An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure BONUS EXCERPT
Despite what you read in the novels or see in the movies, intelligence work and counterterrorism are not glamorous jobs. The vast majority of the day is spent literally slogging through data. It can be tedious, frustrating, and depressing. Amidst gruesome posters of terrorist attacks and within the dimly lit and sour-smelling, industrial-carpeted cubicle walls of hundreds of offices just like the one my son visited, my colleagues and I slog.
My son’s visit to my office that day seemed inevitable. My first child, he was born in February 1993 three days before the first World Trade Center attack in New York. I date the birth of each of my children to a terrorist attack. It is sad, but my two lives are so intrinsically connected that a failure in one is as important as a blessing in the other. On that cold, snowy day in February 1993 when most of the residents of the Washington DC area were engaged in a milk-and-toilet-paper-buying frenzy, I was holding my first baby boy. When the phone rang in my hospital room the pain from my C-section was intense, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to share the news of my son’s birth with a loved one. I reached for the phone only to hear my boss from work frantically saying, “Your people did this! Your people did this!” I had no idea what she was talking about, but about two hundred miles away in New York City where the snow was also gently falling, the unthinkable had just happened. On that morning of February 26, 1993, someone had bombed the World Trade Center. A terrorist had struck the very heart of New York, and although it would be years before it was generally understood, America was under attack.
My boss’s frenetic phone call that morning was related to the work I had been doing in the fall of 1992 and early winter of 1993. I had been working as a terrorism analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. What led her to call me that morning was her belief that the World Trade Center attack was the work of a small collection of extremists we had been high-lighting in our analytic work for months beforehand. My boss was right. Ramzi Yousef and his co-conspirators were exactly the kind of individuals we had seen popping up in Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. They were turning up in Tajikistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and even Burma; young men from over fifty countries whose backgrounds, families, economic status, and even religious practices were as diverse as they come. Yet they had one thing in common. They had all engaged in “jihad” in Afghanistan.2 They all believed themselves to be “mujahidin” (holy warriors). In fact, sitting on my desk was an analytic paper I had planned to finish before going on maternity leave, “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous.” It described the connections between the breeding grounds for Islamic extremist groups that Afghanistan had become after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989.
While my paper would have to wait until I returned from maternity leave, it was published in August 1993 and would serve as the first published strategic warning of what would later be called the “global jihadist movement” and of Osama bin Laden. In this analysis I warned that:
US interests will increasingly become targets for violence from former jihadists because of a perception that US foreign policies are anti-Islamic; veterans of the Afghanistan jihad were becoming leaders of Islamic militant, insurgent, and terrorist groups around the world; the support networks and pipelines were flexible, decentralized, and generously funded, including by Osama bin Laden; bin Laden was enabling hundreds of jihadists and training even more new fighters; several hubs of jihadist activity had emerged, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran; the February World Trade Center attack may have been sponsored by Osama bin Laden and that jihadists in the United States were an increasing threat; and jihadists were going to “every corner” of the globe and likely to pose challenges in far-flung places, including Somalia, Algeria, Egypt, the Philippines, and the United States.
One week later, I published another analytic assessment; this one focused on bin Laden in particular, stating that:
Bin Laden had established an organization called “al-Qa’ida” in the 1980s; from his new location in Sudan, he was running investment companies enabling him to fund the Sudanese National Intelligence Front and Islamic militants in Sudan and abroad; his facilities in Sudan were training a variety of fighters; he had established ideological ties to other militant religious figures around the globe; he had funded the Yemeni group responsible for two bombings in December 1992 that targeted US soldiers in hotels in Yemen; he was committed to financing “jihads” against “anti-Islamic” regimes worldwide and his reach extended to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Thailand, and beyond.
By 1995, I was not alone in the Intelligence Community looking at these issues. With several colleagues from other offices I started a “working group” to exchange views on the emerging extremist challenge. Our first meeting on November 13, 1995, would serve as an omen of things to come. It was on this day that a car bomb struck the Office of the Program Manager/Saudi Arabian National Guard, a US training mission in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Seven men were killed and sixty others injured. Months later, Saudi authorities televised the confessions of four Sunni Saudi nationals who admitted to planning and conducting the bombing. Three of the four were “mujahidin,” veterans of “jihads” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. All four were executed by Saudi authorities before we would ever have the opportunity to learn more.
