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The pain of 9/11 remains unresolved because the crime of 9/11 remains unsolved. In 17 years no one has been prosecuted for carrying out the attacks, and the court of public opinion is very much a hung jury.

The Range of Views about 9/11

The same range of interpretations that sprung up in the wake of the attacks are still being recycled and restated on this anniversary.

A) The attacks were planned and carried out entirely by Al Qaeda operatives, led by Osama Bin Laden. No one in the US bears any responsibility and therefore the war on terror is entirely justified.

B) The attacks were blowback from Western support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan (and, much less often acknowledged, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere). The war on terror may have been an overreaction, but it is still fundamentally necessary.

C) The attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda but were allowed to happen by people within the Bush administration and the US government more generally. They used 9/11 as an excuse to launch the war on terror, which is mostly a sham.

D) The attacks were perpetrated by elements within the US government (some say the White House, more intelligent people say within the CIA, NSA and DOD) either with the help of Al Qaeda or otherwise. The war on terror is a total sham.

Any serious assessment of the merits and demerits of these different views, especially the latter two with regard to possible foreign state-sponsorship, would take too long for anyone to read. One of the best investigations is contained in Jon Gold’s We Were Lied To About 9/11, a highly accessible and informative (and free) e-book. Rather than rehash Jon’s book I’ll simply implore you to download and read it for yourself, and I’ll confine myself to what I think are the most important questions about the 9/11 attacks.

1) Why didn’t NORAD intercept the planes?

NORAD headquarters

Possibly the most widely-asked question about the 9/11 attacks is why the US military did not intercept the four planes. To date they haven’t offered anything approaching an adequate explanation, initially saying no planes were sent up until after the Pentagon was hit — around an hour after they were first informed about hijackings. They then issued a timeline completely contradicting this and claiming that they scrambled fighters at 08:52 (from Otis) and 09:24 (from Langley) but that they couldn’t reach the planes in time to stop them.

By the time senior officials testified at the 9/11 Commission they had a whole new story including ‘phantom flight 11’ (the idea that flight 11, which hit the first WTC tower, was still airborne and fighters were sent after this ‘phantom’ accidentally). They radically altered the timeline to say that they were only notified of the first plane a few minutes before it hit the North Tower; of the second plane as it was hitting the South Tower; of the third plane 2 minutes before it hit the Pentagon; and of the fourth plane after it had already crashed.

While the 9/11 Commission repeated this third version of events in its report, privately they were considering referring the whole matter to the Department of Justice for criminal charges. The two co-chairs explained in their book, Without Precedent, that they knew the military were lying, but for various reasons did nothing about it and didn’t even hint at their suspicions in the final report.

2) What brought down the WTC towers?

WTC south tower collapse

By far the most-discussed and hotly-debated topic in the 9/11 field is the destruction of the WTC twin towers and building 7, all of which suffered total, uniform, symmetrical collapses, coming down in seconds. The official story of plane crash+fire+gravity=total, uniform, symmetrical collapse has not convinced many people.

The most obvious problem is that the plane crashes were quite different — flight 11 hit the North Tower straight on, almost dead centre, flight 175 hit the South Tower in the corner, with the plane tilted diagonally. And yet the collapses were virtually identical, even though the above photo shows the top of the South Tower tipping and toppling off the standing section as the collapse starts. Why didn’t the top of the South Tower simply fall off and go crashing to the ground? Why didn’t the standing sections in both towers provide more resistance to the falling sections?

The popular theory in 9/11 conspiracy circles is thermite, even though the sheer amount of thermite (or thermate) needed would be massive, require extensive access to the building and would be impossible to shield from external observers in the run-up to the collapse. Thermitic reactions produce a large amount of light and heat, none of which is visible in the pre-collapse videos. Likewise, the thermite theory originated in the testimony of firefighters and rescue workers who described finding ‘molten metal’ in the collapse pile days and even weeks later. But thermitic reactions are pretty fast, generally finished within a minute, so thermite cannot explain these pools of molten metal.

Indeed, any conventional demolition/destruction method would have required far more access to the buildings than any witness has attested to. While Scott Forbes’ account of a power down at the WTC the weekend prior to the attacks is compelling, it did not last long enough to enable the laying of explosives and/or thermite shape charges.

Indeed, given the massive destruction of the WTC evidence it is likely a question that cannot be answered, and therefore will never lead to a culprit, and therefore is a fruitless line of inquiry at this point.

3) How were the hijackers identified so quickly?

CCTV of alleged 9/11 hijackers

Another issue is how the perpetrators were identified so quickly, when the government allegedly had no warnings, no inkling that such an attack was about to happen. The two stories just don’t mesh —in the wake of a genuinely unexpected attack it would require weeks if not months of painstaking investigation to identify culprits and co-conspirators.

