9/11: How Deep States fought, won, and got lost in a war on terror
There is a phrase frequently wielded when terrorists give the espionage grid the slip — “a failure of imagination”. It was said by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers after 9/11. British spies invoked the same following 7/7. In the wake of 26/11, top cops in India offered this by way of an explanation. And in recent days, the Taliban’s speed march on Kabul has also been described this way. It seems as if 20 years of war have been conditioned by the inability of our security services to think like an insurgent.
Obviously, there is far more to it than this. Insurrectionists are ingenious and detecting their plots is impossibly hard. But the trope provides an incomplete picture of how $8 trillion was spent fighting a war against terror, in which almost one million people have died, only for us to end up almost where we started.
Take the Malaysian affair, where on January 5, 2000, two 9/11 conspirators – Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi – joined an al-Qaeda planning meeting, and, 10 days later, the CIA learned, landed in Los Angeles. Their names were not placed on a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) watchlist, allowing the Agency’s long-range operations to continue, thwarting an easy collar for the Bureau.
Later, the George W Bush administration was uninterested in the intelligence shared by the CIA between April and August 2001 that named Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda, as plotting against the United States (US). Following the tragedy of 9/11, with CIA executive officers feeling the heat, the rivalry between American agencies worsened, as a desire for vengeance and redemption inside Langley heightened. Spies began lobbying for hard measures that got around the Geneva Conventions, rendering al-Qaeda suspects to black sites, where they were tortured, fraying the rules-bound system.
The greasiest of CIA proclivities played to the darker compulsions of host countries such as Pakistan, where the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was no stranger to disappearances, extrajudicial killings, terror, and torture. They also provided justifications for other States that did the same, including India. Thailand hosted the CIA’s first enhanced interrogation experiment and went on to use brutal methods in a war against Muslims in the country’s south, before turning on thousands of alleged methamphetamine users. This bloodbath was reheated in the Philippines. And when news of the CIA’s black sites leaked, aid workers and journalists would be treated the same by Islamists.
The 7/7 attacks in London were imagined and partially foreseen. What spies had wrestled with were the linkages between suspects under surveillance. These lapses, combined with a CIA belief that a second wave of attacks was imminent, triggered the proliferation of spyware that could light up liminal spaces, chaining contacts together, scraping meta-data, and illuminating disposable burner phones and satellite handsets, loved by bombers. This technical intelligence (techint) capacity and dogged spadework would soon shred much of al-Qaeda’s leadership hiding in Pakistan and, eventually, cull Osama bin Laden.
But before that, another hotspot lit up in Iraq, where a grinding civil war between Sunnis and Shias had been triggered by the US invasion of 2003, after lawmakers presented falsified evidence on Saddam’s WMDs, ignoring CIA analysts who argued Baghdad was not in league with al-Qaeda. A second cluster of burners and satellite phones shone out of Pakistan where an anti-Western and anti-India amalgam was pooling, emulsified by the US war in Afghanistan that was flailing, and ballooning into nation-building.
Terror proliferated because of these misfiring wars, whose conduct was distorted by politicians, with civilians now targeted wholesale, many of these massacres perpetrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi whose foot soldiers in Iraq merged with Baathists to quit foxholes for a terror State. The Caliphate was penetrated by spies in the West and the Gulf and pushed back by US clients, especially the Kurds. However, an alarm was set off by Edward Snowden who showed us that another cost was that hyper-invasive collection methods shredded surveillance laws.
Because of techint, 26/11 was partially foreseen too, by the US National Security Agency and the British Government Communications Headquarters. However, somehow politics, again, fogged these insights. Perhaps the US was not persuasive enough, or held back critical details, as some of its assets were back on the trail of the world’s most-wanted man. Maybe, Indian officers did not buy the warnings. Or brinkmanship got in the way.
But afterwards, India invested in these invasive technologies, packages that allowed greater eavesdropping of smart phones, email servers and social media feeds, spawning facial recognition systems that chained networks of CCTV cameras, in major cities and transport hubs. Oversight and the legal framework remained fragile, while new laws were passed at breakneck speed that cracked down on streaming content, and social media, while others redefined who was, and was not, a citizen.
Outside India, brown and black people also faced losing their residency, as countries including Britain began revoking nationality as punishment for joining Daesh. With CIA black sites forced to close after a coruscating report by the Agency’s inspector general, the spies switched from being jailers and interrogators to orchestrating mass death events, in a burgeoning drone programme backed by the Pakistan military and Republican and Democrat administrations in Washington — a tactic that saved US service people’s lives but killed the rural poor.
As Islamophobia gripped many nations, authoritarians and disruptors were voted in from Budapest to New Delhi, while fear and chauvinism cowed civilians into accepting their shrinking freedom. What was seen by these intrusive networks? Not the presence of sleeper armies of Muslim insurrectionists, in India and the West. Instead, they zeroed in on small clusters of angry and broken individuals whose rage, and instability, manipulated from afar, was hard to salve, while poverty and exclusion remained the norm. This version, which noted how political solutions were desperately needed, was harder for politicians to sell, even as the expensive intelligence grid could not stop Pulwama or prevent the London Bridge stabbings.
Donald Trump abandoned America’s Kurdish allies to Turkey’s security forces in 2019. Joe Biden deserted the Afghan National Army in 2021. However, the West and India did not foresee the Kabul rout. Pervasive, professionalised intelligence States such as the UK, the US and India would not acknowledge that Kabul was a mirage, while, out in the provinces, governors and citizens choose the Taliban, not because they found the movement compelling on the stump, but because its power was visceral.
These are just some of the disconnects. Even as the covert capabilities of spy agencies have ballooned, truth’s path, as told by States, has become far more complex. Once upon a time, spies created order out of facts and rumours. Politicians rejigged them, in line with strategic priorities. But then came 9/11.
Over two decades, politicians have suppressed intelligence that did not fit their narrative. Then spies began cherry-picking the product, before sharing it with the White House or the Prime Minister’s Office. Bob Crowley, a colonel who served as a senior counter-insurgency adviser to US military commanders in Afghanistan, described the process as the “self-licking ice cream cone”, in which data points were altered so that the lawmakers got to see what they wanted.
After 9/11, most things can be seen and overheard by governments. However, understanding, and telling us the truth, is something else entirely.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark are journalists and filmmakers. Their latest book is Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of RAW and ISI
The views expressed are personal
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