British Prime Minister Tony Blair disclosed Thursday that he knows the identity of Usama bin Laden’s lieutenant who was responsible for the meticulous planning of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.
A 21-page dossier published by Downing Street reveals nuggets of secret intelligence information but admits that it falls short of a case prosecutable in a court of law.
While some details must remain secret to protect intelligence sources, the British government disclosed that the attacks on New York and Washington were planned by one of bin Laden’s “closest and most senior associates” .
Downing Street also revealed that bin Laden aides were given a deadline to return to Afghanistan for their own safety. From August this year, they were sent warnings that they had to return from wherever they were in the world by Sept. 10, the eve of the suicide attacks.
Intelligence agencies have briefed Blair that, just before Sept. 11, bin Laden boasted that he was preparing a major attack on America. The warning was only uncovered after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit. Just before Sept. 11, bin Laden associates were naming the date for action as “on or around Sept. 11,” Downing Street said.
The Government says that at least three of the hijackers have now been identified as associates of Al Qaeda.
It has emerged that one hijacker also played key roles in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and helped to blow up the USS Cole in Aden last year. Evidence blames bin Laden for these past atrocities.
The most tantalizing of 70 points of evidence comes close to the end, where the government claims: “There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release.”
One diplomatic surprise is that, as recently as June this year, the U.S. authorities were offering to help the Taliban to get rid of bin Laden and expel Al Qaeda’s terrorists from Afghanistan.
The dossier provides more questions than answers. A long account of bin Laden’s terrorist career emphasises a 1993 massacre of U.S. soldiers in Somalia, the embassy bombings in East Africa and the USS Cole attack. But there is hardly a mention of the previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, apart from a quotation from bin Laden that the bombers were “role models.” The possibility of a link between that and the September 11 attacks is not explored, even though some of those convicted for the first bombing were proven members of Al Qaeda.
Some will see a sinister motive behind this omission. The New York trial raised suspicions about Saddam Hussein’s possible involvement in the 1993 bombing. Blaming Iraq for the latest atrocity would be unhelpful to the present coalition that Blair and President Bush are trying to build.
Laurie Milroie, a former White House adviser, highlighted the omission from the document of the suspected meeting of Mohammed Atta with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before he flew to America to organise the suicide mission.
The dossier also fails to mention the arrests around Europe in the past weeks of terrorists suspected of plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris and NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. It ignores reported evidence from the Israeli Secret Service that Imad Mughniyeh, the Lebanese terrorist behind the kidnapping of Terry Waite, plotted the suicide hijackings. He is in Iran, which Jack Straw, Britain's Foreign Secretary, has been wooing to join the alliance against terrorism.
The dossier emphasizes that the September 11 World Trade Center attacks follow the modus operandi of a typical Al Qaeda mission: years of planning, repeated surveillance, a disregard for innocent lives including Muslims, suicide bombings, multiple simultaneous attacks and the failure to issue a warning. The dossier fails to examine, however, how the suicide squad used some of the same tactics as Mughniyeh.
It also fails to explore the similarity between the World Trade Center attacks and a 1994 attempt by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria to crash a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower.
There is no mention of a meeting between two hijackers, Khalid Al-Midhdar and Nawaf Alhazmi, with a key figure in Malaysia in January 2000, who helped to plan the USS Cole attack.
Intelligence experts are sceptical about Downing Street’s claim that “no other organization has the motivation and capability to carry out attacks like those of the 11 September.”
Blair’s official spokesman emphasized that the evidence was “of necessity incomplete” because the Government could not risk jeopardizing intelligence sources.