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September 11, 2016 – Remembering 9/11: Are We Any Safer Today? – Analysis

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The world remains vulnerable to major terror attacks because intelligence agencies continue to withhold information from legitimate users. Why is this is so and what can be done to promote informational exchanges?

By Tan Teck Boon and Kumar Ramakrishna*

Is the world safer from terrorism on the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC? If the intelligence lapses that led to 9/11 remain in place, then the world at present cannot be safer from major terror attacks than it was 15 years ago. Today, it is a matter of public record that clues pointing to 9/11 were in the possession of select US intelligence agencies. However, they were withheld from other relevant agencies.

In late December 1999, while monitoring an al-Qaeda phone number in Sana’a, Yemen, the National Security Agency (NSA) – America’s leading signals intelligence agency – intercepted a phone conversation instructing two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, to travel to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting with other known terror suspects. That meeting, we now know, set in motion plans for the 9/11 attacks.

Hazy Road to 9/11

Acting on the NSA’s tip off, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – America’s foreign intelligence agency – placed al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar under surveillance as the two travelled to Malaysia. During al-Mihdhar’s stopover in Dubai, the CIA managed to make a photocopy of al-Mihdhar’s passport and when CIA officers examined it, they were stunned that al-Mihdhar held a valid multiple-entry visa to the United States. Still, the CIA did not alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – the US agency responsible for protecting the US homeland from terror attacks.

Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar eluded surveillance in Kuala Lumpur and from Bangkok, they boarded a flight for Los Angeles. On 15 January 2000, they arrived at their destination and passed through US customs undetected. The two made no attempt to hide their presence in the US, obtaining driver’s licences in their own names and even used a local bank to receive funds from a known al-Qaeda financier. Al-Hazmi’s name was also listed in the California phone book and several calls were made from al-Hazmi’s phone in California to the al-Qaeda phone in Yemen.

At that point, the NSA must have known that there were al-Qaeda operatives in the US. But it too did not alert the FBI. Even after the NSA and CIA had enough information in late 2000 linking al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, the US embassy bombings in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole, they still did not make it known to the FBI that al-Qaeda operatives could already be in the US.

Only in late August 2001 did the CIA alert the FBI but by then, it was too late. The al-Qaeda plan involving Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar (as well as the other 9/11 hijackers) had proceeded too far along for any last-minute FBI investigation to thwart. Both men would hijack Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Barriers to Intelligence Sharing

While there were certainly other lapses, the failure to share information between US intelligence agencies is considered a central cause of 9/11. The NSA and CIA had received information indicating the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the US but did not share what they knew with the FBI. Though the information was fragmentary, it would almost certainly have set off alarms.

Today, this problem continues to plague intelligence agencies around the world. There are many reasons why intelligence agencies withhold information but three major ones are worth mentioning.

Firstly, even friendly intelligence agencies feud and when these spats are left to fester, they can eventually poison the atmosphere for cooperation. Needless to say, intelligence officers are less inclined to share information when they are at loggerheads. Why did the CIA withhold information on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar from FBI? Because incessant CIA-FBI feuding had poisoned inter-agency relations to the point where they simply stopped talking.

Secondly, intelligence agencies are by nature secretive and calls for these hermetic organisations to share information are fundamentally at odds with their institutional DNA. The problem is that secrecy is a double-edged sword; it can protect sensitive secrets like sources and methods from being exposed (rendering them worthless) but it can also become counter-productive when intelligence agencies bottle up information and 9/11 is an excellent case in point.

Thirdly, intelligence agencies have a tendency to withhold information from legitimate users when sharing information does not serve their interests. If the FBI had been tipped off to the presence of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar in the US, it might swiftly have arrested them. However, such premature arrests might not have made sense to the CIA since it could collect more intelligence on al-Qaeda by placing al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar under surveillance. While there is no solid evidence to suggest that this was the factor that prompted CIA to withhold information from the FBI, this problem is very real in the cloak and dagger world.

Intelligence Sharing the Key

Good intelligence – not military might – is the first line of defence against terrorism. Unlike conventional armies, terrorists do not wear uniforms and drive fancy tanks. They hide among civilians, use whatever is available to them as weapons and strike when and where they are least expected. So information on their identities, whereabouts and modus operandi is the key to defeating them.

