The Irish Times
Wednesday, November 7, 2001
US strong on theory, weak on evidence
By Vincent Browne
The two most respected newspapers in America, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have carried stories in the last few days about the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on September 11th. The stories in both newspapers obviously have been based on briefings from what are known as "intelligence sources", mainly in the United States but also in Europe. Therefore they probably convey the extent of "official" knowledge of who the perpetrators were and from where they came.
The New York Times article of last Sunday identified Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian who had qualified as a city planner in Hamburg, as the ring-leader of the group. It said it was he and three others, who also died in the attacks, who chose the date of the atrocity, flew the planes, planned the whole operation and organised the logistics.
The newspaper reported how, in Las Vegas, they planned the assault, how the plot was devised in Hamburg two years ago, how there was "evidence" (unspecified) how the 15 Saudi hijackers (out of the total of 19) had spent "at least a year" in al-Qaeda training camps.
In showing any links with al-Qaeda or specifically with Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan, the report is at all times vague. It states that most of the hijackers - "perhaps all of them" - had spent time in Afghanistan, but there are no specifics. It quotes investigators as saying that their "best theory" is that the attack was "a franchise operation" - in other words that al-Qaeda is outsourcing suicide hijackings (some proposition!). It claims the operation "received the blessing" of al-Qaeda but "investigators say they do not know who in Osama bin Laden's organisation approved the operation".
It says investigators "suspect" half the $500,000 that funded the attack came from someone in the United Arab Emirates, who is believed to be an associate of bin Laden. They have no idea where the other half came from.
The Washington Post story of Monday said the cell responsible for the attack "had little if any contact with other al-Qaeda terror cells in Europe". It reports: "While Western investigators say they believe the September 11th plot was approved by al-Queda they continue to struggle to piece together its internal organisation." It goes on to record that investigators don't know what links there were between the terrorists and Afghanistan.
It reports intelligence officials as suggesting that al-Qaeda has developed "a multi-tiered hierarchy". And that "there is still no evidence of how many of the September 11th hijackers visited Afghanistan, although US intelligence officials have said Atta made the trip, possibly in 1997 or 1998". European officials say they believe it is likely that all the hijackers were either trained in Afghanistan or vouched for by one of a small group of al-Qaeda veterans". What all this amounts to is intelligence organisations in the US and Europe don't know whether the attack was carried out by al-Qaeda and certainly do not know whether the attack had anything to do with Afghanistan. There may be "suspicions" and theories but no hard evidence.
All of which raises a few questions. The first is: why is the US bombing the bits out of Afghanistan? Surely, at a minimum, before an entire country is terrorised by the kind of massive bombardment the people of Afghanistan have been subject to for a month today, there should be evidence of a direct link between what happened on September 11th and the country that is being devastated? Surely it is not enough that someone in Afghanistan gave their "blessing" to what happened. Surely there must be some direct and substantial involvement on the part of a major group in Afghanistan with what happened before such a bombardment could begin to be justified?
Perhaps Tony Blair knows more about the perpetrators of the attack than the intelligence organisations the two respected American newspapers talked to (also Jack Straw, who yesterday said the whole world now knows that al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, was responsible for the attack). If this is so, then surely Mr Blair and Mr Straw should be telling the intelligence organisations of what they know and The New York Times and The Washington Post should talk to them next time they report on who was responsible for the attacks.
But there is another question: if bin Laden and his chums in Afghanistan were not responsible for what happened or if they "outsourced" the operation, it means this other outfit (or what remains of it after September 11th) is still around and largely undisturbed.
George Bush, in a speech to central European leaders, yesterday, hinted at a real danger: that terrorist organisations may acquire or many have acquired nuclear weapons.
The former US Senator, Howard Baker, and a former White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, chaired a task force report on the dangers of the unauthorised proliferation of Russian nuclear weapons. It noted in its report in January last year: "Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, we have witnessed the dissolution of an empire having over 40,000 nuclear weapons, over 1,000 tonnes of nuclear materials, vast quantifies of chemical and biological weapons materials and thousands of missiles".
It stated: "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the untied States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen or sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against American troops broad or citizens at home".Would you think the war on Afghanistan is likely to diminish or increase that threat?