The CIA and al-Qaeda

In intelligence it’s not so much what you don’t know as what you won’t know.

Al Qaeda was initially formed in 1988, when the Soviet Union announced the humiliating withdrawal its forces from Afghanistan, whence it had invaded in 1979. The Saudi magnate, Osama bin Laden, and Abdullah Azzam, the charismatic Palestinian co-founder of Hamas, birthed al Qaeda from the Services Bureau (Mektab al-Khidmat) the pair had set up in the mid-1980s to promote the so-called “Arab Afghans”– Muslims from around the world (but mostly from Arab nations) who flocked to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad.

Among Afghan tribal leaders, the closest ally of bin Laden and his burgeoning al Qaeda network was Gilbuddin Hekmatyar. This was of no small significance. Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist, was the most virulently anti-American of the Afghans and the one closest to the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI), which the CIA was using as its cut-out to support the mujahideen. He was also the top recipient of the CIA’s largesse, reeling in about 20% of the $3 billion-plus in funding and materiel the agency poured into the jihad. That support was matched dollar-for-dollar by our friends the Saudis, who dealt directly with the Arab Afghans and were bin Laden’s chief benefactor.

In short, the CIA helped create al Qaeda. It opened its checkbook but blindly relied on the ISI, which was (and is) rife with Sunni fundamentalist sympathizers. The agency’s effort, as AEI scholar Michael Ledeen has observed, lacked any “engagement and follow-through” with the jihadist networks being created — taking no steps, even after the Soviets vacated, to dismantle them, penetrate them, “or at least remove the most dangerous weapons, like Stinger missiles.”

By 1993, bin Laden was ballistic over the Saudi government’s decision to abide a robust American presence in the Persian Gulf to turn back Saddam Hussein. In Sudan, al Qaeda was headquartered and was a prominent presence at international jihadist conventions. In Somalia, al Qaeda operatives trained Somali tribal militias who attacked U.S. peace-keeping forces, resulting in the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in which nineteen American soldiers were killed. In the Bekkaa Valley, al Qaeda operatives were trained by Hezbollah as a result of an agreement between bin Laden and the Iranian government.
In the United States, an al Qaeda operative named Ali Mohamed — bin Laden’s bodyguard — told FBI intelligence agents that bin Laden ran an organization called al Qaeda which might attempt to take down the Saudi regime.

On August 23, 1996, from the Hindu Kush mountains, bin Laden and al Qaeda issued a widely disseminated declaration of war against the United States, entitled “Message from Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Laden to His Muslim Brothers in the Whole World and Especially in the Arabian Peninsula: Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques; Expel the Heretics from the Arabian Peninsula.”

A year later, under the leadership of new CIA Director George Tenet, the National Intelligence Council, the agency’s strategic center, issued a National Intelligence Estimate, outlining potential perils to the United States. As the Washington Post has reported, the NIE “mentioned bin Laden in only three sentences, describing him only as a ‘terrorist financier.’” It did not mention al Qaeda at all.

Is there anything else you really need to know?

Probably not. But on the off-chance you wanted a graphic look at the sorry inputs and machinery that resulted in such risibly inadequate outputs from the $40 billion-plus per annum intelligence community whose principal task is to apprise policy makers about foreign threats, John L. Helgerson, the CIA’s Inspector General, is your guy. On Tuesday, the IG issued a blistering report detailing thorough-going incompetence at the Agency in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks — from DCI Tenet on down.

The misfeasance and flat-out nonfeasance detailed in the 19-page declassified summary — which Gen. Michael Hayden, the current DCI, fought against releasing — will be surprising only to those taken in by the 9/11 Commission. Though chartered to study intelligence failure, the roots of which long predate the suicide hijackings that killed nearly 3000 Americans, the Commission’s final report, in its ballyhooed bipartisanship, was a political exercise which took great pains not to delve too deeply into the eight Clinton years prior to 9/11, lest anyone think they might have had a smidge more to do with what went wrong than the eight Bush months.

Consequently, little if any attention was paid to the fact that the Clinton administration sought to cash in on a post-Cold War “peace dividend” by drastically slashing intelligence resources, even as Somalia, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a slew of subsequent jihadist strikes elucidated radical Islam’s rise. Or to the fact that, as the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz has reported, the number of deployed CIA intelligence officers around the world fell from a Reagan era high of 8000 to fewer than 1000 during the Clinton years. Or that President Clinton refused to meet with his first CIA Director, the superb Jim Woolsey, a stark contrast from Bush pere and fils, who preferred daily personal briefings from the head of the intelligence community. Clinton evidently did think highly enough of his next CIA Director, John Deutsch, to pardon him — sparing Deutsch a felony indictment for recklessly mishandling classified information.

