US told Saudis about Qaeda plane threat pre-9/11
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States told Saudi Arabia more than three years before the September 11 attacks that Osama bin Laden might be targeting civilian airplanes, according to a newly declassified State Department cable.
The June 1998 cable, obtained by George Washington University's National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act, said the United States had no specific information that al Qaeda was planning such an attack, and did not say it might fly planes into buildings.
A copy of the cable, first reported by The New York Times on Friday, was obtained by Reuters. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals.
The cable, from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to U.S. government officials, said concerns were based on threats bin Laden had recently made against military aircraft in an interview with U.S. network ABC.
"We could not rule out that a terrorist might take the course of least resistance and turn to a civilian target," the cable said, noting bin Laden had said his group did not differentiate between civilians and the military.
The cable said three U.S. officials had met with Saudi officials at Riyadh's King Khaled International Airport on June 16, 1998, "to discuss the Osama bin Laden threat, and press for enhanced vigilance by Saudi security screeners and police patrols around the airport."
"We noted that while we have no specific information that indicates bin Laden is targeting civilian aircraft, he made a threat during the June 11 ABC News interview against 'military passenger aircraft' in the next 'few weeks,"' the cable said.
The cable is the latest of several signs made public that U.S. officials had concerns, long before the 2001 hijacked airplane attacks on New York and Washington, that al Qaeda might be targeting aircraft.
Others include a highly classified President's Daily Brief report to former President Bill Clinton dated December 4, 1998, which was titled "Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks."
The CIA has also said it had told the Federal Aviation Administration in 1999 that "Osama bin Laden remains interested in targeting U.S. interests including on U.S. territory. He is well prepared to consider kidnappings and hijackings as well as bombings."
On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush's daily intelligence brief said the FBI had detected "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."
It did not warn of an airplane attack on buildings, but said the FBI was conducting about 70 investigations throughout the United States that it considered were related to bin Laden.