The ancient Yemeni port of Aden, on the southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula, reaches into the blue waters separating the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to form a natural harbour. Yet the safe haven for foreign ships has over the years been less than friendly to visiting foreigners. “Aden is a terrible rock, without a single blade of grass or a drop of good water,” the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote after arriving to work in the coffee trade. It remained a desperate place even a century later, when, in the early 1990s, the United States used the city as a staging ground to service its troubled military venture across the gulf in Somalia, and as an R & R spot for soldiers due back in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
On Dec. 29, 1992, a security guard at the swank, modern Aden Hotel spotted two men apparently fitting a bomb to the underside of a car parked in the hotel lot outside, a not unusual occurrence in wild Yemen. Seeing the guard, one man stood and was striding directly toward him when the briefcase in his hand exploded, dismembering his arm and spewing shrapnel into the guard and the man’s accomplice. Though foiled, the attack was evidently part of a broader plan: later that day, at the Goldmore Hotel, another Aden resort, an explosive device planted in a hallway closet killed a hotel worker and a 70-year-old Austrian tourist who had just sat down to eat dinner with his wife.
Yemeni police later uncovered an arsenal of weaponry associated with the plot, including 25 other explosive devices, two anti-tank mines, two machine guns and a pistol. That stash and the large quantity of cash recovered from a suspect’s apartment pointed to an operation of means and sophistication. The two bombers at the Aden Hotel, who’d survived their injuries, described attending training camps in far-flung Afghanistan operated by a still-obscure religious leader and veteran of the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen campaigns. Osama bin Laden had recently run afoul of the ruling family in his native Saudi Arabia and now lived in the basketcase African nation of Sudan, raising horses, growing sunflowers and using his business acumen to fund terrorist exploits.
For radical fundamentalist Islamists like these, Aden’s high-end hotels symbolized all that was rotten about American hegemony. As Richard Miniter writes in his book Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror, they were “islands of Western culture, with alcohol, rock music, and even Christmas lights. And, as the only international five-star hotels in the city, they were also beacons of luxury that offered swimming pools and a disco, places where casually dressed men and women could flirt, drink, and dance.”
Yet something else entirely had turned bin Laden’s attention to the Aden and Goldmore hotels: the nearly 100 U.S. servicemen who had been housed at the two hotels until just two days earlier. The plan had failed to kill its intended victims; nevertheless, bin Laden had reason to celebrate his first terrorist attack. Within hours of the blasts, the U.S. had pulled its military personnel from Aden, along with most of its civilians. As ham-fisted an operation as it was, bin Laden had achieved his goal: he had displaced an American show of force and driven the infidel from the region.
If only he could do the same for the American military presence that he felt had arrived as an occupying force in Saudi Arabia, home to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, in 1990 to establish a base of operations for the first Gulf War.
Bin Laden and his fellow conspirators would suffer more missteps in the coming years. They would also improve along the way. Though few knew of the Aden attack then—indeed, it remains obscure to this day—bin Laden’s gambit managed to put him on the global map. Shortly after the hotel blasts, Yemen’s Ministry of Interior appealed to Interpol for help in locating bin Laden.
That development was not without irony: bin Laden’s father Muhammad was one of a raft of Yemenis who had left his native country and gone on to make a fortune abroad. Along with his wealth, bin Laden would inherit terrific drive from his father, but he would prove to be a success of a different kind.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. government’s anti-terror efforts focused mainly on purveyors of state-sponsored terror—rogue nations like Libya or Iran—and, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, its own homegrown paramilitary groups. Yet intelligence officials were increasingly concerned about the small, nimble, privately financed networks of religious radicals supported by wealthy donors in such places as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. That new threat presented authorities with a myriad of diplomatic and legal issues at the same time as it swamped multiple levels of U.S. and international agencies in jurisdictional turf wars. Compounding all this was the investigative headache of following the money—terror financing was more and more resembling the complex laundering schemes associated with masking cocaine profits.
No group embodied the trend better than al-Qaeda, the organization that had grown up around bin Laden in Afghanistan during the last days of the Soviet occupation. But while al-Qaeda and its brother terror networks acted with speed, ingenuity and ambition, they also demonstrated a habit of overreaching. On Feb. 26, 1993, in New York City, not two months after the Aden hotel bombings, a young man named Eyad Ismoil drove a Ryder rental truck loaded with fertilizer-based explosive into an underground parking garage in the World Trade Center’s north tower. The subsequent blast tore a hole five storeys high into the building, ripped doors off elevators and caused dense smoke to curl high up through the tower’s emergency stairwells; the explosion killed six and injured over 1,000 more.
The attack, it later emerged, had been designed to topple the north tower and cause it to careen into its southern twin. That didn’t happen. “It wasn’t a particularly successful attack,” says Jack Killorin, who at the time was a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a key player in the investigation. “They blew the heck out of a parking lot.” Indeed, instead of complete disaster, the first major terrorist attack on American soil led to complacency. “All I can tell you about 1993 is that it misled us into thinking that they could make their petty attacks on us and we would be invulnerable,” Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, told Maclean’s. “We learned better than that on 9/11.” For those looking closely, however, the 1993 bombing was recognized as a turning point. “We knew this was more typical of the radical Islamist terrorist techniques than anything we had seen in the United States before,” says Killorin.
