them!” Stern added. “You know who it is. I can’t say but I know who it is. This is more upsetting than me not getting Pam Anderson!”
As the smoke engulfed lower Manhattan, Stern descended into a series of genocidal tirades. “We’ve gotta drop an atomic bomb,” he proclaimed.
“There has got to be a war,” Quivers demanded. “But a devastating war, where people die. Burn their eyes out!”
Thirty minutes later, as the news of mass civilian casualties poured in, Stern had transformed into a cartoon villain: “Now is the time to not even ask questions. To drop a few atomic bombs. Do a few chemical warfare hits! Let their people suffer until they understand!”
“Because we haven’t been bothering anybody,” Quivers interjected. “They started screaming about colonialism. We stopped.”
Moments later, Stern repeated his call for nuclear annihilation. “Blow them all to sky high!” he said. “Atom bombs! Just do it so they’re flattened out and turned into a paved road and we’ll take the oil for ourselves.”
This was not right-wing radio, but one of the consistently most highly rated morning shows in the country. Stern’s exterminationist diatribes demonstrated how deeply the neoconservative mind-set had been inculcated into mainstream American culture, how it had been simmering just below the surface of the bawdy blather that normally dominated the drive-time airwaves and was waiting to explode upon what PNAC described as “some catastrophic and catalyzing event.”
The sleaze-laden shock jock who compared himself to Dan Rather as the attacks unfolded had given voice to large sectors of a shell-shocked public, earning him praise for channeling the outrage that average New Yorkers felt on that clear blue day.
Exactly a week later, before an audience of millions on the Late Show with David Letterman, the real Dan Rather appeared in the guest chair to render Stern’s tirades into smooth, vaguely Texas-accented sound-bites.
“This will be long, the casualties will be greater,” Rather informed Letterman. “We’ve suffered casualties but there will be more. When we send our sons and daughters into this kind of war, into this twilight zone that they’re going, there will be great casualties.”
Visibly exhausted after nights of long, emotionally taxing broadcasts, Rather broke down several times. Following one teary display, he gathered his composure just enough to issue a vow of loyalty to the nation’s leader. “George Bush is the president,” said Rather. “He makes the decisions. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”
When Letterman attempted a mild intervention —“What are the events that pissed [bin Laden] off?”— Rather insisted on the most comforting explanation possible, one that formed the basis of Bush’s talking points: “They hate America. They hate us. This is one of those things that makes this war different. They don’t want territory. They don’t want what we’ve got. They want to kill us and destroy us … Some evil, it can’t be explained.”
Letterman explored another line of critical questioning, this one slightly more daring than the last, but softened it with a humorous tinge: “I think about the CIA, they can’t even find the drinking fountain. Have we made some mistake, or done something we shouldn’t have?” Rather quickly pivoted away from the uncomfortable question to one of the Bush administration’s pet obsessions.
“Saddam Hussein—if he isn’t connected to this,” Rather stated, “he’s connected to many other things. He’s part of this ‘hate America’ thing … His hate is deep for us … It’s a new place and we’re headed for a new place.”
And where was that new place? According to Rather, delivering an eerily faithful recitation of neoconservative plans for the Middle East, “the focus is on, and we should understand, not just Afghanistan—Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya.”
Like Stern, Rather could hardly be associated with the exclusive, almost incestuous family of the neoconservatives. But the outlook they had insinuated into the country’s political culture and impressed upon the Bush administration had clearly shaped his understanding of the Middle East, terrorism and warfare. Through familiar, trustworthy faces like Rather, the American public was seeded with the mentality of interventionism and military unilateralism.
Down at the Pentagon, whose western wing had been smoldering only days before, Wesley Clark, the former head of the military’s European Command, strode into the office of a member of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re going to attack Iraq,” the general grumbled to him, a look of anguish on his face. “The decision has basically been made.”
Clark returned to the same general six weeks later to revisit the issue of invading Iraq, a source of rising exasperation among the Pentagon brass. “Oh, it’s worse than that,” the general told Clark. He waved around a classified memo he had just received. “Here’s the paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defense [Donald Rumsfeld] outlining the strategy. We’re going to take out seven countries in five years.” He then rattled off the Bush administration’s targets for regime change: first Iraq, then Syria and finally Iran, with Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan somewhere in between.
The memo was a virtual mimeograph of the neoconservative “A Clean Break” produced in 1996 for Netanyahu. The momentum toward an invasion of Iraq was almost unstoppable.
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