As a small but diverse group of analysts, our working group succeeded in producing some of the earliest analyses representing the Intelligence Community’s warning of what was to come. In July 1996, I published an article warning that bin Laden’s impending move from Sudan to Afghanistan “would prove more dangerous to US interests in the long run.”
Keeping bin Laden on the move by reducing his haven options will inconvenience him, but his informal and transnational network of businesses and associates will remain resilient. Even a bin Laden on the move can retain the capability to support individuals and groups who have the wherewithal to attack US interests almost worldwide.
This article would later be declassified and discussed by the media in August 2005, but in August 1996 when I wrote it, it was barely noticed. The Khobar Towers attack occurred and bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan was not really a critical issue. Within a couple of weeks, I was back in the hospital having my second son. The summer of 1996 had proven challenging with bin Laden’s move back to Afghanistan and the activities that led up to the Khobar bombing. At the same time, I had suffered from preterm labor with my second son and was on daily medication to prevent his early birth. I was very relieved when I reached full-term and he arrived healthy.
I had hoped to leave the government in 1996 when my second son was born, but within a few weeks of his birth, the small, nonprofit organization my husband worked for folded and he was out of a job. So back to work I went.
By early 1998, I had moved from the State Department to the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) of the Central Intelligence Agency. When I joined CTC in February 1998, I was pregnant with my third child. My first daughter was born a few weeks before the bombings of our two embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on August 7, 1998. While my role in helping would be extremely limited, I went into work with nursing baby in hand. Sleeping peacefully, she was exactly the sort of pick-me-up people dealing with the aftermath of such a disaster needed. My six-week-old daughter went to meetings that I never would have been able to attend. To this day, I still tease my former boss that he predisposed my daughter to keeping secrets from me. She has one of the best poker faces I’ve ever seen, even when caught red-handed snagging clothes from my closet to play dress-up.
In the fall of 1999, everyone had their eyes on the coming new millennium. While most of the US government was busy preparing for the predicted Y2K disaster, a tired and frustrated CTC was sorting through an ever-growing number of threats. Nonetheless, the millennium came and went with much fanfare, but no bombings. In what would be hailed as a shining success of foreign and domestic counterterrorism cooperation, the counterterrorism community identified and thwarted attacks planned by extremists for the millennium.?Unlike the 9/11 Commission, I do not recall Americans feeling the millennium period was a proud moment for their government’s counterterrorism successes. In fact, it seemed to me that there was a stark contrast between the mind-set of Americans before and after the millennium. There is an unintended consequence to success. When I warn my children repeatedly that they will catch cold if they do not dress appropriately, the credibility of my warning depends on them actually catching a cold. Otherwise, if I warn over and over again and they never get sick, they conclude there is no reason to listen to me. Likewise, the credibility of the Intelligence Community’s terrorism warnings start to diminish when there are no attacks.
When the potential Y2K disaster and al-Qa’ida-like attacks failed to occur, the two “exaggerations” were conflated into what resulted in an image of the US government having been “spooked.” Many families canceled costly plans for millennium celebrations. For example, the mayor of Seattle, Washington, canceled celebrations at the Space Needle, out of fear of possible attacks. People are left not knowing exactly what to think when nothing happens. A popular columnist wrote an op-ed in the New York Times chastising the Intelligence Community for falling victim to bin Laden’s “disinformation campaign.” His accusation was exactly what many people thought: we had been duped.
The perception that the US Intelligence Community had exaggerated the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and had become obsessed with bin Laden had a lot to do with the skepticism with which the analysis was taken in the months prior to 9/11. Even the Cole bombing in October 2000 did not reduce the sense that the Intelligence Community was hyping the bin Laden threat. Instead, al-Qa’ida’s choice of an American military target lent credence to the theory that bin Laden wanted to influence a broader Muslim audience by not conducting indiscriminate attacks and killing large numbers of civilians. It became difficult to persuade people to listen when they were beginning to think of us as “Chicken Little,” always warning that the sky was about to fall.