Despite this, within a day or two of the attacks the FBI was leaking names to news media in support of the ‘Al Qaeda did it’ narrative. This led to one exceptionally bizarre and embarrassing moment when CNN had to retract two of the names they’d reported, because one of them was still alive and the other had died in a plane crash exactly 1 year prior to the attacks.

Defying all the surprise and confusion, at least three of the hijackers were identified by the evening of 9/11 itself. Notes from a DOD staffer show that at an emergency policy meeting that part of the discussion mentioned that three of the flight 77 hijackers who hit the Pentagon had been ‘followed’ since the USS Cole bombing and the Millennium Plot. However, the CIA had never told the FBI about any of the hijackers, so who was following them?

Along similar lines, it has been widely reported that some of the hijackers used stolen identities belonging to people who were demonstrably still alive after the attacks. The exact identities of many of the hijackers has never been conclusively determined.

4) Why didn’t the CIA/NSA/FBI stop the hijackers?

The final list of 9/11 hijackers

The US intelligence community’s primary focus at this time was preventing major terrorist attacks on US soil. No other nation-state was threatening the US following the collapse of the USSR, whereas strikes on the WTC in 1993, US embassies in 1998, and a US warship in 2000 all testified to the fact that the ‘system was blinking red’ when it came to terrorist attacks.

So why did the world’s best-funded, most technologically-sophisticated intelligence apparatus fail to stop even one of the 19 men who the Commission says were the criminals behind the attacks?

One thing is clear: it was not due to a lack of information. Al Qaeda maintained a communications hub in Yemen which was being monitored by both the NSA and the CIA. Informants including Aimen Dean and Luai Sakra, alongside defectors like Jamal Al-Fadl and double agents like Ali Mohamed provided no end of useful HUMINT on Al Qaeda’s practices, aims and capabilities. The CIA even monitored (and according to some accounts bugged) the Al Qaeda summit in Malaysia which is widely considered to be the planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks, and tracked Al Qaeda operatives from that summit to the US.

The Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission largely avoided getting into the details of what the CIA and NSA knew and when they knew it by using the metaphor ‘stovepiping’. Because the information was ‘stovepiped’ it didn’t get to the people who needed to see it, so the necessary actions were never taken. In the name of fixing this problem the US intel community created Fusion Centers and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as clearing houses for information, to aid the inter-agency work necessary for counter-terrorism.

All of which would have been wonderful, if it wasn’t for the fact that some people were deliberately withholding information, most obviously the CIA’s Alec Station not telling (or even refusing to tell) the FBI what they knew about the USS Cole bombing and Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. And the NSA not telling anyone anything, despite having all the information one would need to map out and track the entire Al Qaeda network.

That is to say: it doesn’t matter how you structure your intelligence agencies if criminals inside these agencies deliberately withhold information to help enable an attack to happen. But that idea is deemed so radical, so far off the table for discussion, that the insider threat remains just as potent and dangerous as it did 20 years ago.

5) Why were pre-9/11 investigations shut down?

Intelligence chart produced as part of the Able Danger program

Another major problem is that several pre-9/11 investigations were stymied, starved of information or shut down completely, when they could have uncovered the plot and even stopped it. The most famous of these is Able Danger, a Defense Intelligence Agency data-mining project that focused on Al Qaeda. It identified Mohammed Atta and 2 of the 3 cells responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as well as linking Al Qaeda back to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.

In March-April 2000 Army Intelligence support for Able Danger ended, their data was confiscated and the program’s contractors were fired, effectively shutting down the data-mining operation. Weeks later most of the data is destroyed, much to the chagrin of people working on the program. Military lawyers prevented members of Able Danger from sharing what they had found with the FBI. In September 2000 the program was set up again, only to be closed down for a second time in early 2001.

Meanwhile, the FBI were doing their own investigation in the terrorist money trail. Vulgar Betrayal was initiated by agent Robert Wright and ran from 1995 until 2000, looking into charities supplying money to Hamas, Hezbollah, and to Saudi businessman Yassin Kadi, a possible Al Qaeda financier. Wright turned whistleblower in 2002, accusing the FBI of outrageous incompetence. In turn, the Bureau accused him of undermining ongoing investigations and subjected him to an internal affairs investigation.

6) Why did the 9/11 Commission fail so spectacularly?

Logo for the 9/11 Commission

The 9/11 Commission was, according to its co-chairs, ‘set up to fail’. It was delayed, under-funded, and denied access to source material and witnesses. Despite this, much of the information highlighted by 9/11 sceptics and advocates of rival accounts was readily and publicly available while the Commission was investigating. If they wanted to find it then they only had to look for it.

However, despite the long history of disguised terrorist attacks, state sponsorship of violent radicals, and of black operations going horribly wrong, it seems none of these themes or explanations were up for consideration. The Executive Director Philip Zelikow — a friend of the Bush White House — wrote the basic outline for the report before the investigation had even begun. While some commissioners tried to push back — and one even resigned in disgust — the story the 9/11 Commission told was predetermined, as in: of fate itself.

