Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Plot Against America


Published: August 6, 2006

Reprinted from

When Mohamed Atta and his four Saudi confederates commandeered a Boeing 767 and steered it into the north tower of the World Trade Center, they began a story that still consumes us nearly five years on, and one that seems, on bad days, to promise war without end.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden

Frances M. Roberts/The New York Times
F.B.I. counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were in many ways less the start of a tale than the end of one, or at least the climax of one, begun many years before in many different precincts: in the middle-class suburbs of Cairo, in the mosques of Hamburg, in Jidda, in Islamabad, in the quiet university town of Greeley, Colo.

In its simplest terms, this is the story of how a small group of men, with a frightening mix of delusion and calculation, rose from a tormented civilization to mount a catastrophic assault on the world’s mightiest power, and how another group of men and women, convinced that such an attack was on the way, tried desperately to stop it.

What a story it is. And what a riveting tale Lawrence Wright fashions in this marvelous book. “The Looming Tower*” is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve, and carried along by villains and heroes that only a crime novelist could dream up. It’s an education, too — though you’d never know it — a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today. The portrait of John O’Neill, the driven, demon-ridden F.B.I. agent who worked so frantically to stop Osama bin Laden, only to perish in the attack on the World Trade Center, is worth the price of the book alone. “The Looming Tower” is a thriller.

And it’s a tragedy, too.

In the nearly five years since the attacks, we’ve heard oceans of commentary on the whys and how-comes and what-it-means and what’s nexts. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker — where portions of this book have appeared — has put his boots on the ground in the hard places, conducted the interviews and done the sleuthing. Others talked, he listened. And so he has unearthed an astonishing amount of detail about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Muhammad Omar and all the rest of them. They come alive.

Who knew, for instance, that bin Laden, far from being a warrior-stoic fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was actually a pathetic stick-in-the-mud who would fall ill before battle? That the combat-hardened Afghans, so tired of bin Laden’s behavior, declared him and his Arab associates “useless”? Or that he was a permissive father and indulgent husband? Or that he is only six feet tall?

More important, who knew — I sure didn’t — that bin Laden had left behind such a long trail of words? Wright has found them in books, on film, in audio recordings, in people’s notebooks and memories. This has allowed him to draw an in-depth portrait of bin Laden, and to chart his evolution from a self-conscious step-child growing up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to the visionary cave-dwelling madman who mimics the Holy Prophet in his most humdrum daily habits.

Wright takes the title of his book from the fourth sura of the Koran, which bin Laden repeated three times in a speech videotaped just as the hijackers were preparing to fly. The video was found later, on a computer in Hamburg.

“Wherever you are, death will find you, Even in the looming tower.”

There is poetry, too. Here is a particularly chilling bit, found on another videotape, which bin Laden had read aloud at the wedding of his 17-year-old son, Mohammed. The celebration took place not long after a pair of Qaeda suicide bombers, riding in a tiny boat filled with explosives, nearly sank the billion-dollar guided missile destroyer Cole. At least with regard to his abilities as an author, bin Laden was unusually modest: he let someone else write the words. “I am not, as most of our brothers know, a warrior of the word,” he said.
A destroyer, even the brave might fear,
She inspires horror in the harbor and the open sea,
She goes into the waves flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and fake might,
To her doom she progresses slowly, clothed in a huge illusion,
Awaiting her is a dinghy, bobbing in the waves.

“The Looming Tower” is full of such surprising detail. Al Qaeda’s leaders had all but shelved the 9/11 plot when they realized they lacked foot soldiers who could pass convincingly as westernized Muslims in the United States. At just the right moment Atta appeared in Afghanistan, along with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad al-Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi, all Western-educated transplants, offering themselves up for slaughter. The game was on.

Just as dramatic as the portraits of bin Laden and Zawahiri is Wright’s account of the roots of Islamic militancy — the intellectual, spiritual and material world from which the plotters came. Wright draws a fascinating picture of Sayyid Qutb, the font of modern Islamic fundamentalism, a frail, middle-aged writer who found himself, as a visitor to the United States and a student at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley in the 1940’s, overwhelmed by the unbridled splendor and godlessness of modern America. And by the sex: like so many others who followed him, Qutb seemed simultaneously drawn to and repelled by American women, so free and unselfconscious in their sexuality. The result is a kind of delirium:
“A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid,” Qutb wrote, “but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume, but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.”

It wasn’t much later that Qutb began writing elaborate rationalizations for killing non-Muslims and waging war against the West. Years later, Atta expressed a similar mix of obsession and disgust for women. Indeed, anyone who has spent time in the Middle East will recognize such tortured emotions.

