- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

Few of us will forget where we were or what we were doing three years ago this morning, when the American people received a brutal wake-up call from Islamist terrorism. Between 7:58 a.m. EST, when American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Logan International Airport in Boston bound for Los Angeles, and 10:29 a.m., when the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, approximately 3,000 Americans and foreign nationals were killed by a team of 19 hijackers, all of them al Qaeda members who were taught to kill at Osama bin Laden’s terrorist training camps.

A few of the victims were passengers and flight attendants killed by the terrorists before the planes crashed at the Pentagon, and in southern Manhattan and southwestern Pennsylvania. These included several passengers and flight attendants stabbed with knives or boxcutters aboard Flight 11 before it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Those victims also may have included some passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, who upon learning through cell phone calls to loved ones that other hijacked planes had crashed, fought with the terrorists for control of their plane, causing the hijackers to crash it into a field near Shanksville, Pa., at 10:03 a.m. Others — perhaps as many as 200 — fell or jumped from top floors of the World Trade Center towers. But the great majority of those who were murdered that morning died as a result of the plane crashes and ensuing fires that destroyed the Twin Towers and damaged the Pentagon.

Aboard the hijacked planes, there were extraordinary stories of heroismand courage under fire. American Airlines Flight Attendant Betty Ong, who perished on Flight 11, spoke by cell phone with AA flight reservations headquarters, describing in calm, careful detail the terrorists’ actions on that flight. Ms. Ong was one of just many who telephoned loved ones and others to inform them about what was taking place. In addition, there were the heroic actions of members of the New York City Fire Department — which lost 344 of its people at the World Trade Center. Without their extraordinary skill and poise in evacuating the Twin Towers, tens of thousands of additional people could have died at what now is called Ground Zero.

While the heroism of the passengers aboard United Flight 93 is well known, few Americans are familiar with Jose Melendez-Perez, a U.S. immigration official at the Orlando airport, who may have saved the Capitol or the White House from destruction. On Aug. 4, 2001, Mr. Melendez-Perez barred Mohammed Kahtani, an al Qaeda operative suspected of being the “20th hijacker,” from entering the United States. Kahtani — captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan a few months later — is thought to be the missing fifth hijacker from United Flight 93, which the September 11 commission believes was supposed to target the White House or the Capitol. Of course, Flight 93, with just four terrorists aboard, was the only one of the hijacked planes that did not hit its target.

But all of the aforementioned heroism was the exception, not the rule. The events of September 11 could not have happened without intelligence failures and structural problems in U.S. intelligence agencies. As the September 11 commission noted in its final report, the FBI was hampered by its failure to obtain up-to-date computer technology. Moreover, when it learned something from foreign intelligence, the FBI was hamstrung by its understanding of the constitutional limitations on the use of such information in criminal matters. Exacerbating the problem was a policy instituted by Jamie Gorelick (a member of the September 11 panel) in her capacity as deputy to Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration, making it more difficult for intelligence agencies and law-enforcement officials to share information.

Two of the hijackers — Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — were able to enter the United States due to a staggering degree of incompetence. For example, al-Midhar got into the United States because immigration officials were not informed that he had attended an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. The CIA did not share the information it had on the pair until August 2001, asking that they be “watchlisted” and barred from entering the country. By then, they were already here. These are just a few of the many foulups that made the catastrophic terrorist attacks possible three years ago.

A common misnomer is that the September 11 attacks were the start of the current war. But the reality is that bin Laden’s terrorist organization and its offshoots had been attacking the United States for years prior to that, without much of a response. There was the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and the Somali militiamen who dragged the bodies of U.S. Army Rangers through the streets of Mogadishu nearly eight months later who were trained by al Qaeda. There was the Bojinka plot to blow up airplanes over the Pacific in 1995, the August 1998 bombings on two embassies in Africa and the suicide attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. Those attacks drew limited response from the United States. The failure to treat those attacks as the acts of war that they were emboldened the terrorists, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on September 11.

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