Steven Emerson-American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among
Feb. 26 — Are al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden our only threats when it comes to the war on terror? Not according to author Steve Emerson. He says the United States has become home to hundreds and probably thousands of terrorists, and it has become a central node in their international network. Read an excerpt of “American Jihad” to learn more about the threat from within.
HOW I MADE “JIHAD IN AMERICA” AND LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT
IN DECEMBER 1992 I was a staff reporter for CNN, covering what I consider one of the worst stories imaginable — a press conference for pool reporters.
In this case the conference was given by Lawrence Walsh, the former special prosecutor for the Iran-contra affair, who was issuing a statement in reaction to then-President George Bush’s pardon of former secretary of state Caspar Weinberger. It was the kind of situation where more than a dozen reporters ask the same question over and over, then go back and write the same story.
In short, I was bored. In Oklahoma City, I found myself with nothing to do on Christmas Day. As I walked around looking for a place to eat, I passed a large group of men dressed in traditional Middle Eastern clothing.
These men had congregated outside of the Oklahoma City Convention Center. I realized there was some kind of convention going on. Drawn to the scene, I wandered inside and found a bazaar of vendors hawking all kinds of radical material. There were books preaching Islamic “Jihad,” books calling for the extermination of Jews and Christians, even coloring books instructing children on subjects such as “How to Kill the Infidel.” It was a meeting of the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA), an umbrella group that included many smaller groups.
When I asked admittance to the main meeting hall, I was told that as a non-Muslim I couldn’t enter. But I found my way into a group of “recent converts” where I was befriended by a man who sponsored my admission. I ended up sitting through the entire program. It was a shocking experience. Given simultaneous translation by a jihadist next to me, I was horrified to witness a long procession of speakers, including the head of Hamas, Khalid Misha’al, taking turns preaching violence and urging the assembly to use jihad against the Jews and the West. At times spontaneous shouts of “Kill the Jews” and “Destroy the West” could be distinctly heard. I had heard such declamatory speakers many times in the Middle East, but it was astonishing to hear it all being preached here in a Middle American capital such as Oklahoma City.
I had some contacts in the FBI at this point and called one to see if he knew that all of this was going on. He said he didn’t. Even if the FBI had been cognizant, however, there wouldn’t have been much they could do about it, owing to the FBI’s mandate to surveil criminal activity and not simply hateful rhetoric.
Just how far behind the FBI had fallen in keeping abreast of these potentially dangerous subversive groups became clear a year later when I attended a five-day Muslim conference in Detroit in December 1993. This annual gathering featured speakers and representatives from some of the world’s most militant fundamentalist organizations, including Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and many others. After five days of listening to speakers urging Muslims to wage jihad, I was startled to hear that a senior FBI agent from the Detroit office would be making an unscheduled appearance on the program. Sure enough, the official showed up. After making some perfunctory remarks about civil rights, the official asked for questions from the visibly hostile audience. A series of scornful responses followed, including that of one audience member who asked, tongue in cheek, if the agent could give the group any advice on “shipping weapons” overseas to their friends. The FBI official said matter-of-factly that he hoped any such efforts would be done in conformance with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms guidelines.
Returning to Washington again, I asked FBI officials if they knew that their Detroit colleague had spoken at this radical gathering. They assured me it was impossible. After checking, however, they admitted within a few hours that their man had indeed been there, mistakenly thinking it was “some kind of Rotary Club.”
Are terrorists rooted within America’s borders?
February 26, 2002 — Terrorism expert Steven Emerson speaks with “Today” host Katie Couric about his book “American Jihad, the Terrorists Living Among Us.”
I soon learned that the FBI could do little or nothing to monitor such groups. Congressional restrictions imposed following disclosure in the 1970s of abuses by law enforcement and intelligence agencies had long since prevented the FBI from performing “blanket surveillance.” Investigations could only be done on particular individuals and then only if these individuals appeared to be in the act of committing a crime. Regulations, as former FBI official Oliver Revell has stated, forbade them from compiling even “open source” information — articles that appear in the newspaper, for instance — without receiving prior permission to open up an “investigation.” Indeed, individual FBI investigators could be personally sued for engaging in surveillance activities that went beyond these guidelines. Several agents had been the targets of such lawsuits and most FBI agents had become extremely wary of straying outside the lines. Even more significant, the FBI was particularly hamstrung if these groups operated under the auspices of “religious,” “civic,” “civil rights,” or “charitable” groups. This has provided cover for recruiting and fundraising by jihad warriors in the United States.
