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A Failure of Intelligence?

To understand why Americans did not recognize the true threat posed by the terrorists of al-Qaeda before September 11, consider the following exchanges. They are quoted from the transcripts of the testimony of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, the prosecution’s first witness in the trial for the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa on August 7, 1998. Al-Fadl was questioned about chemical weapons that were allegedly made in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

Q. Are you familiar with a section in Khartoum called Hilat Koko?
A. Yes.
Q. Did you ever travel to the section of Khartoum called Hilat Koko with any member of al Qaeda?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. Who did you go with?
A. I remember one time I went with Abu Rida al Suri, and one time I went with Abu Hajer al Iraqi.
Q. Anyone else?
A. And one time I went with—
Q. We will go through that name. M-U-Q-A-D-E-M. Is that a name or a title?
A. No, a title. He got one eagle and one star.
Q. Does that mean he is an officer?
A. Yes, he is in the army.
Q. In which army?
A. Sudanese army.
Q. His name?
A. Yes. Abdul Baset Hamza.
Q. Tell us about the time you went to Hilat Koko with Abu Hajer al Iraqi, what you discussed.
A. I learn that in this building they try to make chemical weapons with regular weapons.
Q. Can you explain what you mean by chemical weapons with regular weapons.
A. I remember another guy, he explain more to me about this.
Q. Who was that?
A. Amin Abdel Marouf.
Q. What did Amin Abdel Marouf explain to you?
A. He say the war between the government and the Sudan and the rebels in south Lebanon, it’s like 30 years, and always the rebels during the rain time, they took the Sudanese army to north, and he say if we use weapons like that, it easy for us to win.
Q. Was there a war going on in the south of Sudan?
A. Yes.
Q. That was between who and whom?
A. Between Islamic National Front, they run the government, and John Garang group.
Q. Returning to your conversation with Abu Hajer al Iraqi, did he discuss with you who it was that was trying to make the chemical weapons in the area there of Hilat Koko?
A. He tell me the al Qaeda group try to help Islamic National Front to do these weapons, to make these weapons. [italics added]

Q. There came a time you talked about when you went to Hilat Koko in Khartoum, remember that time?
A. Yes.
Q. And you went there with Salim, didn’t you?
A. Yes.
Q. And when you went there, you were going to a place where they were making chemical weapons, right?
A. Yes, that’s what I told—they told me.
Q. And that’s what you believed?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you know what chemical weapons are used for?
A. No.
Q. Do you know that they’re used to kill people?
A. They say they use it with regular weapons, that’s what I hear.
Q. What?
A. They use it with regular weapons.
Q. With regular weapons?
A. Yes.
Q. What did they mean when they said they use it with regular weapons?
A. I really I have no idea about what they mean.
Q. Okay. So I’m asking you, do you know that chemical weapons are used to kill people?
A. Yes, that’s what I hear from them.
Q. You know that, for example, they use gas to kill people, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And whoever is in the area where that gas goes runs the risk of being killed?
A. Yes.
Q. And when you went there with Mr. Salim—by the way, what year was that?
A. Maybe during ‘93.
Q. During?
A. ‘93 or early ‘94.
Q. When you went there with Mr. Salim, did you say to him, this is a terrible thing, let’s not get involved in chemical weapons production?
A. No, I didn’t tell him that.
Q. Did you say, I refuse to get involved in chemical weapons production, I quit al Qaeda?
A. No.
Q. Just went about your business, right?
A. Yes.

A native of Sudan, al-Fadl had lived in Saudi Arabia and the United States before leaving for Pakistan in the late 1980s to join the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and fight against the forces of the Soviet Union. By his own testimony, he became a member of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization sometime in 1989–1990 in the Afghan city of Khowst and was one of the first to join it. At the end of 1990, bin Laden and the organization, including al-Fadl, moved to Sudan, attracted by its proximity to the Arab world and the group’s developing relations with the National Islamic Front (NIF) government that had come to power there. Again by his own account, al-Fadl fled Sudan in 1996 after bin Laden discovered that he had been pocketing commissions on the sales of goods imported by one of the Saudi’s businesses. He approached a number of countries with information about bin Laden and Sudan, and eventually walked into an American embassy—the location has not been disclosed—and announced that he had information about impending terrorist attacks.

His initial debriefings, conducted by officials who were not identified at the trial but were presumably intelligence officers, lasted three weeks. He was later interviewed as well by FBI and Justice Department officials. Eventually, he was brought to the United States, entered a plea agreement with the Justice Department for his terrorist activities, and was put in the Witness Protection Program. Al-Fadl’s appearance beginning on the second day of the trial in New York marked the high point of interest in the proceedings. Reports about it appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the major television networks, and many of America’s other leading newsgathering agencies.1

According to Sudanese exiles, including some who had served in the government, Hilat Koko, the neighborhood described by al-Fadl, is in the northern part of Khartoum, where the country’s National Security Agency maintains a large compound. Abu Hajer al-Iraqi is an alias used by Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a top lieutenant of bin Laden’s who was arrested in Germany in 1998 while apparently seeking to procure components for weapons of mass destruction. From information that emerged at the embassy bombings trial and from his indictment, it appears that Salim had several responsibilities in al-Qaeda, ranging from lecturing recruits on the doctrinal basis for killing civilians in jihad to managing the group’s finances and unconventional weapons program. Germany extradited Salim to the US, and he was charged with several crimes in the same indictment as the embassy bombers, though his case was separated from the first group of conspirators who were tried this year. On September 11, 2001, Salim was six days away from the beginning of a separate trial in federal court in lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center. That case did not relate to the terrorism charges but subsequent ones lodged after Salim, in an escape attempt, allegedly put out the eye of a prison guard using a sharpened comb.

