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.

To those within the US government, including the present writers, who served at the time on the National Security Council staff, the attacks on the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998, were a turning point. No previous terrorist operation had shown the kind of skill that was evident in the destruction, within ten minutes, of two embassy buildings hundreds of miles apart. The number of people killed was comparable to the most lethal attacks in the past—241 were killed in the Beirut barracks in 1983—and the violence of the African bombings was unprecedented in being so indiscriminate. In addition to the 224 dead, many of whom were African Muslims, roughly five thousand people were injured. A general rule of terrorist operations has been to avoid harming those who might sympathize with the cause. These attacks dramatically departed from that rule.3

After a terrorist attack, a torrent of intelligence typically arrives in Washington, as members of the group responsible contact one another to discuss their accomplishments and US intelligence officials step up their pressure on sources for information. After the August 7 bombings, al-Qaeda sent faxes declaring its responsibility for the attacks to media organizations in France, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Searches of residences and businesses belonging to al-Qaeda members in London turned up claims of responsibility by “the Islamic Army for the liberation of the Holy Places,” a fictitious group.4 These clear indications of the involvement of bin Laden and his organization deepened the sense among government officials that the practice of terrorism had changed in important ways.

Bin Laden’s involvement moved him instantly to the top of the list of terrorist threats to America. A subject of US concern for several years, bin Laden had funded terrorist training camps in Sudan and, through use of his considerable financial resources on behalf of Sudan’s National Islamic Front, had obtained both government protection and support for his terrorist operations. That led Washington to press Khartoum to expel him, an effort that succeeded in 1996. But no responsibility for any terrorist attack had yet been definitively attributed to him. His fatwa of February 23, 1998, calling on “every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it,” had drawn the attention of counterterrorism experts because of its distinctively religious tone and sweeping goals of driving the US out of the Arabian peninsula and its “armies out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.” The Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks showed bin Laden to be a man of his word.

In addition to the signs of bin Laden’s responsibility in the intelligence after the bombings, the CIA found in the “take” credible information showing that other al-Qaeda conspiracies were nearing completion. (Later that August, Albanian secret police working with US intelligence broke up a plot to bomb the American embassy in Tirana. Concern about such an attack had been so strong that “some 200 Marines, 10 Navy Seals and a number of plainclothes security men”5 evacuated most of the embassy compound. Other embassies around the world also were shut down for varying periods of time because of threat information.) The destruction in East Africa showed that underestimating bin Laden’s ability or desire to carry out additional attacks would be a serious mistake. The White House decided that it was imperative to disrupt the terrorists’ operations and preempt possible attack, including through military means.

Adding urgency to that effort were intelligence reports indicating that al-Qaeda terrorists were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Briefing reporters immediately after the attack on Khartoum, a senior intelligence official laid out the following points:

First, we know that bin Laden has made financial contributions to the Sudanese military industrial complex. [Actually, the Sudanese Military Industrial Corporation.] That’s a distinct entity of which we believe the Shifa pharmaceutical facility is part.

We know with high confidence that Shifa produces a precursor that is unique to the production of VX.

We know that bin Laden has been seeking to acquire chemical weapons for use in terrorist acts.

We know that bin Laden has had an intimate relationship with the Sudanese government which is a state sponsor of terrorism.

We know that bin Laden has worked with Sudan to test poisonous gasses and to finance simpler methods of manufacturing and dispensing gas, methods which would be less time consuming and expensive than prior Sudanese efforts.

Even though he left Sudan in 1996, we know that bin Laden’s businesses acquire restricted, high priced items for the Sudanese military including arms, communications, and dual use components for chemical and biological weapons.

With regard to the question you raised to the Secretary, why did we do this today? Obviously we felt the information was compelling. We wanted to act quickly. We had compelling evidence, indeed we have ongoing evidence that bin Laden’s infrastructure is continuing to plan terrorist acts targeted against American facilities and American citizens around the world.

Responding to a question, the official added, “We know he has had an interest in acquiring chemical weapons. We know that he himself has talked about thousands of deaths.”6

Experts from the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon drew up a list of potential targets for a US military strike and made recommendations. The final selections of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the al-Shifa plant were made by the “principals committee,” as the national security cabinet is known, and forwarded to President Clinton. Within the small circle of officials who knew of the plans, some felt uneasy. A decision to attack another country is rarely made on the basis of clandestine intelligence, and the United States does not normally pursue a strategy of preempting threats militarily.7 Yet the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns. The principals committee recommended unanimously that al-Shifa be attacked, and Clinton approved the strike.