I was still working for CNN in 1993
when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred on February 26th. As the
story unfolded it became obvious that the whole plot had been hatched among
small terror cells in this country. I had heard an excess of explosive rhetoric
in Oklahoma City and other places where I had investigated militant
organizations. I was sure there must be some connection.
But I was faced with a difficult moral dilemma. I hadn’t started investigating anyone to any great degree. All I had at that point was a collection of books and pamphlets and promotional material by which these groups advertised themselves to a very select audience. I didn’t know whether it was all rhetoric or whether there was really substance to all this. I had a few videos showing that Hamas had definitely established itself in this country, but that was about it. Would I be risking my career by following up this story, in what might prove to be a wild goose chase?
I decided to take a proposal to
Richard Carlson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Already I was
thinking in terms of a video. I’m a print journalist by background but here was
a story that would be much easier to tell as a TV program. The most dramatic
material I was collecting was already in video form anyway. The training and
recruitment videos, the fiery speeches at mosques and conventions — it would be
hard to convey the bloodcurdling nature of this material except by letting it
speak for itself.
Carlson liked the idea and passed it up the line. Before long I was passed over to the Public Broadcasting System, the network subsidiary of CPB. I ended up dealing with Bob Coonrod and Ervin Duggan, who was then president of PBS. They were very enthusiastic but couldn’t generate much interest within the bureaucracy of PBS. Finally, Dugin took matters into his own hands and provided me with some research and development money.
And so in 1993 I left CNN to work full-time as an investigator of terrorist networks in the United States. I founded The Investigative Project, which has employed a shifting staff of from two to fifteen people. What we discovered is that, indeed, international terrorist organizations of all sorts had set up shop here in America. They often took advantage of religious, civic, or charitable organizations. Usually this was more than enough to fool the public, the police, and especially naive leaders of religious or educational institutions, who were more than willing to encourage and sponsor these groups in the name of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” Meanwhile, U.S.-based terrorists have been able to use these organizations to ferry equipment to Middle Eastern terror groups, to offer financial support to the families of suicide bombers, to coordinate efforts with other terrorist networks around the world, and ultimately to plan and support terrorist acts in the United States.
It took us a while to piece all this together. Going to conferences and collecting promotional material had its limits. We could attend mosque services, but much of them was in Arabic. Early on, I hooked up with a friend named Khalid Duran, and he began providing translation services for much of the written and video material. But it was slow going.
Then one day I found myself standing in a Yemeni grocery store in Brooklyn. I looked around and spotted dozens of copies of dusty videos that appeared to have something to do with commandos and rifles. I bought twenty different tapes — much to the astonishment of the store owner. When I got them into Khalid’s hands we realized we were looking at paramilitary training videos for the leaders of Islamic militant groups. One of them was put out by an organization called the Islamic Association for Palestine, in Richardson, Texas. To our horror, it showed the actual torment and forced “confessions” of Palestinian “collaborators” moments before they were executed.
We followed up this material by traveling to Texas, Florida, and New York to try to arrange interviews with the leaders of these groups. For the most part they were not very cooperative. We got very little footage. Slowly, however, we were beginning to accumulate enough material to put together a documentary.
Part of the task, I realized, would be tracing some of these organizations to their origins in the Middle East and beyond. I started in Israel. I had learned by this time that the first calls for worldwide jihad had come from Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian mullah who had set up a waystation in Peshawar, Pakistan for Muslim recruits who wanted to take part in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. One afternoon, riding around the West Bank in a taxicab, I was talking absentmindedly with my Palestinian driver when I mentioned Azzam. “Oh, his brother-in-law lives here just north of here,” the driver said. He gave me the name of the village of Jenin.
The next day I found another driver and headed for Jenin. All I had was Azzam’s name and the name of the village. When we got there and asked a few people, however, they quickly directed us to his house. Azzam was very gracious and immediately welcomed me in. He told me about his experience in Peshawar and about his brother-in-law. It was a strange encounter. At the time, Palestinian electricity was not very reliable and every ten minutes or so the lights would go out, plunging us into total darkness.