Though U.S. intelligence did not immediately link the 1993 bombing to bin Laden, the connections ran deep. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an explosives expert with a background in electronic engineering who was later convicted of masterminding the 1993 bombing and is currently serving a life sentence, had lived in a Pakistan guest house paid for by bin Laden. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind and controversial Egyptian cleric based in New York who was later convicted in the conspiracy, had first established ties with bin Laden as far back as the mid-1980s, when the pair were both striving to run the Soviets out of Afghanistan. As Ahmed Sattar, an Abdel Rahman aide, told a television interviewer after the link became clear in the late 1990s: “You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow; you can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington. If this will end the problem—no. Tomorrow you will get somebody else.”
And indeed the plots proliferated, even if for a time they grew less audacious and farther removed from U.S. shores. On Nov. 13, 1995, a car bomb bit into a U.S. military training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing six people, five of them American service personnel. The following year, a truck bomb outside the Khobar Towers, an apartment complex in the Saudi city of Dhahran then being used to house foreign military personnel, killed 19 U.S. nationals and injured 386 more.
Bin Laden, by now based in Afghanistan, is widely seen as being behind both attacks. Yet U.S. reaction to the growing al-Qaeda offensive remained splintered. In the aftermath of the Khobar bombing, Army Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, commander of Persian Gulf forces, retired under criticism that lax security under his watch had permitted the carnage. Yet his replacement, Gen. Anthony Zinni, soon admitted what to many had already become obvious: American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia were being stalked by terrorists.
That same summer, bin Laden issued his military manifesto, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” in which he argued that the “imbalance of power” he saw between his own radical Islamic movement and the “enemy forces” of the infidel West had forced his camp to adopt “fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy. In other words, to initiate guerrilla warfare, where the sons of the nation, and not the military forces, take part in it.”
With his tactical ideas advanced, bin Laden appeared to hit his diabolical stride. On Aug. 7, 1998, two nearly simultaneous explosions outside U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people. The blast on Nairobi’s bustling Haile Selassie Avenue was particularly vicious, knocking the roof off a neighbouring building and shattering windows for blocks—passersby caught in a hail of hot glass fled the scene dripping with blood. The bombings occurred eight years to the day after U.S. troops arrived in Saudi Arabia as part of American Gulf War operations. The attack prompted Bill Clinton to pronounce bin Laden “Public Enemy No. 1.”
By the end of the 1990s, American commandos were biding their time on the border of Afghanistan, waiting to hunt the al-Qaeda leader down. It would not work out; he had more bloodshed to wreak, and U.S. efforts to curb the threat remained fractured. Indeed, those commandos were part of a morass of confused American activity aimed at bin Laden: as the CIA drew up plans to capture and spirit him from Afghanistan, U.S. Justice Department lawyers were moving to indict him and diplomats at the State Department were working to end Afghanistan’s civil war and put an end to human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s fundamentalist rulers. It all missed the point.
A hint of what was to come arrived on Jan. 2, 2000, when—again in bin Laden’s paternal homeland, Yemen, in the port of Aden—a boat laden with explosives aimed its bow at the USS The Sullivans, only to sink under the weight of its cargo. Al-Qaeda would not bungle the plan twice. Later that same year, on Oct. 12, a small vessel filled with explosives and manned by men chanting prayers plowed into the USS Cole, which had put in to Aden for a routine stop. The blast lifted the ship out of the water, blew a 12- by 12-metre gash into the hull, and ripped through its galley at a time when many of the destroyer’s sailors were queuing for lunch. Seventeen died, 39 were injured.
One of the U.S. Navy men killed that day was Craig Wibberley, a 19-year-old from Williamsport, Md., who had just graduated from high school a year earlier. “The loss of your son is something that bothers you for the rest of your life,” says Tom Wibberley, a 62-year-old equipment manager whose father was a Second World War pilot and who himself had served as a marine in Vietnam. “It’s no different now than when he was killed. To lose a loved one like that through a senseless attack is hard. People should be glad for their children and be thankful to spend time with them.”
For Kirk Lippold, commander of the USS Cole at the time, the attack signalled the arrival of a new terror paradigm. “We’d experienced truck bombs, the embassy bombings— that was our perspective when we trained for attacks on the USS Cole. We understood it would be from the land side,” says Lippold, who is currently running for Congress in Nevada as a Republican. Investigators looking into the USS Cole attack later made two conclusions, Lippold told Maclean’s: that there was nothing he or his crew could have done to prevent it, and that “the entire chain of command bore responsibility for allowing this to happen, for their failure to give us the training and the intelligence necessary to adequately defend the ship. We walked into that port untrained, without the proper equipment, certainly without the intelligence that would allow us to defend our ship.