Tenet, Clinton’s final DCI, got the job by default. He was deputy when Deutsch was forced to resign in late 1996, became acting Director, then got the gig officially when Clinton’s original choice, Anthony Lake, was derailed. As Commentary’s Gabriel Schoenfeld recounts in yet another of his important essays on the agency (“The CIA Follies (Cont’d)”), “Clinton’s decision, we learn from Tenet’s memoir, was almost an afterthought: ‘I found it odd,’ [Tenet] recollects, that there was no job interview … no one asked me what I would do with the intelligence community should I get the job.’”

To be fair, the DCI’s job would have been impossible for even the most talented incumbent, combining three full-time, high pressure jobs: head of the CIA, head of the intelligence community (without control over its budget), and chief foreign intelligence adviser to the president. To cut to the chase, though, Tenet was not the most talented incumbent … and he inherited a mess. For mystifying reasons, Bush kept him on board and ultimately awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Tenet’s haplessness in matters great and small is a leitmotif of the IG’s report. History will record that, after his aforementioned first NIE failed even to acknowledge the existence of al Qaeda, the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in August 1998, killing well over 200 people. The atrocities came as a shock to the agency, notwithstanding that bin Laden had by then complemented his 1996 declaration of war with the more infamous February 23, 1998 fatwa, issued under the auspices of the “International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders,” calling for the murder of all Americans — including civilians — wherever in the world they could be found. Was the NIE updated to reflect the threat environment more accurately? No. After 1997, the IG recounts, the CIA “did not produce a similar comprehensive assessment … until after 9/11” — not after the embassy bombings, not after the Millennium plots against Los Angeles and American targets in Jordan, and not after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.

This comes as no surprise. Confirming the earlier findings of a joint inquiry by congressional intelligence committees, the IG explains that the CIA eschewed strategic thinking about al Qaeda throughout the nineties: no comprehensive assessment by its Counterterrorism Center (CTC), no comprehensive report focusing on bin Laden after 1993, and “[l]imited analytic focus on the United States as a potential target” — something the Agency figured was the FBI’s problem to worry about … even as it neglected to apprise the FBI of salient intelligence toward that end. It was not until 2001, at President Bush’s urging, that Tenet directed the CTC to establish a strategic analysis unit, which was finally formed in July of that year, by which time the 9/11 plot was long in motion.

Portentously, Tenet issued a late 1998 memorandum after the embassy bombings, telling his charges, “We are at war.” But it was all wind and no rain. The IG details that an interagency group was created by the memo “to counter the challenge posed by Usama bin Laden,” as to which Tenet purportedly wanted “no resources or people spared.”
Quickly, however, it ran quickly out of steam. There were random tactical operations but “no comprehensive strategic plan” for combating al Qaeda any time prior to 9/11. Far from sparing no resources or people, assets were actually moved out of counterterrorism to cover agency priorities unrelated to terrorism. Reflecting his Washington insider mindset, it seems Tenet matched word with deed only when it came to affirmative action: as Schoenfeld notes, Tenet boasts that he “made it a priority to enhance the agency’s record on diversity” and to have “its workforce reflect a broad cross-section of our population.”

Plainly, developing an able cross-section was not an imperative. The IG found that the CTC was over-stretched, and “[m]ost of its officers did not have the operational experience, expertise and training necessary to accomplish their mission in an effective manner.” This led to stunning lapses. For example, the CTC regarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who had been implicated in a plot to attack U.S. airliners in flight over the Pacific) as a worthy candidate for apprehension; but the eventual 9/11 mastermind was not seen as a senior al Qaeda leader and strategist, and thus the agency “missed important indicators of terrorist planning[,]” including “that KSM was sending terrorists to the United States to engage in activities on behalf of bin Laden.”

More harrowing, in January 2000, the CIA had real-time information that two of the ultimate suicide hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, were at a crucial Kuala Lampur meeting—what was, in hindsight, an initial planning confab for the 9/11 attacks. Yet, it failed to place them on the terrorist watch-list even upon learning one had obtained an American visa and the other had already entered the United States. Indeed, the IG concludes that, “[b]asically, there was no coherent, functioning watchlisting program” at CIA. The agency, in any event, compounded this dereliction by failing to notify the FBI about Hazmi and Midhar. As a result, Midhar was able to re-enter the U.S. in July 2001, and the terrorists were not subject to any surveillance under circumstances where monitoring might well have led to “information on flight training, financing, and links to other[]” hijackers. A solid opportunity to thwart the attacks was tragically lost.

By now, this is an old sordid story. Nevetheless, it baffles still. The IG sums up that, for years, the intelligence community’s “understanding of al-Qa’ida was hampered by insufficient analytic focus, particularly regarding strategic analysis.” Yet the media, the academy, the foreign service, and policy makers throughout government breezily insist the terror network had no meaningful relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (with which al Qaeda had numerous contacts), and has only the flimsiest connection to our mortal enemies in Iran (who’ve trained, harbored and facilitated al Qaeda operatives for over a decade).

After all, they tell us, the CIA says so.


View All