Azzam told me he had other relatives living in Chicago. When I got back to the United States, I called them up and arranged to visit one of Azzam’s nephews. Khalid came with me. We rendezvoused at a small Middle Eastern restaurant in Bridgeview, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago. The nephew was very gracious. He was not aware that I was collecting information and I didn’t make any attempt to misrepresent myself. I simply said I was interested in his family and anxious to write about them. He told me about Hudaifah, one of Abdullah’s sons, and said he was trying to hold together his father’s organization in Peshawar.
Later he took Khalid and me to the Bridgeview Mosque, where Jamal Said was the imam. I could tell immediately that we were deep in the heart of Hamas territory. The walls of the vestibule were covered with Hamas posters and recruiting literature showing masked gunmen brandishing automatic weapons. It was all in Arabic, but you could see daggers plunged into Jewish hearts wrapped up in American flags. They even had a library filled with militant terrorist videos and books. Khalid was there to translate for me. The Friday service was a rather strange experience. Out of eight hundred people, I was the only one wearing a red ski jacket. When the service was over I approached the imam and asked him if he had known Abdullah Azzam. He was very defensive. “I never met with him” he said quickly and then dismissed me. Earlier that year, two Hamas operatives, congregants of the mosque, were arrested in Israel for transferring money from the United States to terrorists on the West Bank. One of these men, Mohammad Jarad, told the Israelis that he was sent on his mission by Jamal Said.
“Jihad in America” was broadcast on November 21, 1994. It showed in the 10:00 P.M. slot on a Thursday night. Militant Islamic groups began to protest even before the show was aired. Several weeks before the showing, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a press release that a mosque in Brooklyn had been set on fire. The sub-title: “PBS ‘Jihad in America’ documentary may prompt more hate crimes.” The implication, of course, was that the violent backlash against Muslims — even a month before the film was to air — had already begun. (When police investigated the fire, they found that it had been set on a rug in an upstairs apartment — over an internal dispute.)
“Jihad in America” pulled together a fair representation of the material we had collected. We showed Hamas operatives and militant mullahs preaching jihad and violence “with the gun” against Israel and America. We didn’t show the torture and confessions of Palestinian collaborators — that would have been too inflammatory. The documentary continuously stressed the fact that militant Islamists are only a minute percentage of the Muslim population. Nevertheless, the film was attacked, and I was called a “crusader,” a “racist,” and just about everything else. To say it was disconcerting would be an understatement. I never anticipated the degree to which these groups were going to try to deny what was going on. They claimed that I was making it all up and that I had fabricated the tapes. I was also amazed at how far some prominent mainstream newspapers would do the same, some running several highly skeptical and critical editorials. Other newspapers simply used the tried-and-true method of being “even-handed.” On the one hand, Steve Emerson says militant Islamic groups are bringing jihad to America. On the other hand, Islamic groups deny it.
Despite all the skepticism, the fights, and the controversy, “Jihad in America” won the prestigious George Polk Award. It was also named the “best investigative reporting in print, broadcast or book” by the Investigative Reporters and Editors Organization. It won the National Headliner Award and the Chris Award as well.
Suddenly thrust into the public eye, I encountered situations I had never dealt with before. One night I was taking a cab back to my apartment from Reagan National Airport in Washington. I glanced at the front seat and saw an Arabic-language newspaper. On the front page was my picture with a bull’s-eye superimposed on it. I realized my life was going to be very different from then on.
Once I found myself at a Muslim convention where a speaker started shouting, “Steven Emerson is the enemy of Islam! Are we going to let Steven Emerson tell us what to do?” “No,” the crowd roared in response. I sat there sweating. Thankfully, I had altered my appearance. Even so, I was exceptionally nervous. Fortunately, no one noticed me.
Over the years The Investigative Project’s acquisition of materials has become quite sophisticated. We subscribe to more than a hundred radical periodicals a month and acquire hundreds more documents from sources, conventions, rallies, and other venues. We sustain a rigorous effort to collect video and audiotapes of radical Islamic groups and leaders in action. We have translators working full-time, and often send Arabic-speaking representatives to conventions and other gatherings, since this is the only way to understand fully what is going on. We have logged more than 6,000 hours of video and audiotapes and our electronic library is probably the most comprehensive in the world. We have compiled a database of some thousands of individuals who are known or suspected terrorists, or direct supporters of terrorists, as well as dossiers on scores of militant groups.
The Investigative Project built on its own momentum. We became a collection point. People started calling up and asking, “What do you know?” or “Do you know this?” We received countless tips. Most of them turned out to be bogus, but a few were incredibly fruitful.
