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How U.S. Intelligence Misjudged the Growing Threat Behind 9/11

September 11, 2018 in History

By Barbara Maranzani

Among the missteps: lack of intel-sharing between agencies, tepid responses to earlier attacks and a failure to grasp the magnitude of the terrorists’ ambitions.

Smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

For most Americans (and those around the world), the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 came as a shock. But for American and international investigators, warning signs of the attack had been brewing for more than a decade. Below, several key seeds that bore fruit on 9/11:

The Soviet-Afghan war laid the table for later conflicts.

In the 1980s, future al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others joined in Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union, an experience that helped radicalize them in the decade that followed.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, they were fiercely resisted by Afghan fighters known as mujahideen, who declared a holy war, or “jihad,” against the Soviets, whom they considered infidels. The mujahideen quickly gained support from other parts of the Islamic world, with thousands flocking to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in or support the Afghan resistance. Among those supporters: bin Laden and other future leaders of extremist groups. The logistical and tactical lessons—and the relationships formed amongst these Muslim resistance leaders—had lasting consequences.

In the early 1990s, a fundamentalist Islamic group known as the Taliban, comprised primarily of former mujahideen, rose to power in post-war Afghanistan. They took over the country in 1996, establishing a harsh, repressive regime that provided support and protection for bin Laden, who returned to the country with other extremists and soon founded al-Qaeda.

A post-WWI treaty pissed off bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda was created, in part, to globalize the fight between fundamentalist Islam and the Western world. To that end, its leaders leveraged new communications technologies of the ’90s—satellite cable stations and the world wide web—to spread their jihadist messages to the wider Muslim world and attract converts to their cause.

Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups also looked to avenge what they considered decades of mistreatment of Arab nations at the hands of the West. Bin Laden and others specifically made reference to the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, a secret negotiation during World War I that carved up the Ottoman Empire and created new Arab states in the Middle East. Its intention: to deny these states self-rule and keep them under British …read more


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