The decision to bomb the terrorist camps in Afghanistan seems, on the whole, to have been readily accepted by the American press and public, even though the Tomahawk missiles arrived shortly after the al-Qaeda leadership departed. The response to al-Shifa was entirely different. Reporters had heard the conclusions of government officials quoted above, conclusions based on sensitive intelligence, most of which was, at least initially, unavailable to the press. The intelligence agencies and the government generally were reluctant to expose valuable sources and methods that had informed the decision to attack the plant. But confronted by contrary claims from the Sudanese government and from people who had some acquaintance with al-Shifa, the journalists declined to accept the statements of US intelligence officials.

Determined to build up public support for its actions, Clinton administration officials decided to reveal some of the intelligence. This did not win them any converts. Intelligence is always incomplete, typically composed of pieces that do not fit precisely together and are subject to competing interpretations. By disclosing the intelligence, the administration was asking journalists to make connections between pieces of evidence, to construct a picture that would account for all the disparate information. In response, reporters cast doubt on the validity of each piece of the information provided and thus on the administration’s case for the attack on al-Shifa.

One of the first aspects of the attack to be criticized was the plant’s alleged link to bin Laden. As the senior intelligence official who briefed reporters had noted, al-Shifa was part of a larger entity run by the Sudanese government, the Military Industrial Corporation, in which bin Laden himself had a financial interest. Al-Fadl confirmed in his testimony that bin Laden had during his time in Sudan built up a sizable group of businesses, including a bank, construction firm, agricultural and import-export companies, and a tannery. He had also developed close ties to the National Islamic Front government, even helping it target opponents for assassination. When no deed of ownership for al-Shifa with bin Laden’s name on it was produced—hardly surprising—reporters complained that the bin Laden connection to Sudan had not been shown convincingly. This put the administration in a bind: to reveal its intelligence, whether from communications intercepts, informants, or other clandestine means, would destroy its ability to continue collecting intelligence, and it would expose American methods to others around the world. In a country in which bin Laden continued to have deep roots, officials strongly believed, it would have been irresponsible to reveal more.

The next line of attack regarded the famous soil sample. The CIA had been reluctant to publicize how it had established that materials associated with chemical weapons were present at al-Shifa. It knew that if it revealed the soil sample, it could endanger the operative who obtained it and make it impossible for him ever to collect such a sample again. Moreover, the Sudanese (and other chemical weapons producers around the world) would immediately increase security at chemical plants, further damaging the ability of the US to collect samples. Still, once the sample was openly discussed, no amount of explanation would suffice. Some observers argued that the sample’s chain of custody was improper, implicitly rejecting the notion that intelligence operations typically are not and cannot be conducted according to the standards of judicial proof. A single operative with a bag of soil in Sudan would be hard-pressed to prove that there was no possibility it was tampered with while in his control.

Still others contended that analyzing the soil sample at only one laboratory was scientifically unacceptable and that the chemical found could hypothetically have been a derivative of pesticide production. But the CIA’s analysis, about which reporters were told on August 24, 1998, showed that EMPTA had no commercial use anywhere in the world. This conclusion was never refuted, but it was also widely ignored.8 The officials who spoke with reporters also noted that Iraqi weapons scientists had been linked to al-Shifa, and this Iraqi connection was independently underscored by UN weapons inspectors.9 Again, this conclusion was never refuted but it was also widely ignored. (As more of the intelligence was revealed to reporters, the joke circulated among National Security Council staff members that the government was performing the dance of the seven veils but the press was administering death by a thousand cuts.)

Amid all these charges, senior officials, in explaining the decision to attack al-Shifa, made errors that hurt their own case. Although the CIA knew that al-Shifa produced pharmaceuticals, cabinet officials and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, who had been referring to it simply as a chemical plant, never got that information and were caught flatfooted when confronted with it.10 The same officials also initially said that al-Shifa was involved in producing chemical weapons when the intelligence only demonstrated the presence of EMPTA, not actual manufacture of nerve gas weapons. These misleading statements were taken as further confirmation of administration incompetence and even malfeasance.

It was not surprising that such errors reinforced skepticism among reporters, but administration officials, who were still concentrating on the destruction in East Africa, were taken aback by the press’s refusal to accept the details of the government’s case. As a result, the administration’s conclusion that the nation was genuinely threatened, and that the nature of the threat justified measures such as the bombing, was ignored. Perhaps the most telling example of the coverage was provided by the New York Times headline on a September 21, 1998, story by Tim Weiner and James Risen: “Decision to Strike Factory in Sudan Based on Surmise Inferred from Evidence.” They wrote,

Senior officials now say their case for attacking the factory relied on inference as well as evidence that it produced chemical weapons for Mr. bin Laden’s use. And a reconstruction of how the “small group” and the President picked the bombing targets, based on interviews with participants and others at high levels in the national security apparatus, offers new details of how an act of war was approved on the basis of shards of evidence gleaned from telephone intercepts, spies and scientific analysis.

