True Spies Episode 22: Blinking Red
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 22: Blinking Red.
GINA BENNETT: You go into 2001. We're seeing the system blinking red. And from what we're seeing, that system blinking red is saying: ‘In the United States, there is going to be an attack in the United States.’
NARRATOR: It’s shortly before midnight in Washington, DC. May the 1st, 2011 - unusually late for the president to be addressing the nation - but what Barack Obama has to say can’t wait.
BARACK OBAMA: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda.
NARRATOR: It was almost 10 years since the world had watched in horror as aircraft hijacked by al-Qaeda had brought the twin towers in New York crashing to earth; more than 13 years since al-Qaeda had issued a fatwa declaring a holy war on America and Americans, and almost 18 years since a young State Department intelligence official had first identified Osama bin Laden as a potential threat to the United States.
GINA BENNETT: My name is Gina Bennett. And what I do is a very complicated question.
NARRATOR: This is Gina Bennett’s story. Well, bits of it because there’s a lot she can’t say.
GINA BENNETT: I, for the most part, am a counterterrorism analyst in the US intelligence community. I work for the CIA. I do mostly dissection of terrorist plots and targeting of facilities and people - and dabble in strategy as well.
NARRATOR: Gina is too modest to add that there are few people in her field in the CIA more senior than her. She’s been with the agency for more than 20 years and in counterterrorism more than 30. And if there are few people senior to her there are even fewer women. You’ll hear a lot today about plots and bombs, and; how with great skill, and a certain measure of luck, you may be able to stop them. You’ll hear about the painstaking business of joining the dots, how you learn to spot the suspicious concealed within the mundane. And you’ll hear how it is to be a woman in what is still mostly a man’s world.
GINA BENNETT: I found a job as a terrorism-watch officer at the Department of State and their 24-hour, intelligence-watch office where information from around the world comes in instantly. And you have to warn the Secretary of State and talk to the White House and things like that. So it was a very exciting place to begin a career at the age of 21.
NARRATOR: The Cold War was nearly over, the Soviet Union about to collapse. Gina took a special interest in the Middle East. And in one short, classified report, she included the name of a certain Saudi businessman living in Sudan.
GINA BENNETT: So in 1993, I wrote an article called The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous.
NARRATOR: Gina was interested in the fall-out from the 10-year war fought by insurgents in Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers.
GINA BENNETT: And, in that, I wrote: "Among private donors to the new generation, Osama bin Laden is particularly famous for his religious zeal and financial largesse. Bin Laden's money has enabled hundreds of Arab veterans to return to safe havens and bases in Yemen and Sudan, where they are training new fighters."
NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden. I’m sure you hadn’t heard of him in 1993. Nobody had. Let’s go back briefly. Afghanistan had been invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. For 10 years a combination of local fighters and overseas volunteers, who became known as the mujahidin - all generously funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia - resisted the occupying forces. Eventually, in 1989, the Soviet troops withdrew. By 1993, when Gina wrote her piece, Afghanistan was in the depths of civil war and the foreign mujahidin had mostly left. But Gina was seeing red flags. Her article argued there were perceptions that US foreign policy was anti-Islamic and this raised the likelihood of US interests becoming targets for violence from these mujahidin veterans.
GINA BENNETT: From my perspective, it was unmistakable when you started seeing young men showing up wearing Afghan - traditional Afghan garb - in places like Tunisia and Algeria, Egypt and Sudan, and Yemen… and as far as the Philippines and Malaysia and Thailand. And it was pretty clear, too, from those early days, that they had a certain cachet because they had fought in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union had pulled out.
NARRATOR: During the 1980s, dozens of training camps had been set up in Afghanistan for these young fighters. Bin Laden himself built one. Thanks to the work of people like Gina, we now know he had been an enthusiastic recruiter and he was successful. Fighting the Soviet infidel was clearly an attractive proposition.
GINA BENNETT: So you have these guys going back to their home countries - or attempting to go back to their home countries - and they don't really just go back to business as usual. They start acting very... They start giving the movements there, the opposition movements to their local governments, a bit more militant fervor. And you pick up on that.
