Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. This is adapted from his new book, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden,” published by Simon & Schuster on August 3. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Just one week out of the University of Virginia, with a degree in economics and foreign policy, Gina Bennett started working at the State Department as a clerk-typist in June 1988. After a couple of months, Bennett’s boss told her, “Gina, you don’t belong here. I’m going to promote you so you can get a job as an intelligence analyst.”
Today, 33 years later, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Bennett is a member of the CIA’s Senior Analytic Service working as senior counterterrorism adviser at the National Counterterrorism Center. No one in the US government has tracked al Qaeda and all its many branches and offshoots for as long and with as much distinction as Bennett has.
This didn’t seem predictable when Bennett started at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, one of the smallest US intelligence agencies.
Bennett’s first job was as a “terrorism watch officer,” working eight-hour shifts during which she monitored intelligence and news media to analyze terrorism trends and to respond to attacks when they occurred.
On December 21, 1988, a bomb blew up on Pan Am 103 as it flew over Scotland. The jet crashed, killing a total of 270 people on the plane and on the ground, 35 of whom were students at Syracuse University. Bennett worked with Consular Affairs helping the bereaved families and preparing the State Department’s daily updates about the bombing.
Bennett recalled, “I was really, really changed by Pan Am 103 because so many of the passengers were students who were just a bit younger than me.” Stopping the next terrorist attack became a mission for Bennett. “It’s like being a cop who is chasing a serial killer on a cold case. You just can’t give it up.”
The Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989 and then the Soviet Union collapsed, but Bennett sensed that there was a menacing legacy of the Cold War – the “Afghan Arabs,” who were Arab veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s in Afghanistan. Bennett realized that the Afghan Arabs were returning to their home countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia and she noticed that some were joining armed groups.
Bennett was particularly struck by an attack in November 1991 by a group of militants on Algerian border guards, six of whom were slaughtered like animals, hacked to death with knives and swords. The Algerian terrorists were dressed in Afghan garb and their leader was named Tayeb el Afghani, “Tayeb the Afghan.”
Bennett investigated further and found that thousands of Afghan Arabs had left their home countries to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 1980s, relying on a support network that had funneled men, money and supplies to the Afghan War. By the early 1990s, that network was sending veterans of the Afghan conflict to join militant Islamist groups around the world.
Bennett started writing classified papers about what she was learning. She began hearing about an “Abu Abdullah” guy who was financing some of these Afghan Arabs. Bennett had no idea that she would spend much of the rest of her career focused on this mysterious Abu Abdullah, the nom de guerre of Osama bin Laden.
Bennett researched the bombings of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992. They were housing US soldiers on their way to Somalia to participate in a humanitarian mission to feed starving Somalis. Yemeni officials said the attack was financed by an “Osama bin Laden,” who was then living in Sudan.
As Bennett was investigating bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs, she became pregnant with her first child, delivering her son on February 23, 1993. Three days later, a team assembled by one of the Afghan Arabs, Ramzi Yousef, drove a van into the basement of the World Trade Center and detonated a bomb, killing six people. As investigators began looking into Yousef’s group, they found that several of them had traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan to aid in the war against the communists.
Bennett was holding her new baby boy in the hospital when she received a frantic call about the Trade Center bombing from her boss who was almost shouting, “Your people did this! Your people did this!” Her boss was referring to the Afghan Arabs that Bennett had been tracking for the past couple of years.
At first, Bennett had no idea what her boss was talking about as she was in a great deal of pain from her C-section three days earlier and her painkillers had worn off.
She quickly realized that the Afghan Arabs had spread their holy war, this time to New York City. Sitting on Bennett’s desk at the State Department was a draft of a paper that she had been writing that described a movement of mujahideen, holy warriors, from more than 50 countries who had gained battlefield experience in Afghanistan and were now joining militant organizations in countries such as Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt, Tajikistan, the Philippines and Yemen, and even in unexpected locations like Burma.
When Bennett returned from maternity leave to the State Department, she resumed drafting her paper, which she circulated on August 21, 1993.
The classified report, “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” identified “Usama bin Ladin” as a donor who was supporting Islamic militants in “places as diverse as Yemen and the United States.” Bin Laden’s fortune had derived from his family’s construction company, which was one of the largest in the Middle East. According to Bennett’s 1993 analysis, bin Laden’s funding had also enabled hundreds of Afghan Arabs to resettle in Sudan and Yemen.
Bennett’s report was the first time that the US government had produced a warning about the dangers of a global jihadist movement led by the mysterious multimillionaire, Osama bin Laden. And the warning was not issued by the CIA or the FBI, but by a junior intelligence analyst at the State Department.
A week later, Bennett published another classified analysis titled, “Saudi Patron to Islamic Extremists,” in which she observed that bin Laden had founded a group called “al-Qa’ida in the 1980s.” This was the first time that anyone in the U.S. government had identified al Qaeda as a threat, the existence of which was then a well-kept secret.
Bennett had spent time liaising with her intelligence counterparts in countries such as Egypt and Yemen to learn as much as she could about bin Laden and his organization.
Bennett named bin Laden as the financier of the bombings of the two hotels in Yemen. She also described how bin Laden had gathered a group of Afghan war veterans in his base in Sudan who were training to fight in new holy wars and he was “financing jihads” around the world from Pakistan to Thailand.
Bennett knew that what she was describing wasn’t considered “normal” in the world of counterterrorism because this was a case of militants from different countries in a loose alliance operating without the support of any state. Bennett wanted policymakers and the intelligence community to pay attention to this phenomenon, but she knew it would be difficult.