As a consequence, while some of the staff, investigators and commissioners were aware that people had lied to them (including senior military officials and the director of the CIA George Tenet) this knowledge was excluded from the final report. While the 9/11 Commission certainly overlooked many important facts and failed to adequately investigate the attacks, sometimes this wasn’t for lack of trying. Those members of the Commission who did their jobs properly were largely ignored, in favour of a simple and reassuring narrative designed for optimum public consumption.

7) What were the Saudis up to?

‘I can’t believe we got away with this shit’

Numerous conspiracy theorists have tried to build a case that global Jewry — sorry, I mean ‘Israel’ — were behind the attacks. This has invariably involved recycling the same three talking points about dancing Israelis, one Fox News special that for some reason they trust every word of, and complaining that ‘if you bring up Israel you get called an anti-semite’. As though categorising people on the basis of their attitudes and beliefs is fine the rest of the time, but when it comes to calling anti-semites by their proper name it’s somehow unfair.

This has overshadowed the much greater question of Saudi involvement or complicity in the attacks. After all, it was Saudi Arabia who spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan in the 1980s helping to turn the international jihad movement into a more cohesive, violent and extreme network of Islamist gangs. It was Saudi Arabia who spent hundreds of millions more in Bosnia in the early 1990s, helping spread this jihadi movement into Western society.

It was Saudi Arabia whose government agent Omar al Bayoumi ran a support network for al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, the first hijackers to get into the US. It was Saudi Arabia where most of the hijackers originated, and where most of them got their visas to enter the US. Saudi Arabia is also home to most of the Bin Laden family, several members who whom flew out of the US and back to Saudi during the flight restrictions imposed after the 9/11 attacks. And it is Saudi Arabia whose involvement was covered up for years through the refusal to publish the notorious 28 pages.

But the five dancing guys were Israeli, so obviously Israel did 9/11.

8) What was General Mahmud Ahmed up to?

The Afghan-Pakistan Border

The other country intimately involved in fostering the early version of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s (and since) is Pakistan. Their Inter Services Intelligence directorate have maintained ties both with the Taliban and various militant groups who’ve carried out terrorist attacks in the region and beyond.

This is brought into sharp relief by the information that ISI chief General Mahmud Ahmed wired $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the supposed lead hijacker in the 9/11 plot, via the bagman and possible MI6 informant Omar Saeed Sheikh. Ahmed was in DC having breakfast with senior officials on the morning of 9/11, and was removed from his post not long after the story about the wire transfer broke. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was investigating these financial ties when he was kidnapped and beheaded — one of the many crimes KSM has tried to take credit for.

Ahmed was (as far as we know) never interrogated about this wire transfer to Atta, let alone shipped to Guantanamo and waterboarded over 180 times until he was so insane he’d admit to anything. His possible role in financing the attacks was never explored by the 9/11 Commission, even though they concluded the attacks took less than $500,000 to pull off. As such, Ahmed apparently provided at least 1/5 of the money for the greatest terror attack of all time, yet hardly anyone knows his name.

But the five dancing guys were Israeli, so obviously Israel did 9/11.

9) Who the hell is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Supposed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

While we were told that 9/11 was the brainchild of Al Qaeda CEO Osama Bin Laden, this story rapidly evolved into the claim that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was the mastermind behind the attacks. But who is KSM?

The uncle of Ramzi Yousef — who tried to blow up the WTC in 1993 — KSM was a co-conspirator in the Bojinka plot in the mid-1990s in the Philippines. Yet for some unknown reason he was never pursued for his role in providing money to Yousef and the others, and apparently developing the plan to blow up a dozen US airliners in one day. He was indicted in 1996 for his part in the plot, but there is no indication of a prolonged manhunt like the one that eventually caught Yousef.

A veteran of the war in Bosnia, and an operative of multiple charities with CIA and ISI connections, it has been suggested that KSM was a double agent. Certainly, he moved around the world freely while under investigation by the CIA and FBI. Even after 9/11, when he became one of the most wanted men on earth, he still managed to give an interview to journalist Yosri Fouda in the summer of 2002.

Following his capture in early 2003 KSM has been languishing in Guantanamo Bay, variously being tortured and interrogated by CIA officers, confessing and then retracting his role in numerous terrorist crimes. He has also watched movies with his interrogators, wrote a letter to then-president Obama and designed a new kind of vacuum cleaner. This is all despite being reported dead 6 months before he was supposedly captured.

So who is or was KSM? A CIA/ISI mole within Al Qaeda? A committed militant who fooled his handlers and pulled off one of the most spectacular double-crosses of all time? Or a crazy man who took credit for crimes he did not commit?