NARRATOR: And you watch it carefully, and you make notes, and you file them away for a rainy day. And you join dots. Well, that’s what Gina did.
GINA BENNETT: There was just one person who just kept coming up. His name back then was Abu Abdullah, which is just one of Osama bin Laden's many names. So when you see the same name repeated over and over again as someone who is a facilitator, is a patron, a financier, you got to figure out who that person is, right? That can't be coincidental. There's something going on. So that's really how I was piecing it together.
NARRATOR: Gina Bennett was the first person within the US intelligence community - and therefore probably the first person in the world - to identify Osama bin Laden as someone the United States needed to watch. Her analysis has stood the test of time.
In concluding her 1993 report she wrote this: US support of the Mujahidin during the Afghan war will not necessarily protect US interests from attack.
And this: Afghan war veterans scattered throughout the world could surprise the US with violence in unexpected locales.
But back in the early 90s Afghanistan was no longer a US foreign policy priority. Attention had shifted. A space had opened up, precisely the kind of space that Gina and her counterterrorism colleagues fill.
GINA BENNETT: Our role is not to track with the rest of the national security apparatus. It's to look where everybody else isn't looking. And to be aware and warn where other people aren't seeing problems.
NARRATOR: Is this something you could do? Do you have the patience, the resilience, the attention to detail? The confidence that somewhere in that haystack there really is a needle?
GINA BENNETT: Every once in a while, someone will say or you'll pick up on whether it's again, whether it's an interview or listening in to phone conversations, you hear. Well, I heard Abu Abdullah is bringing together people in Sudan, or I heard Abu Abdullah was in Yemen. And it's just those tiny little phrases that you can gather, and collect, and start to piece together. And I used to just draw things on massive big pieces of paper where we heard something here, where we heard something there, and just start to see the picture of it. I'm a very visual thinker, and so I like to see things pictured on a map or some kind of flow. It's like these tiny little pieces of a puzzle. And you don't really have the picture yet, but you just have a sense that you're picking up on pieces that you really need to pay attention to and not lose sight of.
NARRATOR: Gina had other demands on her attention. She was pregnant and she went into labor early in February 1993. Her article wasn’t quite finished.
GINA BENNETT: I was lying in my hospital bed, in an enormous amount of pain, and my phone was ringing and I just wanted it to stop and nobody else was in my room. So I picked it up. And when I answered the phone and I was like, oh, my boss on the other end is yelling: "Your people did this. Your people did this." And I had no idea what she was talking about. So I turned on the news and I saw the attack in New York and on the World Trade Center.
NARRATOR: Well that’s great. You’ve just had an emergency C-section and you’ve got the boss on the phone, freaking out. Your three-day-old baby is suddenly not your immediate priority.
GINA BENNETT: So I watched the news, no longer felt my physical pain anymore. My brain was mentally anguished at that point. And within a few hours, I had someone in my hospital room with a locked bag and pen and paper, and I was dictating what I thought of all of that. I was probably on a few painkillers too, so I don't think I want to go back and read what was written, to be honest with you.
NARRATOR: It’s an event that’s largely forgotten now: it’s been eclipsed by the enormity of 9/11. But eight years before those two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, someone else had tried to bring the towers down. The name by which he’s commonly known is Ramzi Yousef.
GINA BENNETT: Okay, so yes, on the 26 of February 1993, Ramzi Yousef and his accomplices parked an ammonium nitrate - I think the bomb was laden inside, like tons laden inside - a truck, like a delivery truck that they had rented in the parking garage of World Trade Center One. Their plan was for the bomb to go off in the parking garage in just such a place that the garage would collapse, and that would then break the structure above with this idea that you would eventually get the building to topple over onto the other tower.
NARRATOR: And the other tower would come down too. The very idea seemed fantastical in 1993. We know better today. Ramzi Yousef failed to bring the buildings down, but he did blast a huge crater in the North Tower, killing six people and injuring hundreds more. Final proof that the US had a new enemy.
