The Girls Who Noticed 9/11 Coming

One day towards the tip of the twentieth century, John Rizzo, a profession lawyer on the Central Intelligence Company, discovered himself chatting with Jack Downing—a former Marine and stalwart Chilly Warrior who had been introduced out of retirement to supervise the clandestine service.

The 2 males had been speaking about an analyst named Michael Scheuer, the cerebral however polarizing chief of a group targeted on a terrorist group known as al-Qaeda. Skeptical that Scheuer was as much as the job, Downing introduced up a perceived weak point of his workers. “The one individuals who work for him are women,” he scoffed.

It was a small second, however one Rizzo by no means forgot. “I keep in mind him saying women,” Rizzo advised me in an interview earlier than his demise in 2021. Satirically, Downing, who additionally died in 2021, was seen as comparatively supportive of ladies on the CIA.

Again in 2018, I met with a bunch of CIA historians to speak about ladies’s roles and experiences on the company. The historians pointed to the hanging variety of ladies engaged in a number of key missions, chief amongst them the monitoring of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, each earlier than and after the 9/11 assaults; Scheuer’s group of “women” performed a key half. Over three years of guide analysis, I interviewed a couple of hundred feminine officers on the company, together with a minimum of a half dozen who had been concerned within the bin Laden effort—a few of whom had not spoken beforehand about their work, or not extensively—in addition to lots of their male colleagues. What turned clear in these conversations was that most of the ladies who charted al-Qaeda’s rise felt that their work was undervalued or ignored and that their gender was a part of the equation.

The cover of Liza Mundy's new book
This text has been tailored from Mundy’s new guide.

For many years, the CIA, based in 1947, had been a boys’ membership. The company made a follow of hiring ladies as clerks, record-keepers, and secretaries, however not inserting them in high jobs, notably people who concerned spying. In response to a sequence of experiences performed in the course of the Chilly Battle a long time, the view amongst many officers at Langley was that girls had been extra emotional than males, much less prone to be taken critically overseas, and unable to succeed on the very important spycraft of working brokers—that’s, recruiting international nationals to share state secrets and techniques. When the company’s equal-opportunity workplace investigated a discrimination criticism introduced by a feminine officer within the late Seventies, the ensuing report discovered “unwitting, subliminal, unconscious discriminatory procedures which have change into institutionalized by follow.” The company settled with the complainant, however then, within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, discovered itself settling two main sex-discrimination lawsuits introduced by ladies within the clandestine service.

Sexism additionally existed within the analytic directorate, the massive cadre of officers who take what the spies gather and make conclusions and predictions. A 1992 “glass ceiling” examine commissioned by the CIA discovered that girls made up almost 40 % of the skilled workforce however solely 10 % of the elite Senior Intelligence Service. Girls typically discovered the headquarters setting “uncomfortable and alienating,” the examine stated, whereas white males tended to be given “career-making assignments.”

This historical past helps clarify the dismissiveness that the largely feminine group monitoring al-Qaeda perceived. For greater than a decade starting within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, the rising self-discipline of counterterrorism was a low-priority mission, which is one purpose so many ladies had been shunted into it. However though they had been properly positioned to identify the earliest indicators of al-Qaeda’s rise, they typically had hassle getting their voices heard once they sounded warnings. That the male analyst they had been most carefully related to—Scheuer—was contentious within the constructing didn’t assist.

Not all the ladies had been heroes; the group had flaws simply as any group of males would. They didn’t at all times make themselves nice to colleagues or bosses. They didn’t at all times agree on the strategy, strategies, or degree of aggression warranted towards terrorists and their leaders. After 9/11, some had been as vulnerable as males to the excesses of the Battle on Terror. However for years beforehand they endeavored to make identified {that a} dispersed group of fighters—whereas missing a proper navy or high-tech weaponry—was able to turning America’s personal expertise towards itself, and totally meant to take action.

Numerous investigations have examined why america didn’t see 9/11 coming, and the reasons are many. However one issue these assessments don’t totally seize is that some analysts did know that such an assault may occur, and that most of the earliest, most tenacious, and most perceptive of them had been feminine, in an establishment that had lengthy underestimated ladies and their work.

