11 September 2001>News Stories> No Warnings Preceded Attacks

No Warnings Preceded Attacks
Experts Had No Indication of Terrorist Capabilities

Karen DeYoung . Washington Post . 11 September
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 8:40 PM

As recently as last Friday, the State Department issued a dire public warning of increased terrorist threats against U.S. citizens abroad, urging all Americans to "maintain a high level of vigilance" while traveling overseas. It was the broadest of at least 44 separate warnings made this year alone.

But there were no advisories about vigilance at home, and no specific indications of heightened domestic threats. A number of knowledgeable terrorism experts said today that they were unaware of any reports that terrorists were planning or were capable of carrying out anything resembling the sophisticated, simultaneous terrorist strikes that occurred in New York and Washington.

Now, as the government undertakes massive efforts to discover who perpetrated today's attacks and how they were accomplished, investigations will also examine whether the threat should, or could, have been anticipated.

Before today's airline attacks, the threats to the United States were perceived to come from elsewhere. In a lengthy assessment presented to the Senate in May, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh cited cyber-terrorism and the use of chemical, biological or radiological weapons as the greatest emerging terrorist threats to the United States. In a speech last month in Albuquerque, President Bush said that the "true threats" facing the United States came from weapons of mass destruction launched by rogue nations.

Security has been stepped up in recent months at the nation's military bases, and the Federal Aviation Authority has revised and broadened its airline and airport security regulations. New legislation has been proposed to tighten security at the nation's seaports. But these actions have come in response to general feelings that complacency could lead to vulnerability, rather than to any specific threat.

Yet many specialists and government officials believed that somewhere, sometime soon, another attack along the lines of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, or last year's attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen would be launched against a U.S. target.

Their concerns stem from the success of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in thwarting major terrorism plots. Dozens of North Africans have been arrested across Europe in recent months, all believed connected to the so-called Millennium bomb plot to hit numerous targets in the United States. The plot was uncovered when an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, was stopped with explosives in his car when he tried to cross the Canadian border into this country in late December, 1999.

Ressam, who was convicted in April of nine terrorism charges related to plans to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, has provided what U.S. authorities charge is a direct link to Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based Saudi expatriate who the United States has charged heads a loose international organization of anti-U.S. terrorist cells and ordered the 1998 embassy bombings.

Ressam testified in July against another one of the plotters, Mokhtar Haouri, in a bid for leniency in an upcoming sentencing. Ressam also led international authorities to Haydar Abu Doha, an alleged bin Laden lieutenant currently under arrest in Britain, whose extradition was requested last week by the United States.

The assumed or proven mastermind of most major terrorist threats against the United States, Bin Laden has also been the subject of early speculation about today's attacks. "It's hard not to draw that connection" with bin Laden based on the Rassam case, the embassy bombings and other credible reports," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and head of the RAND office in Washington.

But bin Laden is far from the only suspect. "The trouble is that in the firmament of the Middle East, it's very hard to say with any sort of certainty," he said.

In response to what the United States believes has been credible information about possible terrorist attacks, U.S. embassies around the world have been closed at least temporarily on 68 occasions since 1968, including two weeks ago in Romania and Bulgaria. Travel warnings for U.S. citizens, either to avoid specific threats against Americans or general unrest, are currently in effect for countries as far afield as Jamaica, Bangladesh, Mali, Israel, Papua New Guinea, Kirgizistan, the Philippines and Belgium.

Last spring, FBI officials investigating the Cole bombing were evacuated from Aden, Yemen, after information was intercepted that they were about to be attacked. In July, the United States canceled joint military exercises in Jordan and put the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet out to sea following threat reports. In early August, Indonesian intelligence officials publicly warned of possible attacks against U.S. installations by separatist extremists.

Last Friday's "Worldwide Caution" alert from the State Department noted "increased risk" of terrorism from groups tied to bin Laden began with reports first received last May.

In separate alerts Friday, Americans living in Japan were warned to be on guard against possible terrorist attacks against U.S. military installations there and in South Korea, and U.S. citizens already urged to avoid Colombia were advised to be especially on guard because of last week's extradition to Miami of an alleged major drug cartel figure. Americans were also advised to steer clear of Italy during the upcoming NATO defense ministers meeting there, and to postpone travel to certain parts of Uganda where rebel fighting had spilled over from neighboring Rwanda.

Such warnings, Hoffman said, are so common that they risk being ignored by Americans traveling or living abroad. "It's plausible that some of these threats against specific stations [abroad] were diversions" to distract attention from a U.S. domestic plot, said James B. Steinberg, who served as deputy national security adviser to President Clinton.

He added that without specifics, it is difficult to judge many threats. The challenge, he said, is "to figure out where the trade-off is. You can be in Defcon 5 all the time," referring to the level of maximum security alert, "but it has impact on other values" in a free society. "And you can overwarn people and they begin not to take it seriously," Steinberg said. "One of the most thankless jobs in the world is deciding when do you shut things down."