GINA BENNETT: We just had no idea that they were ready to strike so soon and in the United States.
NARRATOR: The counterterrorism teams began to dig. Their job is not to solve this crime but to prevent the next one.
GINA BENNETT: Ramzi Yousef, of course as of 1993, when the World Trade Center bombing occurred, we didn't know a lot of his history. And that took some time to piece together. Understand who he was, where he had been, why he did what he did, who his broader network was.
NARRATOR: You probably won’t be surprised by now to hear that Ramzi Yousef had learned how to make bombs in Afghanistan.
GINA BENNETT: Getting the kind of training that you need to be part of an underground, militant, violent movement is invaluable. So knowing that Ramzi Yousef had been in a camp where he could receive not just bomb-making training, but that kind of... How do you live underground? How do you change your name? It's just that the clandestine tradecraft makes it a little bit more challenging because now some of the things that he knows how to do.
NARRATOR: Ramzi Yousef had big ideas.
GINA BENNETT: He had his eye on a number of other targets too, including the Pope and Benazir Bhutto.
NARRATOR: Yousef had flown home to Pakistan the very same day that his truck bomb had ripped through the World Trade Center. He traveled a lot over the next couple of years. Destinations included Afghanistan, Thailand, and the Philippines. And in the Philippines he began to make plans, plans to bring down airplanes.
GINA BENNETT: And a lot of what he was doing there was really experimenting with bomb-making materials.
NARRATOR: Ramzi Yousef wanted to design a bomb that could be assembled by someone after they were on board, rather than having to smuggle the finished article past security. He did a trial run on a flight out of Manila bound for Tokyo. On the first leg, he left a device under his seat and then got off at a stopover. The bomb went off after the plane had taken off again, killing the man who’d taken his place, but, miraculously, no one else. In the knowledge that it was possible to put a bomb together mid-air, Ramzi set the next plan in motion. He called it Bojinka.
GINA BENNETT: The Bojinka plot was to bring down 11 airliners traveling across the Pacific Ocean, again, using this nitrocellulose-based explosive device that Ramzi Yousef was creating while he was in the Philippines and had tested to a limited degree.
NARRATOR: Yes, that’s right. A plan to bring down 11 airliners mid-air - almost seven years before 9/11. Spooky, no? We know all this because in late December 1994 there was a fire in the apartment Ramzi Yousef had rented in Manila. The police recovered a computer hard drive that contained all the details. They also learned that among Ramzi Yousef’s accomplices in this plot to blow airplanes out of the sky was a man called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was actually Ramzi Yousef’s uncle and the man who later acquired notoriety as the mastermind of 9/11.
GINA BENNETT: So, yeah, I think we were getting a preview with the Bojinka plot of what was to come.
NARRATOR: Ramzi Yousef’s career as an international terrorist was nearing its conclusion. It was brought to an end by a fellow plotter, a man called Ishtiaq Parker. Frustrated, apparently, by the loss of his hard drive, Ramzi had resorted to less-refined methods. He met Parker in Bangkok and supplied him with two suitcases filled with explosives and told him to check them onto two separate flights to the United States.
GINA BENNETT: But when he went to the airport, he just was struck by the number of families that were wandering around, hugging each other. People saying goodbye to their loved ones or embracing their family with a great big: ‘Hello. You made it safely. I'm so happy to see you.” And the idea of doing that to people, he just lost his nerve. So he went back to Ramzi Yousef and he said: ‘Look, there's a lot of security at the airport. I couldn't get through. This is just not the right day to do this.’
NARRATOR: Within a few days Ramzi Yousef would be under lock and key. Parker had decided to turn him in. There was a $2m bounty on Yousef’s head. By now, the two men were back in Pakistan. Parker walked into the US Embassy in Islamabad and told agents there where they could find the World Trade Center bomber. Ramzi Yousef was arrested at his guest house on February the 7th, 1995. Back at the State Department, Gina Bennett still had her eye on Osama bin Laden. He’d been living in Sudan, but in 1996 his reputation as a trouble-maker had become an embarrassment to the government there. The Taliban, who were now in control of most of Afghanistan, had offered him shelter.
