Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2002, page 14
Did Israel Have Advance Warning of 9/11 Attacks?
By Richard H. Curtiss
Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet consisted of four novels, each from a different protagonist’s point of view. There was a world of meaning as each new volume gradually unfolded. This writer found similarities as the World Trade Center and Pentagon catastrophes developed. Whatever one’s viewpoints, new events keep being revealed that require new thought and interpretation.
It was several days before I became aware that the conventional wisdom in the United States varied considerably from what was appearing on television screens abroad. The differing interpretations of the same circumstances only became clear to me because an Arab friend happened to be visiting the U.S. Like me, he spent much of his American vacation glued to the television set. I realized, however, that what he and I were seeing and hearing seemed like parallel universes.
His primary sources were from Arab broadcasters such as al-Jazeera, which has the highest listenership in the Middle East. One of the early reports from Qatar said that on the day the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings came down, as many as 4,000 Jewish workers had gone on leave.
Where such a report originated was not made clear. It just became a “given” in ensuing Middle East interpretations. From the moment this bizarre suggestion surfaced that American and Israeli Jews got a special warning, most Americans discredited anything else coming from Middle East sources. People who heard the story, carefully quoted by my visiting friend, just tuned out the idea.
As some new Middle Eastern details emerged, conspiracy theories became more persistent. Nor did anyone lose sight of the fact that the Israelis were seeking a new opportunity to break the morale of the Palestinians. Strangely, many Arabs, Pakistanis and others seemed able to carry two narratives in their heads at the same time. While most deplored the ghastly loss of life in New York and Washington, DC, they also increasingly were outraged at what was happening in Palestine while mainstream American media attention was turned elsewhere.
Meanwhile, things were moving rapidly in the United States. Within hours after the four hijacked aircraft had crashed, many people were seized on the basis of suspicious activities or appearances. Five young men from Israel attracted the interest of their neighbors when they were seen photographing each other near the now burning World Trade Center.
A large number of Israelis were caught up in the roundup of suspicious characters.
They had already left for work in a Jersey City moving company before the police caught up with them. They were taken to jail, where they were questioned extensively. According to Israeli press accounts that grew in the retelling, they were roughed up by other American prisoners and it was reported that one of the young men had suffered a nervous collapse. The five Israelis eventually were deported because of passport violations.
Meanwhile, a roundup of about 1,000 people, most of them Middle Easterners, was taking place—and with virtually no publicity. To this day, the numbers of people affected are difficult to document. How many have been released and how many remain in detention is uncertain.
Now, however, things begin to get a little murkier. Events may not be quite as clear as a straightforward narrative would demand. For example, despite attempts by the U.S. government to hush it up, a very large number of Israelis were caught up in the roundup of suspicious characters. While people had assumed that most of those rounded up were Arabs, it turned out that quite a number were Jewish Israelis, not Arab Israelis. And it seemed that some of them had no valid explanations of what they were doing when Sept. 11 stopped everyone in their tracks.
One of the first things that surprised government officials was that apparently some Israeli operatives in the U.S. had advance warning that terrorists were planning a major event in the United States. Whatever the warnings were, however, they were not shared with American authorities.
There were plenty of opportunities to speak out. Some Israelis, for example, had been watching a group of Arabs in California for some time. When the Israelis inadvertently realized that something big was about to happen, either the specifics were not shared with U.S. authorities or the latter simply ignored the warning. It may well be that Israel’s Mossad operatives were afraid to explain their activities, as that might divulge the extent of Israeli penetration. The end result, however, is that the catastrophic events on the East Coast transpired, when they might have been averted.
The situation is reminiscent of a warning that could have been given when Israeli intelligence got wind in 1983 of an imminent attack in Beirut. In that case Israeli intelligence was aware of the threat of a truck bombing, although the target was not clear. Nevertheless, Israel consciously decided not to warn the United States of the possible threat, later admitting that they had decided it was up to the U.S. government to gather its own intelligence.
As a result, however, a large number of U.S. Marines died in an attack on their barracks that certainly could have been prevented. One cannot help suspecting that the Israeli government decided that letting the attack go forward would serve Israel’s interests. So damn the consequences and never mind Israel’s guilt.
THE DAY THE CLOCK STOPPED
The events of Sept. 11 had many other quirks as well. The first indication of how many Israeli intelligence operations were under way was revealed by reporter Carl Cameron in a Dec.12 Fox News story. Investigators have many similar examples of what the Israelis were doing on the day when the clock suddenly stopped.
For example, Israelis have been coming to the United States for several years on a variety of intelligence missions. This writer’s magazine was visited by two young Israelis last year. The visitors wanted to sell works of art, but no one was interested in the subject. They seemed reluctant to leave, however. Instead, they sought to engage in prying conversations with staff members and finally had to be asked to depart.
We now know that young Israeli intelligence operatives have been working for some time on a variety of pretexts. Their missions seemed to be to make contacts of interest to Israel.
American law enforcement personnel now realize that they targeted military bases, government facilities and, according to Fox News reporter Cameron, they even penetrated the private homes of law enforcement and intelligence personnel.
One of the most original pretexts was to sell toys called “Puzzlecar” and “Zoomcopter” in malls. When U.S. investigators arrested the “artists” and “toy sellers,” the Israeli company that manufactured the toys folded their tents and departed almost overnight. According to Cameron, dozens of peddlers in malls simply never showed up again, leaving their merchandise unclaimed on their trays.
Those who departed just may have been concerned with immigration formalities. On the other hand, others may have realized that this was no time to continue their cover. Whether the FBI has uncovered Mossad or other Israeli intelligence operations remains to be seen. And so far the FBI isn’t talking.
Meanwhile, a General Accounting Office investigation concluded that Israel has the most aggressive espionage activity of any U.S. ally. A Defense Intelligence report said Israel has a “voracious appetite for information.” The same report said Israel “aggressively collects military and industrial technology, and the U.S. is a high priority target.” Such information seldom penetrates Israel’s protective shield in the U.S.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a report that Israel had warned the FBI and CIA in August that there might be a “major assault” in the U.S. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Mossad had passed the warning on to the U.S. The Times report said that a large-scale target had been picked. In retrospect it is not clear to this writer if the Mossad really was seeking to help the war on terrorism or whether it was just looking for a new diversion so Ariel Sharon could continue his own war against the Palestinians.
The swift wrap up of the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan leaves Israeli intelligence desperately seeking new enemies. Federal law enforcement authorities, meanwhile, have made a point of reminding the public that there have been dozens of other violations by the Israelis. The most famous case, of course, is that of Jonathan Pollard. But there are many others. Most of these cases die for lack of dogged reporting. American journalists realize it is not a smart career move to follow up such investigations aggressively.
The best action the Bush administration can possibly take now is to revisit the Israeli-Arab dispute—this time from the perspective of America’s, not Israel’s, national interest. As with the conflicting interpretations of Durrell’s enigmatic novels of Alexandria, let us stick with the facts of the dispute. The Palestinians had a home and the Israelis tried to usurp it. If there is to be peace in the holy land there must be room for both parties to exist. Our lives may depend upon it.
Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.