Center for Strategic Communication

In April 2002, the FBI warned banks in northeastern states of a “physical attack”: 

"The United States government has received unsubstantiated information that unspecified terrorists are considering physical attacks against US financial institutions in the Northeast — particularly banks — as part of their campaign against US financial interests," the FBI said in a statement.

"While the FBI has no information about any specific plot or threats to any specific institution, out of an abundance of caution, an alert has been transmitted to law enforcement and to financial institutions."

It was the second warning of its kind made by federal officials this week. The first was prompted by an anonymous telephone call received Sunday from the Netherlands through Canada that later turned out to be a false alarm.

The alert focused on Washington and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

The FBI said the decision to issue the alert followed was made after if consultations with the Department of Justice, the Office of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department.

Attorney General John Ashcroft explained the US government was not asking the banks to close, or urging people to stay away from them.

"We are alerting law enforcement, financial institutions, and the American people to be vigilant, and to be aware of anything that appears suspicious," he said in a statement. The attorney general said he was not aware of any specific threat to any specific financial institution.

But he pointed out that during the war against terrorism, the United States had developed numerous sources of new information and was constantly analyzing and assessing intelligence received from them.

Ashcroft did not disclose what theses sources of new information were.

But a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the information that prompted the warning came in part from Abu Zubaydah, the suspected chief of al Qaeda operations, who was captured in Pakistan and turned over to US authorities earlier this month.

The official emphasized, however, that the FBI was accurate in qualifying the information it had received was unsubstantiated.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week Zubaydah was "a fountain of knowledge" about al-Qaeda's operations.

Following the warning, a local news station sent a reporter into the branch office of a regional bank on K Street and interviewed the manager about the warning. That warning, like so many to follow, faded into memory. Except, perhaps, for the branch manager who had his 20 seconds of local fame, thanks in part to Abu Zubaydah.  

Then in July 2004, Pakistan arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani outside of Rawalpindi, along with 15 other suspects “from Africa.” Along with the suspects, came the requisite laptops and portable drives.  Soon after the arrest, authorities recovered reconnaissance reports that made it clear that al-Qaida possessed a well-developed plot to attack “banks.”  Not your local branch, however, but major financial institutions like the World Bank. 

The Guardian reported at the time:

"This was a planning proposal in the pre-operation phase, including surveillance and plans for attacking. It was typical of a group-level operation that needs to be approved at Bin Laden's level," the source said. It is unclear whether these attacks had been approved.

The buildings apparently named as targets were the Citigroup Centre and the Stock Exchange in New York, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington, and Prudential Financial's headquarters in Newark. Police in each city were searching cars and lorries approaching the buildings yesterday. In New York, the Holland tunnel, leading to Manhattan's financial district, was closed to heavy commercial vehicles.

US intelligence officials quoted in the US press say the new information shows that scouting had been done to identify security in and around these buildings; the best places for reconnaissance; how to make contact with employees who work in the buildings; traffic patterns; and locations of hospitals and police departments.

Some of the reconnaissance was extremely detailed, even including the number of pedestrians who walked past on each side of the street in a minute. Reconnaissance is thought to have been carried out over several years, both before and after the attacks of September 11 2001.

A US intelligence official told the Guardian yesterday the new information provided a "remarkable level of clarity" about al-Qaida operations.

The official, speaking anonymously, said that the new intelligence included "extensive information about activities that have taken place – about the casing and surveillance of the targets, their vulnerabilities and perceived vulnerabilities, the optimal ways to carry out an attack and to bring down buildings, types of security personnel … it's very detailed."

The intelligence official added: "The indications are that has been a very longstanding effort on the part of al-Qaida. It dated to before September 11, and probably continues to this day."

US officials, quoted in the Washington Post, said that al-Qaida scouts had found that one of the buildings being cased had three male security guards but that only one carried a weapon. "Getting up to the higher floors is not very difficult if you go there midweek, as I did," one of the scouts reported, according to the seized computer files.

The author of those reports? Dhiren Barot, aka Issa al-Hindi.  His audience? Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Al-Hindi had UK citizenship, and perfect jihadi credentials. Trained and indoctrinated at LeT camps in Pakistan in the 1990s, he fought Indian troops in Kashmir.  He later move on to train in al-Qaida recruits in Afghanistan.  Al-Hindi traveled to the US, recorded extensive video of Stock Exchange buildings in New York City.  In 1998, Bharot wrote Army of Madinah in Kashmir, an auto-biographical account of his time with the LeT in Kashmir.  Al-Hindi was arrested in the UK in August 2004.

In al-Hindi, we see one of the strongest connections between LeT and AQ.  However, it's not the only one.  Piece together disparate plots from the US, UK and Australia, and a broader (if still unclear) picture hints at a long-term collaborative effort between the two groups.  LeT and AQ’s relationship pre-dates 9/11, and suggests a level of cooperation that could be the primary reason AQ survived after the loss of its safe haven in 2001.  I wonder if we even considered that contingency before or immediately after the Taliban fell.  

Between 2002 and 2008, there were numerous incidence where the open source line between LeT and AQ seemed to blur.  KSM dispatched Issa al-Hindi to America to scope out “banks.”  Sajid Mir sent Willie Brigitte to Australia.  Suspects in Operation Pendennis trained in LeT camps; Hamid Hayat trained in a “militant” camp  in Pakistan for an attack on "financial institutions" in the United States.  Were these AQ plots? LeT plots? Who was behind this seemingly ongoing effort to create havoc in major western cities?  Are they still active?

Were there any operational connections between the plots? Any shared strategy?  Shared resources?   There’s also this lingering question about Abu Zubaydah and his interrogators.  How much did he know about the Banks plot? Was he evading his interrogators in April 2002?  Did they misinterpret him?  Could we have uncovered it sooner?  I doubt there are ready answers to these questions.  However, the disparity between what we knew in 2002 and what we discovered in 2004 will always bother me.  It represents a dangerous gap in knowledge that may have led to an major terrorist attack had it not been for Ghailani's arrest.  

Despite billions of dollars thrown at our intelligence community, we're still relying on luck.