One of the primary officers to concentrate to al-Qaeda was a twentysomething analyst named Cindy Storer, sharp-eyed, good at math, a lover of puzzles. In 1989, Storer joined the desk answerable for taking a look at Afghanistan, which for 10 years had been occupied by Soviet invaders, with the CIA principally working the resistance. The 12 months she arrived on that account, the Soviet Military was defeated; two years later, the Soviet Union fell. Afghanistan, for many officers, light into unimportance. “We walked away from it,” William Webster, then the CIA director, later admitted.

Storer, nevertheless, stayed on the beat, watching as tribal factions fought for management of the nation. She started noticing one thing else: Arab fighters who had traveled from the Center East, Africa, and Asia to assist repel the Soviet occupiers had been now fanning out internationally. In Afghanistan, they had been often known as “international fighters” or “Afghan Arabs.” They known as themselves mujahideen: Islamic warriors pursuing jihad, or holy warfare, towards infidel nations. They had been violent, anti-Western, and rising in quantity.

Storer started educating herself tips on how to do terrorism evaluation, a brand new talent that entailed making sense of fragments resembling journey information and intercepted conversations amongst fighters utilizing code names. Sifting by transcripts, cables, and Arab-language information articles, she got down to observe which fighters had been being influenced by which individuals and teams. As she talked to colleagues and managers, nevertheless, it appeared to her that they minimized the menace at a time—the “peace dividend” period—when CIA sources had been shrinking and desks had been aggressive and short-staffed. “No person needed to listen to about it,” she advised me.

At the least, not till she met with a extra senior Close to East and South Asia analyst, Barbara Sude. Sude was an ideal instance of how ladies on the CIA had been funneled: She’d earned her PhD within the mid-Seventies and utilized to the company on a whim. On the time, ladies had been principally being employed as secretaries, and the company had a particular check with a pink cowl, which included questions like: Would you somewhat spend time placing on make-up or go with out? Upon being employed, she was routed to an offshoot unit—the International Broadcast Info Service—the place she labored for a decade earlier than making her approach into an analyst job at CIA headquarters.

An professional in medieval Islamic thought, Sude turned her consideration to political Islam and, at Storer’s suggestion, added Islamic extremists to her portfolio, together with these with hyperlinks to terrorism. The 2 analysts studied illicit monetary transactions, taking a look at nongovernmental organizations to see which of them had been diverting donations for nefarious functions.

Quickly, a 3rd lady, Gina Bennett, joined their efforts. After Bennett graduated from school in 1988, she utilized to the CIA. She didn’t get an interview, so she took a job as a clerk-typist on the State Division. She was shortly promoted to the division’s Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis, often known as the INR, the place she labored as a junior analyst within the terrorism “watch workplace,” which fielded cables about explosions and threats. Months into her new job, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Almost 300 individuals died in a terrorist bombing attributed to Libyan brokers.

The killing of civilians—college students, households, youngsters—was horrific, and Bennett, like the opposite ladies, sensed a pivot: Terrorism was rising and altering kind. From her desk in Foggy Backside, she started to review the move of international fighters leaving Afghanistan and going into Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, surfacing in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burma.

Bennett, pregnant along with her first baby, started engaged on a memo for the INR’s each day bulletin, a compendium of intelligence for diplomats and the national-security group. In early 1993, she was ending a draft when her water broke. Twenty-four hours later, she underwent an emergency C-section. A number of days later, the telephone rang by her hospital mattress; a automobile bomb had gone off in a parking storage of the World Commerce Heart in New York Metropolis. “Your individuals did this!” her supervisor exclaimed, which means that she’d had her eye on the best goal. Bennett was again to work inside weeks of giving start.

Her stunningly farsighted memo “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Harmful” ran within the August 21–22, 1993, weekend version of the INR’s bulletin. The identical community of donors that had “funneled cash, provides, and manpower to complement the Afghan mujahidin,” Bennett wrote, “is now contributing skilled fighters to militant Islamic teams worldwide.” The fighters excelled at guerrilla warfare, may journey simply, and had technological know-how. “The notion that the U.S. has an anti-Islamic international coverage agenda raises the chance that U.S. pursuits more and more will change into targets,” she warned.

