The Looming Tower: A Review
The Syrian War is now ten years old. There is no ending in sight. The war has spilled over into surrounding countries, but particularly Lebanon. Yesterday I listened to a webinar on the situation in Lebanon. The three Lebanese reported on the terrible state of their country. Blackouts were recurrent. The government was at a standstill. The economy and the country’s currency have collapsed. The unemployment rate has soared. But worst of all have been the assassinations.
Since 2004, a series of bombings and assassinations have plagued Lebanon. The worst year was 2005 when scores were killed. An average of two very prominent officials, activists, intellectuals or journalist have been killed every year since then, not counting many publicly unknown figures. In February of this year, 58-year-old public intellectual and publisher, Lokman Slim, was gunned down as he was getting into his car outside his home. Hezbollah hoodlums were suspected. In 2020, Lebanese photographer Joe Bejjany was shot repeatedly by hooded men on a motorcycle as he prepared to take his children to school. Again, Hezbollah agents were suspected of the murder.
This wave of bombings began with the assassination attempt on Marwan Hmade, and initially peaked with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. Last year, fifteen years after his murder, Salim Jamil Ayyash was found guilty in the Hague of being part of the “red cell phone network” that planned Hariri’s assassination. The other three defendants, Assad Sabra, Hassan Oneissi and Hassan Habib Merei, were found not guilty. It is very rare that an assassin is caught and held accountable.
The commentators, some like Rafiq prominent members of the Shi’ite community, in the discussion yesterday accused Hezbollah gangsters not only of responsibility for he many assassinations, but contended that Hezbollah was simply waiting for the total collapse of the Lebanese political system which the organization was facilitating. The experts told a tale of corruption, impunity, kidnappings, bombings and assassinations in which Hezbollah provided the cover for those “raping” the state. The courageous Lebanese commentators dubbed Hezbollah a non-state mafia that moves freely while protesters are arrested and tortured.
Hezbollah was also described admiring bin Laden. In the ten-part television series, The Looming Tower, Tahar Rahim plays Ali Soufan, a real-life Arabic-speaking and Lebanese-born FBI agent. He describes Al Qaeda that the FBI was trying to link to the explosion on the Cole that killed 12 American sailors and the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in which 12 Americans and over 200 Kenyans were killed and over 4,000 wounded. Al Qaeda was a snake. You may cut its head off, you may kill bin Laden, you may destroy the whole leadership core, they just grow new heads and sire more snakes and adapt new organizational titles. For him, al Qaeda was just the best known multi-headed hydra at the time, but the problem was the recruitment of young men ignorant of the Koran to murder and maim without any creative program on their agenda. In a webinar yesterday, Katrina Mulligan, Christopher Costa and Matthew Levitt called for “rethinking US counterterrorism two decades after 9/11.”
That is what the series, The leaning Tower, also suggests. To repeat what I wrote at the end of my last blog, thisdocudrama, based on an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. That book,in turn, was based on the 2004 9/11 inquiry and report in the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, formally named the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. That report offers a stellar example of a high-quality investigation into causes and failures.
It also juxtaposes the operations of two agencies in the United States, the FBI that operates on judicial premises and criminality concerns, and the CIA concerned with the defense of the United States and, where warranted, war against its enemies. Both agencies have very important and parallel investigative functions that clashed in their investigations of the activities of Al Qaeda. The series helps bring forth the differences between the two approaches to the sources and conduct of international affairs.
The 9/11 report offered the official American account of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks against The Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon and the failed attempt to have a civilian airliner strike The Capitol on 11 September 2011. The docudrama concentrates primarily on the end of Wright’s book, on the failure of the CIA to share information with the FBI rather than on the largest part of the volume covering the emergence of Al Qaeda.
Unlike either the IAEA or the ICC investigations, the final part of the 9/11 report was self-directed rather than an investigation of an “Other.” It was a self-critical study of the gaps in intelligence gathering, in communication between and among agencies and to policy makers, of bureaucratic office politics and personalities undermining the importance of defending the United States, and most of all, whether investigating agencies have a primary responsibility to find out the truth or to serve the biases of their political masters. The ending is quite cynical. For in the final scenes [viewer alert], the branch of the CIA, the agency primarily responsible for the communications failures, is doubled in size. Even more significantly, it is put back into the hands of the expert who also kept the information totally in-house that, if shared with the FBI, would have undoubtedly stopped the attack.
The reason allegedly was because, in the TV series, Martin Schmidt played by Peter Sarsgaard (the thinly disguised Michael Scheuer of the CIA, the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism), distrusted the FBI. But the deeper reason is revealed in the opening episode when Schmidt (Scheuer) convinces his political masters to send Tomahawk cruise missiles into an Afghan town with a specialization in tanning leather because Scheuer had evidence that Osama bin Laden was holding a meeting there. (In actual history, one target was a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and not a tannery; the town shelled from above where bin Laden was believed to be meeting with his terrorist cohorts was a separate target in Afghanistan.)
