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Could We Have Prevented the Attacks?

During the 1990s, the FBI uncovered clues indicating that bin Laden was planning to attack America with hijacked airliners. This information was never shared with local police.

On April 19th, police arrested 30-year-old Leo V. Felton and 21-year-old Erica Chase after they had tried to pass counterfeit $20 bills at a Dunkin' Donuts in East Boston. After the pair was booked and processed into the Nashua Street Jail, police turned the investigation over to the Secret Service. Seven days later, Felton was free on bail, despite the fact that federal investigators knew he belonged to a terrorist cell planning to bomb the New England Holocaust Museum. The feds, who had not bothered to clue in the local police about Felton's connections, arrested him in Boston's North End, where Felton and his co-conspirators had stashed explosives.

On June 20th, U.S. Attorney James B. Farmer announced that Felton and Chase "were white supremacists hellbent on using explosives to spark a holy race war and Boston was to be ground zero," reported the June 24th Boston Herald. Federal investigators, who had been keeping Felton under surveillance, conducted a two-month probe into the conspiracy without alerting local police about the plot.

Although the Boston Police Department publicly described the arrest as an example of inter-agency cooperation, some police officials anonymously complained to the press that the feds had endangered the public by refusing to share intelligence with the local police. "It's all luck they even got this guy," commented one Boston police officer to the Herald. "The people over in [Boston's] Area A are pretty upset about it, too."

As outrageous as this incident is on its own merits, it takes on an even more sinister aspect in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, which involved the suicide hijacking of two jets from Boston's Logan Airport. Logan has a history of mismanagement, and its head of security was sacked by Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift in early October. But given the recent track record of federal officials in Boston, it is entirely possible that they withheld intelligence from local security officials and police that might have helped prevent the Black Tuesday attack.

"The FBI had advance indications of plans to hijack U.S. airliners and use them as weapons, but neither acted on them nor distributed the intelligence to local police agencies," reported Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak on September 27th. "From the moment of the September 11th attacks, high-ranking federal officials insisted that the terrorists' method of operation surprised them. Many stick to that story. Actually, elements of the hijacking plan were known to the FBI as early as 1995 and, if coupled with current information, might have uncovered the plot."

In fact, both the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had detailed information about the possible use of hijack/suicide attacks by terrorists connected to Osama bin Laden. "In 1994," reported the October 3rd New York Times, "two jetliners were hijacked by people who wanted to crash them into buildings, one of them by an Islamic militant group. And the 2000 edition of the FAA's annual report on Criminal Acts Against Aviation, published this year, said that although Osama bin Laden 'is not known to have attacked civil aviation, he has both the motivation and the wherewithal to do so,' adding, 'Bin Laden's anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation.'" Moreover, the 1999 edition of the FAA document reported that a radical Islamic leader living in British exile warned in August 1998 that bin Laden "would bring down an airliner, or hijack an airliner to humiliate the United States."

The December 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight from Algiers was carried out by four members of the "Phalange of the Signers in Blood," a subsidiary of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. The terrorists seized control of the plane and demanded that it fly to Marseilles, where it was to be refueled for a trip to Paris. The hijackers also demanded that the Airbus A300 -- a plane of comparable size to the Boeing 767s that were used to attack the World Trade Center -- be loaded with 27 tons of fuel, which was three times what was necessary for the short trip.

After debriefing released hostages and working with other sources, French authorities determined that the terrorists intended either to explode the plane over Paris or ram it into the Eiffel Tower. Corroborating evidence, in the form of 20 sticks of dynamite, was found by French troops who stormed the plane and killed the hijackers.

Ignored Clues

In the October 8th issue of The New Yorker, left-wing investigative writer Seymour Hersh reports that FBI investigators insist that "the suicide teams [in the Black Tuesday attack] were simply lucky." Hersh quotes an FBI official as saying, "in your wildest dreams, do you think they thought they'd be able to pull off four hijackings?" For several years, however, the FBI and other federal agencies have been aware that Muslim terrorist groups have been planning multiple, simultaneous hijackings and bombings.

In 1995, police officials in the Philippines arrested Abdul Hakim Murad, a member of a cell operated by convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef as part of Osama bin Laden's global network. Yousef had masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Murad, who had trained as a commercial pilot in New Bern, North Carolina, was arrested in January 1995 after bomb-making materials he had been mixing caused a fire alarm to go off in his Manila apartment. Because the building was near the route that would be followed a week later during Pope John Paul II's visit to Manila, police decided to investigate. Murad, spooked by the police presence, tried to flee, only to trip over a potted plant. An investigation of his apartment revealed a complete bomb factory.

