You would think the identification and arrest of sleeper agents working for al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), and operating on U.S. soil in 2003, is a success story our intelligence and law enforcement agencies can rightly trumpet, no? Not according to Peter Bergen, who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a national security analyst for CNN.
Writing about the inspector general's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program and two other CIA analyses released on August 24, Bergen wrote the following on CNN.com:
Of the terrorists, alleged and otherwise, cited by the CIA inspector general that [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] fingered during his coercive interrogations, only Ohio truck driver Lyman (sic) Faris was an actual al Qaeda foot soldier living in the United States who had the serious intention to wreak havoc in America. However, he was not much of a competent terrorist: In 2002 he researched the feasibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge by using a blowtorch, an enterprise akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker.
Bergen made the same arguments in a piece for Foreign Policy.
Simply put, Bergen is wrong by a wide margin on both counts.
Iyman (not Lyman) Faris was not the only worrisome al Qaeda sleeper agent living on U.S. soil and identified by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during questioning. Bergen does not explain how he reached this conclusion in the face of substantial contradictory evidence; he just says it. And Bergen's dismissal of Iyman Faris as an incompetent is so obtuse that one has to wonder if Bergen is even casually familiar with Faris's case.
The newly declassified documents, as well as other evidence, make it clear that intelligence gained during KSM's coercive interrogations led to the identification of at least three al Qaeda sleeper agents who operated on U.S. soil. They are: Uzair Paracha, Adnan El Shukrijumah and Iyman Faris.
There may have been more, but we cannot know for certain because substantial portions of the documents released on August 24 remain redacted. In any event, we know a fair amount about these three and, contrary to Bergen's claim, Faris was not the only one of them who intended to "wreak havoc in America."
Uzair Paracha lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan at the time of his arrest in late March 2003--just weeks after KSM was captured. KSM gave up information that led to the identification of not only Uzair, but also his father, Saifullah Paracha, who lived in Pakistan at the time. This father-son duo was plotting with KSM to execute attacks on American soil.
To facilitate al Qaeda's carnage, KSM intended to use the Paracha's import-export business as a front for smuggling explosives into the U.S. Saifullah, who is a wealthy man and is now detained at Guantanamo, operated an international textile business. As a memo produced for his case at Guantanamo notes, Saifullah "discussed a plan with al Qaeda operatives for al Qaeda to use [his] textile business to smuggle explosives into the United States." The plan, which was conceived by KSM, "involved shipping explosives in containers [Saifullah] used to ship clothes he sold in the United States." Ominously, Saifullah "agreed to this plan."
And who was to coordinate the American end of this al Qaeda smuggling operation? On the receiving end was Saifullah's son, Uzair, who had an office in the Garment District of Manhattan.
From American soil, Uzair also committed various forms of identity fraud in service of Majid Khan, an al Qaeda operative who KSM planned to use in attacks inside America. (Khan was detained just a few days after KSM, but the precise intelligence used to locate Khan is not clear.) Khan had lived in the U.S. for years, but was having trouble getting back into his one-time home country. Thus, Uzair posed as Khan and engaged in other acts of identity fraud that were intended to secure the paperwork necessary to sneak Khan back in. Once back in America, Khan was to have participated in a plot against a variety of targets, including gas stations, on the East Coast. Khan had worked at his family's stateside gas station, and KSM figured this gave Khan an advantage in trying to set such facilities ablaze--most likely using explosives smuggled into the country by the Parachas.
Therefore, contrary to Bergen's unsupported assertion, Uzair Paracha was clearly an al Qaeda foot soldier "living in the United States who had the serious intention to wreak havoc in America." A U.S. court even found Uzair guilty and sentenced him to thirty years in prison for it. Bergen, of course, doesn't get into any of this in his analyses (if we can call them that) of the subject. He mentions the Parachas briefly, but seems remarkably unconcerned with their plotting.
