On September 11th, 2001, the United States suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in its history. To most people, the attack was a sudden and extraordinary act of aggression. But a group of law enforcement agents, analysts, and other government officials knew better; the roots of the attack were sown decades earlier.
A moving portrait of the days, weeks and years leading up to September 11th, 2001, “Road to 9/11” skillfully captures key events in the long timeline. Going back over several decades – particularly the ten years prior – this well-crafted documentary provides detailed interviews with experts who were on the ground and in the middle of the action. Narrated by Academy Award-Winner F. Murray Abraham, the show plays out like a fascinating detective story. Even though we see the climax coming, the story still draws us in.
Over three nights, beginning September 4th, the documentary chronicles three periods leading up to the fateful day and immediately after: Brooklyn Jihad (1990-1995), The Bin Ladens (1995-2000) and The Days of Terror (2000-2003). There is a tendency to think that we may know most of the backstory of 9/11, or that despite all the supposed warnings, there was just too much information for intelligence personnel to wade through and ultimately avoid the tragedy. As I viewed “Road to 9/11,” I realized that both of these assumptions were false.
FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino and Port Authority Detective Matthew Besheer comprise the heart of the story. The two men detail their near-successful and heartbreaking attempts to track down and capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, better known as KSM, the architect of 9/11, who currently awaits trial in Guantanamo Bay.
The documentary makes clear that the breakdown of intelligence gathering was a collective failure. Up to fifty CIA personnel knew of two Al-Qaeda operatives that had been living in the U.S. for over a year and would ultimately participate in the hijackings. Yet in every instance, the CIA failed to notify the FBI of their presence. The most likely explanation was that the CIA wanted to recruit the operatives and turn them into informants – clearly a dangerous gambit.
A lesser known, yet interesting detail omitted from the series has to do with the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9th, two days before 9/11. As the key Afghan leader who opposed the Taliban, Massoud’s death – most likely a result of orders from Osama Bin Laden – removed the last obstacle for 9/11 by giving Al-Qaeda free rein to operate in the country. In Afghanistan, September 9th is now a national holiday in honor of Massoud.
Interesting tidbits of Osama Bin Laden’s life reveal that he was the 17th child of his father’s 54 children from 22 wives. After his father’s death, Bin Laden used the family’s wealth to move up in the terrorist hierarchy that regarded him as a hero – which suggests that organizational prestige was as much a motivator as was religious fervor. In a way, the story feels a little like a cross between Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” and Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.” There is great intrigue, but also great ego on the part of terrorist leaders.
“Road to 9/11” makes clear that the U.S. Government committed tactical errors both before and after 9/11. For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently fueled the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rumsfeld declined an interview for the documentary. The U.S. invasion of Iraq essentially gave new life to Al-Qaeda – an organization that otherwise had been largely decimated after the Taliban were ousted from Afghanistan.
With over 50 interviews conducted, some on U.S. television for the first time, “Road to 9/11” provides the definitive picture to-date of what actually led to the destruction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. “Road to 9/11” is a gripping short series, well worth the time.
3-Night Event begins September 4th