In fact, the attack was based on more than “surmise”; and more than “shards” of evidence were involved. Inference was indeed used; but its adequacy—indeed, necessity—as a mode of reasoning was something that was never accepted.

Further confusion arose over a lawsuit by Salah Idris, the officially listed owner of the al-Shifa plant, against the US Treasury, which froze his assets following the bombing. When the Treasury released the assets several months later, US officials said that the government was not prepared to reveal additional important intelligence in court. The officials argued that if they had revealed their full knowledge of the financial relationships between bin Laden, the Military Industrial Corporation, and al-Shifa, they would have destroyed their ability to gather intelligence again about these and similar matters. But their statements went virtually unreported, and the Treasury’s action was taken as a concession that the US had hit the wrong target.

At the same time, discussion of al-Shifa became obsessively focused on one trumped-up issue, publicized by Seymour Hersh in an article in The New Yorker in which he attributed to others a point for which he had no proof: “Some reporters questioned whether the President had used military force to distract the nation’s attention from the Lewinsky scandal.”

Clinton’s grand jury appearance occurred three days before the August 20 attack, and all considerations of American security were swept aside in the discussion, both on talk radio and network television, of whether al-Shifa was a case of “wag the dog.” In Congress, Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican moderate from Pennsylvania, declared, “The president was considering doing something presidential to try to focus attention away from—from his own personal problems,” a sentiment that was echoed by others. Hersh’s article—largely a string of blind quotes—concluded with remarks about the President from an unnamed “State Department veteran”: “Survival is his most important issue. It’s always on his mind. If Clinton was not in all this trouble, he wouldn’t have done it [authorized the Tomahawk raids]. He’s too smart.”

In the midst of such comments, hardly anyone asked what should have seemed obvious questions: Why would a president determined to “wag the dog” attack two targets when one would do? There are few more damaging events for any administration than a failed or unpopular military strike.11Why would officials risk an embarrassing failure if they weren’t absolutely convinced of the necessity of the action? Would an entire national security team—including Republican Secretary of Defense William Cohen and career military officers—really collude in such a crass maneuver, one that cost a guard at al-Shifa his life? What was never debated was whether a national leader confronted with the information that Clinton received could afford not to act.

Perhaps, in retrospect, the administration should have tried other tactics to get reporters and the public to better understand the intelligence justifying the attack and to respect the need to keep part of it secret. After President Clinton gave an Oval Office address about the strikes on August 20, his advisers followed the well-established practice of passing the task of public explanation of the details to the cabinet and senior White House officials. Some would argue that Clinton should have continued to argue strongly in defense of the attack on al-Shifa, revealing some of the evidence in forceful speeches. In view of the tenor of reporting on the issue, we can doubt whether this would have made a difference.

The dismissal of the al-Shifa attack as a blunder had serious consequences, including the failure of the public to comprehend the nature of the al-Qaeda threat. That in turn meant there was no support for decisive measures in Afghan- istan—including, possibly, the use of US ground forces—to hunt down the terrorists; and thus no national leader of either party publicly suggested such action. In the months ahead, there will be efforts in Congress and elsewhere to evaluate the failure of America’s intelligence agencies in not detecting and acting against the conspiracy of September 11. As part of that examination, we should look back into the events of the 1990s and consider the shortcomings of both the government and those who reported on it.

These inquiries will be important for American efforts to counter terrorism in the years ahead, and, in particular, to inform the public about how intelligence is used by policymakers. After the East Africa attacks, the CIA, working with other intelligence services, disrupted a number of terrorist cells and foiled attacks. These operations occurred in countries whose leaders view al-Qaeda as a grave threat to their regimes but are justifiably fearful of disclosing their cooperation with the US. Such intelligence operations will continue to be an important means of preventing attacks against Americans, and we may again find it necessary to attack a terrorist site or strike a facility related to weapons of mass destruction. Unless the American press and public have a better understanding of the role of intelligence and the legitimate need to protect the sources and methods that make intelligence-gathering possible, the difficulties in defeating the new terrorism will be greatly multiplied.

This Issue

December 20, 2001