But at least Bergen mentions the Parachas. Adnan El Shukrijumah does not even receive a passing reference. Perhaps this is because, somewhat curiously, the un-redacted portions of the inspector general's report do not mention him. But another CIA document released on August 24 does: "KSM has also spoken at length about operative Jafar al Tayar, admitting that al Qaeda had tasked al Tayar to case specific targets in New York City in 2001."
Jafar al Tayar (or Jafar "the Pilot") is El Shukrijumah's al Qaeda nom de guerre. Before KSM's interrogations, U.S. authorities had heard from other al Qaeda detainees that Jafar was likely to lead the next round of attacks on American soil. But the FBI and CIA did not know Jafar's real identity. During KSM's questioning they were able to piece it together. KSM even identified Jafar as El Shukrijumah when shown his photo.
The FBI then issued a "Be on the Lookout" (BOLO) alert for Shukrijumah on March 20, 2003--again, just weeks after KSM was captured. Press reports at the time, citing FBI officials (who are hardly defenders of the CIA's interrogation program), pointed to the key role that KSM's interrogations played in identifying El Shukrijumah. FBI officials also said that El Shukrijumah was one of the top five terrorists the Bureau was worried about in the context of al Qaeda's next round of attacks on the continental U.S.
A massive manhunt for El Shukrijumah on American soil ensued. He had lived in Florida for years and may have been in the U.S. at the time. The FBI did not know, in March 2003, where El Shukrijumah was exactly. Subsequent reports suggest that he may have slipped out of the country at some point. In any event, the added scrutiny that followed the FBI's alert may very well have made it impossible for El Shukrijumah to become the next Mohammed Atta--as was widely feared.
Oddly, Bergen is silent on all of this. The story of the hunt for El Shukrijumah, and KSM's key role in that hunt, is not even mentioned in Bergen's two pieces. But while Bergen may not think much of the El Shukrijumah story, the FBI still does. More than six years after KSM's identification, El Shukrijumah remains one of the principal al Qaeda personalities the FBI is
seeking information on.
Bergen's silence, it turns out, is preferable to his attempts at analysis. In just a few words, Bergen managed to butcher the story of Iyman Faris beyond recognition.
Faris, who had met personally with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, was introduced to KSM by Majid Khan, the aforementioned al Qaeda plotter who was attempting to sneak back into the U.S. It was KSM who first proposed the idea of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge using "gas cutters." KSM asked Faris to investigate the possibility.
Bergen argues that Faris's research in this regard reveals that he was incompetent. But what, then, does that make his boss, KSM, the originator of the idea? Does Bergen want to argue that KSM, the principal planner of the September 11 attacks, was incompetent too?
In describing the KSM/Faris plot against the Brooklyn Bridge, Bergen likens it "to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker." But that is not accurate at all. The tools Faris researched were "gas cutters" and not merely a "blowtorch," as Bergen claims. While it is not clear what specific gas cutters Faris researched, such tools are several steps above the blowtorch you keep in your garage. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, gas cutters (and similar tools) are used to "dismantle large objects, such as ships, railroad cars, automobiles, buildings, or aircraft."
So, a priori, it is not entirely inconceivable that one could bring down a bridge with gas cutters when that same type of tool is used to dismantle other large-scale objects.
Moreover, it was not Peter Bergen who first found the "gas cutters" plot difficult to execute. It was Iyman Faris. In early 2003, Iyman Faris reported back to his al Qaeda higher-ups that, in the middle of winter (!), the "weather was too hot." Authorities later discovered this was a coded reference to the Brooklyn Bridge plot, which Faris himself called off for the time-being. In short, Faris was no dope.
