More than most Americans, New Yorkers remember September 11. Almost everyone in this city lost someone, or knew someone who lost someone, in the Twin Towers. For months following the attack, our air was filled with acrid smoke and the smell of death. Some New Yorkers have never stopped grieving for those who died in the deadliest terrorist strike in American history. But if other Americans need reminders of why we forget terrorism at our peril, this week provided them.
On Monday came the belated conviction in London of three British Muslims—Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28; Assad Sarwar, 29; and Tanvir Hussain, 28—on charges of conspiring in 2006 to blow up at least seven airliners bound for the United States or Canada in what was intended to be the deadliest terrorist strike since 9/11. Had the attack succeeded, an estimated 2,000 passengers, most of them American, would have died. The jury was told that the plotters were only days away from launching their planned suicide attacks when British police began rounding up some 25 suspects in the plot.
This was the second time that a London court had tried to convict the men. The first jury found insufficient evidence that airplanes were the target. And even in this second attempt, the jury acquitted four more alleged conspirators and failed to reach a verdict on an eighth.
While the planned use of airliners as terrorist weapons was hauntingly familiar, these homegrown plotters had devised several ingenious new twists. Rather than fly the planes into buildings, the men had planned to assemble liquid bombs in the planes’ bathrooms, using hydrogen-peroxide-based explosives that they would carry on board in soda bottles. The plotters intended to detonate the bombs simultaneously as their planes were midway across the Atlantic, guaranteeing that evidence of the plot would disappear along with the bombers and passengers, the jury was told. The arrests triggered a virtually worldwide ban on carrying all but tiny amounts of liquid onto commercial aircraft, a restriction that persists to this day.
Operation Overt—Britain’s surveillance of the plotters, involving hundreds of police—was also unprecedented. Months of 24-hour surveillance and electronic monitoring produced such evidence as martyrdom videos prepared by two of the men, flight itineraries and schedules, and a bomb factory on the edge of London that contained stocks of hydrogen peroxide, soda bottles, and cameras whose batteries were intended as detonators. But the investigation also soured Washington’s relations with London, which was forced to begin arrests after the Bush administration publicized the arrest of an alleged conspirator in Pakistan, forcing Britain’s hand. Britain’s MI-5 and MI-6 had wanted to continue following the plotters, but their American counterparts felt that waiting and watching was too dangerous. As a result, British officials have blamed Washington for their inability to convict some of the plotters, saying that America’s premature disclosures prevented them from assembling the evidence they needed to guarantee convictions. The episode demonstrates that the course of terrorism inquiries and trials rarely runs smooth.
Later this week came another chilling reminder of 9/11. A new photograph of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of several “high-value detainees” currently being held at the Guantánamo Bay naval station in Cuba, began circulating on the Internet. The photo, depicting a thin, trim, full-bearded KSM sitting serenely in a clean white thobe and red-and-white-checkered headdress, came courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had given it to KSM’s family to assure them that he was alive and well. The family apparently provided the photo to a website sympathetic to al-Qaida, and this first photo ever of KSM in captivity is now being used to bolster the spirits of Islamic militants throughout the world. The incident reminds us that not a single 9/11 plotter has yet to be convicted. Nevertheless, President Obama has vowed to shut Gitmo, where 226 foreigners suspected of military or terrorist attacks are being held, by January 2010. The legal fate of the detainees remains uncertain.
Finally, a senior American envoy in Vienna warned on Wednesday that Iran has now accumulated enough low-enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb, provided the fissile material is further enriched to weapons-grade level. Speaking at a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ambassador Glyn Davies spoke publicly for the first time about Iran’s movement toward a “break-out capacity,” the subject of another intelligence feud that has raged across the Atlantic—this one between American and Israeli experts on weapons of mass destruction. Israel has been urging Washington to take stronger actions now, before Tehran can build and test an atomic weapon, while the Americans have argued that there is still time for diplomats to try to dissuade Iran from pursuing nukes.
There was little indication this week, however, that the militant Islamic regime has any interest in negotiating away its capabilities. A ten-page package of proposals that Iran presented to America and its allies this week makes no mention of a suspension of its uranium-enrichment activities, which the United Nations Security Council has already demanded. The Obama administration has given Iran until the end of September to respond to its offer of talks. After that, officials warn, it will move with allies to tighten sanctions, though many critics fear that these too will fail to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb, especially since Russia says that it will not support tougher new sanctions. For its part, Tehran continues claiming that it needs enrichment for what is a purely peaceful nuclear energy program, a claim belied by years of clandestine enrichment and other activity that was only belatedly revealed by an anti-Iranian group.
In an appearance Thursday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that while America has made strides against terrorism, America continues facing supporters of an uncompromising ideology and terrorists who have learned to increase their “lethality” as well as their political impact. Coupled with Iran’s seemingly unstoppable pursuit of nuclear weapons, the continued spread of anti-Western, antidemocratic, militant Islamic movements should remind us all of the danger inherent in the world’s most dangerous people acquiring the world’s most lethal weapons. That threat may be increasing by the day.
Yet many Americans seem intent on forgetting the lessons of 9/11. If we are what we remember, America’s willed amnesia about the danger of terrorism and other atrocities should be unsettling. Meanwhile, in another telling event this week, Russia ordered its high school students to start reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the three-volume epic, published in 1973, that had long been banned. While Americans ignore lessons of the past, others are starting to remember them.