December 10, 2005

Pre-9/11 Warning to Saudis - Some Perspective

Usamah Bin Ladin

On December 9, the National Security Archive released a Department of State cable under the headline and text:

National Security Archive Releases Pre-9/11 Warning To Saudis That Osama Bin Laden Might Target Civilian Airliners

Washington, D.C., December 9, 2005 - More than three years before the 9/11 attack on the United States, U.S. officials warned Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden "might take the course of least resistance and turn to a civilian [aircraft] target," according to a declassified cable released by the National Security Archive today. The warning was made by the U.S. regional security officer and a civil aviation official in Riyadh based on a public threat bin Laden made against "military passenger aircraft" and his statement that "we do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians."

The State Department cable was not mentioned in the report of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated how U.S. intelligence failed to detect planning for the terrorist attacks, using civilian airliners, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Archive analyst Barbara Elias.

Let's put this into perspective and get away from the 9/11 hype.

First and foremost, this has nothing to do with the attacks by Al-Qa'idah terrorists on the United States in September, 2001. This press release refers to a June 1998 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the State Department, recounting a meeting between embassy officers and a senior Saudi official. Although the name of the Saudi official has been redacted from the document, we can infer that since the meeting took place at King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) that it was an airport security official. (Note: In Saudi Arabia, civil aviation is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and Aviation).

King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The meeting was held to relay to the Saudi government American concerns over a potential threat posed by Usamah Bin Ladin to civil aviation in the kingdom. The cable cited a Bin Ladin television interview a week before the Riyadh meeting in which he stated that his organization was targeting a "military passenger aircraft in the next few weeks." It is important to note that the cable states that there was no specific information indicating a threat to civil aviation.

At that time, I was chief of the Defense HUMINT Service counterterrorism intelligence branch. One (if not the) primary focuses of the branch was Usamah Bin Ladin and the threat to deployed U.S. forces. The branch was started to support increased attention to force protection in the wake of the attacks on the U.S. Military Training Mission in Riyadh in 1995 (six dead) and a U.S. Air Force housing area - Khobar Towers - near Dhahran in 1996 (19 dead).

Crater after attack on USAF housing - Al-Khubar, Saudi Arabia

Our assessment of the threat at the time was that Bin Ladin might try to use a shoulder-launched surface to air missile, such as an SA-7 or possibly even the much more capable U.S.-made Stinger left over from the Afghanistan war, to down an American military cargo aircraft flying into or out of Royal Saudi Air Force bases. Since the attacks of 1995 and 1996, the United States military had consolidated most of its activities to Prince Sultan Air Base, a remote facility allowing much greater security.

Given the increased security awareness, some analysts felt that Bin Ladin might be frustrated with his inability to attack an American military aircraft and instead fire on a civilian airliner, most likely at KKIA, just north of Riyadh. Bin Ladin had said earlier that he did not distinguish between military and civilians. Personally, I thought the possibility of Bin Ladin attacking a civilian airliner at KKIA was remote, as there were no American flag carriers operating there on a scheduled basis, and at that time Bin Ladin was not attacking Saudi targets.

This has nothing to do with 9/11. That's why it was not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.