This week, US Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) produced evidence that a four-man al Qaeda cell led by Mohammed Atta which took part in the 9/11 hijackings was identified in 1999 by a classified military intelligence unit called “Able Danger.” The unit had photos of all four cell members. The evidence, not been previously brought before the Sept. 11 inquiry panel, was that, in September 2000, Able Danger recommended giving its information on the cell code-named “Brooklyn” to the FBI. But Pentagon lawyers objected on the grounds that Atta and the other three were in the US on legal visas.
The fact is that from March 2001, DEBKA-Net-Weekly began reporting that US intelligence, including the CIA and FBI, had knowledge of al Qaeda cells plotting to blow up the Twin Towers in New York. Our counter-terror sources outlined the paths by which this data reached American intelligence in the course of three years, 1997, 1998 and 1999. But all the data providers, including ourselves, discovered in early 2000 that the administration headed by President Bill Clinton, national security adviser Sandy Berger and secretary of state Madeleine Albright, was just not interested.
It would be wrong to say that the incoming information did not ring alarm bells in the US intelligence community, as some of the inquiry panels have claimed. It did, but word had gone round that administration leaders had put the threat aside on the strength of a fallacious strategic premise that all-out war against al Qaeda in the late nineties and first year of the millennium would derail international Muslim support for the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative to which Clinton gave top foreign policy precedence.
Clinton’s top advisers looked forward to this initiative, that culminated in the August 2000 Camp David summit between the US president, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat, becoming his presidency’s peak achievement.
As it turned out, the summit was a flop.
His Middle East peace priority blinded Clinton to the al Qaeda menace
But the linkage Clinton made between Arab and Muslim support, the Israel-Palestinian peace process and al Qaeda, blinded America’s operational intelligence to the perils of al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 period. Even the capture of the millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam on the Canadian border on his way to b low up Los Angeles airport did not forewarn the White House.
The incoming Bush administration was destined to execute a sharp change of approach. President George W. Bush was sworn in January 2001, after the Palestinian-Israeli war had been raging for three months (and still has not ended five years later.)
In the early months of his presidency, Bush did not change much in the Clinton strategic equation. Like his predecessor, he put the al Qaeda threat to one side for more pressing priorities. By the time he woke up to the danger, it was too late. The Sept. 11 suicide attacks had sent American into shock.
This short sketch of a bygone period is still relevant today because, in the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terror experts, some of its features are recurring. There are some key parallels between the summer of 2001 and the summer of 2005 with regard to the attitudes of Bush policy-makers, al Qaeda’s intentions and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They jump to the eye amid some striking elements that are quite new:
1. In the summer of 2001, al Qaeda was putting the finishing touches to its first major attack in the United States. We learn in retrospect that the jihadist group’s communications, signals, publications and Websites were aquiver with the sense of a huge event in the making that would inflict untold harm on America.
The same urgency infuses al Qaeda’s electronic mail today.
Most of the messages relate to brand new terrorist offensives which are programmed to climax in September-October. The writers crow over perceived successes in terrorist operations in various parts of the world and the “victory of Islamist forces” in Iraq. They note that al Qaeda mounted terrorist strikes in London and Sharm el Sheikh in the space of a month and come close to pulling off a multi-casualty attack on Israeli cruise ships in southern Turkey.
Now, they are running a massive recruitment campaign among young Muslims around the world to bring their holy war in Iraq to a triumphal close. (See DNW 216, July 29, 2005)
Al Qaeda – the new joker in the Israel-Palestinian pack
2. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved in five years, but not necessarily eased. The worst of its intrinsic features are unchanged. Hostilities peaked in the summer of 2001, just ahead of the 9/11 attack, fueled mainly by Arafat’s resort to intense suicide bombings in Israel’s cities. The bloodshed was closely accompanied by avid efforts to reach an understanding with the Palestinian leader.
The events of summer 2005 are different, but follow a similar pattern and could produce the same results. Israel and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are committed to diplomatic negotiations under the Middle East road map, to start after Israel cedes the Gaza Strip. But a close look at the process (as defined in two separate articles in this issue) uncovers greater chances of heightened Palestinian-Israeli warfare than of a productive peace process. This is because the hostilities ensuing from the Israeli pull-out are destined to spill across the border into southern Israel and spread into the West Bank and central Israel.
3. The new joker in the pack is al Qaeda, which has juxtaposed its cells for the first time next door Israel in sovereign Egyptian Sinai, the Gaza Strip and inside the Israeli Arab community.
4. While investing heavily in counter-terror and military defenses against al Qaeda in the United States and other parts of the world, the Bush administration, unlike its predecessor, is fighting al Qaeda on the political-ideological front – and not only on the battlefield, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. Bush is also challenging the Muslim world and the Middle East in particular to embrace democracy. For al Qaeda and Muslim fundamentalists, rule by any constituted authority other than the Ashura Council of Muslim scholars is anathemized as a betrayal and cause for jihad, holy war.
For the first time, too, America has declared an international organization rather than a country its national enemy.
Bush too hopes to mollify the Muslim and Arab world through the Palestinian-Israeli peace track
But as a compensatory measure to demonstrate that America has not declared war on Muslim and Arab nations at large, and regards al Qaeda as an aberrant, ultra-radical entity, Bush, like Clinton before him, initiated a peace process to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He went a step further by becoming the first US president to champion a sovereign Palestinian state to rise on substantial tracts of land to be evacuated by Israel – first in the Gaza Strip, then on the West Bank.
Al Qaeda has taken steps to checkmate the American tactic.
Just ahead of Israel’s pull-back from the Gaza Strip and its handover to Palestinian rule, it has founded al Qaeda-Palestine, thereby establishing a presence in Gaza ready to obstruct any tendencies in the future Palestinian state to embrace democratic values and declare allegiance to Washington, or to renounce war against the Jewish state.
5. Whereas Clinton was faced with Arafat’s determination to extract concessions from Israel by force rather than good will, the Bush administration is confronted with a new set of Palestinian problems in 2005:
Mahmoud Abbas and his ruling caste lack the political and leadership qualities to carry through reforms and partner the peace process to a successful conclusion.
Rising Palestinian forces – and not only in the Hamas and Jihad Islami – are closer in their views to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, Hizballah and groups aligned with al Qaeda, than to the mainstream Fatah. This ruling party headed by Abbas is in any case breaking up into feuding factions. The new Palestinian generation will not think twice before allying itself with Al Qaeda to fulfill its ambitions.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising to find Osama bin Laden contemplating moving to Iraq for a front seat in the next major arena. The foundation of al Qaeda-Palestine is part of this orientation and a weapon in his campaign to frustrate American aspirations in Iraq and Palestine alike.
Since the establishment of the Gaza cell went by almost unnoticed, the fundamentalist terrorists released their second announcement in a week.
Just as bin Laden exploited the spotlight beaming on the Israel-Palestinian dispute in 2000-2001 to set up the 9/11 hijacking attacks, his tacticians are using the same spotlight in to prepare their next terror offensive in 2005.