GINA BENNETT: [In] 1996, I wrote a bit more about bin Laden in a memo in which I said: Afghanistan may be an ideal haven as long as bin Laden can continue to run his businesses and financial networks. His prolonged stay in Afghanistan, where hundreds of Arab mujahidin receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate, could prove more dangerous to US interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum.
NARRATOR: There had been other bomb attacks. One, at a housing complex in Saudi Arabia, had killed 19 US air force personnel. The presence of American troops on the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, was particularly offensive to bin Laden. It seems likely now that al-Qaeda was not responsible for this, but Gina’s memo described bin Laden nonetheless as an increasingly confident militant leader and a man emboldened by recent events, whether or not he was involved in them. And she underscored the danger he represented.
GINA BENNETT: Even a bin Laden on the move can retain the capability to support individuals and groups who have the motive and the wherewithal to attack US interests almost worldwide.
NARRATOR: Gina’s prescience is remarkable. In early 1998, bin Laden was one of the five signatories of a fatwa published by an Arabic newspaper based in London. The fatwa said that it was the individual duty of all Moslems to kill Americans in any country in which it was possible to do so. And then, on August the 7th, 1998, there were near-simultaneous explosions outside the US Embassies in Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed and several thousand injured. Finally Osama bin Laden had the attention he was after. A name once buried in classified State Department memos was now on the front page of the world’s newspapers. Bin Laden, hidden away in Afghanistan, continued to make plans.
GINA BENNETT: He's feeling pretty secure and stable in that environment. That gives you time to do training, to plot undisturbed.
NARRATOR: Gina and her colleagues had understood that Al Qaeda operated in two ways. It carried out its own operations, but it also sponsored other groups in their individual endeavors.
GINA BENNETT: So we used to refer to this as bottom-up versus top-down plotting. Top-down being al-Qaeda commanded, conceptualized, ordered, facilitated, supported, etc. Bottom-up being other groups with like-minded agendas, wanting to get a little bit of that al-Qaeda largesse. There are certain things you look out for in terms of: is it top-down? It is... where's the information coming from? Who is purportedly saying it's our doing it? Just a lot of what most people probably consider subtle indicators for us are serious lights blinking red.
NARRATOR: By now it was 1999. The new millennium was approaching. And the press was full of dire predictions about Y2K, the computer bug that was supposedly going to bring the world to a standstill as 1999 turned into 2000. But the CIA, which is where Gina was now working, had a rather different focus.
GINA BENNETT: We're beginning to understand that bin Laden's group sees the millennial celebrations that are being planned all around the world as the celebration of the 2,000th year of the birth of Christ, which wasn't immediately what we were thinking because we're thinking of it much more from a secular perspective. But that’s the conclusion they drew, and by understanding that, it began to make a little bit more sense. It just looked like: ‘Look there, they're planning these great, big, huge celebrations. Let's do something spectacular.’ And we're like: ‘Oh, the system is blinking red. We are seeing top-down activity.’ We were absolutely convinced there was an al-Qaeda-directed plot underway and looking closer and closer to fruition. And, of course, our concern was that some of those millennial celebrations were going to look like fireworks and turn into explosions.
NARRATOR: So the lights are blinking. November is turning into December. Just a month to go. Some 6,000 miles from Washington, in Amman, the capital of Jordan, intelligence staff intercept a phone call from someone they know to be al-Qaeda. One phrase leaps out: The Grooms Are Ready For The Big Wedding. It’s al-Qaeda code. The Jordanians are a step ahead of the terrorists and make a number of arrests. It becomes clear that the Radisson hotel in downtown Amman was the target, a venue likely to be packed with Westerners as the fireworks went off. So that’s one disaster averted. In the US, they breathe a sigh of relief. But they remain on high alert.