By sharing information, intelligence agencies increase their chances of fusing fragmentary clues into a coherent picture of imminent terror attacks. It also reduces the risk of vital information being withheld from legitimate users. In short, intelligence sharing is fundamental to keeping us safe in this age where terrorism is the “New Normal”. How that might be accomplished is more difficult to answer.

As a response to 9/11, the US created an entirely new organisation – the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) – to break down the barriers that hampered informational exchanges between its many intelligence agencies. Evidence thus far suggests that the ODNI is making some headways.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated by recent lone wolf attacks in the US and Europe inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS), multilateral intelligence sharing remains a work in progress. Given their resourcefulness, it is only a matter of time before terrorists notice that too – if they haven’t already.

*Tan Teck Boon PhD is a Research Fellow with the National Security Studies Programme (NSSP) and Kumar Ramakrishna is an Associate Professor, Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of NSSP in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


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RSIS

RSIS

RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries.

One thought on “September 11, 2016 – Remembering 9/11: Are We Any Safer Today? – Analysis

  • September 11, 2016 at 12:35 pm
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    When I read this article I was really surprised that these two authors talk about information sharing between intelligent agencies and how it is important in discovering terrorist attacks before they occur. My rationality is very simple. I want to inform the authors that US intelligent agencies know how many hairs in people’s behinds, and this statement is not an exaggeration. When I heard testimonies of various people in charge at that time, including C. Rice, it was very easy to conclude that a very important terrorist attack would have been forthcoming. Even some Arab governments had told the US government that some terrorists were planning to attack the USA by planes. Testimonies revealed that hidden information was there and the Bush administration did not want to reveal some information publicly. Several conservatives were talking about an engineered plan for some reasons. Others were talking about one plain that left no wreckage which was an impossible outcome.
    At any rate, September 11 killed about three thousand innocent Americans and destroyed symbols of US capitalism. Immediately, the government knew the names of the terrorists and their nationalities. Yet, the Bush administration capitalized on the brutality of September 11 by doing the followings: 1. It introduced the Patriotic Act of 2001 which was anti-freedom and democracy of the American people which they worked for it more than 200 years. 2. The Governments under Presidents Bush and Obama have been spreading fear everywhere in the world. 3. Afghanistan and Iraq were occupied and destroyed, and their oil and other natural resources have been looted by US imperialism. 4. More than two million people have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Lebanon, and Yemen. Those people had nothing to do with September 11 and did not harm Americans. 5. The city of Falluja, Iraq was bombed and many thousands (may be five times more than Americans who were killed in New York City on September 11) innocent people were killed, people who had no contribution to September 11. People of Falluja were bombed by uranium bombs and thousands of children still have new defects that Iraq never seen before even during the Haulage Massacre of Baghdad in 1258. In fact, even Japan’s did not receive these bombs that Falluja received. Iraq entire infrastructure was destroyed and the environmental damage still these. Oil companies made billions of dollars in profit between 2003 to 2014 because of the occupation of Iraq. Mr. Cheney’s previous oil company made a good share of the profits. 6. Terrorist attacks have increased significantly in the Middle East and thousands of people are dead. Terrorists such as AL Nusra and Daesh and other groups do receive weapons from the USA and do receive health treatment from Israel. Even Secretary Kerry negotiates for cease fires for the terrorists in Syria, and Daesh was exporting oil on thousands of trucks daily through Turkey and US air power did not bomb these trucks. 7. The Drone bombing has been developed and most of the victims are innocent people, and the Guantanamo Bay’s prison has had many innocent people. Abu Ghraib fiasco provided the world with a naked picture of US violations of human rights and international laws and the BS democracy the US government has been preaching for long time. 8. The world now is unstable and President Obama and Secretary Clinton try to create problems and military showdowns with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other defenseless countries. Domestically, innocent Americans are getting killed by terrorists in Orland and St. Bernardino and other places. Europeans are killed by terrorists, given the trillions spent on militarism. Innocent Muslim people are killed in New York and harassed by the propaganda and the fear many politicians are spreading, including the president of the country who is using September 11 for imperialist adventures against humanity. 9. The Military Industrial Complex has made billions in profits out of the US government spending and of exports to other countries.

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