1999 report warned of possible suicide hijackings into federal buildings

By John Solomon, The Associated Press
Saturday May 18, 2002

WASHINGTON — Two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, an analysis prepared for U.S. intelligence warned that Osama bin Laden’s terrorists could hijack an airliner and fly it into government buildings like the Pentagon. 

“Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House,” the September 1999 report said. 

The Bush administration has asserted that no one in government had envisioned a suicide hijacking before it happened. 

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration was aware of the report prepared by the Library of Congress for the National Intelligence Council, which advises the president and U.S. intelligence on emerging threats. He said the document did not contain direct intelligence pointing toward a specific plot but rather included assessments about how terrorists might strike. 

“What it shows is that this information that was out there did not raise enough alarm with anybody,” Fleischer acknowledged. 

Also Friday, new information emerged about a memo from the FBI’s Phoenix office last July warning headquarters that a large number of Arabs were training at a U.S. flight school. The memo urged that all flight schools nationwide be checked, but the FBI failed to act on the idea before Sept. 11. 

Government officials said Friday that two of the more than half dozen names the FBI Phoenix office identified in the memo were determined by the CIA after Sept. 11 to have links to bin Laden’s al-Qaida. 

Officials said the CIA was not shown the memo before Sept. 11 and even if it had, it did not have the intelligence linking the two men to al-Qaida until after the attacks. The FBI checked the names before Sept. 11 but found no bin Laden ties, the officials added. 

Former CIA Deputy Director John Gannon, who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the 1999 report was written, said officials long have known a suicide hijacking was a threat. 

“If you ask anybody could terrorists convert a plane into a missile, nobody would have ruled that out,” he said. 

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress raised the volume of their calls to investigate what the government knew before Sept. 11. 

“I think we’re going to learn a lot about what the government knew,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said during an appearance in New York. She said she was unaware of the report created in 1999 during her husband’s administration. 

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees, demanded the CIA inspector general investigate the report, which he called “one of the most alarming indicators and warning signs of the terrorist plot of Sept. 11.” 

Meanwhile, court transcripts reviewed by The Associated Press show the government had other warning signs between 1999 and 2001 that bin Laden was sending members of his network to be trained as pilots and was considering airlines as a possible target. 

The court records show the FBI has known since at least 1999 that Ihab Mohammed Ali, who was arrested in Orlando, Fla., and later named as an unindicted coconspirator in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, had been sent for pilot training in Norman, Okla., before working as a pilot for bin Laden. 

He eventually crashed a plane owned by bin Laden in Sudan that prosecutors alleged was used to transport al-Qaida members and weapons. Ali remains in custody in New York. 

In February 2001, federal prosecutors told a court they gained information in September 2000 from an associate of Ali’s, Moroccan citizen L’Houssaine Kherchtou, that Kherchtou was trained as an al-Qaida pilot in Kenya and attended a meeting in 1993 where an al-Qaida official was briefing Ali on Western air traffic control procedures. 

“He (Kherchtou) observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali, about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system,” then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald told a New York court. 

“And it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane perhaps belonging to an Egyptian president or something in Saudi Arabia.” 

That intelligence is in addition to information the FBI received in July 2001 from its Phoenix office that a large number of Arabs were training at U.S. flight schools and a briefing President Bush received in August of that year suggesting hijacking was one possible attack the al-Qaida might use against the United States. 

The September 1999 report, entitled “Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?” described suicide hijacking as one of several possible retribution attacks the al-Qaida might seek for a 1998 U.S. airstrike against bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. 

The report noted an al-Qaida-linked terrorist first arrested in the Philippines in 1995 and later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had suggested such a mission. 

“Ramzi Yousef had planned to do this against the CIA headquarters,” the report said. 

Bush administration officials have repeatedly said no one in government had imagined such an attack. 

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that ... they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday. 

The report was written by the Federal Research Division, an arm of the Library of Congress that provides research for federal agencies. 

“This information was out there, certainly to those who study the in-depth subject of terrorism and al-Qaida,” said Robert L. Worden, the agency’s chief. 

“We knew it was an insightful report,” he said. “Then after Sept. 11 we said, ’My gosh, that was in there.”’ 

Gannon said the 1999 report was part of a broader effort by his council to identify the full range of attack options of U.S. enemies. 

“It became such a rich threat environment that it was almost too much for Congress and the administration to absorb,” Gannon said. “They couldn’t prioritize what was the most significant threat.”