"Arrested and tortured by Philippine intelligence agents, Murad told the story of 'Bojinka' -- 'loud bang' -- the code name bin Laden operatives had given to an audacious plan to bomb 11 U.S. airliners simultaneously and fly an airplane into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia -- all after attempting to assassinate Pope John Paul II," recounted the September 23rd Washington Post. Additional targets of the conspiracy included the Pentagon, San Francisco's TransAmerica Building, the Sears Tower in Chicago -- and the World Trade Center, which had survived the 1993 bombing relatively unscathed.

Although the plan was thwarted in 1995, the bin Laden network "didn't give up the objective," comments former General Renado S. De Villa, who directed security efforts for the papal visit. "Murad clearly indicated it was a large-scale operation. It was very clear they continued to work on that plan until someone gave the signal to go." As the Black Tuesday attack unfolded, recalls the Post, "an investigator [in Manila] gasped, 'It's Bojinka.' He said later: 'We told the Americans everything about Bojinka. Why didn't they pay attention?'"

Given its detailed knowledge about the "Bojinka" plot, the FBI should have been able to recognize the significance of other key pieces of intelligence:

* "Since 1996," reported the September 24th Washington Post, "the FBI had been developing evidence that international terrorists were using flight schools to learn to fly jumbo jets." This evidence began to accumulate shortly after the FBI learned of "Bojinka" from Philippine officials.

* On August 13th, a flight school in Eagan, Minnesota, informed the FBI that a student named Zacarias Moussaoui had asked to take 747 flight simulator training, but that he only wanted to learn how to steer the aircraft -- not take off or land. Moussaoui, who was in this country illegally, was arrested and held for deportation. But, as Novak notes, "no connection was made with the 1995 revelations" about "Bojinka." In fact, the October 6th New York Times reported that the FBI "held back its own agents" from investigating Moussaoui.

* Over the past two years, the CIA made the FBI aware of the names of about 100 suspected members of bin Laden's terrorist network thought to be headed to, or already in, the United States. An August 23rd cable specifically referred to Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, who were aboard the hijacked airplane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Some might consider these instances as lapses on the part of the FBI. Given the record that the Bureau compiled during the 1990s, however, they actually illustrate the agency's remarkable consistency in not responding to detailed warnings of impending terrorist attacks. The FBI's handling of the 1993 World Trade Center attack offers another case in point.

FBI informant Emad Salem, a former Egyptian army officer, was planted inside the cell that carried out the 1993 attack. According to Salem, the FBI had planned to sabotage the Trade Center bomb by replacing the explosives with an inert powder. The October 28, 1993 New York Times reported that in one conversation Salem recalled assurances from an FBI supervisor that the agency's plan called for "building the bomb with a phony powder and grabbing the people who [were] involved in [the plot]." The supervisor, though, in Salem's words, "messed it up."

After the bombing, Salem attempted to lodge a protest with FBI headquarters, only to be told by special agent John Anticev that "the New York people [wouldn't] like the things out of the New York office to go to Washington, DC." Salem, who recorded his conversations with Anticev, rebuked the Bureau for its negligence: "You saw this bomb went off and you ... know that we could avoid that.... You get paid, guys, to prevent problems like this from happening."

Two years later, the FBI failed to act on detailed advance warnings provided by undercover informant Carol Howe regarding the plot to bomb the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Even now, the "others unknown" in the OKC bombing conspiracy -- which include figures connected to the bin Laden network -- remain at large. This reflects the tragic success of a politically motivated cover-up conducted by the Justice Department through the FBI. [*]

"Same Old FBI"

The FBI's defenders point out, correctly, that the Bureau has neither the manpower nor the material means to investigate every possible lead on every conceivable terrorist plot. But this defense misses the point: Under the Constitution, law enforcement is almost entirely a state and local affair. The FBI's proper role is to assist state and local police by, among other things, providing them with intelligence. Had the FBI shared its intelligence about "Bojinka" with state and local authorities before September 11th, the terrorist assault might have been prevented.

"This is not a federal problem," Johnny Mack Brown, a former head of the National Sheriffs' Association, told Robert Novak. "This is an American law enforcement problem. The FBI certainly has to get this information to the local authorities." Unfortunately, Novak observes, the FBI "always has kept state and local police in the dark." This led another law enforcement expert to lament to Novak: "It's the same old FBI." In truth, the FBI had seen better days under J. Edgar Hoover, but those days have long since past.

(*.) For detailed information about the OKC tragedy, please see the on-line archive at
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:attack on America, 2001
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 5, 2001
Previous Article:CITIZEN HEROES.
Next Article:Empowering the UN.

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