Missed Trail of Messages Before Sept. 11

The missed opportunities in the war on terrorism fostered by Islamic militants for more than a decade in America began with a New York City murder.

In 1992, police arrested Sayyid Nosair, a Brooklyn Egyptian-American, for the 1990 assassination of the Jewish extremist Mehir Kahane. "It was thought to be an isolated incident," said Michael Cherkasky, who headed the investigation for the Manhattan district attorney's office. "There was a man, you have a gun, and that's how it was prosecuted."

During the investigation into Nosair, the FBI seized bomb-making instructions, pictures of New York City landmarks, including the World Trade Center, and pages of handwritten Arabic. The material was not inventoried or translated for years.

"No one thought they were needed," Cherkasky said. "And there would be a lot of work and expense to translate them."

The failure on the part of prosecutors to look deeper into the Kahane killing was a costly oversight. The material was finally translated after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when four militant terrorists detonated a bomb in the twin towers' underground parking lot. Six people died and more than 1,000 people were injured.

The material also made it clear that Nosair was part of a network of terrorists intent on killing large numbers of civilians.

"Obviously, both the FBI and the CIA would have been very well-advised much earlier to have trained, or retrained, or hired a much larger group of people who spoke Arabic, Farsi and some of these languages of the Mideast," said James Woolsey, who headed the CIA at the time.

But signs in English were ignored, too. In 1995, Ramzi Yousef was convicted of terrorism charges in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and is now in prison. Investigators later learned Yousef intended to hijack a plane and fly it into CIA headquarters or a nuclear power plant. At the time, the FBI thought the idea was farfetched.

When the Pentagon commissioned a report on terrorism and U.S. vulnerabilities after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, author Marvin Cetron came up with a similar scenario. "We said the United States was very vulnerable. You could make a left turn at the Washington Monument, and take out the White House, and you could make a right turn and take out the Pentagon." said Cetron.

But the final report never mentioned this detail.

"We were told by the Department of Defense not to put it in," Cetron said. "And I said, 'It's unclassified, everything is available.' And they said, 'We don't want it released, because you can't handle a crisis before it becomes a crisis. And no one is going to believe you.'"

Congressional Inquiry Exposes Underestimated Threat

Another possible missed opportunity came in 1996, when Sudan made an offer to the United States.

That year, Sudan, a nation on the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, expelled Saudi exile Osama bin Laden at the urging of the U.S. government. Sudan also allowed the United States to photograph terrorist training camps and offered further cooperation, according to Tim Carney, former U.S. ambassador to Sudan.

Then, Sudan sent a message through American businessman Mansoor Ijaz that signaled Sudan was willing to share information on al Qaeda, the network of suspected terrorists founded and funded by bin Laden.

Sudan's intelligence chief showed Ijaz some files. "The point he was trying to make to me is that we [Sudan] have an entire set of data on these people," said Ijaz.

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