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Marc Thiessen Was Right About the "Library Tower Plot"

7:18 PM, Sep 8, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.