However, bin Laden had already left. In the docudrama, the town was destroyed; hundreds of innocent women and children were killed. In actual history, on 20 August 1998, the military action against the town was undoubtedly a war crime: 1) because the US lacked actionable intelligence, intelligence that Osama bin Laden was in the town at the time of the attack, and 2) because the attack was so disproportionate to the need to eliminate those allegedly behind the attack on the US embassy in Nairobi on 7 August. (There was also an attack on the Tanzanian US embassy in Dar es Salam, but this was not part of the film series.]
But absolute proof was unnecessary as far as the head of the CIA branch was concerned. Nor was the protection of foreign civilians part of Scheuer’s mandate as he testified before the U.S. Commission of Inquiry. H did not believe that he was bound by international legal norms. The docudrama ended where it began [viewer alert], with the anticipation of another and much larger war crime, the military aggression against Saddam Hussein and Iraq because of the fraudulent accusations that the regime had weapons of mass destruction. As Donald Rumsfeld instructed the CIA, he wanted the agents to find evidence that incriminated Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attack and that tied him to Al Qaeda, though it was widely known that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were totally at odds.
|In the past, the U.S. had taken a law enforcement stance to terrorist attacks: the FBI attempts to uncover who was responsible and bring them to trial in the US. The attacks on the US embassies, however, were deemed acts of war against the US. The advisory group discussed a military response; it was recommended that the US attack bin Laden’s network and attempt to destroy his base of operations. The advisors had a list of potential targets that had been developed by the CIA over many months of investigating bin Laden and his terrorist network, The “firm” eventually decided on two sites: 1) the camps in Afghanistan which they believed would be the site of a large meeting of terrorist leaders later that month; and|
2) a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan where they believed bin Laden’s network had been producing chemical weapons.
As early as 13 August – five days after the embassy bombings – foreign policy advisers (National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Secretary of Defense William Cohen; Director of the CIA George Tenet; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton; and a high-ranking staff member, counter-terrorism czar, Dick Clarke) met with President Bill Clinton to advise that bin Laden and al Qaeda had been behind the embassy bombing. Most of them are portrayed in the film series.
On 20 August 1998, the US attempted to retaliate. That is when the Tomahawk cruise missiles destroyed the Afghan town. The responsibility for war crimes went right to the top. The criminality begun in 1998 came full circle under the Bush administration. When the CIA doubled the size of its counter-terrorism unit targeting bin Laden and put Martin Schmidt back in charge, he was also instructed by Don Rumsfeld to make sure that the evidence he turned up was tied to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, even though it was widely known already that, as bad a guy as Saddam Hussein was, he had nothing to do with Al Qaeda.
The Looming Tower TV series goes beyond depicting what happened but, more compellingly, asks who saw it coming. Both agencies did, but the CIA did not share its information with the FBI because that would have only meant bringing the few perpetrators to justice when Schmidt believed all out war was required, what Bush later dubbed the War on Terror. But it is hard to win a war when your two main intelligence agencies are themselves at war. The interagency discord resulted in unheeded warnings.
There is one point in the series, in the third episode I believe, where Bill Camp as the FBI agent, Robert Chesney, brilliantly interrogates the perpetrator of the US embassy bombing in Nairobi. This provided the tie to al Qaeda that resulted in Operation Infinite Reach and the Americans’ controversial, retaliatory strikes in Khost and Khartoum. But that was a betrayal of Chesney’s work, the intention of which was to bring the perpetrators to justice before a US court. Rahim much later used his own interrogation techniques that were both empathetic but also intrepid (no torture again) to get an al Qaeda suspect to reveal crucial information on the hijacking of the planes and crashing them into symbolic icons of America.
The series is a tale of interagency squabbles and suspicions leading to critical oversights. This gripping counter-terrorism docudrama is made more powerful by ts roots in real historic events and by brilliant acting, not only by those mentioned above, but the main FBI boss, John O’Neill played superbly by Jeff Daniels, and Schmidt’s female hard-nosed sidekick, Diane Marsh, played ironically by Wrenn Schmidt.
The movie series suggests the politicians were even worse than the agents and senior officials in gumming up the works. For example, in the film Condaleesa Rice, Bush’s security adviser, when asked by the Commission of Inquiry why the government failed to anticipate what was happening, especially when Saudis arrived from the Middle East to take flight training but with little interest in learning to land a plane. Rice replied, “no one would have thought that someone would do that.” Of course, that simply stirs a response in the listener’s head, “Why would they think of that if they did not examine the evidence readily available to them?
Tomorrow, I want to review another docudrama, a legal one this time dealing with counter-terrorism, called The Mauritian in which the pursuit of justice is again displaced, this time by torturing an Arabic-speaking a prisoner who was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years with not an ounce of solid evidence that he was a terrorist, though the American military finally did torture a confession out of him. Disproportionate bombing based on intelligence that was not actionable was not the only war crime committed by the US. Torture, holding a person without charge outside the jurisdiction of the American legal system, was also practiced. I will review The Mauritian next.