President Biden recently announced the withdrawal of the 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, to be completed by 11 September, ending America’s longest war on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda. 9/11, before being the turning point of Western involvement in the War on Terror, was the fulfilment of the 1996 fatwa issued by Osama bin Laden, and the 1998 jihad launched by the World Islamic Front for Jihad in response to Western foreign policy decisions in the Greater Middle East, such as the deployment of US troops in Saudi Arabia, political support to Israel, and the killing of Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. To what extent can 9/11 be linked to the US intelligence failures to identify the nature of the terrorist threat?
Was 9/11 terrorist attack inevitable or unavoidable? As Warren Rudman puts it, as far as 9/11 is concerned, “they have all been very bad at predicting, with certainty, what will happen, based on the intelligence. There are successes, and you never hear about those. But, unfortunately, this is kind of a zero-sum game. If there are 10 attacks planned and you thwart seven, and three work, you lost’’.1 The lack of a sense of urgency within the US administration vis-à-vis terrorism made counterterrorism not a priority focus of US intelligence at the time. There had been warnings, particularly from George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) in 2000 and 2001, but precautions were mainly taken overseas (after Al-Qaeda’s attacks such as the 1992 Yemen Hotel Bombings in Aden and the 1995 car bomb explosion at US military facility in Riyadh), with less attention to internal threats (although the WTC had already been attacked in 1993). Washington believed that the opponent did not to have the strength to prevail in conventional military terms, and lacked a deep understanding of Al-Qaeda’s intentions and capabilities. Warnings from the unit of the Central Intelligence Agency dedicated to tracking bin Laden were thought to be false alarms, and several analysts in the US intelligence community were reluctant to challenge the opinions of superiors. Clinton’s Presidency did not fully understand the threat’s potential – “the motivations and modi operandi of al-Qaeda were not unknown to experts and government officials”, who, however, failed to “induce other influential components in the national security system to act in accordance with their warnings and to consider the issue of counter-terrorism as a priority.”2
Communication barriers within/between the US administration agencies often led to circular reporting and to an underestimation of the gravity of the threat. Among Washington’s priorities in the mid-1990s there was the containment of Serbia, while Al-Qaeda was a depoliticized topic since it was not part of the ‘great’ 2000 presidential campaign repertoire. From 1998 to 2001, there had been a number of analytical papers distributed to the highest officials in the government, highlighting Bin Laden’s engagement in a global jihadist network threatening to attack the US. Reports mentioned its interest in anti-aircraft missiles as well as in biological and radiological weapons. Classified reports clearly focused on the evidence of possible attacks targeting New York, airports, the use of airlines, hijackings and bombs.3 Moreover, reports circulated from the US consulates in East Asia mentioned the possible use of aircraft for terrorist purposes. In relation to communication barriers, the fragmented nature of the US intelligence system – made of multiple agencies relying on different technologies, approaches, and traditions, each of them producing its own intelligence estimates – created a competitive system4 and it was unable to present useful insights and accurate estimates to guide governmental decisions. The compartmentalization within the CIA and the competition and rivalry between the CIA and the FBI, and legal barriers to shared knowledge fuelled the phenomenon.
The end of the espionage war with the Soviet Union led to an important budget reduction in intelligence. The reduction was so drastic that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan radically suggested the abolition of the CIA system, as reported by Morgan Trujillo. Moreover, the “peace dividend” led to a reduction of budget and resources (suffering about a 10% decline) and to shortcomings in resources, personnel and technology. The intelligence budget is classified, but analysts have talked of figures close to 32-34 billion dollars; according to the figures provided by analyst John Judis, half of this budget went to funding national intelligence bodies like the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Crucial for understanding the 9/11 débacle is the lack of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities. Information in HUMINT comes from human sources through different means ranging from clandestine activities to diplomats and military attachés. As shown effectively in the 2013 HBO documentary Manhunt, the Bin Laden Unit HUMINT operated through analysts and operations on the field since 1995 and discounted severe limits in the Greater Middle East, specifically in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan due to the difficulty of penetrating the cell structures. A lack of collaboration and coordination due to cultural and linguistic difficulties, and an anti-American spirit, challenged the intelligence’s capabilities to conduct HUMINT operations in such environments.
The 9/11 Commission highlighted most of the above-mentioned grey areas which were part of the failure in managing transnational counterterrorism operations. Several recommendations were neglected - such as recommendations on unifying strategic intelligence and operational planning against jihadi terrorism across the foreign-domestic division with a National Counterterrorism Centre, a common National Intelligence Director, a network-based information-sharing system that transcended traditional executive branches of national governments. The CIA did not have the vital space to request more attention for the collection gathered; all of this happened while Bin Laden's message declaring jihad against the US - recorded during an interview with Peter Arnett - was broadcasted by CNN in 1997. Al-Qaeda’s intentions have been underestimated by Washington due to politically biased assessments – the so-called politicization of intelligence – and to failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management, as David Barrett put it.
Richard K. Betts’s well-known theory of intelligence places failures, firstly on the shoulder of intelligence consumers, arguing that “the most crucial mistakes have seldom been made by collectors of raw information, occasionally by professionals who produce finished analyses, but most often by the decision makers who consume the products of intelligence services.”5 Secondly, he identifies communication pathologies in transmitting intelligence analysis to policymakers and in the struggle to convince them about the importance of the specific intelligence at hand, placing failures to the structure of the intelligence community. The third element is the paradox of perception, conditioned by preconceived notions which make the interpretation of the intelligence never objective, due to psychological and political bias. The knowledge of possible threats posed by al Qaeda did not affect US policies in eliminating the source of Islamist terrorism and grievances. If the US administration had understood the urgency of the impending threat presented to them, surely stronger and swifter action would have been taken. Intelligence failures are inevitable, but studying the lessons derived from their occurrence may increase the recognition of the role of the policymakers in intelligence consumption.
1 Warren Rudman, Interview Frontline, 2001
2 Francesco Marone, Perché l’intelligence fallisce: il caso dell’11 settembre, Quaderni di Scienza politica, 2017, XIV, 2, p. 261.
3 Morgan Trujillo. Are Intelligence Failures Inevitable?, E-International Relations, 2012, https://www.e-ir.info/2012/11/08/are-intelligence-failures-inevitable/.
4 David M. Barrett. Why intelligence failures are still inevitable, Diplomatic History, 2010, 34(1), p. 209.
5 Richard K. Betts. Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures are Inevitable, World Politics, 1978, 31(1), p. 61.