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U.S. Intelligence and terrorism in the 1990s

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For more information, see: Terrorism and U.S. Intelligence.
See also: Terrorism

The United States intelligence community spent much effort to detect and interfere with threats ofterrorism in the 1990s. The period was characterized by a wide range of terrorist activities, from a religious cult that used weapons of mass destruction, WMDs, to an attack on the World Trade Center by an ad hoc jihadist group, to coordinated al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. and national targets in Kenya and Tanzania

By the mid-1990s, America's view of Al-Kifah, the U.S. branch of the Services Office, which had been allowed to run a training center in the U.S. had changed. It discovered that several of those charged with the World Trade Center bombing and the New York landmarks bombings were former Afghan veterans, recruited through the Brooklyn-based organization. Many of those the US had trained and recruited for a war were still fighting: but now it was against America. A confidential CIA internal survey concluded that it was 'partly culpable' for the World Trade Center bomb, according to reports of the time. There had been blowback.


In the early 1990s, Ali Mohamed, who had been a United States Army supply sergeant at the main base for United States Army Special Forces, returned to Afghanistan, where he gave training in al-Qaeda camps. According to FBI special agent Jack Cloonan, in one of Mohamed's first classes were Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda leaders.[1]

Eventually, the Services office and Al-Kifah were also linked to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian religious leader later jailed for the planned New York bombings. Even Sheikh Abdel-Rahman had, apparently, entered the US with the full knowledge of the CIA in 1990.

Jamal al-Fadl (himself recruited through the Brooklyn center in the mid 1980s) was described as the "third member". Al-Fadl later "defected" to the CIA and provided the agency's Bin Laden unit with a great deal of evidence about al-Qaeda.[2]


The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a conspiracy, and a group of the conspirators were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. There has been no strong argument that al-Qaeda was involved, although there have been allegations, including by a former Director of Central Intelligence, that Iraq supported the operational cell. In October 2001 in a PBS interview, former Clinton CIA Director James Woolsey argued a supposed link between Ramzi Youssef and the Iraqi intelligence services. He suggested the grand jury investigation turned up evidence pointing to Iraq that the Clinton Justice Department "brushed aside."

Neil Herman, who headed the FBI investigation, noted that despite Yasin's presence in Baghdad, there was no evidence of Iraqi support for the attack. "We looked at that rather extensively," he told CNN terrorism analyst Peter L. Bergen. The Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York, the CIA, the National Security Council, and the U.S. State Department no evidence that implicated the Iraqi government in the 1993 bombing.


The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used nerve gas in Japan, demonstrating that some weapons of mass destruction threat existed from well-funded terrorist groups.


Only a brief mention of Colombian FARC activity is mentioned in the declassified part of the 1995 Terrorism Review.[3]

Japanese authorities determined that the Aum was working on developing the chemical nerve agents sarin (GB) and VX; they produced and used sarin. [4]The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which attacked Japanese civilians with chemical weapons in 1994 and 1995, also tried to mine its own uranium in Australia and to buy Russian nuclear warheads.


The attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia is the only declassified subject in the 1996 Terrorism Review[5] Responsibility for the attack was, at the time of publication of the Review, not determined.

Bin Ladin came to the attention of the CIA as an emerging terrorist threat during his stay in Sudan from 1991 to 1996.[6]

The Agency, however, began to be concerned than bin Laden would extend his activities beyond Afghanistan. It experimented with various internal organizations that could focus on subjects such as bin Laden specifically and al-Qaeda generally.

In 1996 an experimental "virtual station" was launched, modeled on the agency's geographically-based stations, but based in Washington and dedicated to a particular transnational issue. It was placed under the Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and, like the CTC, cut across disciplines and drew its personnel from widely across the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Michael Scheuer, who up to then headed the Center's Islamic extremist branch, was asked to run it. Scheuer, who had noticed a stream of intelligence reports about Osama bin Laden, suggested the station be dedicated to this particular individual. The station began to produce evidence that Bin Laden was not only a financier, but also an organizer of terror. Originally dubbed "Terrorist Financial Links" (TFL),[7] the unit soon became rechristened the Bin Laden Issue Station. Scheuer also proposed extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to Egypt, from where key individuals, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, had come, along with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of the direct ancestors of al-Qaeda.