In classified papers, Bennett described bin Laden as a “financier,” as that was the best evidence about him that was then available, but privately she saw him as something more. Bennett was an observant Catholic who understood the power of religious beliefs in someone’s life.
She believed that bin Laden was a visionary who believed God was on his side. He had a model for political change that was based on his experience in Afghanistan where men from dozens of countries had put their different interpretations of Islam aside and had fought in Allah’s name. They had stayed focused on that fight and look at what they had helped achieve: The Soviet Union fell, two years after the Soviet’s disastrous war in Afghanistan had ended in 1989.
Bennett believed that bin Laden mythologized this whole movement, not just his own role in it, and he thought it was a repeatable model, not only in Afghanistan, but around the world.
Under pressure from the Saudi and US governments in mid-May 1996, bin Laden was pushed out of Sudan and relocated to Afghanistan. Two months later, Bennett published another prescient top secret analysis titled, “Usama bin Ladin: Who’s Chasing Whom?” Bennett predicted that bin Laden “would feel comfortable returning to Afghanistan, where he got his start as a patron and mujahid during the war with the former Soviet Union.”
Bennett went on to forecast that bin Laden’s “prolonged stay in Afghanistan where hundreds of Arab mujahidin receive terrorist training and extremist leaders often congregate – could prove more dangerous to US interests in the long run than during his three-year liaison with Khartoum [the capital of Sudan].”
Bennett believed that bin Laden would be a bigger threat now that he was reunited with the birthplace of his own mythology: the battlefields of Afghanistan where he had personally fought the Soviets in the late 1980s.
He had a network of contacts in Pakistan and Afghanistan that he could easily utilize. And he was angry about being forced out of Sudan where he had invested many millions of dollars, an expulsion that he blamed on the Americans.
During the spring and summer of 2001, the American intelligence community received a series of credible intelligence reports about bin Laden’s plans for attacks on American targets.
On April 20, a report titled “Bin Ladin Planning Multiple Operations” was circulated by the CIA, followed by another report on May 3, “Bin Ladin Public Profile May Presage Attack.” And on August 3, the CIA issued a warning titled, “Threat of Impending al-Qaeda Attack to Continue Indefinitely.”
According to Bennett, who was by now working at the CIA and contributing to the warnings about bin Laden’s plans, the fact that some of al Qaeda’s plots had previously failed contributed to a sense among senior American national security officials that the CIA was overplaying the threat. Bennett asked herself, “Maybe we are crazy. Maybe we’re wrong?” It was wearing on Bennett and her colleagues. It was a hard summer.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the oppressive heat of the Washington summer was finally beginning to dissipate; the sky was a cloudless, azure blue and the air crystalline. Gina Bennett and her friend Cindy Storer, both of whom had been on the bin Laden “account” for as long as anyone at the CIA, were carpooling to the agency’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, which is tucked away behind a screen of trees in a leafy neighborhood of well-appointed mansions.
The whole ride Bennett and Storer were discussing the assassination two days earlier of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. They debated whether this was a gift from bin Laden to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, and they kept probing the question: Why go to the trouble of assassinating Massoud, if not for some larger reason?
Bennett, who was three months pregnant with her fourth child and was occasionally suffering morning sickness, was at her desk at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, when she heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. She and her colleagues turned on a television and watched the coverage. They saw the second plane fly into the other tower at 9:03 a.m. The attacks from bin Laden they had warned about were upon them.
CIA managers told everyone to evacuate the agency’s headquarters building, but those in the Counterterrorist Center were told they had to remain at their desks; after all, they knew more about al Qaeda than anyone else in the government.
The Counterterrorist Center team split up, with some officials trying to find the passenger manifests of the hijacked planes. Bennett and her team members tried to work out what the next target of the terrorists could be. They were keenly aware that militants linked to al Qaeda had developed a plan six years earlier to fly a plane into CIA headquarters. And there was a hijacked passenger jet hurtling toward Washington, D.C. That plane would crash into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
The terror attacks that day in New York City, Washington, DC and outside Shanksville, Pennsylania killed 2,977 people.
Within weeks of 9/11, Bennett was pulled from her job to dig into Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s purported involvement in 9/11. Senior Bush administration officials were convinced that Saddam was involved. However, when Bennett investigated whether there were any substantive links between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, she concluded that Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda were “mutually hostile,” an analysis she communicated to Bush administration officials.
Yet, President George W. Bush was determined to go to war and the following month US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the UN Security Council, claiming that Saddam concealed a weapons of mass destruction program and was in league with al Qaeda.
The Iraq War began in March 2003. Seven months later, on November 11, 2003, Bennett and several other intelligence officials briefed President Bush and his war cabinet at a meeting in the White House Situation Room, telling them, “Iraq came along at exactly the right time for al Qaeda,” as it had allowed the group to stage a comeback. Religious extremists from around the Muslim world were now pouring into Iraq.
The Iraq War had saved al Qaeda.
Eight years after the beginning of the Iraq War, bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. A CIA analyst in her mid-20s sent Bennett a message saying, “Hey, it was a really bad day for al Qaeda?”
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Bennett replied, “Well, yeah. It’s a pretty bad day, but it’s definitely not their worst.”
Bennett’s colleague asked, “What are you talking about? Bin Laden is dead.”
Bennet asked her younger colleague about a once infamous terrorist group that had terrorized Germany during the 1970s: “Well, let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof gang?”
The colleague said, “No.”
Bennett replied, “Well, someday when one officer in CIA’s Counterterrorism Center says to another officer, ‘Have you ever heard of Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda?’ and they say ‘No’: That’s the worst day.”