GINA BENNETT: With this very alert, vigilance alarm system we are looking for any indication of movement of suspected individuals, terrorists, just anything unusual, really. And vigilance is a really important thing. And a lot of people don't understand how you notice the anomaly. But when people are trained to notice the anomaly, they're golden.
NARRATOR: On December the 14th a man drives off a Canadian ferry that’s just docked at Port Angeles, a place few will have heard of, in the American northwest. And there’s just something about him. He’s monosyllabic when asked where he’s going, and the answer, Seattle, doesn’t really make sense. If you start your trip on the Canadian mainland, why not drive straight there? Why the roundabout trip that would involve a total of three ferries?
GINA BENNETT: It was a female customs officer who noticed he was acting suspiciously. And that's the kind of vigilance I'm talking about - like you can never let down your guard. She notices his behavior and finds it very unusual.
NARRATOR: She persuades the man to step out of the car and open the trunk. The space that usually holds the spare wheel is stuffed with bags of white powder. Another officer has hold of the driver. He can see that he’s in big trouble. So he shrugs his coat off, leaving it in the officer’s hand, and takes off. He makes it a couple of blocks, the officers in hot pursuit. He hides under a parked car but they find him so he takes off again. And then he tries to force his way into a car waiting at a traffic light. The customs officers take him down.
The driver’s name is Ahmed Ressam. He’s from Algeria but has been living in Montreal for the past five years. And he’s been - yes that’s right - he’s been to Afghanistan, to a training camp, to the same camp in fact where Ramzi Yousef had learned how to make bombs. The white powder is urea, a type of fertilizer. Ahmed Ressam is carrying the makings of a large bomb. He’s also got a reservation for a hotel in downtown Seattle not far from the Space Needle, Seattle’s most recognizable landmark. The mayor of Seattle cancels the city’s impending millennium celebrations. He doesn’t want fireworks turning into explosives. The true target doesn’t emerge for several months: LAX, the airport in Los Angeles. That’s where al-Qaeda had been planning to celebrate the millennium, but because a customs officer in Port Angeles was on her guard the people of Los Angeles were able to fly safely over the holiday.
GINA BENNETT: So you have this combination, in many ways, of vigilance being triggered by this individual who fits this whole profile of what we think a top-down attack by al-Qaeda might be that's pretty spectacular. Los Angeles. Car bomb. Algerian. Like, it all matched.
NARRATOR: So the Jordanians had gatecrashed the big wedding. The Americans had put paid to the LAX attack. Tempting at this point, perhaps to go and watch the fireworks yourself. But just remember who your enemy is. They don’t stop, so neither can you.
GINA BENNETT: So, you're seeing two very different plots. And at the same time, as we get closer and closer to the millennium, despite the disruption of both of these, it doesn't look like the system is not blinking red anymore. I mean, they still, it still looks like a top-down plot is being planned. So you begin to get this horrible sensation as December 31st approaches that you still haven't disrupted it. So that’s really the panic situation that we were in that last week of December. We haven’t stopped this.
NARRATOR: And then the turn of the year comes and goes… and nothing happens. A few days into the new millennium, President Clinton’s national security adviser commends US law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Just because we dodged a bullet doesn’t mean there was no bullet to dodge, he says. Terrorist cells were disrupted in eight countries in the last weeks of 1999. It was, he says, the largest US counterterrorism operation in history. And she’s too modest to take any credit, but Gina was right at the center of this effort. Although ironically, successfully preventing terrorist attacks creates other problems.
GINA BENNETT: So here we are working around the clock, trying to piece together the little bits of data. And then January 1st comes around and nothing happens. Nothing happens. And nothing happened the next day, or the next day, or the next day. And as the months go on and nothing happens, you start to realize that a lot of people - not just in this country, but around the world, and intelligence services and security services around the world - think that you are a little obsessed with bin Laden. I had one former US person actually tell me that we were like children thinking that he was the bogeyman. And it's frustrating. Obviously, you don't want terrorism to occur, but it's also so hard to persuade people that your vigilance is valid, that it's there for a reason. And we're not the boy crying wolf.
