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They Tried to Warn Us: Foreign Intelligence Warnings Before 9/11

By Paul Thompson

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The Congressional Joint Inquiry into 9-11 is now finished, but the findings that have been released fail to mention any warnings from foreign governments. The US mainstream media also has paid little attention to warnings from foreign governments.

Yet there were so many warnings—from both our friends and enemies alike—often specifically suggesting the targets or method of attack. In at least one case, the warnings actually mentioned hijackers by name. This type of communication between intelligence agencies normally occurs in secret, so one can only wonder what additional warnings or details were provided to us that have never been made public.

No US publication has ever put all the various foreign government warnings in one place; even Internet skeptics of Bush have paid scant attention to this issue. Here, for the first time, is such a list of warnings.

First, General Warnings

  • In late 2000, British investigators teamed up with their counterparts in the Cayman Islands and began a yearlong probe of three Afghan men who had entered the Cayman Islands illegally. [Miami Herald, 9/20/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01] In June 2001, the Afghan men were overheard discussing hijacking attacks in New York City, and were promptly taken into custody. This information was forwarded to US intelligence [Fox News, 5/17/02]. In late August 2001, shortly before the attacks, an anonymous letter to a Cayman radio station alleged these same men were al-Qaeda agents “organizing a major terrorist act against the US via an airline or airlines.” [Miami Herald, 9/20/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01, MSNBC, 9/23/01]
    1. In late July 2001, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil learned that Osama bin Laden was planning a “huge attack” on targets inside America. The attack was imminent, and would kill thousands, he learned from the leader of the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was closely allied with al-Qaeda at the time. Muttawakil sent an emissary to pass this information on to the US Consul General, and another US official, “possibly from the intelligence services.” Sources confirmed that this message was received, but supposedly not taken very seriously, because of “warning fatigue” arising from too many terror warnings. [Independent, 9/7/02, Reuters, 9/7/02]
    2. Also in late July 2001, the US was given a “concrete warning” from Argentina’s Jewish community. “An attack of major proportions” was planned against either the US, Argentina, or France. The information came from an unidentified intelligence agency. [Forward, 5/31/02]
    3. An undercover agent from Morocco successfully penetrated al-Qaeda. He learned that bin Laden was “very disappointed” that the 1993 bombing had not toppled the World Trade Center, and was planning “large scale operations in New York in the summer or fall of 2001.” He provided this information to the US in August 2001. [Agence France Presse, 11/22/01, International Herald Tribune, 5/21/02, London Times, 6/12/02]  
    4. Hasni Mubarak, President of Egypt, maintains that in the beginning of September 2001 Egyptian intelligence warned American officials that al-Qaeda was in the advanced stages of executing a significant operation against an American target, probably within the US. [AP, 12/7/01, New York Times, 6/4/02] He learned this information from an agent working inside al-Qaeda. [ABC News, 6/4/02]

    Warnings the Attack Will Come from the Air

    Many warnings specifically mentioned a threat coming from the air.

