Could 9/11 have been prevented? In four crucial cases, mishandled intelligence, bureaucratic tangles and legal hurdles blinded the CIA and the FBI to clues right in front of them. Individually, none of these was a smoking gun. But combined they were a four-alarm fire. --By Mitch Frank
1 JAN. 7, 1995 -- OPERATION BOJINKA
In Manila, Philippine police bust a cadre of al-Qaeda members plotting to blow up 12 airplanes, a scheme they called Operation Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for explosion). On a test run, the co-conspirators had planted a small bomb on a Philippine Airlines flight that killed one passenger. Officials finger Ramzi Yousef--the wanted leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing--and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the plot's masterminds. An accomplice of Yousef's, Abdul Hakim Murad, who learned to fly at a U.S. flight school, tells interrogators he and Yousef discussed a plan to fly a small plane packed with explosives or a hijacked jumbo jet into the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters or into other American targets.
Bojinka was only one of several hints of potential attacks involving aircraft, yet U.S. intelligence did not give the idea serious consideration. Others included an attempt by Algerian terrorists to crash a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994. A foreign intelligence service told U.S. agents in 1998 of al-Qaeda plans to hijack a plane and bargain for the release of blind cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, who was in a U.S. prison for his role in the first World Trade Center attack.
WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED?
The intelligence community could have analyzed attacks al-Qaeda might attempt with planes and determined that recruiting qualified pilots was a major obstacle. FBI agents could have monitored aviation schools for possible Islamic extremists. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could have hardened cockpits and banned all blades from airplanes, as it did after 9/11.
2 JAN. 5, 2000 -- THE MALAYSIA MEETING
9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with Khallad bin Attash; they stay with Yazid Sufaat. Suspecting that al-Midhar and al-Hazmi are al-Qaeda members, the CIA monitors them there. From a third country, the CIA learns that al-Midhar's passport contains a U.S. visa. After a few days, the three men leave for Bangkok, where Thai intelligence agents lose them.
--Thai authorities tell the CIA in March that al-Hazmi flew to Los Angeles on Jan. 15. The CIA takes no action. Al-Hazmi and al-Midhar move to San Diego. Al-Midhar leaves in June for Yemen.
--In January 2001 the CIA realizes that bin Attash, by this time identified as a key figure in the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, was at the Kuala Lumpur meetings. But no effort is made to pick up the trail of al-Midhar and al-Hazmi.