WRIGHT shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy — its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder — lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straitjacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, is intensely religious or a “theological amateur,” as Wright calls bin Laden and his cohort, he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government that is unable to provide any reason to believe in the future. Islam offers dignity, even in — especially in — death. Living in the West, Atta and the others felt these things more acutely, not less. As Wright notes:

“Their motivations varied, but they had in common a belief that Islam — pure and primitive, unmitigated by modernity and uncompromised by politics — would cure the wounds that socialism or Arab nationalism had failed to heal. They were angry but powerless in their own countries. They did not see themselves as terrorists but as revolutionaries who, like all such men throughout history, had been pushed into action by the simple human need for justice. Some had experienced brutal repression; some were simply drawn to bloody chaos. From the beginning of Al Qaeda, there were reformers and there were nihilists. The dynamic between them was irreconcilable and self-destructive, but events were moving so quickly that it was almost impossible to tell the philosophers from the sociopaths. They were glued together by the charismatic personality of Osama bin Laden, which contained both strands, idealism and nihilism, in a potent mix.”

In John O’Neill, bin Laden almost met his match. The supervisor of the F.B.I.’s New York office and of the team assigned to track Al Qaeda in the United States, O’Neill felt, as strongly as anyone in the government, that Al Qaeda was coming to America. He was a relentless investigator, a volcanic personality and sometimes his own worst enemy. In the end he broke himself on a government bureaucracy that could not — and would not — move as quickly as he did. O’Neill and others like him were in a race with Al Qaeda, and although we know how the race ended, it’s astonishing — and heartbreaking — to learn how close it was.

Some of the F.B.I.’s field agents, as we now know, had premonitions of what was coming. When the supervisor of the Minneapolis field office was admonished, in August 2001, for expressing fears that an Islamic radical attending flight school might be planning a suicide attack, he shot back defiantly that he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” Amazing.

The most gut-wrenching scenes are the ones that show F.B.I. agents trying, as 9/11 approached, to pry information from their rivals inside the United States government. The C.I.A., Wright says, knew that high-level Qaeda operatives had held a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, and, later, that two of them had entered the United States. Both men turned out to be part of the team that hijacked the planes on Sept. 11. The C.I.A. failed to inform agencies like the F.B.I. — which might have been able to locate the men and break up the plot — until late in the summer of 2001.

The fateful struggle between the C.I.A. and F.B.I. in the months leading up to the attacks has been outlined before, but never in such detail. At meetings, C.I.A. analysts dangled photos of two of the eventual hijackers in front of F.B.I. agents, but wouldn’t tell them who they were. The F.B.I. agents could sense that the C.I.A. possessed crucial pieces of evidence about Islamic radicals they were investigating, but couldn’t tell what they were. The tension came to a head at a meeting in New York on June 11, exactly three months before the catastrophe, which ended with F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents shouting at each other across the room.
In one of the most remarkable scenes in the book, Ali Soufan, an F.B.I. agent assigned to Al Qaeda, was taken aside on Sept. 12 and finally shown the names and photos of the men the C.I.A. had known for more than a year and a half were in America. The planes had already struck. Soufan ran to the bathroom and retched.

Great stuff. I just wish Wright had given us something, even a chapter, on the hijackings themselves; as it is, he takes us right up to the moment, and then straight to the burning towers. Perhaps he felt that ground was too well-trodden. My other complaint is more substantive. Through the enormous amount of legwork he has done, tracking down people who worked with bin Laden and Zawahiri over the years, Wright has drawn up verbatim reconstructions of entire conversations, some of which took place more than a decade ago. Many of these conversations are riveting. Still, in some cases, it’s hard to believe that memories are that good.
“The Looming Tower” ends near the Pakistani border, where Zawahiri, or someone who looked like him, rode through a village on horseback and then disappeared into the mountains. It’s not a definitive ending; there is no closure. And that’s the point. For as amazing as the story of Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 is, it’s not over yet.

Dexter Filkins is a Baghdad correspondent for The Times. Chapter: ‘The Looming Tower’ (August 6, 2006)


Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. By Lawrence Wright.
Illustrated. 469 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Al Qaida threatens ugly actions in Germany after elections

translated from LA - Internacional: Al Qaeda amenaza con atentar en Alemania tras las elecciones

Berlin. German television broadcasts a video of Islamist Bekkay Harrach demanding the withdrawal of German troops in Afghanistan [or face the consequences]

18/09/2009 updated 18: 38 pm Berlin International. (EFE).-

The terrorist organization Al Qaida threatens harmful actions in Germany after the 27 September elections if the government resulting from the elections does not call for the withdrawal of the German troops from Afghanistan.

According to a video accessed by the major German television network (ARD), the organization threatens Germany with a "bitter awakening" if the new Government, after the election, does not put an end to the German mission in Afghanistan.

The network announced that the person who made the threats on behalf of Al-Qaeda is Bekkay Harrach, Germano-Moroccan Islamist sought in Germany for supposed terrorist activity. "If the people decide by their choice of government a continuation of the war, they will have sentenced themselves to what will befall them."

