Who's The Mastermind?

As America's enemies grow more skilled, the nation needs to develop better intelligence networks

Newsweek/September 12, 2001
By Christopher Dickey and Andrew Nagorski

"Who's got the brains and the money to do this?" asked one veteran of Washington's war against terrorism as the details of devastation flashed across the television screen this morning. Who indeed? Cautious speculation could include home-grown true believers preaching their own version of God and Country, like recently-executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; or the guerrillas and drug lords of Colombia, where U.S. troops and covert operatives are ever more deeply embroiled. But the first guess by many intelligence officials in the Middle East, Europe and the United States was the "jihadists" who have congregated in Afghanistan around Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden: "A whole flock of organizations that don't necessarily follow his direct orders or ever have contact with him," says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bin Laden is a talker. He publicly declared "holy war" on all Americans in 1998 and called for attacks on them anywhere in the world. But the move from menacing rhetoric to mass murder has been handled by others who've remained in the shadows. Even if he were eliminated, analysts agree, the threat he represents would remain. "If bin Laden is the composer, who is the conductor? That's what we want to know," says a U.S. official directly concerned with terrorism. Like George Smiley searching for Karla in the novels of John Le Carre, investigators see recurrent patterns in certain operations: in the August, 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in the October, 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and in today's horrific suicide flights against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Such operations are years in the planning and extremely well-coordinated, but they depend on audacity, surprise and basic intelligence-gathering by the terrorists rather than highly sophisticated explosives or weapons of mass destruction.

The plotters watch, they probe. Some counter-terrorism operatives now speculate that intelligence picked up by U.S. agencies about possible terrorist attacks on Americans last June may actually have been leaked by operatives associated with bin Laden. "There's a whole industry built up around watching Osama bin Laden, and if we get the slightest hint we react like crazy," says a U.S. investigator based in the Persian Gulf. At the time, U.S. warships pulled out of Middle Eastern ports, other U.S. personnel were evacuated, and FBI investigators looking at the Cole bombing withdrew from Yemen rather than face what they called a special threat targeting them. Now it appears the terrorists "may have been testing where and how we picked up information-and what were the things we missed," says this source. "They saw where we reacted, and presumably also where we didn't react." Were they casing American airports at the same time to see if extra precautions went into effect? "They not only know how to plan, but they know how to test," said this investigator, "and they know, obviously, where the gaps are." Another U.S. officer concerned with Middle Eastern terrorism notes that the awful success of today's attacks depended entirely on their choice of weapon: long-range passenger aircraft heavily laden with jet fuel that are known to fly routes near the Trade Center and the Pentagon. Guns are difficult to smuggle onto a plane. Other weapons, such as ceramic knives, pass x-rays undetected.

Yet much of Washington's focus on terrorist threats in the last few years has been on the theoretical possibility that America's fanatical enemies are planning to use weapons of mass destruction-whether chemical, biological, or nuclear-against U.S. targets. John Parachini of the Monterey Institute of International Studies has warned repeatedly, on the basis of detailed budget analyses, that Washington is calculating threat assessments "on what people think terrorists could do, not on what they have done in the past, or what they are able to do given considerable technical difficulties of procurement, production and delivery" involved with weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, America's enemies have grown more skilled with the tools they already have. "There appears to be a core group that is slowly becoming more sophisticated with every attack," says one official who has tracked the "jihadists" for years. "And what's scary is that they have a lot of these plots in motion at any one time." Some names of possible masterminds keep flashing across investigators' screens. Ayman Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, has often appeared side by side with bin Laden. Another key planner may be a Gaza Palestinian known as "Abu Zubaydah" or Mohammed Hussein Zein-al-Abideen. He is sometimes referred to as bin Laden's chief executive officer, and was implicated as the key contact for several terrorist cells operating out of Western Europe and the Balkans in the 1990s. But whoever "the conductors" are, they use operatives on the ground who never know the whole picture. "They find local people to do the scut work," as one U.S. official puts it. So even though there are arrests, and convictions, no solid proof has linked the Africa bombings to the Cole, or the Cole directly to bin Laden's so-called "Al-Qaeda" network, much less to the man himself.

Clearly what's needed is better intelligence. But Washington's ability to penetrate these groups remains weak, and the friendly services it used to rely on for help have proven ineffectual. The Israelis have their hands full at home. The Egyptians have been cutting deals with former terrorists to keep peace on their own territory (a practice not unknown to European governments). The Pakistani intelligence services are so deeply tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan that their motives are considered suspect. And just last week, Saudi King Fahd fired the U.S.-educated prince, Turki al-Feisal, who has run his country's intelligence operations for the last two decades.

Investigators sometimes get lucky. After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, one of the conspirators was stupid enough to try to get his deposit back on the rental van used for the bomb. After Oklahoma City in 1995, Timothy McVeigh was picked up by police because he didn't have a license plate on his car. But the terrorists the United States is up against now, wherever they come from, are no amateurs. And unless Washington develops new approaches to assessing the terrorist risk, and the means to penetrate the terrorist networks directly, there's a very real risk that investigators and intelligence agents will still be sifting the evidence of today's atrocities when new ones occur somewhere else.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.


Educational DVDs and Videos