I did a podcast interview on Surprise Attack over this last weekend – for about an hour – and that was little enough time to even hit the high points. As you can imagine, one of the main areas of interest was the attacks on America of September, 2001. And once again I was taken aback by how little the media has done to revisit that topic in any meaningful fashion, leaving most people with little more understanding of it than they gained during the first few days following the tragedy.
In light of that I’m going to devote a couple of posts during days leading up to the anniversary of the attacks, certainly nothing near the level of detail in the book but with the intent of surfacing a few things we know now that never, ever get into the anniversary programs.
The first point is that is that although the organizational roots of September 11 lay in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the operational story – and the airliner focus – began with the Bojinka airliner attack plan of 1995. The Bojinka terror attack was planned to involve up to a dozen commercial airliners, resulting in a loss of American lives greater than that which later occurred in the 2001 attacks. It involved the same al Qaeda network which would ultimately organized the strikes of 9/11 and even some of the same individuals.
The Bojinka plot received extensive media coverage in the U.S., especially since certain of its figures were charged with and later would be tried for the World Trade Center bombing. In reality, the attack had only been aborted by local police and security action on the ground at its point of origin – the Philippines – and by the immediate action to ground airliners already on the way to the U.S. That action was taken by Richard Clarke, heading the NSC counter terrorism effort and by President Clinton’s National Security advisor Tony Lake and White House Chief of Staff Frederico Pena.
Al Qaeda operatives associated with Bojinka had a very specific focus on airliners, an early interrogation revealed plans to crash an airliner into CIA headquarters. The al Queda focus on airliners was mentioned in news reports of the time and was communicated to FBI staff pursuing prosecution of the World Trade Center bombing. It was also known to Clarke and other American counter terrorist specialists. One of the threats considered in regard to the Atlanta Summer games of the 1996 Olympics was that of an aircraft being flown into the Olympic grounds. Richard Clarke led the counter terrorism effort to protect that event and he was highly sensitive to both al Qaeda and aircraft threats, communicating with both FBI and FAA team members about air attack issues. Exactly why both those concerns did not translate into the first year of the Bush administration, with Clarke retaining his advisory position, is a large part of the 9/11 story.
The Bojinka plot, aircraft threats to the Atlanta Olympics and some three years of America air defense exercises against hijacked airliners, documented in a report provided under duress and very late in the official 9/11 Commission inquiry – all subjects which draw an absolute blank when I introduce them to any dialog on the 2001 attacks. Why is that, given that the attacks are still very much contemporary American history? It’s hard to say but the fact that so many senior officials rushed to say that aircraft terror attacks had simply never been thought of prior to September 11, may be part of the reason. Of course it’s embarrassing make such statements, but perhaps less embarrassing than to acknowledge that such threats were indeed known and that no effective defense was put into place.
But I’ll get to that point in another post….