We've be been surprised to hear about the terrorists who struck September 11th how they lived among us, preparing for years. But we shouldn't be surprised. In 1998, the United States knew that Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's network, was infiltrating the United States. We knew how it was doing it and we knew that it had big plans.
In 1998, Al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in East Africa. The FBI investigation was a big success. Al-Qaeda insiders became informants and a terrorist training manual was found.
The bombers were convicted in New York last May. No one paid much attention then, but that training manual shows how the terrorists who hit us two weeks ago ran their operation.
The U.S. embassy bombings in Africa were stunning for some of the same reasons September 11th was such a shock. There was no hint of warning, and the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, 400 miles apart, were precisely coordinated. Two hundred and twenty four people were killed, 12 of them Americans.
The investigation turned up a terrorist training manual, written in Arabic, in the apartment of an Al-Qaeda member in England. It is called "Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants." It was entered as evidence in the embassy bomb trial.
Bin Laden himself seems to know the Al-Qaeda training manual chapter and verse. In a video recorded after September 11th, he brags about how Al Qaeda kept the hijack plans secret even from the men who would die in the attacks.
"We asked each of them to go to America but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter," he said on the tape. "But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."
It was classic Al Qaeda security doctrine, and it's all in the training manual. The fifth lesson says cell members should "not know one another" so that "if a cell member" is caught the other cells would not be affected and "work would proceed normally."
"(The manual) covered the gamut of all types of situations in terms of doing surveillance, how to resist torture how to inflict torture," says Carl Herman, who was appointed by the court to defend one of the bombers at sentencing. He saw the testimony and the evidence. "It's a primer on how to be involved as a terrorist."
"When you go through the manual, you start to see things that, or get a foreshadowing of things that were to take place," he says.
"When I saw the plane heading for the World Trade Center, I knew who the people were. I didn't know the exact people on the plane, but I could describe them. I mean I'd seen them. That was certainly 100 percent consistent with what we'd seen that Al-Qaeda was capable of."
The U.S. embassy bombings showed Al-Qaeda was capable of slipping terrorists into a country years in advance, unnoticed just as the hijackers of September 11th did.
"We had a very good picture that we were being secretly invaded by our eney," says Michael Cherkasky, who helped lead the investigation of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. Today he heads Kroll, a corporate security firm.
"The bombing of the embassies was investigated by a terrific team of federal investigators and prosecutors. And they obtained enormous amounts of information which, in fact, very clearly told us that people had been put into the United States planning long-term destruction of the United States. Sleepers were here. They did not look like these religious zealots which we might be looking for. They looked like Americans, they looked like the diversity of Americans."
The manual describes exactly this kind of behavior. Lesson eight, which is called "Member Safety," counsels terrorists to "have a general appearance that does not indicate Islamic orientation" and to "carry falsified personal documents and know all the information they contain." It also tells them "do not travel with wives, a wife with an Islamic appearance attracts attention."
The book encourages agents to break Islamic taboos to fit in. Says Herman: "They would shave their beards, they would carry cigarettes, they would wear cologne, they'd carry regular types of magazines and no one would suspect they were part of a terrorist organization."
Al-Qaeda tells them that breaking the rules is okay because it is in service of the jihad. The hijackers of September 11th shaved, carried false personal documents. The men known as Mohamed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi were seen in a bar.
The book covers much more than appearance. There are instructions on how to lie to immigration officials, how to hold a gun, how to build a bomb, and even where to live.
Lesson four: Apartments and hiding places: "It is preferable to rent apartments on the ground floor to facilitate escape"
Other suggestions: Change the locks; "In a newer apartment, avoid talking loud because prefabricated ceilings and walls
do not have the same thickness as those in old ones."
"They thought very carefully about how to have their operatives live in enemy territory for years," says Jessica Stern, who advised on terrorism at the White House and now interviews Islamic extremists for her research at Harvard University.
"They've done their homework. They take intelligence, surveillance very seriously."
During the embassy bombing trial, three Al-Qaeda terrorist agents became informants and explained how they lived by the book. Two witnesses were Houssaine Kherchtou and Jamal al-Fadl. Both are now in a federal witness protection program. Their testimony creates a striking image of terror.