NARRATOR: It must be tough to carry on when everyone’s pointing the finger and saying: ‘Really? Are you sure? Come on, live a little.’ And by everyone, I mean everyone. As the 9/11 Commission would later report, analysts within the CIA’s bin Laden unit felt they were viewed as alarmists even within the CIA. It would be easy to give up, wouldn’t it? Move onto the next target, find the next threat? Or do you follow your gut and carry on chasing the ghost? What would you do? Well Gina, as you will probably have gathered by now, is no quitter. She just got on with her job. And it wasn’t long before al-Qaeda found their next American target. Not in the US itself, but on the other side of the world, docked at the Yemeni port of Aden. A ship. The guided-missile destroyer USS Cole.
GINA BENNETT: In October of 2000 a small cell of what we would find out later was an al-Qaeda cell from the Yemen area, put a shaped charge in a small motorboat… like a plastic explosive type in the hull of this fiberglass, small little fiberglass dinghy and sped it out to the USS Cole.
NARRATOR: The Cole had stopped to refuel. She was due to be alongside for only four hours. Below deck sailors were lining up for lunch.
GINA BENNETT: And they rammed their little dinghy right into the side of the Cole. And it, of course, exploded, blew open a hole in the ship, killed some sailors, injured others.
NARRATOR: Seventeen crew members died. Another 39 were injured. The bombers had blown a huge hole in the side of the ship. In the words of one writer, it was left gaping open like a gutted animal. What clearer illustration of the challenge that confronts a counterterrorism analyst? And what clearer symbol of the vulnerability of a superpower: a multi-million dollar fighting machine bristling with weaponry and missile-tracking devices brought to its knees by two men in a dinghy with a homemade bomb? There’s an intriguing postscript to the attack on the Cole because the subsequent investigation threw up some unexpected vindication for Gina and her colleagues. Remember the system blinking red as the millennium approached?
GINA BENNETT: We were able to piece together that the actual millennial plot, the top-down plot was, in fact, an al-Qaeda, leadership-driven plan to use that same type of attack with those small watercraft laden with explosives to slam into a ship that was due to be in the port in Aden the week of the millennium.
NARRATOR: The target at the beginning of the year had been a different guided-missile destroyer, USS The Sullivans, which had docked at Aden over the millennium period. The would-be bombers had, however, got their sums wrong.
GINA BENNETT: They got the weight distribution wrong and they ended up... the little dinghy sank. So they weren't able to conduct the attack.
NARRATOR: This initial attempt to attack a United States warship was laughably incompetent. On discovering their boat wouldn’t float, the would-be suicide bombers simply abandoned it. Five young locals out for some early morning fishing found it the following day. They couldn’t believe their luck - a top-of-the-range, outboard motor was there for the taking. It was heavy and they dropped it as they manhandled it onto the beach. And there were what looked like bricks of hashish stuffed inside the boat. They started throwing those around too. Until two men turned up in a truck and told them to stop. It was their boat and they wanted their motor back. ‘Finders, keepers,’ said the boys, ‘it’s ours now.’ There was some negotiation and, eventually, the youngsters agreed to give up their bounty. The hashish, of course, was explosive. But before you laugh too loudly, you should know this: the two men who got it so badly wrong at the beginning of the year refined their method. And by the time the USS Cole tied up in Aden, they knew exactly what they needed to do.
GINA BENNETT: That took some time to piece together what that was all about and how it happened, who did it. And by the time you're figuring out those pieces, which are important, right, because you're constantly looking at what's next? What are they planning next? So that's where our mind was going as we went into 2001, where, again, by late spring, early summer, we're seeing that system blinking red again.
NARRATOR: But even now - even after the embassy bombings in East Africa, even after the attack on USS Cole - the counterterrorism experts had what Gina calls a ‘cry wolf’ problem.
GINA BENNETT: We had told the world, including the US, that the system was blinking red in 1999 and nothing happened. At the same time, we're seeing this system blinking red. And from what we're seeing, that system blinking red is saying in the United States, there is going to be an attack in the United States, not just against US interests.