Jamal al-Fadl, who defected to the CIA in spring 1996, began to provide the Station with a new image of the Qaeda leader: he was not only a terrorist financier, but a terrorist organizer too, and sought weapons of mass destruction. FBI special agent Dan Coleman (who together with his partner Jack Cloonan had been "seconded" to the Bin Laden Station) called him Qaeda's "Rosetta Stone". [8]


See also: 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa

On 7 August 1998, near simultaneous car bomb attacks struck US embassies, and local buildings, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. The attacks, linked to local members of the al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, brought bin Laden and al Qaeda to international attention for the first time, and resulted in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation placing bin Laden on its Ten Most Wanted list.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Ali Mohammed, (sometimes called "al-Amriki", the American), was involved in planning the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa. [9]

The declassified page of the 1998 Terrorism Review speaks of the release of hostages by Colombia's two major guerrilla organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Kidnapping is the only threat mentioned, with a warning of continued danger to US interests. [10] The Review makes no mention of other countries or threats, but only the cover and one page were even partially declassified.


In 1999 DCI George Tenet launched a grand "Plan" to deal with al-Qaeda. In preparation, he selected new leadership for the Counterterrorist Center (CTC). He placed Cofer Black in charge of the CTC, and "Rich B" (a "top-flight executive" from Tenet's own leadership group) in charge of the CTC's Bin Laden unit. Tenet assigned the CTC to develop the Plan.[11] The proposals, brought out in September, sought to penetrate Qaeda's "Afghan sanctuary" with US and Afghan agents, in order to obtain information on and mount operations against Bin Laden's network. In October, officers from the Bin Laden unit visited northern Afghanistan. Once the Plan was finalized, the Agency created a "Qaeda cell" (whose functions overlapped those of the CTC's Bin Laden unit) to give operational leadership to the effort. CIA intelligence chief Charles E. Allen to set up a "Qaeda cell" was put in charge of the tactical execution of the Plan.

The CIA concentrated its inadequate financial resources on the Plan, so that at least some of its more modest aspirations were realized. Intelligence collection efforts on bin Laden and al-Qaeda increased significantly from 1999. "By 9/11", said Tenet, "a map would show that these collection programs and human [reporting] networks were in place in such numbers as to nearly cover Afghanistan". (But this excluded Bin Laden's inner circle itself.)[6]

Al Qaeda operated as an organization in more than sixty countries, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999 [a figure that was to help underpin the "War On Terror" two years later]. Its formal, sworn, hard-core membership might number in the hundreds. Thousands more joined allied militias such as the [Afghan] Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan....

A heavily redacted CIA document, the 1999 Terrorism Review, revealed concern with Libyan support of terrorism, through its External Security Organization (ESO). [12] The ESO is described as responsible for surveillance, assassination, and kidnapping of Libyan dissidents outside the country; examples were given from actions in the United Kingdom and Egypt. Libya was also described as attempting to build influence in sub-Saharan Africa, supporting a range of Palestinian rejectionist groups, and giving funds and equipment to the Moro Islamic Liberation Organization and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.

In addition, the World Anti-Imperialist Center (Mahatba) and the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) were described as part of terrorist infrastructure. This review does not mention any country, other than Libya, or non-national actor as a sponsor of terrorism, as opposed to an operational terrorist group.


  1. "The Torture Question: Interview, Jack Cloonan: When 9/11 happens, what was your history with Al Qaeda?", PBS Frontline, 18 October 2005
  2. Mayer, Jane (11 September 2006), "Junior: The clandestine life of America’s top Al Qaeda source", New Yorker
  3. DCI Counterterrorism Center, 1995 Terrorism Review, Central Intelligence Agency
  4. Oehler, Gordon C. (March 27, 1996), Continuing Threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction: Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA Nonproliferation Center
  5. DCI Counterterrorism Center, 1996 Terrorism Review, Central Intelligence Agency
  6. 6.0 6.1 Tenet, George (17 October 2002), Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the Joint Inquiry Committee
  7. Tenet, George (2007), At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, HarperCollins, at p.100
  8. Jane Mayer, "Junior: The clandestine life of America's top Al Qaeda source", New Yorker, Sept. 11, 2006.
  9. Williams, Lance & Erin McCormick (November 4, 2001), "Al Qaeda terrorist worked with FBI: Ex-Silicon Valley resident plotted embassy attacks", San Francisco Chronicle
  10. DCI Counterterrorism Center, 1998 Terrorism Review, Central Intelligence Agency
  11. Tenet, At The Center of the Storm, pp.119, 120
  12. DCI Counterterrorism Center, 1999 Terrorism Review, Central Intelligence Agency