September 11 was of course a crucial event for the jihadist cause and, in general, for international politics and beyond. Al-Qaeda, a relatively little-known organization at the time, was able to take the world’s only “superpower” by surprise and carry out the most serious terrorist attack in history, in the heart of its territory. How was this possible? Why did the intelligence system fail? These questions are still relevant today.
Pundits and commentators often tend to blame an intelligence failure on individuals, usually at the highest levels of the hierarchy of the national security system. But experts in this field have shown that intelligence failures are usually failures of a structural nature and are not attributable to an error (or a series of errors) regrettably committed by a particular individual or group. This fact has practical implications that are as important, as they are not very optimistic: to remedy an intelligence failure it is not enough to punish or remove an individual or a group, but it is necessary to carefully review the intelligence system and its activities.
Two general premises are needed to examine intelligence failures. First, it should be recognized that public opinion generally has too high expectations of the intelligence agencies’ objectives and results. Second, it is important to emphasize that, of course, political leaders may also have serious responsibilities in failing to predict and cope with an event relevant to the national interest.
With these important assumptions in mind, this article aims to concisely revisit the errors and limitations of intelligence agencies in the case of September 11, based on available information. As several scholars have acknowledged, there is no single cause of intelligence failures. This article takes into account various causal factors, along two dimensions: the individual level, concerning cognitive and psychological factors, and the organizational level.
Cognitive and Psychological Factors
Cognitive and psychological factors are usually crucial in intelligence failures. First of all, one of the classic problems of intelligence activity concerns information overload. Modern intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies continually collect a huge amount of information. In this vast multitude of sometimes conflicting indications, valuable intelligence may be hidden. The problem obviously concerns the difficulty in recognizing its relevance—the so-called “signal to noise ratio” problem—and doing so in a timely manner. This is a problem not only in real-time but retrospectively: determining what counts as a “failure” is colored by the fact the reviewer knows what the signals were leading to.
In the case of 9/11, it is certainly true that in the months leading up to the catastrophe there were many worrying signals, especially during what the 9/11 Commission called the “summer of threat” in 2001. But it is at best unproven to see any one of these as having been so fundamental that if properly interpreted by US agencies it would have allowed them to foil the September 11 attacks. It is easy enough for the then-Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), George Tenet, to argue, as he later did, that the “system was blinking red” by the summer of 2001, but it begs a lot of questions.
Moreover, even when some relevant information emerges from the background “noise”, it can be so generic that it is almost useless. In this respect, according to the members of the 9/11 Commission, “most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented. Many officials told us that they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it. Despite their large number, the threats received contained few specifics regarding time, place, method, or target”. Again, the pieces of the puzzle are easily recognizable once the picture is completed—that is to say, after the attack.
Another psychological factor that worked towards the intelligence failure allegedly concerned overconfidence. Some experts even referred to a form of “organizational hubris”, based on a sort of “myth of invincibility”, after the triumphant end of the Cold War. Such attitudes could lead to an underestimation of the danger posed by Al-Qaeda. The jihadist group had certainly not hidden its hostility towards the United States. On 23 February 1998, Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other three jihadist leaders had issued a notorious “fatwa” in which they urged every Muslim to kill the Americans and their allies “wherever and whenever they find them”. Al-Qaeda had then demonstrated that it had the real capabilities, as well as the intention, to plan and carry out complex and damaging suicide attacks against US citizens: on 7 August 1998, the US Embassies of Tanzania and Kenya were simultaneously hit, killing 224 people, and on 12 October 2000, it was the turn of the USS Cole, attacked by two suicide bombers in a skiff, who killed seventeen people. If overconfidence was a problem, these high-profile attacks did not profoundly change that position.
That attitude seemed to be mixed with wishful thinking that prevented the full recognition of the danger of a high-profile attack by a terrorist organization such as Al-Qaeda, despite it having already shown that it had both the intention and the ability to strike. On a psychological level, these beliefs, according to some authors, might conceal a kind of self-deception that allowed individuals to relieve anxiety, at the price of increasing vulnerability.
Such problems may have been facilitated by phenomena of conformism and “groupthink”, typical of small groups which have to take important decisions under pressure. Moreover, according to some experts, the alleged “homogeneity” of culture and mentality within intelligence agencies had ended up leading to an underestimation of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and even to a marginalization of the members of the organization who well before September 11 had strongly signaled the danger.
