Avoiding domestic politics while analyzing the terrorist threat facing America has been a major paradigm in my longstanding search for answers. But in an election year, the American political culture surrounds one with pitfalls and land mines no matter what your subject is about. This is why I believe that the 9/11 hearings of today were floating in dangerous waters. National security was unfortunately simmered with a dressing of Presidential wars. Something this generation of Americans has not escaped yet, despite the tragedy of September 11.
It is sad to admit that, while Jihad is on rampage worldwide, most of the political establishment of the greatest nation on Earth is sinking in perturbing confusion. Not new in History. Constantinople, Alexandria and Carthage had a similar problem, though they all sank in it and were lost forever. One would pray that the modern world's Rome, Washington, doesn't inflict the same fate on itself.
The 9/11 Commission could have transformed the country into an adult nation, if the debate had concentrated on the investigation of the real root causes that allowed the jihad terrorists to massacre thousands of Americans on that fatal morning of September 2001. As someone who is the product of a smaller community that underwent similar tribulations some 29 years ago, I have a slight advantage on my fellow American citizens, for I had a quarter century of additional experience with terrorism.
Back in East Beirut, I was a few hundred feet away from the explosion of the first car bomb in history. I saw bodies falling back onto the ground, and witnessed the first step that started the long trail of bloodshed leading to Ground Zero. When I talk about terrorism in America, I can say I have met its ancestor in the Middle East.
What I missed in my experiences in Lebanon, I have had the unfortunate but vital opportunity to experience in this great land, for America is a country that is looking for answers and searching for truth after the massacre. Americans need to know what happened on 9/11, why it happened, who did it, and who let it happen.
For more than a decade, I felt I was a voice in the wilderness, warning whomever I could reach that the Jihadists were marching towards this country. Throughout the 1990s, year after year, I saw the attacks unfolding, and the American government struggling with how to respond.
I observed the clouds gathering in Khartoum in 1992, when terrorists from all walks of life were assembled by Hassan Turabi to consult on the next world target. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hizbollah and those men who would later form al Qaida were sitting shoulder to shoulder with Mujahideen from Chechnia to Algeria. On the menu: how to defeat the United States.
I read about these meetings by purchasing the daily Arabic al Hayat, in subtropical Miami. But the mainstream press in Washington missed what was to come. The holy war machinery was moving, while America slept tight.
Twelve years later, and after 16 hours of hearings by two secretaries of state, two secretaries of defense, national security advisers and an angry former Terrorism Czar, the alpha of post Soviet Terrorism was not even mentioned. “We started to hear about al Qaida around 1994,” said Richard Clarke. “Err, I began to know about them around 1996,” admitted former secretary Madeleine Albright. In the MSNBC studios where I was glued on the TV screen, I sat in disbelief. This country was at war and it didn't even know?
For one minute, I imagined why Osama Bin Laden chose to attack head-on. Simple! He must have realized that the foreign policy and security establishments of the “greater Satan” were living on another planet. After the first Twin Towers attacks in New York in 1993 and the Khobar Towers operation in 1996, Washington sends in the FBI for forensics. The same year, the Taliban takes over Kabul, and al Qaida forms training camps around that poor country. The US dispatches the diplomats to Riyadh instead for mediation. “The infidels are intimidated,” Usama Bin Laden told Western journalists the following year. “Their soldiers can't fight, their Government is on the run,” asserted the commander of the believers on al Jazeera later. His ambition became unstoppable. Ironically, he had the courtesy to inform the United States of his intention.
On February 22, 1998, the bearded man declared war. The Clinton administration obviously didn't hear this declaration. In August, Bin Laden’s organization destroyed two American embassies in East Africa. This time, the White House had to respond. The world was watching its leading power flexing muscles in Bosnia to defend others and was wondering why Washington wasn't using its power to protect its own citizens. Two missiles landed on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and thirty Tomahawks dug the rocks of Afghanistan.
The Taliban readied themselves for the encounter with the Marines but no marching orders were issued across the Potomac. Mullah Omar and Sheikh Bin Laden barely believed the no-show. “It must be the hand of Allah!” they must have thought.
“After their diplomats, let's test their military.” In 2000, the USS Cole was hit in Yemen. This time, neither the Seals were deployed nor the Cruise missiles were fired. “The international situation could have gotten complicated,” theorized Secretary Albright at the hearings. “We should not be emotional,” rationalized Secretary Cohen. “We had no compelling evidence,” said Dick Clarke. Yeah, that works in hearings in a Washington forum, four years after. But one year later, three planes led by Mohammed Atta slammed into the twin towers and the Pentagon, killing three thousand Americans.
At the 9/11 hearings, Senator Kerrey intelligently wondered how al Qaida operatives crossed “all layers of American defense.” In an attempt to answer his commission, the representatives of the two Administrations clashed with each other to explain whose fault it was.
But the truth is not so difficult to understand. Al Qaida did not force its way onto our mainland; it was invited in. The long and astonishing chain of missed rendezvous between Uncle Sam and the neo-Wahabis during the 1990s compelled the Jihadists to pay us a visit at home. Actually they came to visit us again, after the first arrival of 1993. For anyone who understands the terrorists’ mind, that was the logical consequence of a lost decade.
The problem was that our policy establishment of the 1990s had no expertise in Jihadism. “How would you know what’s on al Qaida’s mind,” said Secretary Albright at the hearings. That sentence alone should summarize the proceedings of the commission.
Al Qaida was marching towards our shores, but its steps were never heard in Washington. What the Commission must investigate in order to serve justice are the whispers that blocked the ears of the decision-makers. Only then, we would know who wanted America to sleep tight, while its enemies readied for the slaughter.
Dr. Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and an MSNBC Terrorism analyst. He can be reached at Phares@walidphares.com. His website is www.walidphares.com.