Other unheeded warnings before 9/11?
ATHENS — The Bush administration may hesitate to give Arab allies public credit, but Washington investigators should consider warnings that at least two friendly Arab intelligence services sent to Washington just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jordan, beyond a doubt, and Morocco, with some certainty, advised US and allied intelligence that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorists were preparing airborne terrorist operations in the continental United States.
What Washington's investigators should do now, after verifying the authenticity and content of those messages, is discover how seriously and at what levels of government, if any, they were considered or shared. And what, if any, operational conclusions were drawn.
First, the Jordan case: Since the early 1990s, the kingdom's well-organized and efficient intelligence service, called the GID (General Intelligence Division), reporting directly to the king, carefully tracked CIA- and Pakistani-trained Arab guerrillas both in and outside of Jordan. Many had fought in the victorious war to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Thousands of Arab veterans many trained in Muslim religious schools as well as in the arts of war, sabotage, and terrorism returned to Jordan and their other homelands. They organized Islamist uprisings, aided civil wars (Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, the Philippines, Indonesia), and carried out terrorism (cinemas in Jordan; the World Trade Center in New York in 1993).
Jordan's GID captured and brought to justice a number of guerrillas who had become active terrorists, and kept a watch on those who did not. The GID aided the United States government in countless ways. In cooperation with the US, it foiled multiple attacks on Jordanian tourist sites planned for New Year's Eve 1999. It helped US law enforcement apprehend Al Qaeda and other operatives who had reached the US or Canada and had formed active or "sleeper" cells there.
Sometime in the late summer of 2001, GID headquarters in Jordan intercepted a crucial Al Qaeda communication. This probably took place after the July 5 warning by a Phoenix, Ariz., FBI agent that Arab terrorists could be sending men to flight schools, and either before or shortly after Aug. 6, when President Bush received a CIA briefing about possible hijackings.
The intercept's content was deemed so important that Jordanian King Abdallah's men relayed it to Washington, probably through the CIA station at the US Embassy in Amman. To be sure that the message got through, it was also passed to a German intelligence agent who was visiting Amman at the time.
The message showed clearly that a major attack was planned inside the continental US. It said aircraft would be used. But neither hijacking nor, apparently, precise timing nor targets were named. The code name of the operation was mentioned: in Arabic, Al Ourush al-Kabir, "The Big Wedding."
When it became clear that the information about the intercept was embarrassing to the Bush administration and to congressmen who at first denied there had been any advance warnings of 9/11, senior Jordan officials backed off their earlier confirmations.
Last November, a French magazine and a Moroccan newspaper simultaneously reported a story that has never been publicly confirmed or denied in Paris, Rabat, or Washington.
It said that a Moroccan secret agent named Hassan Dabou had infiltrated Al Qaeda. Several weeks before Sept. 11, the story goes, he informed his chiefs in King Muhammed VI's royal intelligence service that Mr. bin Laden's men were preparing "large-scale operations in New York in the summer or autumn of 2001." The warning was said to have been passed from the Moroccan capital of Rabat to Washington.
Mr. Dabou was said to have reported that bin Laden was "very disappointed" by the failure of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center to topple the towers. The Moroccan agent was said to have begun his career as an informant in Casablanca's slums, then was assigned to missions in Algeria, Iran, and finally Afghanistan.
Though he won bin Laden's confidence at first, according to an unnamed French intelligence agent cited in the reports, Dabou lost contact with Al Qaeda after he was invited to the US to tell his story there. Losing his sources in Afghanistan curtailed his ability to predict or help prevent 9/11.
Nonetheless, the story goes, he was given refuge and a new identity in the US. There, he was said to be helping out in the "war on terror."
The devil may lie in the details of these two stories. The first has been confidently authenticated by this reporter. The second remains to be proved or disproved. But the lesson of both is surely that no American administration should ever downgrade or dismiss the help it gets from friendly allies, Arab or otherwise.
John K. Cooley, an author and a former Monitor correspondent in the Middle East, wrote 'Unholy Wars: America, Afghanistan and International Terrorism,' which will appear in a third, updated edition from Pluto Books this summer.