Then the death threats began. It started in South Africa. A public television station in that country announced it was going to show “Jihad in America.” Radical Islamic groups immediately went to court and tried to block it. Much to our satisfaction, a South African court ruled in our favor. The show ran, with a good deal of pre-publicity.
A short time later I got an urgent call from the U.S. law enforcement officials. I was working in my Washington apartment. They told me to get in a taxi and come downtown immediately, making sure no one was following me. They gave me an address in Foggy Bottom. When I got there it turned out to be the offices of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (BDS), an arm of the State Department that deals largely with terrorism.
FBI and BDS officials quickly briefed me. After “Jihad in America” aired in South Africa, a militant Muslim group had taken offense. They had dispatched a team to assassinate me. The State Department and FBI had only found out recently; as far as they knew, which unfortunately was not a lot, the assassins had already entered the country. It was even possible they already had me under surveillance. The problem was that the FBI simply had no idea whether or not the militants had entered the country.
“What would you like to do?” they asked me.
“What can I do?” I asked.
Well, there wasn’t too much. One thing that was out of the question was round-the-clock police protection. That was too expensive. I was only a private citizen and it wasn’t in anybody’s budget. They would send a team of officers out to my apartment to discuss the options.
The next day a whole team came to my Connecticut Avenue condominium — FBI officials, federal counterterrorism experts, detectives from both the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police Departments — the latter being the guards of the Capitol area.
Here were the possibilities:
“You can stop what you’re doing, don’t write about it anymore, don’t say anything, don’t appear on television, and maybe after a while people will just forget about it.”
“We can see if the federal witness protection program can handle you. This will mean moving to a different city and assuming a new identity.”
“Maybe we can put you up in New York in a safe house for about a year. After that, you’re on your own.”
I was amazed. For years I had thought of myself as an observer, taking note of events, writing down notes, making reports, storing information for future reference. Now I was an active participant in one of my stories, and I wasn’t sure that I liked it.
I told them none of this sounded very appealing. I would think it over. Meanwhile, I was given one prop. They presented me with a collapsible mirror that I could carry around with me and use every time I got into my car to check to make sure a car bomb had not been attached to the underside of the engine. As any rational person would do under the circumstances, I used it quite a bit.
After thinking it over for a day or so, I made up my mind. I wasn’t going to give up investigating. I wasn’t going to move to New York. I wasn’t going to assume a new identity. But I would have to move out of my apartment and live underground for a while. This was not an easy decision. I had bought my condominium six years before — the first time I had owned my own home. I couldn’t buy anything new. It would take too long to sell the old one and I might have to be moving regularly anyway. I had to develop new habits. The D.C. Police Department parked a cruiser outside my house for fifteen hours a day while I was making arrangements. Even then I had to sleep somewhere else to be safe. I had about a week before I was on my own again.
The police taught me some techniques about living underground. Stay away from the windows. Vary your routine. The important thing is not to leave the house at the same time or take the same route to and from the office every day. When driving a car, make sure no one is following you. Do a quick U-turn every once in a while just to make sure. I did that many times.
“Be careful when you jog,” they said. That was a big problem. I love to jog. It’s my only opportunity to get outdoors and get my mind off things for a while. But jogging through Rock Creek Park at night promised maximum exposure. Now I had to develop a hundred different ways of leaving my apartment and winding through different streets in inconspicuous clothing in order to maintain my daily exercise. If I didn’t my health — and sanity — would probably collapse. It was trying and unnerving.
Along the way I had to decide whether this was all worth it. Did I really want to live this way? Couldn’t I just move on to another subject and be just as effective as an investigator and reporter? I weighed the idea for a long time. But there was a stubborn resistance in me. I didn’t like the idea of being intimidated. I’d be giving up an extremely good story. I honestly believed this was an important concern for everyone in the nation. I could see the momentum toward domestic terror building. I decided to go on.
One incident that severely affected the course of my reporting was the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995. That ended up being an albatross around my neck. Less than six hours after the bombing I was asked on television whether I thought militant Islamic groups were involved. There was good reason for thinking they might be. The bombing, after all, was in Oklahoma City, where I had first encountered such militant groups in 1992. Several Hamas operatives were known to be living in the Oklahoma City area. At first federal law enforcement officials were suspicious themselves.