Another problem, underlying all the others, can go under the heading “lack of imagination”. The hijacking of four commercial airliners full of passengers—not to enter into negotiations, but to use the same planes as missiles to be launched against highly symbolic targets, intentionally sacrificing their lives during the mission—was never conceived of by US intelligence. Whatever signals were detected in the noise, nobody was ever going to put the pieces together to get to that. Whatever degree of overconfidence and wish thinking was partly based on the prior attacks of Al-Qaeda—for one thing, it was expected the attack would happen outside the US. And even if the groupthink at the CIA was less powerful, the mechanics of this plot were not in anybody’s mind. The most the 9/11 Commission could do was generically recommend a process of “institutionalization of imagination”, almost an oxymoron.
Unfortunately, if a passive position clearly represents a mistake, a position of great activism is not necessarily the solution to the problem; it can even lead to the opposite problem, over-warning. On the one hand, at the operational level, the intelligence and security apparatus cannot follow all possible “tracks”; it would be too time-consuming and resource-intensive. On the other hand, even more interestingly, the reporting of a large number of false alarms produces equally harmful results, since it desensitizes analysts and policy makers to the reports, a phenomenon known as “crying wolf syndrome”, and this is part of the 9/11 story, too. The insistence with which some government officials, even at the highest levels, reported alarms for imminent attacks that did not occur prior to 9/11 had the undesirable effect of lowering, rather than raising, the level of attention, producing a sort of addiction to alarms, and in some cases it even ended up compromising their personal credibility as well.
Scholars and experts have drawn attention to some organizational limitations and dilemmas of the intelligence system that explain their failure. In 2001, the U.S. Intelligence Community was fragmented into more than a dozen civilian and military agencies, headed by different departments and structures of the Washington government.
In general, the specialization and compartmentalization of intelligence agencies can have positive effects on the management of specific issues, but it makes it more difficult to see the whole threat picture if different agencies have different pieces. Even that, though, need not be an insurmountable problem—if there is proper communication, which at the time there was not between US agencies.
Arguably, the most discussed case where information-sharing between US agencies broke down directly involved two of the nineteen September 11 suicide attackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. The CIA learned that these two jihadists had attended a major planning meeting of Al-Qaeda members in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 5 to 8 January 2000, but it did not promptly transmit this information to the FBI or the State Department, even when the two foreign citizens who attended the meeting entered the United States a week later.
This reluctance to share information appears indefensible, but there are operational reasons for this. The FBI is always concerned that sharing information could jeopardize prosecutions, which is the ultimate purpose for which the FBI gathers information, while the CIA fears that any disclosure could reveal its sources and methods, compromising its main purpose. This led to negative outcomes: relations between the agencies of the US intelligence and security system ended up in bitter rivalries and turf wars, with attitudes of mutual distrust and suspicion towards one-another. (And especially in the FBI there was internal fragmentation that created problems for information flow.) Still, while the “firewalls” led to these problems, they had been created to solve other problems, namely to protect the legal rights of citizens, which had been abused during the more institutionally fluid times before the 1970s when the abuses were exposed and reforms were made.
Some scholars and experts have argued that a more functional inter-institutional relationship in the intelligence community would have significantly reduced the risk of failures. The 9/11 Commission final Report itself adopted a similar perspective, recommending a greater degree of coordination and centralization of the system. In this regard, however, it is useful to add that, due to the organizational dilemmas that are typical of intelligence agencies, more sharing of information can also lead to significant risks. In fact, in organizations governed by the imperative of secrecy, the dissemination of information tends to increase the dangers to the system, particularly in counterintelligence terms, increasing the risk of (and the damage that can be done by) double agents and “whistleblowers”.
It is clear that the terrorism represents a particularly insidious and demanding challenge to secret services. In fact, it is necessary to determine not only whether an attack will take place, but also where, when, and how. By their very nature, terrorists operate clandestinely and constantly use the surprise factor. Furthermore, some distinctive features of contemporary terrorism, such as the spread on a global scale, the ability to take on markedly decentralized forms, the readiness to change tactics, weapons, and targets of violence, the massive and sophisticated use of various means of communication (including online platforms), and the multiplicity of individual profiles of attackers and supporters, make the task of intelligence agencies even more difficult and burdensome, all the more so if one considers the constraints of time and resources and the possible political pressures they have to deal with. Overall, compared to 2001, the intelligence and security apparatus of the United States and other countries have been adapted and now appear to be better prepared and equipped to deal with the specific threat of jihadist terrorism, at least on national territory. Nevertheless, twenty years later, the intelligence failure of September 11 remains a crucial cautionary tale.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.