    1. In 1999, British intelligence gave a secret report to the US embassy. The report stated that al-Qaeda had plans to use “commercial aircraft” in “unconventional ways,”“possibly as flying bombs.”  [Sunday Times, 6/9/02] On July 16, 2001, British intelligence passed a message to the US that al-Qaeda was in “the final stages” of preparing a terrorist attack in Western countries. [London Times, 6/14/02] In early August, the British gave another warning, telling the US to expect multiple airline hijackings from al-Qaeda. This warning was included in Bush’s briefing on August 6, 2001. [Sunday Herald, 5/19/02]
    2. In June 2001, German intelligence warned the US, Britain, and Israel that Middle Eastern terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft and use them as weapons to attack “American and Israeli symbols which stand out.” Within the American intelligence community, “the warnings were taken seriously and surveillance intensified” but “there was disagreement on how such terrorist attacks could be prevented.” This warning came from Echelon, a spy satellite network that is partly based in Germany. [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9/11/01, Washington Post, 9/14/01]
    3. In late July 2001, Egyptian intelligence received a report from an undercover agent in Afghanistan that “20 al-Qaeda members had slipped into the US and four of them had received flight training on Cessnas.” To the Egyptians, pilots of small planes didn’t sound terribly alarming, but they passed on the message to the CIA anyway, fully expecting Washington to request information. “The request never came.” [CBS, 10/9/02] Given that there were 19 hijackers and four pilots (who trained on Cessnas) in the 9/11 plot, one might think this would now be a big news item. But in fact, the information has only appeared as an aside in a CBS “60 Minutes” show about a different topic.
    4. In late summer 2001, Jordan intelligence intercepted a message stating that a major attack was being planned inside the US and that aircraft would be used. The code name of the operation was Big Wedding, which did in fact turn out to be the codename of the 9/11 plot. The message was passed to US intelligence through several channels.  [International Herald Tribune, 5/21/02, Christian Science Monitor, 5/23/02]
    5. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that he ordered his intelligence agencies to alert the US in the summer of 2001 that suicide pilots were training for attacks on US targets. [Fox News, 5/17/02] The head of Russian intelligence also stated, “We had clearly warned them” on several occasions, but they “did not pay the necessary attention.” [Agence France-Presse, 9/16/01] The Russian newspaper Izvestia claimed that Russian intelligence agents knew the participants in the attacks, and: “More than that, Moscow warned Washington about preparation for these actions a couple of weeks before they happened.” [Izvestia, 9/12/02]
    6. Five days before 9/11, the priest Jean-Marie Benjamin was told by a Muslim at an Italian wedding of a plot to attack the US and Britain using hijacked airplanes as weapons. He wasn’t told time or place specifics. He immediately passed what he knew on to a judge and several politicians in Italy. Presumably this Muslim confided in him because Benjamin has done considerable charity work in Muslim countries and is considered “one of the West’s most knowledgeable experts on the Muslim world.” [Zenit, 9/16/01] Benjamin has not revealed who told him this information, but it could have come from a member of the al-Qaeda cell in Milan, Italy. This cell supplied forged documents for other al-Qaeda operations, and wiretaps show members of the cell were aware of the 9/11 plot. [Los Angeles Times, 5/29/02, Guardian, 5/30/02, Boston Globe, 8/4/02] For instance, in August 2000, one terrorist in Milan was recorded saying to another: “I’m studying airplanes. I hope, God willing, that I can bring you a window or a piece of an airplane the next time we see each other.” The comment was followed by laughter [Washington Post, 5/31/02]. In another case in January 2001, a terrorist asked if certain forged documents were for “the brothers going to the United States,” and was angrily rebuked by another who told him not to talk about that “very, very secret” plan. [Los Angeles Times, 5/29/02] In March 2001, the Italian government gave the US a warning based on these wiretaps. [Fox News, 5/17/02]

    What Did Israel Know?

    But the most remarkable warnings of all come from Israel. The issue of Israeli foreknowledge of 9/11 is highly controversial. The story is too complicated to go into detail here, but a number of respected publications (for instance, Fox News, 12/12/01, Forward, 3/15/02, ABC News, 6/21/02, Salon, 5/7/02, Ha’aretz, 5/14/02, Le Monde, 3/5/02, Reuters, 3/5/02, AP, 3/5/02, AP, 3/9/02, Cox News, 3/5/02, Guardian, 3/6/02, Independent, 3/6/02, New York Post, 3/6/02, Jane’s Intelligence Digest, 3/15/02) have written about an Israeli “art student” spy ring operating in the US for several years before 9/11. The name “art student” is used because most of these scores of spies were posing as college art students. There have been suggestions that some of these Israeli spies lived close to some of the 9/11 hijackers. For instance, a US Drug Enforcement Administration report from before 9/11 noted that Israeli spies were living in the retirement community of Hollywood, Florida at 4220 Sheridan Street, which turned out to be only a few hundred feet from lead hijacker Mohamed Atta’s residence at 3389 Sheridan Street (see the DEA report, 6/01). Israeli spies appear to have been close to at least ten of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. [Salon, 5/7/02] In fact, Forward, the most widely circulated publication in the US targeting the Jewish audience, has admitted the spy ring existed, and that its purpose was to track Muslim terrorists operating in the US. [Forward, 3/15/02]