At a time when the identify Osama bin Laden had appeared nearly nowhere within the Western press, Bennett named the person to watch out for. “Amongst personal donors to the brand new era [of fighters], Usama Bin Ladin is especially well-known for his spiritual zeal and monetary largesse,” she wrote.

Having crossed paths with Sude on the CIA, Bennett invited her to affix an off-the-cuff interagency group learning the fighters. Sude invited Storer, and the ladies teamed up with a handful of officers from State, the CIA, the FBI, and the FAA, who met in borrowed workplaces, sharing papers, insights, and analysis.

Storer created a slide deck that confirmed the place the fighters had been shifting and used symbols to indicate what they did: Set up an workplace. Arrange a coaching camp. Make a financial institution deposit. Blow one thing up. One other member of the group, the State Division analyst Lyndsay Howard, invited Storer to share her insights with individuals greater up. Round late 1993 or early 1994, Howard went door to door to main bureaus at State and begged colleagues to ship any individual senior to Storer’s briefing. The group listened to the presentation, however when Howard adopted them out, she heard two or three individuals strolling down the hall laughing, she advised me. They appeared to suppose Storer was exaggerating, ginning up a brand new enemy to justify the CIA’s continued existence.

At Langley, Storer may barely get the menace acknowledged. In February 1993, her group despatched an merchandise concerning the international fighters, authored by two colleagues, to the editors of the President’s Every day Transient, the compendium of pressing gadgets that’s introduced each morning to the “First Buyer” within the White Home—Invoice Clinton, on the time. The editors declined to incorporate the merchandise, Storer advised me. After the WTC bomb exploded, an editor known as and requested what her workplace knew about “Afghan Arabs,” she recalled. She instructed he learn the PDB merchandise that had been sitting within the drawer for 2 weeks.

Eventually Storer and Sude each discovered their approach to the CIA’s counterterrorist middle, a distinct segment unit created within the Nineteen Eighties to reply to hijackings and assaults within the Center East. By 1995, the company was changing into extra cognizant of the menace posed by bin Laden. A small “digital station” was created inside the middle, initially to look at his monetary dealings. Mike Scheuer headed the outfit—dubbed “Alec Station,” after his younger son—and recruited a group of principally ladies analysts. Scheuer, by his personal description, was the second or third choose for that job, which was not ardently sought by formidable colleagues who perceived that the paperwork, total, nonetheless had not totally embraced the mission.

The hardworking Scheuer grasped early on the magnitude of bin Laden’s success in cajoling different extremist leaders to return collectively in a multiethnic effort to kill Individuals and drive america out of the Center East. However Scheuer was additionally aggrieved, contemptuous of the political institution, vulnerable to go after his critics, and incessantly at odds with the FBI, from whom Alec Station typically hoarded data (and the opposite approach round). “He was at all times just a little nuts,” as one officer put it, “however he was our nut.” Storer and Sude every did stints working alongside Scheuer’s group, although not as a part of it.

“I had monumental respect for the ladies who labored for me,” Scheuer advised me, describing them as “specialists at trivialities, placing items of knowledge collectively or considering, ‘Hey, two months in the past I learn one thing about this,’ and so they’d return and discover it. They didn’t spend a lot time at throughout the water cooler telling warfare tales.”

Having a feminine workers made it more durable for Scheuer to get buy-in inside the bigger group, nevertheless. Operations officers scoffed at his group. “What’s his workers? It’s all feminine,” the ops officer Glenn Carle is quoted observing within the journalist Peter Bergen’s guide Manhunt. “It was simply extensively mentioned on the time that it’s a bunch of chicks,” Carle continued. “So, the angle was frankly condescending and dismissive.”