Faris found that not only were the "gas cutters" he wanted hard to come by (this again shows he was not contemplating using your typical "blowtorch," which you can get at your neighborhood hardware store), but also the structure of the bridge did not lend itself to an easy severing of its cables. What's more: Faris was dismayed by the increased security presence on the bridge. Throughout 2002, authorities received multiple reports suggesting that al Qaeda had the bridge in its crosshairs. One of the first threat reports came from Abu Zubaydah, who was captured on March 28, 2002. Zubaydah told authorities that al Qaeda wanted to bring down the bridge shown in the 1998 remake of the movie Godzilla. U.S. officials watched the film and realized Zubaydah was talking about the Brooklyn Bridge.
As a result, security in and around the bridge was tightened. To this day, you'll find NYPD patrol cars stationed at either end of the bridge--right near where, according to press accounts of Faris's arrest, the suspension cables were most susceptible to attack.
While Faris aborted the original "gas cutters" idea KSM had him explore, the al Qaeda threat against America's infrastructure, including the Brooklyn Bridge, cannot be dismissed as easily as Bergen suggests. As we've learned with airliners, U.S. warships, American embassies, and the World Trade Center, once al Qaeda's terrorists have a particular target in mind they do not easily give up the idea of attacking it. In fact, portions of an al Qaeda training manual released by the U.S. Department of Justice in December 2001 specifically cited the "blasting and destroying [of] bridges leading into and out of [the] cities" of "godless regimes" as one of al Qaeda's chief desires.
Who is to say that Faris would not have come up with an alternative means for bringing down the bridge? Is it that much of a stretch to believe that Faris, who had been trained by al Qaeda, may have considered using, say, a truck bomb or two instead?
Regardless, Faris's plotting was not confined to casing the bridge. Faris, at the behest of KSM, researched a whole range of other attack plans, including derailing a train in the Washington D.C. metro area. In Ronald Kessler's book The Terrorist Watch (2007), FBI agent Art Cummings explained that while he did not think the prospects for the original "gas cutters" plot were good, it does not mean Faris was nothing to worry about. New Yorkers, Cummings surmised, would not have let Faris and his accomplices get away with cutting down the bridge's cables. But still:
"[Faris] was looking at a number of other things at the same time. The problem was, he was a research conduit for al Qaeda central, directly. So eventually he probably would have gotten to a point where they would have given him something useful. He also knew a lot of people."
Faris knew so many people, in fact, that authorities used him as a double agent. As an article in Time magazine explained in June of 2003, Faris was moved to a safe house in Virginia shortly after his arrest. From there, Faris made calls to other al Qaeda operatives for several weeks, thereby helping to expose still more terrorists' identities.
Some of the people Faris knew included members of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell in Ohio who wanted to launch an attack on a Columbus shopping mall. At the same time Faris cased targets for KSM, he discussed the nascent mall plot with members of this Ohio cell, some of whom had been trained in terrorist camps overseas as well.
That is, Faris was not alone. He had other trained terrorists on U.S. soil willing to do his and KSM's bidding. But, of course, Bergen does not mention any of this. He simply dismisses the Brooklyn Bridge plot out of hand and ignores the rest of Faris's dossier.
The story behind the identification and arrest of al Qaeda operatives working for KSM in March of 2003 is an unequivocal success story. Perhaps KSM's sleeper agents did not have their finger on the trigger at the precise moment they were detained. But they were clearly preparing al Qaeda's next attacks. The officials who oversaw the dismantling of KSM's American-based network deserve our debt of gratitude. This includes those officials who were responsible for getting KSM to divulge his secrets--including his plotting with the Parachas, Adnan El Shukrijumah, and Iyman Faris.
Peter Bergen may want to pretend this is all about refuting Vice President Cheney. Both of his pieces on the topic start with the same hook: Cheney is wrong about enhanced interrogations.
But Bergen is not just contradicting Dick Cheney, who is an easy target for media types. Bergen is also contradicting the judgments of intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as the courts. All of them saw KSM's sleeper network as a major threat. In fact, the CIA found that KSM became the U.S. Government's "preeminent" source on al Qaeda.
Just because Peter Bergen says otherwise doesn't make it so.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.