9/11What happened on September 11, 2001, is impossible to fully recount. It was a tragic day filled with extraordinary moments. On the other hand, I was doing something very typical that morning, vomiting with morning sickness. I was pregnant again in September 2001, though only a few people knew because I was still in my first trimester. Just a few days earlier, I had received approval to scale back my work hours. My father was in the last few months of struggling with severe complications due to his diabetes, and I was planning to spend more extended weekends with my parents. But the hours after September 11 turned into days and weeks, and it would be a long time before any of us knew what month it was.
After every terrorist attack, victims and their family members form important bonds to help each other through the tragedy. This was true from the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996, or even the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. After every attack, there are always efforts to investigate what went wrong and whether someone could have done something differently to prevent the tragedy. Unfortunately, the victims’ family members and survivors are typically pitted against the community faulted for not being able to prevent it. The men and women of the Intelligence Community lost loved ones on September 11, just as we had in 1998, 1995, 1983, 1979, and almost every other terrorist attack against US interests. But there was no time after September 11 to mourn the dead. Colleagues, friends, and loved ones lost in the Pentagon attack or at the World Trade Center were only fleetingly remembered in a rare moment of silence when no one else could see the tear in your eye. There was just too much to be done to think about who and what we had lost.
The days and weeks that followed 9/11 went by without our realizing it. I can hardly recall seeing my family in those first few months, but I know I did. I must have seemed like a zombie to them. One December evening, I was trying hard to fall asleep. I realized after laying in bed for over an hour that I could not recall the last time I had felt my baby kick inside me. By this time I was over six months pregnant. I got up and drank a glass of juice and waited for some sign that the sugar had kicked in. Nothing. I finally called the maternity ward at the hospital where I had delivered all my children and spoke with a nurse. She told me to come in.
I kissed my husband and told him that I was going to the hospital to have the baby checked. He opened an eye, but what I said did not really register with him. The poor man had been both mother and father to our three kids for months. He was exhausted.
As it turned out, the baby was okay but I had been dehydrated and had had an infection that caused the amniotic fluid level to drop, leaving my baby sluggish. They pumped me full of liquid overnight and released me mid-morning. My colleagues were so alarmed that they brought me water bottles routinely throughout the day after that.
Connecting the Dots
Years later, the 9/11 Commission would decide that the analysts in the Intelligence Community should have been able to “connect-the-dots” and figure out the 9/11 attack. The media would blame us, not just for failing to predict the attack, but also failing to prevent it. Connecting the dots sounds simple enough. Why couldn’t we do it?
It is a lot easier to connect dots when you have the benefit of hindsight to tell you which dots to even bother connecting. In the weeks, months, and years before 9/11, we had so many individual dots that the pages were completely black. But even this description suggests that the so-called dots are something solid. Most information is as much a lie as it is a truth. Sorting out truth from lie is not quick or easy to do. Imagine trying to do an extreme-ly intricate “connect-the-dots” game with barely visible, faded dots moving at varying speeds all over the page: that’s a more accurate description of intelligence work.
Intelligence is not fact. Even an intercept of a conver-sation between the leader of a terrorist organization and a rank-and-file member is not a fact. They both engage in coded speak, using innuendo that only they can decipher because their language is immersed in cultural, religious, or personal histories. Above all, each is trying to manipulate or influence the other. If you think about your own conversations with a family member or good friend, you’ll understand. Rarely do you exchange facts. You tell stories, refer to common experiences, empathize, and attempt to persuade each other. Or if you have ever tried following your teenager’s instant-message exchanges, you know exactly what it’s like to try to break into someone else’s conversation and understand it. They are not exchanging facts.
No matter how much we spend on counterterrorism, no matter how aggressive, how successful, or how lucky we are in our efforts to prevent terrorism, there will be things we miss. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But no matter how hard you try to prevent harm from coming to your kids, sometimes they get sick. Sometimes, they have their hearts broken. And sadly, there are times when they get seriously hurt. No matter how hard we try to keep Americans safe from harm, sometimes our preventative efforts will fail. But please believe me, the men and women who work every day in these efforts try as hard as they can and sacrifice more than can ever be publicly expressed. They do not do it for the money or the glory, that is for sure. They do it for their kids, for your kids, and for total strangers—because they believe we are all worth saving.