Scheuer’s group was not given its personal ops officers to gather data abroad, so he tapped his experiences officers—a historically feminine job that entailed disseminating cables—to wheedle supplies from colleagues on different desks. One other Alec Station group member, Jennifer Matthews, helped create a brand new area—focusing on—that entailed discovering terrorists the place they hid. Working along with her was Alfreda Bikowsky, often known as Freda, who mixed a steel-trap reminiscence with a stressed method and an aggressive strategy that a few of the different ladies, together with Storer, typically argued with. Darrell Blocker, a CIA officer who labored with Bikowsky years later and saluted her focus and competence, described her persona to me as “not heat and fuzzy.” When Bikowsky got here to Alec Station within the late Nineteen Nineties, as chief of operations, she set about increasing what “operations” may imply: not simply recruiting international nationals to move secrets and techniques but in addition “determining who it’s that we needs to be on the lookout for, who they’re related to,” she advised me. It was, she stated, “manhunting.” (Bikowsky later drew controversy when she participated within the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program, working as an analyst vetting detainee assertions, and served as an architect of the company’s efforts to defend what was condemned by many as torture.)

Gina Bennett, at Scheuer’s urging, left the State Division and joined the CIA to work on the al-Qaeda mission. Over the subsequent few years, Alec Station grew to about two dozen individuals, and remained 80 % feminine. The ladies didn’t at all times get alongside. These working for Scheuer, or a few of them, exhibited ferocity and suspicion. Some, Storer felt, regarded outsiders, even Storer herself, as not essentially entitled to know what they knew.

Nonetheless, diving into the “troves” of information that the Alec group collected, Storer had an epiphany second: “I’m like, holy crap, it’s a terrorist group.” Bin Laden’s fighters weren’t a free federation however a paperwork, full with a payroll and franchises. But even within the counterterrorist middle, colleagues on different accounts remained uncertain that scattered fighters may pose an organized menace on the extent of Hezbollah or Hamas. As Storer put it, many officers regarded the terrorists as “ragheads who lived in a cave,” when in truth the leaders had been “docs and legal professionals and navy officers who knew their shit.”

The company’s paperwork introduced one other drawback. Many of the categorized experiences the CIA produces are “company merchandise,” which signifies that anybody with a stake in a memo or paper should signal onto it earlier than it’s revealed. Consensus have to be secured, desk by desk, and that’s particularly laborious if you end up feminine, junior, and laboring in an obscure unit. Round 1997, Storer stated, she got down to write a definitive paper with “every little thing you needed to learn about bin Laden and al-Qaeda.” The draft was 60 pages lengthy. However she “couldn’t get different desks to agree,” she advised me. A supervisor needed her to interrupt it into small elements, she recalled. Storer stated the complete model was by no means revealed.

By mid-1998, Storer had lengthy been warning colleagues that bin Laden’s group had the power to stage simultaneous assaults. On Friday, August 7, she turned out to be proper: Main explosions occurred at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing a whole lot and injuring hundreds. When the assaults had been conclusively linked to al-Qaeda, this was, as one operations officer later wrote, a “profound” revelation, in that it confirmed that bin Laden may conduct “large-scale bombings of U.S. targets.”

Step by step, the reality was working its approach to the company’s seventh flooring and to CIA Director George Tenet, who tried to convey to the White Home the extent of the menace. A sequence of plans to seize bin Laden had been fashioned however had been rejected by high officers, who anxious about how exact the focusing on was and the hazard of placing civilians in danger. After the 1998 embassy bombings, Tenet paid a go to to Alec Station. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir, a feminine member approached him and, “quivering with emotion,” confronted him about one plan to apprehend bin Laden that had gotten nixed. Many CIA ladies later seen the phrase and resented its implication that the ladies had been emotional and weak.

As 2000 gave approach to 2001, Storer discovered herself studying terrorist communications that used phrases like “Olympic-sized” and “Armageddon.” In October 2000, suicide bombers in Yemen blew a gap in the united statesCole, killing 17 American sailors, and analysts had been shocked when the outgoing Clinton administration didn’t retaliate. In 2001, Tenet started begging the incoming administration of George W. Bush to let the CIA mount an operation that allowed for killing bin Laden somewhat than capturing him. Analysts anticipated that one other main assault may occur in the summertime, and Storer felt duty and dread: That is going to occur in your watch.