When asked on a news program, I responded that “federal law enforcement officials” were investigating the possibility that militant Islamic groups were involved. This was true. I also said that “this [was] done with the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible” and that “this is not the same type of bomb that has been traditionally used by other terrorist groups in the United States other than the Islamic militant ones.” All this was interpreted as my saying point-blank that militant Muslim groups were involved.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council (AMC), and other organizations immediately took offense. Then when Timothy McVeigh was arrested and it turned out domestic terrorists were responsible, Muslim groups claimed they were the real victims. “Surge in hate crimes against Muslims,” was the story on the front page of The New York Times — based, I believe, entirely on unsubstantiated information fed to them by CAIR. The Boston Globe, The New York Times, ABC-TV, National Public Radio — even news outlets that had themselves originally reported that Muslims were among the suspects now took the position that I was the only one who had suggested this. I became persona non grata in many places, including at CBS, which had hired me less than twenty four hours after the bombing to be a consultant. They ended up blacklisting me for five years. Dan Rather contended, “It was Emerson who misled us.”
Still, the news media didn’t give up the story themselves. At one point Newsweek called up and said, “We’ll give you $10,000 to help write our cover story.” They were looking for a militant Muslim connection. “Save your money” I told them. “They didn’t do it.” As soon as the details of the McVeigh arrest emerged, it was obvious that he was responsible and had probably acted nearly alone. Up to that point I had suspected that Islamic radicals were involved. Now I realized I was wrong. I’ve never wavered from that since then, and I have refused to support the conspiracy theorists who insist that McVeigh himself was actually involved with Muslim groups. But to this day I regret my hasty comments.
Meanwhile, I continued to discover more information at the Investigative Project. People in law enforcement would regularly come to me with new data, records, and documents. The most disturbing were the calls I would get from federal law enforcement agents who had information and wanted to follow up, but were being prevented by their superiors who weren’t interested in these things. More and more, these disgruntled agents turned to us with information that they weren’t allowed to pursue themselves.
Our operations became more sophisticated and far-reaching. One of the unexplored mountains of evidence we inherited, for example, was the trial exhibits from the first World Trade Center bombing. Included were the records of thousands of phone calls made by the suspects to the Middle East and other parts of the world. We knew the individuals who were placing the calls, but we couldn’t tell who had received them. Yet it was obvious that this was the key to investigating how far the network of international terrorism had extended.
We divided the list of calls up country by country. Then, we engaged a number of Arabic speakers and started making cold calls. Every night at midnight — when the tolls were low and it was daylight on the other side of the world — we would begin dialing numbers in the Middle East. When someone picked up we would engage him in random, nondescript conversation. “How are you? How are things going? I’m calling from the U.S. Do you want to know what’s happening here?” One way or another we tried to get them to talk to us.
More than 49 out of 50 calls would be a dead end. The person answering would hang up or wouldn’t have any idea of what we were talking about. But that one in fifty proved to be a treasure trove of information. At one point we ended up talking to the son of blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the infamous Jersey City imam who plotted a day of terror for Manhattan. Another time we reached the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Little by little it became obvious that all these groups were coordinating their effort in a worldwide network.
Then one day the phone rang, and we hit an absolute gold mine. The caller was a brave Sudanese who was a member of the Republican Brotherhood, a group opposed to Dr. Hassan al-Turabi’s fundamentalist regime in Sudan. He was now working as a plumber in Brooklyn. He was in the basement of a building and had just come across scores of boxes of old records that appeared to be the property of Alkhifa Refugee Center, also known as the Office of Services for the Mujahideen, the predecessor to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda international network. The records had apparently been moved there after the World Trade Center bombing from Alkhifa headquarters at the Al-Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue. He wondered if we would be interested.
We immediately contacted the FBI in New York and Washington. To our utter amazement, they said they couldn’t do anything about it. The field agents were very interested but when they ran it up to their superiors, they were told it wouldn’t fly. We even smuggled out a few pages to pique their interest but the superiors would not budge. Then we got word that the documents were about to be moved or perhaps even destroyed in about five days.
So we decided to pull off our own covert operation. Our Sudanese contact went into the building at midnight to do his job carrying several large toolboxes. He then immediately emptied the toolboxes and filled them with documents. We met him at the rear of the building in a rented van. We grabbed the toolboxes, each containing about 4,000-5,000 documents, and raced off to a Kinko’s in Manhattan where we spent all night feverishly photocopying the material. Then we would race back to the building by 6:00 A.M. and return them to the plumber so he could put them back before the building owners showed up for work We did this for three straight nights.