Al-Fadl’s testimony provides partial, but nonetheless striking, corroboration of the Clinton administration’s 1998 claim that al-Qaeda was involved in producing chemical weapons in Khartoum. Evidence of that activity included a soil sample that showed the presence of the chemical O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or EMPTA, which is produced near the completion of the process to synthesize the nerve agent VX. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded in an assessment that there was no other reason, including an accident, for this “precursor” to be present in the quantity demonstrated in this particular soil sample, except in connection with the production of VX. This information, together with intelligence showing that the bin Laden network had set in motion other terrorist conspiracies against the US, led President Clinton to authorize a cruise missile attack against Khartoum on August 20, 1998, thirteen days after the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

The target of that attack was not the Hilat Koko compound but the al-Shifa chemical plant, located a few miles away and the site where the CIA’s soil sample was collected. Al-Fadl’s testimony thus raises the possibility that the United States struck the wrong target when it hit al-Shifa—something that some Sudanese opponents of the National Islamic Front regime argued after the 1998 missile attack. While acknowledging that they were not privy to all NIF weapons activities, they were, they said, suspicious of other plants as well. But the high level of EMPTA in the soil sample at al-Shifa cannot be disregarded. EMPTA could have been synthesized at one of the two sites and then transferred to the other for storage or for completing the chemical process for producing VX and incorporating it in weapons. In view of al-Fadl’s testimony and the chemical analysis of the soil sample, the most plausible explanation is that both plants were involved and thus appropriate targets.

The most astonishing aspect of al-Fadl’s testimony about Hilat Koko is the reaction it elicited: none. In the news stories that followed al-Fadl’s testimony, much attention was paid to his description of how al-Qaeda is organized, bin Laden’s denunciations of America, and a murky effort by al-Qaeda to buy a cylinder of uranium for $1.5 million. (The cylinder, two to three feet long and with markings indicating South African origin, was being sold by a senior Sudanese military officer. Al-Qaeda sent al-Fadl to make contact with the officer and conduct a preliminary inspection of the material. His part in the transaction, however, ended before money changed hands, and he did not know whether the group actually bought the cylinder.) But no newspaper gave serious attention to the testimony about chemical weapons, which must have taken several minutes on each of two days—and the issue resurfaced in another cross-examination of al-Fadl later in the trial and in closing arguments.2

The omission is telling because it underscores how thoroughly journalists were by this time ignoring the issue of chemical weapons production in Khartoum, probably because the August 20 strike in Khartoum came to be regarded as the greatest foreign policy blunder of the Clinton presidency. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, reporters have returned to al-Fadl’s testimony as though it were a sacred text on al-Qaeda, using it as the basis for numerous articles on the organization. Still, no one has mentioned the testimony about chemical weapons.

Apart from establishing that al-Qaeda seeks and may possess chemical weapons—it cannot be ruled out that they indeed have VX nerve gas produced in Khartoum—does this testimony matter? Yes, because it shows that both the evidence discovered at al-Shifa and the attacks themselves should have been taken far more seriously. The information collected by US intelligence strongly suggested that the terrorists were preparing for extensive killing and were seeking extremely destructive weapons to achieve that goal. Press coverage of that evidence was not merely skeptical but plainly dismissive. Congress was largely silent about the administration’s case concerning chemical weapons at al-Shifa, and those members who were not exploited the doubts about the missile strike for partisan reasons.

  1. 1

    Al-Fadl provided prosecutors with so much detailed information that they asked him, at the beginning of the trial, to provide jurors with a general account of bin Laden’s organization as it developed over six years. During the trial, some of the details he provided were contradicted by succeeding witnesses. In view of the high degree of “compartmentalization” practiced by al-Qaeda, and the large number of people in its network, this is not surprising.

  2. 2

    We have found only two passing mentions in the press of chemical weapons, the first during al-Fadl’s testimony, the second after the cross-examination. Colum Lynch wrote in The Washington Post of February 8, 2001, “The testimony appeared to be aimed at supporting the government’s contention that bin Laden’s group—known as al Qaeda, Arabic for ‘the Base’—planned terrorist acts and sought to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons in a crusade to drive American forces out of the Islamic world. But US weapons experts cautioned that there is no evidence that Sudan or al Qaeda has ever possessed nuclear materials.” Benjamin Weiser, in The New York Times of February 21, 2001, reported that al-Fadl “testified that there was moving of weapons and explosives and attempts to buy uranium and to get chemical weapons.”

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