In July, Barbara Sude was tasked with writing a PDB that tackled the query everybody was questioning: Would possibly the large assault happen on the U.S. mainland? She remembers her boss saying phrases to the impact of, “They’re on the lookout for a chunk on bin Laden and the U.S.” From this free instruction, Sude customary one of the vital well-known warnings in American historical past.

She and some different analysts had written almost 40 warning gadgets that 12 months alone. She had a pile of papers two ft excessive on her desk, together with one by the FAA about hijackings. Crafting the memo with the enter of colleagues, Sude famous that bin Laden had implied in TV interviews that he needed to comply with the instance of the 1993 World Commerce Heart bomber, Ramzi Yousef, and “convey the preventing to America.” The memo identified that the 1998 bombings of the embassies in East Africa, which bin Laden associates had scoped out as early as 1993, confirmed that al-Qaeda was affected person and “not deterred by setbacks.” Al-Qaeda members “have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years,” she wrote. Risk reporting instructed that bin Laden needed to hijack a U.S. plane, and the FBI had famous patterns of exercise suggesting “preparations for hijackings or different sorts of assaults.”

She faxed a draft to the FBI, and despatched it as much as the PDB editors, who titled it “Bin Ladin Decided to Strike in U.S.” However the editors needed extra statistics from the FBI. Sude known as the Bureau once more and discovered that it was conducting “roughly 70 full area investigations” wanting into “bin Ladin–associated” exercise in america. Sude added that data to the draft. The merchandise was put within the guide on August 6, and the president was briefed.

Sude would at all times marvel: When President Bush was advised of the existence of greater than 70 FBI investigations into bin Laden actions within the American homeland, did the commander in chief fear? Did he ever name the FBI director and ask him what was happening? Bush later advised congressional investigators that he felt heartened to be taught of so many investigations. He took it to imply that issues had been underneath management. After the August 6 PDB ran, 4 weeks handed earlier than the Bush administration had its first Cupboard-level assembly concerning the menace posed by al-Qaeda, on September 4, 2001.

The day of the assaults, the CIA workers evacuated headquarters, apart from individuals within the counterterrorist middle. The ladies there, who thought {that a} airplane could be headed for Langley—and for them—felt a mix of worry, anger, failure, resentment, and guilt. Within the coming years, they labored to stop extra assaults and to trace down the perpetrators, notably bin Laden. One group member, Jennifer Matthews, died in that effort, killed alongside colleagues when a suicide bomber infiltrated the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Some, like Cindy Storer and Barbara Sude, continued searching terrorists for a few years, till they retired. Gina Bennett was nonetheless on the CIA when bin Laden was discovered and killed on Could 2, 2011, and stayed on for years after that. Freda Bikowsky, who went on to direct the “international jihad” unit, married Michael Scheuer in 2014 (she now goes by Alfreda Scheuer). Scheuer, in the meantime, was eased out of Alec Station in 1999 and left the company in 2004, after rising increasingly outspoken concerning the Iraq Battle and different points. He went on to create a weblog the place he has expressed admiration for QAnon, claimed that the 2020 election was stolen, supported mob violence towards Black Lives Matter protesters, and known as for the killing of journalists and Democratic politicians, amongst different extremist views. (“He bears no resemblance to the person I knew,” Bennett advised me.)

That these ladies’s warnings—and lots of different warnings—weren’t acted on owes to many components. With any failure as huge as 9/11 comes hindsight bias and I-told-you-sos. However there’s no query that early strategic warnings, and later tactical ones, had been made by ladies who labored in an un-prestigious, discounted unit, and who had their ears to the bottom.

After the assault, Tenet demanded that analysts, with their granular data, be included in high-level briefings. When the hunt for bin Laden was reinvigorated almost 10 years after 9/11, a group of targeters—strikingly feminine—proved key to the mission’s success. No matter else it’s, the CIA is a office, one with institutional biases, turf wars, paperwork, and, sure, sexism. When the stakes are so excessive, these dynamics can have history-making penalties.

This text has been tailored from The Sisterhood: The Secret Historical past of Girls on the CIA.

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