"The general elections are the only opportunity to the people to shape the policy of the country," says Harrach in the video. The alleged terrorist also adds that "When the last German soldier leaves Afghanistan, the last mujahaddeen will leave Germany".

Harrach repeatedly appeared last year on a propaganda video for Al-Qaida, and in this last video, according to ARD, he urges resident Muslims in Germany to stay "away from public places" two weeks after the elections.

The German Federal Prosecutor's Office speculates that Harrach was recruited into the terrorist organisation by the Turkish Islamist Ömer Ö, which is currently being investigated in Koblenz (South Germany) for their alleged membership in Al Qaeda.

Translated from Al Qaeda amenaza con atentar en Alemania tras las elecciones, La

Translation of original webpage by, edited by Leslie White

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why Al Qaeda Maghreb Will Continue to Strike

The North Africa Journal : It's been a busy period for Al Qaeda Maghreb (AQMI). Its latest [published in April, 2009] targets have been European tourists and two Canadian diplomats still missing, despite the release of their driver. These latest strikes occurred at the eve of regional summit on security and peace in the Sahel region.

And so part of the motivations behind these strikes is to send a message to those who are combating that AQMI can strike any time, anywhere in the region. The latest from the Malian capital Bamako was that the summit has been postponed since unnamed leaders of the represented countries (Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad) had scheduling conflicts. The reality is that such summit could not have happened after such a coup from Al Qaeda.

It is unsure how the abduction of the diplomats occurred. A consensus has emerged that the two men and their driver were first kidnapped by Touareg rebels, who traded them to AQMI. The two Canadian diplomats and the four European tourists were kidnapped in a zone located between the border of Mali and Niger, on the Niger side of the border. An announcement via Al Jazeera TV was made by a spokesperson called Salah Abu Mohammed. The Canadians Robert Fowler, Louis Gay and their Nigerian driver Soumana Moukaila, were actually seen in mid-December 2008 in Western Niamey, Niger’s capital. On December 14, 2008 they went on a private visit to a gold mine in Samira, operated by a Canadian mining company. As for the European tourists, they were officially kidnapped on January 22, 2009 also along the Mali-Niger border.

In reviewing some of the available details, it is worth noting that it is the first time AQMI or a terror organization manages such a daring operation on the Niger territory. Niger is clearly becoming a hotbed of illegal activity. It is also clear that Al Qaeda was seeking to make itself known and acknowledged as the heads of Sahel based governments were preparing to meet to discuss regional security. And while officials in Mali, the summit host country, claim that scheduling conflicts arose, AQMI’s latest strikes are likely the reasons behind the postponement of the conference. The attention of western governments, who also had a stake in participating in the summit, focused on the emerging crisis with their citizens and diplomats in the hands of Al Qaeda, an had little appetite for a forum.

This is not the first time Al Qaeda strikes in the Sahara. The latest such kidnappings happened last year when AQMI militants kidnapped two Austrian tourists in southern Tunisia desert. AQMI managed to elude the Tunisian authorities and escaped to Mali by traveling through the treacherous Algerian desert. After several months of intermittent talks, the Austrian government gave in to the demands of the kidnapers and ended up paying a ransom to free its nationals.

Germany also followed a similar move to free other hostages, a situation that has been a source of contention and displeasure in the region’s capitals, including Algiers. These countries argue that paying ransom money is equivalent to funding terrorism in affected regions. Algeria’s highest ranking officer in the ministry of foreign affairs in charge of Maghreb and African affairs, Abdelkader Messahel is one of the top officials that made statements linking ransom payments to terror financing, while acknowledging the difficulty in controlling or monitoring the vast Sahel region as challenging. With an uncontrolled and vast territory, with growing money from ransoms and an abundance of weapons in the region’s black markets, AQMI is looking to benefit from such environment to establish a strong base from which it can manage its operations up north. The distracting Touareg conflict affecting the Sahara is creating another opportunity for AQMI to benefit from the confusion.

Unless there is a more cohesive regional strategy, involving with the participation of Western governments on issues around kidnapping and ransoms, AQMI will continue to operate in the region unchallenged. The incentives to build a base in the Sahel are more real than elsewhere. In addition to the expected continuation of their kidnapping strategy as a source of funding, coupled with the availability of weapons in that part of Africa, AQMI’s northern presence has been substantially eroded by sustained enforcement and military operations in the populated urban centers and rural areas. As Algeria, Morocco and other countries continue to crack down on insurgents, so it seems logical that the theater of operations would move in scarcely populated areas and in the vast desert. Until a cohesive approach is put in place, strengthened with real resources, technology and man power, AQMI will continue to execute on its plans to terrorize the region.

17 April, 2009