July 27, 2004 | Op-ed

Al-Qaida and the Creativity of Murder

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

Now that the much-awaited Sept. 11 commission report has been published, there will be even more focus on the failings of politicians, intelligence officers, and the U.S. government generally.

Such analyses have their value, but they are based on a fundamental error: that what matters is U.S. policy, not enemy actions. The excessive attention paid to U.S. capabilities and inadequacies could mean that the strengths of the enemy will be overlooked, and the extent of the challenge underestimated.

The commission's report begins to address this problem by sometimes analyzing the 9/11 plot from the enemy's perspective. What we discover is a tough, resourceful, determined and cunning foe.

Al-Qaida has brought both scale and imagination to terrorism. Above all, al-Qaida's love of death and its lack of any realizable political goals mean that the organization cannot be deterred or contained, only fought and destroyed.

The commission's report outlines in gruesome detail how al-Qaida defined its mission, acquired the operatives willing to die for the mission, and then gave them the skills that they needed.

Innovation was critical. Al-Qaida's camps in Afghanistan became a university of terrorism, where budding jihadists were, according to the report, “free to think creatively about ways to commit mass murder.”

Recruitment was systematic but unstructured. Other terrorist groups, such as the PLO and the IRA, use their political wings as fronts for recruitment. Al-Qaida has no such visible point of entry for either recruits or, as important, intelligence agents. Instead, al-Qaida takes over mosques and uses word of mouth and informal approaches designed to defeat easy infiltration.

With evil genius, al-Qaida overturned all our previous assumptions about terrorism. Aviation security had aimed to detect the introduction of bombs onto aircraft. But al-Qaida turned the aircraft into bombs, relieving the terrorists of the risk of having to purchase, handle and transport explosives.

Similarly, previous hijackers had often smuggled guns onto aircraft with which to threaten the pilot and so control the aircraft's course. Al-Qaida dispensed with that approach, and for the first time ever the hijackers were themselves the pilots.

Al-Qaida also redefined the purpose of hijacking. In the past, hijacking, of the kind practiced by the Palestinians, was a form of brutal publicity: to attract attention or gain the release of terrorist prisoners. Indeed, the initial Sept. 11 plot, as conceived by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, involved nine suicide aircraft, with a 10th aircraft hijacked for the staging of a macabre news conference. The plan was to kill all adult male passengers on the 10th aircraft before landing it in the United States and delivering an attack on U.S. policies to the waiting media.

But Osama bin Laden vetoed the idea. He wanted the hijackers to elude attention for as long as possible.

While Palestinian hijackers had always wanted the authorities to know where the aircraft was, the Sept. 11 terrorists turned off the aircrafts' transponders, making detection difficult and thus giving them more time in which to approach their targets.

With equal cunning, al-Qaida found a balance between an attack plan so large that it would overwhelm U.S. defenses, but not so large that it could be discovered or thwarted.

Bin Laden had admired the use of simultaneous suicide attacks by Iranian-backed terrorists in Beirut in 1983. So he obtained training from Iran. He also seems to have learned from the multiple aircraft hijackings used by the Palestinians in 1970. In the end, he decided to use four aircraft, rather than the 10 that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had originally suggested.

Every last detail was thought through. The aircraft were seized just as they were reaching their cruising altitude, giving the United States little time to react and ensuring that the fuel tanks — the explosive that did not need to be smuggled on — were still close to full.

Just over 30 minutes elapsed between the terrorists' taking control of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 and the airplanes' striking the World Trade Center's twin towers. Between the two attacks was a space of just 17 minutes.

Before 9/11, many felt that the threat from bin Laden was exaggerated. He seemed not to pose the danger that his wild statements sought to make us feel. On 9/11, Americans learned that bin Laden was a man of his word, willing to put into action every evil intent.

If we do not learn to think ahead of bin Laden and the other terrorist masters — to understand their twisted brilliance — then we will always be one atrocity behind them.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in Washington.



Al Qaeda