KATE CLARK in Kabul
September 7, 2002
Weeks before the terrorist attacks on 11 September, the United States and the United Nations ignored warnings from a secret Taliban emissary that Osama bin Laden was planning a huge attack on American soil.
The warnings were delivered by an aide of Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban Foreign Minister at the time, who was known to be deeply unhappy with the foreign militants in Afghanistan, including Arabs.
Mr Muttawakil, now in American custody, believed the Taliban's protection of Mr bin Laden and the other al-Qa'ida militants would lead to nothing less than the destruction of Afghanistan by the US military. He told his aide : "The guests are going to destroy the guesthouse."
The minister then ordered him to alert the US and the UN about what was going to happen. But in a massive failure of intelligence, the message was disregarded because of what sources describe as "warning fatigue". At the same time, the FBI and the CIA failed to take seriously warnings that Islamic fundamentalist students had enrolled in flight schools across the US.
Mr Muttawakil's aide, who has stayed on in Kabul and who has to remain anonymous for his security, described in detail to The Independent how he alerted first the Americans and then the United Nations of the coming calamity of 11 September.
The minister learnt in July last year that Mr bin Laden was planning a "huge attack" on targets inside America, the aide said. The attacks were imminent and would be so deadly the United States would react with destructive rage.
Mr bin Laden had been in Afghanistan since May 1996, bringing his three wives, 13 children and Arab fighters. Over time he became a close ally of the obscurantist Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Mr Muttawakil learnt of the coming attacks on America not from other members of the Taliban leadership, but from the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yildash. The organisation was one of the fundamentalist groups that had found refuge on Afghan soil, lending fighters for the Taliban's war on the Northern Alliance and benefiting from good relations with al-Qa'ida in its fight against the Uzbek government.
According to the emissary, Mr Muttawakil emerged from a one-to-one meeting with Mr Yildash looking shocked and troubled. Until then, the Foreign Minister, who had disapproved of the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamian earlier in the year, had no inkling from others in the Taliban leadership of what Mr bin Laden was planning.
"At first Muttawakil wouldn't say why he was so upset," said the aide. "Then it all came out. Yildash had revealed that Osama bin Laden was going to launch an attack on the United States. It would take place on American soil and it was imminent. Yildash said Osama hoped to kill thousands of Americans."
At the time, 19 members of al-Qa'ida were in situ in the US waiting to launch what would be the deadliest foreign attack on the American mainland.
The emissary went first to the Americans, travelling across the border to meet the consul general, David Katz, in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, in the third week of July 2001. They met in a safehouse belonging to an old mujahedin leader who has confirmed to The Independent that the meeting took place.
Another US official was also present possibly from the intelligence services. Mr Katz, who now works at the American embassy in Eritrea , declined to talk about the meeting. But other US sources said the warning was not passed on.
A diplomatic source said : "We were hearing a lot of that kind of stuff. When people keep saying the sky's going to fall in and it doesn't, a kind of warning fatigue sets in. I actually thought it was all an attempt to rattle us in an attempt to please their funders in the Gulf, to try to get more donations for the cause."
The Afghan aide did not reveal that the warning was from Mr Muttawakil, a factor that might have led the Americans to down-grade it. "As I recall, I thought he was speaking from his own personal perspective," one source said. "It was interesting that he was from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but he gave no indication this was a message he was carrying."
Interviewed by The Independent in Kabul, the Afghan emissary said : "I told Mr Katz they should launch a new Desert Storm like the campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait but this time they should call it Mountain Storm and they should drive the foreigners out of Afghanistan. They also had to stop the Pakistanis supporting the Taliban."
The Taliban emissary said Mr Katz replied that neither action was possible. Nor did Mr Katz pass the warning on to the State Department, according to senior US diplomatic sources.
When Mr Muttawakil's emissary returned to Kabul, the Foreign Minister told him to see UN officials. He took the warning to the Kabul offices of UNSMA, the political wing of the UN. These officials heard him out, but again did not report the secret Taliban warning to UN headquarters. A UN official familiar with the warnings said : "He appeared to be speaking in total desperation, asking for a Mountain Storm, he wanted a sort of deus ex machina to solve his country's problems. But before 9/11, there was just not much hope that Washington would become that engaged in Afghanistan."
