In an op-ed for Sunday's New York Times, former FBI special agent Ali Soufan wrote:
Supporters of the enhanced interrogation techniques have jumped from claim to claim about their usefulness. They have asserted, for example, that harsh treatment led Mr. Mohammed to reveal the plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles. But that plot was thwarted in 2002, and Mr. Mohammed was not arrested until 2003.
This is not accurate. Soufan, who is a well-known critic of the CIA's so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques, is simply repeating an ill-informed critique that has been made elsewhere.
Earlier this year, in two pieces for Slate, Timothy Noah took former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen to task for claiming that the "enhanced" interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to a plot against the "Library Tower" (now known as the U.S. Bank Tower) being foiled. Noah argued that the Bush administration itself claimed this plot was thwarted in 2002, before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured on March 1, 2003. Therefore, according to Noah, it is not possible that the same attack was averted in 2003, following the "enhanced" interrogations of KSM.
Soufan repeats this argument in his op-ed. But with the release of portions of two formerly classified CIA analyses on August 24, we know that Noah and Soufan got it wrong. Marc Thiessen got it right.
The story is as follows.
In February of 2006, Frances Townsend, who was then Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, held a press briefing to discuss the "West Coast Terrorist Plot." Townsend said that KSM had conceived a plot to attack the "Library Tower." For assistance in this effort, KSM relied on a top al Qaeda terrorist named Hambali, who led an al Qaeda affiliate named Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Southeast Asia. With Hambali's help, KSM recruited and trained four terrorists for the mission.
In 2002, the leader of this four-man cell was arrested. Townsend explained, "at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot [had] been canceled." The cell's members thought it "was not going forward," Townsend said. After the cell leader was captured, all three of the other cell members were eventually arrested too (two of them after KSM was captured). Somewhat understandably, Noah cited Townsend's press briefing to argue that the plot was finished in 2002 and there was no way the "enhanced" interrogation of KSM could have led to intelligence that helped stop the attack.
But al Qaeda does not give up that easily. KSM's nephew, Ramzi Yousef, tried to bring the North Tower of the World Trade Center down in 1993. While Yousef's truck bomb did kill several people, he failed to topple the tower. KSM picked up where Yousef left off and managed to orchestrate a plot that brought both towers down on September 11, 2001. The same goes for the October 2000 USS Cole bombing, which followed an unsuccessful attack in January of 2000 on the USS The Sullivans.
And, earlier this week, we were reminded again just how dogged al Qaeda can be in its pursuit of terror. Three Pakistani men were convicted of attempting to blow up as many as ten airliners mid-air using liquid explosives. Their plot, which was broken up in the summer of 2006 and targeted flights originating from London's Heathrow Airport, was a reformulation of KSM and Yousef's thwarted 1995 Bojinka plot, which relied on the same modus operandi.
So, just because al Qaeda puts a plot on the shelf for the time-being it doesn't mean they are finished with it for good. This was the case with the "West Coast," or "Library Tower" plot. In some form, it was originally slated to be part of the September 11 operation, but was reportedly nixed by Osama bin Laden. The terror master wanted to maintain some degree of operational simplicity. After September 11, KSM carried on with the plot. And after the leader of his original four-man cell was arrested, KSM carried on still further.
After KSM was captured on March 1, 2003, intelligence gleaned from KSM and other sources was used to roll up Hambali's network in Southeast Asia. Two of Hambali's lieutenants, JI members named Lillie and Zubair, were arrested. Lillie and Zubair were members of the original four-man cell, but moved on to other plots including targeting Western assets in Southeast Asia. Based on information provided by Lillie, Hambali himself was arrested. After Hambali's arrest, the CIA asked KSM about Hambali's likely replacement. KSM identified Hambali's brother, Rusman "Gun Gun" Gunawan. During debriefings, Hambali then unwittingly gave up information leading authorities to his brother's location and Gun Gun was subsequently detained.
Gun Gun spilled the beans. In a July 13, 2004, memo titled, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Preeminent Source On Al Qaeda," the CIA's analysts wrote:
[Gun Gun] identified a cell of JI operatives - some of them pilots - whom Hambali had sent to Karachi for possible al Qaeda operations. When confronted with his brother's revelations, Hambali admitted that he was grooming members of the cell for US operations - at the behest of KSM - probably as part of KSM's plot to fly hijacked planes into the tallest building on the US West Coast.
A June 3, 2005 CIA memo titled "Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al Qaeda" notes that a whopping 14 members of this Karachi-based cell were detained after Gun Gun's identification.
So, we are left with the following. While the leader of the original four-man cell was arrested in 2002 (and, as Noah pointed out, another member of the cell was arrested in late 2002), two other members of the cell (Lillie and Zubair) remained free until after KSM's capture. Lillie and Zubair reportedly moved on in their terrorist careers, but they still had originally volunteered to take part in a suicide hijacking. Do we really want to bet that they would not have eventually achieved their martyrdom? And who is to say that their superiors would not have repurposed them for a suicide hijacking once again? Moreover, outside of the "Library Tower" plot, they helped Hambali and JI execute a string of other attacks. Their captures were a noteworthy success.
Regardless, KSM, Hambali and "Gun Gun" managed to establish a significantly larger cell comprised of an additional 14 members. The U.S. government's short biography of Hambali notes that the cell was established as early as 1999. Members of the cell (sometimes referred to as the "Ghuraba" cell, which Noah claimed he could not find any information on) received "advanced doctrinal and operational training, including at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan." And this cell, pilots and all, was being groomed for U.S. operations, probably targeting the "tallest building" on the West Coast.
That would be the U.S. Bank Tower, formerly known as the Library Tower.
In other words, Marc Thiessen was right. And one has to wonder if Soufan even read the CIA's memos carefully.
One final note: Noah argued in his Slate pieces that a plot against airliners was no longer viable because passengers would not allow hijackers to take control of a plane and fly it wherever they desired. Tell that to the al Qaeda's terrorists who have continued to target airliners for hijackings in the years since September 11. While there are never any guarantees of success, and we cannot know for certain what would have come of KSM's Karachi cell, we do know that al Qaeda's intentions are nothing to scoff at.
Armchair assumptions about operational viability cannot and do not trump vigilance.