Cyrus Nowrasteh, scriptwriter for ABC’s docudrama The Path to 9/11, defends the film’s controversial, invented scenes, noting that the first attack on the World Trade Center occurred one month after Bill Clinton took office, and eight years passed in which Clinton did little to thwart the growing menace. Nowrasteh makes a crucial point, but it is not necessary to resort to fiction. Our understanding of the terrorist attacks — going back to the 1993 Trade Center bombing — has become loaded with errors obscuring Clinton’s fecklessness. Correct those errors, which, unfortunately the film reproduces, and this essential point is far clearer.
The film links Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing, to Osama bin Ladin. But, in fact, Yousef and bin Ladin had nothing to do with each other. Bin Laden is not indicted for the Trade Center bombing — intended to topple the towers and kill 250,000 people — despite an extensive effort to discover such links. Nor is that attack included in the military charges against Guantanamo Bay detainees, which outline al Qaeda’s conspiracy against America. Indeed, bin Laden was not indicted until June 1998, when he was charged with one count: “conspiracy to attack defense utilities of the United States.” The target is not identified, and no actual attack occurred.
Al Qaeda was long a small, secretive organization. There is virtually no public mention of it during its first decade — a Lexis-Nexis search produces five articles — until the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies. Only after those attacks, is al Qaeda added to the official U.S. list of terrorist groups. The 9/11 Commission notes, “While we now know that al Qaeda was formed in 1988, at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Intelligence Community did not describe this organization in documents we have seen, until 1999 (emphasis added.)
It would have been a truly massive failure of virtually every U.S. agency responsible for fighting terrorism if bin Laden had backed a plot to kill 250,000 Americans in 1993, but the Justice Department only charged him with any crime five years later and the intelligence community only began to analyze his organization the following year.
Terrorist Family Extraordinaire
George Tenet told the Congressional Joint Inquiry, “We now believe that a common thread runs between the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993 and the 11 September attacks….Mukhtar is the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the 1993 bombing plot against the World Trade Center. Following the 1993 attack, Yousef and Mukhtar plotted in 1995 to blow up [twelve] U.S. planes flying East Asian routes.”
“Mukhtar” was an alias for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), the 9/11 mastermind. “Since September 11, the CIA has come to believe that KSM may have been responsible for all bin Laden operations outside Afghanistan,” the Joint Inquiry reports. Yet U.S. authorities only learned of KSM’s key role after the capture and interrogation of a senior al Qaeda figure in 2002. A U.S. intelligence official later told the Washington Post, “It wasn’t until recently that any of us even realized he was part of al Qaeda….The big problem nailing him down is that the informants that we relied on, especially before 9/11, were mujaheddin. They’d been in Afghanistan, in Sudan, back in Afghanistan. Khalid was never a part of any of that” (emphasis added)
Ammar al-Baluchi (aka Ali Abdul Aziz Ali) — Ramzi Yousef’s first cousin and another KSM nephew — was KSM’s “right-hand man.” Al-Baluchi sent the “primary funding” to the hijackers and coached nine of them on how to behave in America.
Following KSM’s capture in 2003, U.S. authorities told the Washington Post they were “concerned that his nephews — the brothers of imprisoned terrorist Ramzi Yousef — may be positioned to take over planning of future terror attacks.” They named two men: Abdul Munim and Abdul Karim. Nothing further has been reported about Abdul Munim, but Abdul Karim proved a key figure. Captured in May 2004, his interrogation led to further arrests and the discovery of a major plot against US financial centers.
Thus, the official U.S. position holds that a family essentially forms the core expertise for the major attacks that began with the 1993 Trade Center bombing, culminated in 9/11, and even continued afterwards. Yet no precedent exists for a single family to be the sole, or even the key, source of expertise for a major terrorist group.
According to U.S. intelligence, this family is Baluch, a Sunni Muslim people, living in Eastern Iran and Western Pakistan (The Path to 9/11 erroneously identifies Yousef as Palestinian.) Following Yousef’s arrest in Islamabad, the New York Times reported:
The Pakistan newspaper, The News, which is said to have good sources in the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that “if features could betray geography,” Mr. Yousef appeared to Pakistani investigators “as if he is from the coastal belt of Baluchistan.”…[They] had noted that President Saddam Hussein’s Government in Iraq had tried to exploit animosities against the Iran Government among Baluch tribal people in southeastern Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The newspaper said this could explain how Mr. Yousef came into possession of the Iraqi passport that he used when he arrived in New York in September 1992, six months before the World Trade Center bombing. “If Ramzi is in fact of Iranian Baluch origin, it would not have been big problem for him to get an Iraqi passport,” the newspaper said. [February 13, 1995]
Yet the Clinton administration did not want to hear this. (In the 1992 presidential campaign, I was Clinton’s adviser on Iraq; in later encounters with the White House, I found it strongly resistant to hearing about evidence linking Saddam to terrorism.)
An Alternative Explanation
An alternative explanation for al Qaeda’s terrorism exists. After bin Laden was expelled to Afghanistan in 1996, two groups joined forces: 1) the original al Qaeda, represented by bin Laden and those around him; and 2) the Baluch: KSM and his extended “clan,” which is probably not a family, but an elite squad. Probably, these individuals were selected in the same way we would recruit such a group: they were chosen for their special aptitudes from a much larger pool and then given additional training — most likely, by Iraq.
The path to 9/11 really began with the Baluch before their alliance with al Qaeda — with the 1993 Trade Center bombing and the 1995 plane bombing plot. Only after KSM joined with bin Laden, bringing with him the skills of his group, did al Qaeda’s major attacks against the U.S. begin — starting with the 1998 embassy bombings. This would help explain how a virtually unknown organization like al Qaeda managed to bomb two U.S. embassies nearly simultaneously and then carry out the most lethal single attack in U.S. history a mere three years later.