NARRATOR: But the security community was divided. There was a body of opinion that believed al-Qaeda would, from now on, attack only military targets. Many of those who’d died in the embassy bombings in 1998 had been Muslim, and bin Laden had been severely criticized for that by Muslims. There was a view that if al-Qaeda wanted to continue to attract finance it had to stop killing civilians, American or not.
GINA BENNETT: So you have that. You have others who feel like we just are obsessed with bin Laden and are afraid of him, and so we really can't be trusted to be objective about when there's a threat and when there's not a threat. You have this profound fatigue, really, among security apparatuses around the world with the United States saying: ‘Hey, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda.’ So this is a really tough battle. And then, of course, we have a new president at the time who hasn't really read into any of this at this point. So it's a really difficult time to convince anybody that there was a real threat there.
NARRATOR: You’ll have your own memories of September the 11th, the day two passenger aircraft reduced the twin towers of the World Trade Center to a pile of dust and rubble; when a third plane tore a section out of the Pentagon building; when a small group of defiant passengers forced the hijackers of a fourth plane to crash land in a field in Pennsylvania; when the counterterrorism community’s worst fears were realized.
GINA BENNETT: God, it was a beautiful day. It was one of those rare, early fall kind of days in Virginia, where the sky was crystal blue and the air was not humid. It wasn't cold, but it was just crisp and clean. You could almost smell fall coming and it was just glorious. And I remember my colleague and I were talking about the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Massoud was an important player in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, he was one of the leading Mujahidin commanders in the fight against Soviet occupation. By 2001 he was the only one still fighting the Taliban. And then, on September the 9th, just two days before 9/11, he was killed in a suicide attack.
GINA BENNETT: There’s no question we had a sense of doom because of that. It was hard for us to believe that was a random thing. In other words, we believed al-Qaeda had successfully committed an assassination against one of the key former party leaders of the Afghan Mujahidin who also happened to be our closest working partner in Afghanistan. So it was really hard not to feel like the other shoe was about to drop. So it's a beautiful day in Virginia, and the first thing you do as a warning analyst when you get to work is to start reading everything that has happened in the 12 hours that you've been gone. So the morning is mostly just taking in information and trying to sort out which of it you have to pay attention to in the next hour or two, or next day, whatever.
NARRATOR: And then shortly before nine in the morning there are reports of an aircraft flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
GINA BENNETT: Now, at the time, it was like everyone knew it was considered a collision. There was no indication at the moment that it was intentional. So we are all trying to figure out how that could possibly happen.
NARRATOR: And then the next plane hits the South Tower, just 17 minutes later. And Gina understands immediately what’s happening.
GINA BENNETT: You can't see that and think that was a coincidence. I mean, it is not possible. So, it's in that moment when we see the other plane hit that we realize exactly what this is. There's nobody in the counterterrorism center at that moment who didn't know what this was. This was the plot. This was the system blinking red. This was the attack. I mean, I did not see the first plane hit because I was at my desk already plowing through my material for the day. But when the second plane flies straight into that building. I mean, I couldn't help but think about Ramzi Yousef, and there was just no way there was any other explanation. And this is what they have wanted. This is what they had been trying to do since 1993. So we immediately go to what we have to do. We know what we have to do. Nobody has to ask us. We know immediately you got to figure out who else, where else, what's next. Start building the case of who it was, how they did it. I mean, it's just gather, gather, gather again, those dots, those fragments of information... because from our perspective, it's not about who did it. It's about what's next, and how do we stop it?
NARRATOR: It took the United States nearly 10 years to stop Osama bin Laden. They tracked him down to a house in a sleepy town in northern Pakistan and sent a team of Navy Seals in Black Hawk helicopters to kill him. They took the body with them and buried it quietly at sea. Did Gina Bennett help to pinpoint the high-walled compound in Abbottabad in which bin Laden was eventually run to ground? We’ll never know. But when President Obama addressed the American people at that unusual hour of the night, Gina and her colleagues got a special mention.
BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.
GINA BENNETT: I was in bed. I was asleep when Osama bin Laden was killed. And my son, my second son, woke me up and just said: ‘Congratulations, Mom.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. And I went downstairs and I watched the president on the news like so many other Americans and I didn't feel what I think what a lot of people think that you should feel at that particular moment. I wasn't elated or relieved or anything. I felt disappointed, I guess I had just wished that we could have ignored him.
NARRATOR: Gina’s disappointment evokes the recommendation made once by a British prime minister, that of starving terrorists of ‘the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.’ Gina agrees with her.
GINA BENNETT: I'm of the belief that the one thing you can rob terrorists of is their influence. You can't stop them from attacking. But you can make it insignificant. And that bothers them even more because, ultimately, they're all narcissists. And I remember the next day when I was chatting with a fellow targeter of mine who was elsewhere in the world, so we were chatting online and she said: ‘Hey, this is a really bad day for al-Qaeda.’ And I said: ‘Well, yeah, it's a bad day, but it's not the worst day.’ I mean, that was kind of unfathomable for somebody to say bin Laden had just been killed and it wasn't the worst day for al-Qaeda. And she's like: ‘What are you talking about? Like, what's worse than this?’ So this is a young, 20-something-year-old. And I said: ‘Well, let me ask you this. Have you ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof gang?’ And she was like: ‘No.” I was like: ‘Okay, well, when one counterterrorism officer says to another counterterrorism officer in the United States Hey, have you ever heard of bin Laden? And that person says no. That's the worst day for al-Qaeda. When they're no longer remembered.’
NARRATOR: Gina is proud of what she’s done. Most of it she can’t talk about. But without her work, there would no doubt have been more embassy bombings, other USS Coles. Gina is also the mother of five children, the first born within days of the first attack on the World Trade Center, the last with the US deeply involved in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the middle of giving birth to her first child, Gina was simultaneously briefing National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice on the latest state of play. Formidable.
GINA BENNETT: In the 1980s and really through much of the 1990s, to be honest, most folks in counterterrorism, in the intelligence community, certainly in foreign policy departments, state, elsewhere, military, defense, they were men. Counterterrorism especially seemed to draw a lot from former military ranks, which again, was naturally mostly men at that time, too. Still is.
NARRATOR: Which means that Gina has spent much of her career battling for recognition.
GINA BENNETT: I don't think I ever felt like I was taken seriously. Those first five to 10 years. It wasn't really until I was older that I realized it wasn't just that I was a young person, it was also that I was a woman. And that became a little bit clearer as I started to gain that expertise over the course of years and still felt like I wasn't being taken seriously.
NARRATOR: Counterterrorism - or CT as Gina calls it - isn’t quite the man’s world in the 21st century that it once was. She is one of the women responsible for that but she’s not alone. The band of sisters is one phrase that’s been coined to describe them. If you ask Gina about this, you’d better be ready for her answer.
GINA BENNETT: So there's a lot of names out there for the women in the CT community, the band of sisters, sisterhood, lots of different names. The bottom line is: we do feel ourselves to be special, different. And it's not to denigrate or diminish the contribution of our male colleagues. But you have been in this apparatus, this national security apparatus, the CT community within it, like in my case, for 32 years, you have been treated as special because you're a girl. You think like a girl, you act like a girl, you cry like a girl. You throw like a girl. You hit like a girl. I mean, you have been diminished for being a woman for so many years. So, yeah, we're special. We're so angry. We're so angry at bin Laden. We're so angry at what we know. We're so angry at not being taken seriously. I mean, we're so angry at so many things that you really do not want to mess with the sisterhood.
NARRATOR: Underestimate us at your peril. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Gina Bennett is an adjunct associate professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. She spent most of her career as a CIA analyst and worked as the senior counterterrorism advisor in the Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning in the National Counterterrorism Center. Bennett is also a SPYEX consultant, the mother of five children and the author of National Security Mom.