    Some have claimed that the existence of this spy ring shows that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks, an argument that is beyond the scope of this essay. But if the mainstream media is to be believed, Israel gave the US several specific warnings of the 9/11 attacks. In the second week of August 2001, two high-ranking agents from the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, came to Washington and warned the CIA and FBI that 50 to 200 al-Qaeda terrorists had slipped into the US and were planning an imminent “major assault on the US” aimed at a “large scale target” [Telegraph, 9/16/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01, Ottawa Citizen, 9/17/01 Fox News, 5/17/02]. Near the end of August, France also gave a warning that was an “echo” of Israel’s. [Fox News, 5/17/02]

    In October 2002, the story broke in Europe and Israel that on August 23, 2001, the Mossad had given the CIA a list of 19 terrorists living in the US. The Mossad had said that the terrorists appeared to be planning to carry out an attack in the near future. It is unknown if these are the same 19 names as the actual hijackers, or if the number is a coincidence. However, the four names on the list that are known are names of the 9/11 hijackers: Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Marwan Alshehhi, and Mohamed Atta. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02, Der Spiegel, 10/1/02, BBC, 10/2/02, Ha’aretz, 10/3/02] These are also probably the four most important of the hijackers (and two of the pilots). From them, there were many connections to the others. The CIA had already been monitoring three of them overseas the year before, and two, Alhazmi and Almihdhar, were put on a watch list the same day the Mossad gave this warning. [AFP, 9/22/01, Berliner Zeitung, 9/24/01, Observer, 9/30/01, New York Times, 9/21/02]

    Such detailed warnings of exact names fit in well with the reports that Israeli spies were tracking the hijackers for months before 9/11. Yet, as Jane’s Intelligence Digest put it, “It is rather strange that the US media seems to be ignoring what may well be the most explosive story since the 11 September attacks…” [Jane’s Intelligence Digest, 3/13/02] The spy ring story did get a little coverage in the US, but more recent stories claiming that Israel knew the exact names of at least some of the hijackers hasn’t been reported here at all. Perhaps the story is too controversial for the US media to touch?

    Conspicuous in Their Absence

    So many countries warned the US: Afghanistan, Argentina, Britain, Cayman Islands, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, and Russia. Yet the two countries in the best position to know about the 9/11 plot—Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—apparently didn’t give any warning at all.

    The ties between wealthy Saudi figures and al-Qaeda are many, and too complicated to go into here. But it is interesting to notice that, while discussing the resignation of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of the Saudi intelligence agency, the Wall Street Journal has speculated that the Saudi Arabian government may have had foreknowledge of 9/11: “The timing of Turki’s removal—August 31—and his Taliban connection raise the question: Did the Saudi regime know that bin Laden was planning his attack against the US? The current view among Saudi-watchers is that this is doubtful, but that the House of Saud might have heard rumors that something was planned, though they did not know what or when.”

    An interesting and possibly significant detail is that Prince Sultan, the defense minister, was due to visit Japan in early September, but canceled his trip for no apparent reason two days before his planned departure. [Wall Street Journal, 10/22/01] In fact, that same Prince Sultan appears to have rejected a chance to warn the US. In August 2001, a military associate of a Middle Eastern prince passed information to former CIA agent Robert Baer about a “spectacular terrorist operation” to take place shortly. He also gave Baer a computer record of around 600 secret al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But when Baer tried to give this information to Prince Sultan, he was rebuffed. Baer gave the information to the CIA as well, making this apparently yet another ignored warning. [Financial Times, 1/12/02, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,Robert Baer, 2/02, pp. 270-271, Breakdown: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11, Bill Gertz, pp. 55-58]

    The story of Pakistan’s direct involvement in 9/11 is another topic beyond the scope of this essay. One example will suffice. The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2001 that Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, head of the Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence, ordered $100,000 be given to Mohamed Atta in the US. The Journal further noted that the FBI had confirmed this information. [Wall Street Journal, 10/10/01] So perhaps it’s not surprising that Pakistan wouldn’t warn the US what its intelligence chief was up to. But again, this information did reach the US through other means. On July 14, 1999, Randy Glass, a thief turned government informant, was wiretapping a meeting in New York City in which he was trying to sell military equipment to some Pakistanis as part of a sting operation. During the meeting, a Pakistani intelligence agent pointed to the World Trade Center and said to Glass, “Those towers are coming down.” Glass recorded this on tape, and passed this and other disturbing evidence to his local congressperson, senator, and others. Senator Bob Graham has admitted his office received such a warning from Glass before 9/11. [Palm Beach Post, 10/17/02]

    What Defenses?

