The controversy raging in the US over whether warnings about potential terror attacks by Al-Qaeda were ignored before 11 September hardly comes as a surprise. What is far more serious - and has yet to be properly investigated - is why two successive administrations took a series of ultimately disastrous political decisions concerning Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and its backers, the Taliban regime.
Since the hijackings, criticism has tended to be directed at the US intelligence agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), rather than the administration of US President George W. Bush or that of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. However, as more evidence emerges about the type of intelligence which was available - and those who had access to this material, but failed to make use of it - the politicians are going to have to answer some very awkward questions.
While it could be argued that there have been intelligence failures, the more critical issue is why there was such a determination on the part of both administrations to avoid any serious action against the Al-Qaeda network or the Taliban. As JID revealed last year, Russia's intelligence services had been extremely active in using their extensive operations in and around Afghanistan to build up a very detailed blueprint of the Taliban regime, its close links with the Al-Qaeda organisation and the extent to which both were actively supported by the Pakistani military and the Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI). The Russian permanent mission to the United Nations provided a report on this subject to the UN Security Council on 9 March 2001 (see JID 5 October 2001).
However, it is becoming clear that this was only the most high profile of a number of attempts by the Russians to alert the US and other members of the Security Council to the extent of the inter-dependence between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the ISI. According to JID's Russian sources, there was a regular flow of information from Moscow to the US dating back to the last years of the Clinton presidency.
It seems apparent, however, that although this intelligence was being received by the CIA and other US agencies, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm within political - as opposed to military - circles for the launch of pre-emptive strikes against either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
However, given the detailed intelligence being provided by the Russians - and the fact that Bin Laden was making very clear threats to launch further strikes against US targets - it seems bizarre, to say the least, that no high-level political decision was taken to focus US intelligence efforts on Al-Qaeda and its international network, particularly following the bomb attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour, Yemen, in October 2000.
Copyright ŠJane's Intelligence Digest 2002. For fair use only
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