The papers contained financial records, address books, information about the fabrication of passports, and countless other materials showing the Alkhifa Refugee Center’s involvement in the worldwide jihad movement. When we returned to the building the fourth night, however, our contact didn’t show up. We waited and waited but by 7:00 A.M. we were very fearful that something had happened to him. We left and found out later that something had triggered the building owners’ suspicion and they had caught him. While we were waiting outside he was being questioned and threatened in the basement. He is a tough guy, however, and somehow got out of it. We ended up keeping the original records instead of copies. Altogether, we only retrieved about one-quarter of the information that was there, but it was great material. We got thousands of leads. Nonetheless, I still think it would have been much better had the FBI gone in.
Although I continue to live at an undisclosed location, I occasionally speak at universities and other public forums. The universities usually provide some form of security but there are never metal detectors. I’m always looking out for somebody who goes quickly into his jacket. One time at Ramapo Community College in New Jersey a group of Muslim protesters rushed the stage. For a brief moment I thought I was finished, but the police restored order. Another time I was speaking at Harvard Law School at a memorial for a twenty-year-old Brandeis University student, Alisa Flatow, who had been killed in Israel in a car bombing carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The audience turned out to be 80 percent Muslim. No matter how many times I condemned the Jewish Defense League and Christian terrorists, they continued to bombard me with accusations that I was a racist and anti-Muslim. Up until that point I had thought militancy was a mind-set of impoverished and ill-educated people whose fervor was driven by their lack of opportunity in life. But this was an audience of privileged young people — future doctors and lawyers — and still they openly supported Hamas. This brought home to me that Islamic fundamentalism is a trans-class movement. Poverty and lack of opportunity have little or nothing to do with it. The real proof of militant Islam’s trans-class appeal can be seen in the support for the Islamic Fundamentalism among the unions representing doctors, lawyers, and scientists in Islamic countries and in the support for bin Laden in such wealthy countries as Saudi Arabia, Qator, and Kuwait.
Even at my February, 24, 1998, testimony before a Congressional subcommittee on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing, I had a police escort to and from the hearing room. It was jarring to think that I needed police protection right in the halls of the Senate. Afterward the police escorted me to my car but that was the end of it. They said good-bye and left me on my own.
Less than a year ago, I participated in a seminar at a public agency in Washington where we spent time trying to imagine the worst possible terrorist calamity that could occur in the United States. Two basic scenarios were presented. One individual suggested that the Chinese would launch a nuclear attack using ballistic missiles. Everybody thought that scenario was the most likely. My suggestion was that we would be hit by a much lower-grade attack by Islamic fundamentalists on American soil. Moreover, I said, our response would be constrained because we would not want to offend the sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalist leaders and their groups. They were already establishing a demographic base in both the United States and Europe and would argue strenuously against any kind of effective response.
Unanimously, the other participants responded, “This could never happen.” First, they said, fundamentalists would never attack us here. Second, they knew that the U.S. would respond so horrifically if such an event did occur that we would wipe them off the face of the earth. Finally, they said, fundamentalists had no real motive to pull anything like this off.
These were very smart people, dedicated public servants. They had no axes to grind. They weren’t arguing the case for one group or another but were sincerely trying to evaluate America’s situation as far as international terrorism was concerned. Yet I walked out of that meeting and e-mailed a friend, “We’re doomed. It is beyond the official imagination of this government to conceive that we can be attacked. There is an underlying assumption that we are such good people that nobody would ever want to attack us here.” There was nothing venal in their attitude. It just meant our defenses were down. We were turning a blind eye toward the many possibilities for terrorist attack and the militants’ infrastructure already in place to help coordinate it. I wanted to grab those people by the lapels and shout, “Don’t you see how far this thing has gone already? Don’t you realize there are people in this country who hate America and everything it stands for and have absolutely no fear or compunction about doing something about it?”
Since September 11, 2001, everything has changed — and yet nothing has changed. The only difference between February 26, 1993, and September 11, 2001, is that there are 3,500-odd more people dead. We are still vulnerable. We have only a short time to prevent the next chapter from unfolding. This is the most important battle of our time. Today we still have a window of opportunity to prevent further devastation. But the window won’t be open for long.