    From this list, one can see there were many warnings specifying the type of attack, a general timeframe, and the location as either New York City or the World Trade Center. And this list only includes warnings from foreign governments, and excludes warnings from the US itself: its own communications intercepts, individuals with foreknowledge, suggestions from similar attacks, and the knowledge of American intelligence agents on the track of al-Qaeda. We know that US intelligence was suffering “warning fatigue” from so many notifications of an upcoming al-Qaeda attack. One would think that, based on these warnings, the US would have dramatically increased its security. One would be wrong.

    But in fact, while the US recently had over 100 fighters defending the US, the number was reduced in 1997 to save money. By 9/11 there were supposedly only 14 fighters protecting the entire US, and most of those were focused on drug interdiction. Of the 14, only four were in the greater vicinity of New York or Washington. Supposedly, on 9/11 there was not a single plane on alert within 100 miles of either city. With so many warnings suggesting an imminent attack would come from the air and/or target important, symbolic buildings, why weren’t New York, Washington and other probable target areas defended with fighters or antiaircraft batteries? There was an antiaircraft battery permanently stationed on top of the White House, but inexplicably it wasn’t used to shoot down Flight 77, which flew low over the White House before making a sharp turn and hitting the Pentagon. [Dallas Morning News, 9/16/01, Newsday, 9/23/01] The US government has not claimed it improved ground security before 9/11 at places like the Pentagon and World Trade Center either.

    In case there was a failure of imagination, Italy had just set an example two months before 9/11 on how to respond to a terrorist threat: After receiving a warning that a summit of world leaders in the city of Genoa would be targeted by al-Qaeda, they conspicuously defended the city with increased police, antiaircraft batteries, and constantly flying fighter jets. Apparently the press coverage of the defenses caused al-Qaeda to cancel the attack. President Bush could hardly have failed to notice, since he took the unusual step of sleeping on board a US aircraft carrier during the summit. [BBC, 7/18/01, CNN, 7/18/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/27/01]

    Conclusion

    One single warning should have been enough to take precautions, but with so many warnings coming in, how can inaction be explained as mere incompetence? Yes, it is often difficult to know which terrorist threats are real, and what information to trust. But if the US couldn’t take seriously warnings from close allies like Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and so on, then what were they waiting for? What would they have taken seriously? And where is the outrage, the investigation? As can be seen with the recent Congressional inquiry, the typical US government response has been to ignore these foreign government warnings altogether, or to say they were lies. On October 17, 2002, CIA Director Tenet claimed that the only warnings “where there was a geographic context, either explicit or implicit, appeared to point abroad, especially to the Middle East.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] On May 16, 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated to the press: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile.” She added that “even in retrospect” there was “nothing” to suggest that. [White House, 5/16/02] On June 7, 2002, President Bush stated, “Based on everything I’ve seen, I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of September the 11th.” [Sydney Morning Herald, 6/8/02]

    Either the Bush Administration is lying, or most of America’s close allies are. So why hasn’t Congress investigated these foreign intelligence claims? Why hasn’t a single mainstream media article connected all these dots, or given these warnings the coverage they deserve? Either some people within the US government knew the 9/11 attack would happen and did nothing, or some people within the US government failed to heed advice from a dozen foreign governments and properly defend the US from attack. Perhaps both. These people should be removed from office on the grounds of gross incompetence, or face the legal consequences of aiding and abetting terrorism. It seems clear that there are people who fear an investigation, and that that is why these dots are left unconnected.

    Ultimately, we are all in grave danger if these same officials continue to be in charge of protecting us from terrorist attacks.

     

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