Officials in the State Department and in UN headquarters in New York said they knew nothing about a Taliban warning. But they said they would now be looking into the matter.
Mr Muttawakil is now unavailable for comment he handed himself in to the Afghan authorities in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan last February. He is reported to be in American custody there, one of the few senior members of the Taliban regime the US has managed to arrest.
As America steadily broke the Taliban's military machine last autumn, there were no Taliban defections. Apart from Mr Mutawakil's one vain attempt to warn the world, the Taliban remained absolutely loyal to their leader's vision.
September 7, 2002
The United States ignored a clear warning in July last year from the emissary of a Taliban leader that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network was planning a major attack on U.S. soil, the Independent newspaper said on Saturday.
It said an emissary acting for then-Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil warned both the United States consul general in Pakistan, David Katz and the United Nations in Kabul of the impending attack, but was ignored.
A State Department official, asked about the newspaper story, reiterated previous government statements that the United States last summer was aware of reports that al Qaeda might be preparing an attack.
"We took all warnings very seriously," issuing public announcements, travel warnings and cautions during that period that attempted to alert the public to these threats, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the official added : "We had no specific information" that three hijacked airliners would strike New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
The Independent cited unnamed U.S. sources as confirming that a warning had been received from the emissary but was discounted because he did not say he was acting for Muttawakil and was just one among many carrying messages of doom.
"We were hearing a lot of that kind of stuff," the newspaper quoted one diplomatic source as saying. "When people keep saying the sky's going to fall in and it doesn't, a kind of warning fatigue sets in."
The Independent said Muttawakil, who feared al Qaeda would bring destruction to Afghanistan and who distanced himself from the more extreme views of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, handed himself over to the new Afghan authorities in February.
It said he was now in U.S. custody and unavailable for comment.
Just weeks after the alleged meeting between his emissary and Katz in a safe house in Peshawar, hijackers crashed civilian airliners into New York's World Trade Center, a field in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon outside Washington.
More than 3,000 people were killed in the September 11 attack the United States blames on bin Laden.
The Independent reported State Department and U.N. officials in New York said they knew nothing about a Taliban warning but would look into the matter.
Former BBC correspondent
September 7, 2002
An aide to the former Taleban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, has revealed that he was sent to warn American diplomats and the United Nations that Osama bin Laden was due to launch a huge attack on American soil. Neither organisation heeded the warning, which was given just weeks before the 11 September attacks.
The aide said he had urged the Americans to launch a military campaign against al-Qaeda but was told that this was politically impossible.
Mr Muttawakil, who was known to be deeply unhappy with the Arab and other foreign militants in Afghanistan, learned of Osama bin Laden's plan in July.
The attack was imminent, he discovered, and it would be huge. Bin Laden hoped to kill thousands of US citizens.
The information had come not from other members of the Taleban but from the leader of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, Tohir Yuldash, who had found refuge in Afghanistan and had good links with al-Qaeda.
The minister was deeply worried that the US military would react with deadly vengeance against Afghanistan.
As he put it, al-Qaeda, the Taleban's guests, were going to destroy the guest house.
One of his former aides told me how he had been sent to issue warnings.
He went first to the American consulate in Peshawar in Pakistan, then to the United Nations. But neither warning was heeded.
One US official explained why :
"We were hearing a lot of that kind of stuff," he said.
"When people keep saying the sky's going to fall in, and it doesn't, a kind of 'warning fatigue' sets in."
Another diplomatic source said he had thought the meeting was an attempt to rattle the US to please funders in the Gulf, a bid to raise money from al-Qaeda's donors.
Only Taleban alert
And the fact that the aide had been told not to mention Mr Muttawakil's name also led to a downgrading of the information.
At the time, late July last year, 19 members of al-Qaeda were already in place in America, waiting to launch their deadly attacks.
It is already known that American domestic intelligence failed to heed information, but this is the only known alert that came from inside the Taleban movement.
The former foreign minister himself is now unavailable for comment - he handed himself in to the Afghan authorities in February.
He remains in US custody in Kandahar, one of the few senior Taleban whom America has managed to arrest.