Says Herman: "We heard testimony from Mr. Al-Fadl about efforts to obtain uranium in Africa in 1993, 1994. He said that he was the intermediary, he was going to set up the whole deal, he was paid $10,000 to find out where the uranium was. The value of the uranium was $1.5 million. I mean, its not clear, but the impression is that the deal never went through bt we know seven or eight years ago that this organization was actively seeking to obtain uranium for, obviously, a nuclear bomb."
The other informer, Kherchtou, said he was to be trained to fly a crop duster.
"That theme came up frequently in our trial," says Herman. "People training as pilots. Bin Laden seemed to have a fascination with pilots, with planes. He seemed to be very concerned about that."
The hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center were also concerned about crop dusters they were asking a lot of questions about them in Florida before the attack. This week, crop dusters were grounded across the nation for fear of a chemical or biological attack.
Cherkasky says we've known for years about Al-Qaeda's interest in planes: "There had been information in the mid-'90's that they had a plot to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower. So after that, I think, there was information that flight training schools were being used to train potentially prospective pilots. Now, was that information good enough to act on? It's always easy to second-guess and look back. But certainly, when you look at the cumulative information that we had, we understood that we had a grave threat and certainly had a grave threat with the use of airplanes."
In the investigation of the U.S. embassy bombings, a third member of Al-Qaeda cooperated with the government: Ali Mohammad. He came under the suspicion of the CIA in the 1980's. But despite that he had no trouble getting into the U.S. and joining the Army. He became a sergeant who helped train our Special Forces on the ways of the Middle East. A few years later, Al-Qaeda put him in charge of casing the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.
"He's a very interesting figure," says Herman. "We haven't see the last of him. He says he was with Osama bin Laden in a room, there was a diagram of the embassies in Kenya, the American embassy. And he says Osama bin Laden reached over and pointed to a place on the diagram and that's exactly where the bomb truck went. Whether or not Ali Mohammed is telling the truth, we don't know. But if you talk about proof against Osama bin Laden, Ali Mohammed has potentially very damaging information."
Mohammad pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
The terrorist handbook also details the ways Al-Qaeda keeps the FBI from learning of its plans. Terrorists are organized into small groups called cells. None of these cells has any idea what the others are doing. Lesson five: "If a cell member is caught, the other cells would not be affected and work would proceed normally." That's what happened in Africa, the teams that attacked the embassies didn't know about each other
"Those working on the bombing in Tanzania did not know that a simultaneous operation was being planned in Kenya except for one individual who was in overall charge of the two operations," says Jerrold Post, a terrorism researcher who testified in the trial. He spent 21 years at the CIA.
He says it i possible that the hijackers on the various airplanes didn't realize that other airplanes were headed to targets that day.
Communications security is also a major theme in the book. One section advises that conversations should be coded or in general terms so as not to alert the person monitoring the telephone. They're expecting that the FBI or the NSA are listening to what they're saying: "when the command is certain that a particular telephone is being monitored, it can exploit that by providing information that misleads the enemy, disinformation."
It worked in the U.S. embassy attacks. A year before the bombing, the FBI wiretapped Al-Qaeda's Nairobi cell. But still the attacks were a complete surprise.
Herman says that the embassy bombing trial showed that the U.S. knows a lot about this organization, but not enough.
"As a defense attorney in this case, I was impressed with the efforts that the United States government made. The CIA, the FBI, in tracking individuals, in tracking whatever money they could track. I mean, they made tremendous efforts in terms of search warrants, in terms of listening in on phone conversations. They knew a lot. But they didn't know enough to prevent the bombings in Africa and now, three years later, they didn't know enough to stop the bombings at the World Trade Center."
Cherkasky says we've ignored some hard lessons. But we also know more than we did before Sept. 11. "We know to a virtual certainty that people are trying to destroy us. They're willing to do anything, things that are unimaginable to us. They're willing to do. And that we have a war in the United States, not just Afghanistan or other country. Were at war in the United States."
In the embassy bombing trial last May, Ali Mohammed pleaded guilty, and four others were convicted by a jury. A sixth man is still awaiting trial. On September 11th, they were all being held in New York's Metropolitan Corrections Center six blocks from the World Trade Center.
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