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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Unlocking 9/11

Keys To the Real History of al Qaeda's War on America

By J.M. Berger

The conventional history of al Qaeda's war on America is riddled with omissions, distortions, oversimplifications, secrets, reporting errors and even a handful of outright lies.

Many of these problems stem from the profound complexity of terrorist plots and the inevitable complications that arise when sifting through a vast mountain of data. Criminal conspiracies are, by their nature, confusing. This creates inherent problems for those reporting the history that led to September 11.

The task is further complicated by political apologists, policy-makers and pundits with agendas that drive their supposedly factual claims.

The truth has become murky, due to an abundance of bad information -- some reported by the mainstream media, some promulgated by conspiracy theorists of various stripes, and some disseminated directly by the government.

INTELWIRE presents a series of stories designed to help clarify the record on some seminal events surrounding the War on Terror and the road to September 11.

This series seeks to probe the best available sources in an effort to dispel myths and document what really happened. Original source documents will be published in full on the site whenever possible, and cited when this is not possible.

The series, launching September 11, 2006, will include:

  • The Solid Case: Detailed, specific and confirmable evidence that links al Qaeda to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. It's become a bit of a truism to blame the 1993 attack on al Qaeda, but no one really has a handle on exactly what that means. This story will explain al Qaeda's role as precisely as possible based on the best evidence available today.

  • The Green Beret: The word "mastermind" is a vague pejorative used in politics when trying to assign blame for a terrorist attack. In WTC 1993, the "mastermind" is generally considered to be Ramzi Yousef. This story examines the evidence for another "mastermind" -- Ali A. Mohamed, a former U.S. soldier and FBI informant. Click here for story.

  • The Khalifa Files: In Dec. 1994, U.S. authorities arrested Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden and an alleged al Qaeda financier. The story of his arrest and subsequent deportation is one of the most arcane and secretive tales in the history of the War on Terror -- and yet one of the most important. INTELWIRE has reported on this story in the past. A fully updated and revised edition later this years will reveal startling new information about the case and its relation to two critical developments in the War on Terror.

  • Ali Mohamed and September 11: A top al Qaeda associate and occasional FBI informant may have played a crucial role in the early stages of the September 11 plot. A look at the case, with new information about how Ali Mohamed created a terrorist infrastructure that was directly employed in the 9/11 plot.

  • The Secrets of Bosnia: Few Americans understand the extent to which a civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina confounded counterterrorism efforts during the 1990s. INTELWIRE will show how terrorist suspects -- and specifically al Qaeda-linked people and organizations -- were able to use Bosnia to divert scrutiny from terrorist plots unfolding on U.S. soil.

  • Military Infiltrators: Perhaps the most underreported story of the pre-9/11 era concerns al Qaeda's successful program to infiltrate -- and in some cases openly subvert -- the U.S. military, a story with deep and largely unexplored ties to the Bosnia situation which continues to reverberate today.

    Additional stories will be announced as they are developed. INTELWIRE will publish the first three installments in this series during the fall of 2006. Subsequent installments will be published as they become available. After reaching critical mass, the series will be collected, revised and expanded, and published in book form.

    As part of this project, INTELWIRE is seeking original copies of the documents cited throughout the footnotes of the final report of the 9/11 Commission. Click here for the first installment of the 9/11 Document Project. Click here for a list of all documents on this site.

    I would like to close this announcement with a few words about what I hope to accomplish with this series.

    This work is intended to move the discussion and narrative of al Qaeda's war on the United States toward the truth. It will not be the final word.

    Too much information is still hidden from the public through government secrecy and the isolation of convicted and suspected terrorists from the news media.

    The problem is deepened by the fact that incorrect or poorly sourced reports are often repeated and cited in new books and articles, which are then themselves cited.

    Another challenge stems from America's chronically short attention span and the unavoidably oversimplifying demands of media formats such as TV and radio. It is extraordinarily difficult to tell some of these stories in a form that is both accurate and brief.

    I'm saying this as someone who struggles with these issues. I am also saying it as someone who has made mistakes, and whose mistakes have occasionally been amplified by others.

    I don't see myself as the arbiter of truth. But I am keenly aware of the twin problems of inaccuracy and oversimplification. It's not just an issue in terrorism, and I expect to write about the broader information/complexity problem at length, later in my career.

    This series is my effort to take a first step toward addressing the problem. It won't be the last. It is my hope and expectation that honest, dedicated journalists will come along and take this work to the next level, after I have done my part.

    Every book on terrorism I have read contains errors -- no matter how prestigious, no matter how extensively or carefully researched. Some are large, some are small, but errors are ubiquitous, and many are patently avoidable.

    It is inevitable that this series will also contain errors (among the reasons for this is that I have no full-time editor). I can only promise I will try to avoid the avoidable errors -- and to avoid imposing my expectations on the facts.

    I'm committed to keeping an open mind. I have often, in the course of reporting on terrorism, been confronted by details I don't like, or facts I would prefer to ignore.

    Some of my working premises have been overturned by such discoveries; others have been bolstered as new facts become available. More often than not, the most significant impact of a new discovery is to complicate an already overcomplicated story.

    These stories will be updated and corrected as new information becomes available. At some point toward the end of the process, I will endeavor to make some accounting of what went wrong and why. I believe it's important for people to understand what happens when errors occur, why they occur and what is being done to correct them.

    J.M. Berger is a freelance journalist and researcher covering terrorism and al Qaeda for a variety of national media outlets. Full resume is available at

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    Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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    "At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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