The Ne2w York Times
August 6, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 - They scouted the streets. They took photographs. They wrote detailed surveillance reports. And then, after five years of patiently waiting, Al Qaeda operatives carried out the devastating suicide truck bombing at the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.
This meticulous approach to terrorism - studying targets and fine-tuning strategies for years before an attack - is in part why officials in Washington say they are so alarmed about the latest evidence of reconnaissance of financial centers in New York, New Jersey and Washington, even though much of the information dates back to the days before Sept. 11, 2001.
The same studied technique has been central to the most well-known Qaeda attacks, be they in Africa or the United States. Plots that were carried out and failed, and even plots that were considered but abandoned, like a possible attack on the Brooklyn Bridge last year, each demonstrate this same obsession. It is Al Qaeda's hallmark.
"Al Qaeda will wait years to act and decades to succeed," Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor who has been investigating Osama bin Laden for about a decade, told the 9/11 commission this summer.
Investigators also know that even after extensively considering and then dismissing a possible target, the terrorists have simply switched their focus to another location, which may explain the intense precautions imposed around the Capitol this week, even though it is not publicly known whether it was among the buildings that were subjected to surveillance.
It is an appreciation of this modus operandi, which is evident in an examination of a decade's worth of plotting and action by Al Qaeda, that has so complicated the decision on how to respond appropriately to evidence that might be dated. Old information is not necessarily bad information. It might just be a hint of a plot that in a somewhat revised form was close to being carried out.
"The dry runs, the surveillance, the documentation, also going to the trouble of putting this information on computers and on disks, it shows the degree of thoroughness," said Neil Herman, a former supervisor of the F.B.I.'s Joint Terrorist Task Force in New York. "And by being as thorough as possible, ultimately they have been successful."
Federal authorities have not made public the recently discovered surveillance reports of financial institutions, which they say were found in Pakistan; and one F.B.I. official cautioned on Wednesday that the authorities are not even certain that the surveillance reports themselves represent an active plot.
But officials said this week that a second strand of intelligence indicating the possibility of a terrorist attack in New York made the situation urgent, given Al Qaeda's track record of long-term surveillance and planning, and promoted the elevation of the terrorism alert.
Moreover, the descriptions officials have offered of the surveillance reports - that they were devoted to individual targets, ran about 20 pages, were found on computer discs, and included a stunning level of detail - seem eerily reminiscent of instructions in a Qaeda training manual that was seized by the authorities in the home of one Qaeda operative in Manchester, England.
"Winning the battle is dependent on knowing the enemy's secrets," the manual declares in sections devoted to espionage and "information gathering" using open and covert methods.
The manual describes in great detail the sort of information that is to be collected while monitoring a target: traffic directions, street widths, location of signals and pedestrian areas, times of traffic congestion, proximity of public parks, and the amount and location of lighting. "The brother should draw a diagram of the area," the manual adds. "The drawing should be realistic so that someone who never saw the location could visualize it."
Al Qaeda's painstaking preparations for attacks first emerged publicly after the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. As early as 1993, the investigation found, Mr. bin Laden sent a trusted aide to Nairobi to conduct surveillance on American, British, French and Israeli targets.
The aide, Ali A. Mohamed, an Egyptian with American citizenship, was an all-purpose operative for Mr. bin Laden, court testimony and investigative records show. He spoke English, traveled freely around the world, and assisted with Mr. bin Laden's security. A veteran of the Egyptian and American armies, Mr. Mohamed also trained Qaeda operatives in surveillance and intelligence collection techniques, even how to take photographs without holding a camera up to one's eyes, one of his former students, a Qaeda member who later became a government witness, has testified.
The former Qaeda member, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, recalled that there were trial runs in Peshawar, Pakistan, to practice their surveillance. "We started with small things," Mr. Kherchtou said, "like bridge, like stadium, like normal places in which nobody is, and then in the second stage, we went to police stations, for example, and in my group, we were trained to go to Iranian consulate and Iranian cultural center."
No details were to be spared, he added. If they were to learn about a specific room, they were to scout "the walls, the colors, how big are the walls and which color are they, and how high they are, the lights, the doors, the floor, everything that you can see, all information about that room."
Operatives were trained to file detailed surveillance reports on computer, and to "put them in a disc so as to be easy to carry," Mr. Kherchtou said.
The embassy plot in Nairobi began in late 1993 with a consideration of a variety of possible targets: the American Embassy, the United States agricultural office, as well as the French Embassy and cultural center, all of which Mr. Mohamed cased.
"I took pictures, drew diagrams, and wrote a report," Mr. Mohamed said in court when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2000. This trove of surveillance reports and photographs were then presented directly to Mr. bin Laden back in Khartoum.
"Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber," Mr. Mohamed said.
The Nairobi investigation also showed that surveillance and the selection of targets are just the initial phases in a Qaeda plot, and that other operatives, acting perhaps months or years later, will then execute the attack. Such tactics are one reason why investigators were so alarmed by the discovery of the surveillance reports of financial institutions, even though they were three or four years old. Such evidence could suggest Al Qaeda is just that much further down the line to launching an attack.
"There is a point were they have done surveillance, developed the plot, and have logistics support in place," an F.B.I. official said on Wednesday.
Such attention to detail, the willingness to wait for the opportune moment to attack, and the capacity to revise strategies if necessary, has been illustrated in other Qaeda operations. The preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks have been well documented, such as the hijackers' use of small rented aircraft to conduct pre-strike reconnaissance flights near the Pentagon and their cross-country surveillance flights to determine such things as the best time to storm the cockpit.
But the pattern extends far beyond these most spectacular incidents. A failed plot in 1995, hatched in the Philippines, to bomb 12 United States commercial jets as they flew over the Pacific unraveled only after extensive planning and even trial runs. One of the conspirators in the plot - nicknamed Bojinka - was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who later helped to mastermind the Sept. 11 attacks, investigators have said.
The conspirators in the Bojinka plot did the same careful planning, including casing flights from the Philippines to Hong Kong and Seoul. The prime orchestrator of the plot was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who also led the 1993 bombing on the World Trade Center.
The conspirators went to the extreme of testing a bomb at a Manila movie theater in December 1994, and later on a Philippine Airlines flight, all as part of preparation for the main offensive, which was set to take place in January 1995. The conspirators even tried dousing toy dolls with a home-made explosive that they were considering smuggling onto the planes. The plan was foiled when neighbors noticed smoke emanating from the Manila apartment where they lived - they were burning chemicals to make the ingredients for the bombs - and a security guard noticed Mr. Yousef running down the stairs carrying his shoes, records from Mr. Yousef's trial say.
Even though the large-scale jetliner attack over the Pacific never happened, it is clear that the elaborate planning was an unappreciated warning of the sophistication and determination of the terrorists.
"It showed the government back in the mid-1990's how detail-oriented these individuals were," said Mr. Herman, the former F.B.I. official, who was involved in the Bojinka investigation. "It also showed that there was an active network, although, of course, we were unable to determine the extent of the network back then."
The bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole in October 2000 followed four years of contemplation and plotting. The conception came in 1996 when a Qaeda member, during a visit to his home in Yemen, noticed that American and other foreign ships frequented the waters on the coast of Yemen, according to the 9/ 11 commission report. The formal planning began in late 1998, with operatives being sent to Yemen to scout for ships that could be possible targets.
When they failed to find United States Navy ships on the western coast of Yemen, Mr. bin Laden reportedly redirected them to the southern shore, the commission report says. In January 2000, a guided missile destroyer, The Sullivans, was identified and a Qaeda boat went out for the attack. But the Qaeda boat sank under its own weight before it could strike the ship.
The authorities did not detect the failed assault on The Sullivans, and the terrorists were able to regroup, salvage the explosives and strengthen the hull of the boat to attack the Cole ten months later, killing 17 and injuring at least 40.
Such persistence, even if a first effort fails as in Yemen, does not mean that Al Qaeda pursues every plot to its destructive end.
Al Qaeda's planning to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge started in the spring of 2002, according to a federal court statement signed by Iyman Faris, a Pakistan native who pleaded guilty last year to the conspiracy. (Mr. Faris, who has since been sentenced in the attack, has tried to rescind his guilty plea).
Mr. Faris, who worked as a truck driver after immigrating to the United States in 1994, had met Mr. bin Laden at a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2000, court records show. After he was asked to pursue a strike against the bridge, he spent nearly a year researching the kinds of gas torches that might be used to try to cut the bridge's suspension cables, and he traveled from his home in Ohio to examine the span.
It was only after inspecting the bridge - whose main cables are more than 15 inches in diameter and contain 19 individual strands, each of which contains 280 separate wires - that he reported back to his Qaeda contact that "the weather is too hot," a coded signal to indicate that the plot was not likely to succeed.Now, with investigators having recovered the extensive surveillance reports on financial centers in New York and elsewhere, a critical question remains: is Al Qaeda still pursuing a plot, has it revised it, or abandoned it?
"If you are looking for fingerprints, that is one,'' an American intelligence official said on Wednesday, of the detailed surveillance. "It is completely consistent with they way they operate. It is one of the things you look for, not the only, not decisive, but it is one.''
Eric Lipton reported from Washington, and Benjamin Weiser from New York.