“Nobody ever envisioned boats packed with explosives, so it completely changed out mindset,” Lippold says. “Nobody ever envisioned planes used as weapons.”
Small, sophisticated, with only the merest whisper of central control, al-Qaeda had achieved an apocalyptic masterpiece in the USS Cole attack by inventing a new way of waging terror. Its next project would, in true Promethean style, prove both the al-Qaeda leader’s crowning achievement—and his undoing.
At 8:46 a.m., on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the World Trade Center’s north tower, cutting through floors 93 to 99. A little over 10 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower, crashing through the floors between the 77th and 85th storeys. In Washington, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 jetted into the west wall of the Pentagon, killing all 59 innocent people aboard and 125 more on the ground. Twenty minutes later, back in Manhattan, the south tower collapsed, razing a structure 415 m tall in just 10 seconds and spilling dust, debris and a crazy kaleidoscope of papers—resumes, blank cheques, a request for a promotion dating back to 1979—into the streets of New York. At 10:03 a.m., a fourth flight, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field in rural Shanksville, Pa., after the passengers wrestled control of the aircraft away from the militants. At 10:28 a.m.—30 minutes after its south doppelganger—the World Trade Center’s north tower fell.
In all, the casualties are tallied at 2,975—2,751 deaths at the World Trade Center towers, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 in Shanksville. Nineteen hijackers died.
It was, as President Barack Obama said on Sunday night, “the worst attack on the American people in our history.”
If any single story highlights the collision of security wrongheadedness and catastrophe that Sept. 11 represents, it is the story of John O’Neill. After getting hired as chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section in 1995, O’Neill began tracking al-Qaeda and bin Laden relentlessly, including in his role overseeing the investigations into the attacks in Saudi Arabia, East Africa and Yemen, the latter of which was deemed unsuccessful. In 2001, unable to co-operate with the intelligence community and after suffering a series of personal scandals—including leaving behind a top-classified suitcase at a conference—O’Neill took a job working as chief of security at the World Trade Center.
In a 2002 New Yorker profile of O’Neill, Lawrence Wright wrote that when O’Neill told Chris Isham, a friend and producer at ABC, about his decision to work at the twin towers, Isham joked, “At least they’re not going to bomb it again.” O’Neill replied, “They’ll probably try to finish the job.” His body was found in the rubble one week after the attack.
Apart from its human catastrophe, millions around the world felt the legacy of bin Laden’s great coup. Most immediately, the Manhattan attacks snarled financial markets worldwide and led to an international economic slump. Firefighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel who attended the twin towers later suffered disproportionately high rates of cancer, respiratory illness and other ailments. The mound of rubble at what came to be known as Ground Zero turned into a hazardous salvage job that took years to complete and sickened even more.
The events of 9/11 quickly led to war in Afghanistan, where the U.S., Canada and other allied countries have lost scores of soldiers, and where they continue to be mired in military campaigns of dubious long-term value. In 2003, the U.S. led a “coalition of the willing” in a costly, politically polarizing invasion of Iraq, a venture that likely would not have happened otherwise.
Most insidiously, bin Laden’s triumph permitted an unparalleled curbing of civil liberties across the Western world. The USA Patriot Act, made into law in the weeks following the attacks, gave law enforcement agencies unheard-of authority to eavesdrop on telephone, email and other communications, boosted international intelligence gathering and heralded an era in which suspected terrorists could be shipped to third-party countries for torture-enhanced interrogation. The Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in December, 2001, introduced similar measures here, and newspapers began reporting on no-fly list snafus snagging unlucky namesake children and other innocents. Those like Maher Arar were unluckier still when they found themselves on the wrong side of the war on terror.
The Homeland Security Advisory System, introduced in the U.S. in early 2002, used a colour-coded chart to keep the country updated on the likelihood of a terrorist attack, forcing Americans to endure endless stretches of “orange,” the second-highest level. Airplane travel became a checklist of aggravations, with passengers forced through a gauntlet of humiliations that now include the removal of belts and footwear, intrusive pat-downs and, at many airports, full-body scans that leave nothing to the imagination. Other terrorist threats spawned by bin Laden’s example have since prompted bans on bottles of water, toothpaste, hand moisturizer and other innocuous substances from airplanes. According to the New York Times, the Department of Homeland Security has spent US$40 billion rebuilding the aviation security system since 2001.
Overall, the psychological impact of Sept. 11 was great and indelible, particularly in the way the day’s attacks led to the alienation of many Western Muslims. Who could conceive of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp nightmare, the obscenities of Abu Ghraib, tasteless Danish cartoons or the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” controversy in a universe sans bin Laden?
what sense of personal satisfaction did he feel after achieving all this? We will never know. But after Sept. 11, he could never again entirely rely upon bungling Americans, the collision of interests among competing U.S. government agencies or the perception that U.S. security had priorities higher than al-Qaeda. In helping mastermind the 9/11 attack, bin Laden brought down the full force of the United States and its allies upon Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban, scuttling al-Qaeda’s safe harbour and forcing him into the caves of Tora Bora. It was, in the end, too much an apocalypse, too much a success.