‘I warned the FBI about this guy Osama bin Laden’: the people who predicted disasters, from the 2008 crash to Covid | Life and style

‘Thinking I could have stopped it is something I have to deal with’

Ali Soufan on 9/11

In October 2000, Ali Soufan, a 29-year-old Lebanese-American FBI agent, was driving across Brooklyn Bridge when his pager beeped. More than 7,000 miles away, off the coast of Yemen, suicide bombers in a fishing boat had blown a hole in the side of the USS Cole, a missile destroyer, killing 17 American sailors.

Soufan was being summoned to the office, where his mentor John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s National Security Division, would put him in charge of the investigation. O’Neill and Soufan were rare voices in the FBI and beyond in sounding the alarm about the scale of the threat posed to the US by al-Qaida.

“It all started for me in 1997 when I wrote a memo to the FBI warning about this guy Osama bin Laden,” says Soufan, who had only just completed a master’s in international relations before sending his CV to the FBI, partly because he loved The X-Files. “That memo became more important after the east African embassy bombings in 1998. And the rest is history.”

A team led by Soufan and O’Neill flew straight to Yemen, where they quickly established links between the USS Cole attack, al-Qaida and the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi, in which more than 200 people had been killed. More significantly, Soufan connected the USS Cole plotters to a one-legged al-Qaida lieutenant called “Khallad” and two meetings in Thailand and Malaysia.

While establishing a trail of people and money, Soufan suspected something bigger was afoot – and that the Malaysia meeting was of particular importance. “The threat matrix was blinking red,” he says. But when he asked the CIA about that meeting, the agency said it had nothing. In fact, the agency knew all about it but decided to keep its intelligence to itself. Crucially, it would fail to tell the FBI that two other jihadis in Malaysia had flown on to California, where they enrolled at a flying school without raising suspicion.

Soufan grew up in Beirut, where his father was a journalist and his mother a teacher. He was 16 when the family moved to Pennsylvania to escape war. American virtues seduced the teenager: freedom, opportunity, justice. “It was the American dream,” he says. But as a young agent, his idealism and talent were butting up against more mundane themes. A culture of mutual suspicion and rivalry was blocking the flow of information between the CIA and the FBI. It probably didn’t help that Soufan had outwitted the CIA in a separate investigation in Jordan, then rebuffed its attempts to recruit him. (He found a box of evidence the agency had missed, which included a map of proposed jihadi bomb sites and led to the conviction of 22 plotters.)

Back in New York, in late August 2001, Soufan said goodbye to O’Neill, who was leaving the FBI. O’Neill, who had been a father figure to Soufan, was about to start a quieter life – as head of security at the World Trade Center. Soufan flew back to Yemen to follow up some USS Cole leads. He was at the US embassy on 11 September. “When I saw the second plane hit, I knew this was al-Qaida,” he says.

The FBI ordered Soufan and his team to fly home the next morning. Moments before takeoff, Soufan was told to call the CIA. It ordered him to return to the embassy, where an agent handed Soufan an envelope. It contained surveillance photos and reports of the Malaysia meeting. “It had all the answers to the questions that I’d been asking since November 2000,” he says. “I literally went to the bathroom and threw up.”

Soufan couldn’t get through to O’Neill and assumed – correctly – that his mentor was dead. Now he had learned that the CIA had withheld information that could have cracked the 9/11 plot – and that the same agency wanted him to prove al-Qaida was responsible. “I honestly don’t think I know how it felt at the time, and I still don’t,” he says. “I didn’t have time to think.”

Working without sleep for days, Soufan interrogated one of the USS Cole plotters, who mentioned a jihadi who had known one of the 9/11 hijackers and happened to be in Yemen. After days of questioning, Soufan got the man to identify the terrorists.

Soufan’s high profile made life difficult and he left the FBI in 2005. Now in his early 50s, he runs the Soufan Group, a global security consultancy. He has been the subject of books and TV shows, becoming known as “the man who could have stopped 9/11”. “I don’t want to put that burden on my shoulders … that I could have stopped it,” he says. “But I do think about these things sometimes, it’s something I have to deal with.”

Since 9/11, Soufan has warned the world about emerging threats, including domestic white supremacy and its “disturbing parallels” with the rise of al-Qaida. “When I’m warning about threats, I think people say, ‘You know what? These guys really tried to tell us before about al-Qaida and we didn’t heed their warnings, so maybe we should pay attention now,’” he says.

‘I became sure we were going to have a pandemic in the not too distant future, and that we weren’t ready for it’

Robin Marantz Henig on Covid

In 1990, Robin Marantz Henig started researching a book about viruses. A year earlier, more than 200 virologists had gathered at a conference in Washington DC to consider future threats and to counter a complacency that seemed to exist about the possible emergence of a virus that could cross oceans and cause a pandemic.

Henig remembered the early terror of Aids, first observed in 1981 in New York City, where her brother was working as a doctor at the time. In 1983, Henig, who was 29 and already a talented science writer, published a magazine feature about Aids in the New York Times, a few weeks before scientists identified HIV as the virus behind it. “So my editors said, ‘OK, now we’re gonna put you on the Aids beat and you’re going to figure out which lab is going to cure it, and we’ll be there on the ground floor,’” says Henig, now 69 and living in New York. “And I thought, ‘That’s not how it works!’ It took another 10 years for Aids to stop being a death sentence.”

Henig says the postwar development of antibiotics and vaccines – perhaps most notably against polio in the 50s – had closed minds to the threat of viruses and the difficulty of containing them. “We thought infectious diseases were taken care of, so making the case that this was something we still needed to pay attention to was an uphill battle, even in the context of Aids,” she says.

In her book A Dancing Matrix, which came out in 1993, Henig considered how aviation and the proximity of growing human populations to wildlife, including bats and rodents, were creating fertile ground. She was struck by the lack of investment in surveillance systems. “I became sure that we were going to have a pandemic in the not too distant future, and that we weren’t ready for it,” she says.

A year later, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett were bestselling books with similar themes. “I like to say that I wrote the prequel,” Henig says. Yet still the world remained unprepared. Henig also blames prejudice for a collective failure of imagination. In her book she quotes a weary unnamed scientist: “Ask a field virologist what constitutes an epidemic worth looking into and he’ll answer with characteristic cynicism, ‘The death of one white person.’”

Later threats, including Ebola and Sars, were confined to specific regions in the global south. Aids had struck at the heart of major western cities, but even that disease was, as Henig puts it, “easy to compartmentalise”, at least for those not directly affected. “It all fed into our worst instincts to think that we weren’t facing an existential threat and so we could ignore these diseases,” she says.

That denial was intact when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020. Henig remembers a sense of “vertigo” as she watched the crisis unfold. “My daughter said to me, ‘So how does it feel to be watching this and knowing that you predicted it all?’” And I didn’t have it in my mind in that way, but it did feel like everything I had outlined was what we were now living.”

In 2020, Henig phoned Stephen S Morse, a virologist who had chaired the 1989 conference and featured prominently in her book. He was dismayed by the world’s failure to heed his warnings. He shared with Henig his favourite quote, from a management guru called Peter Drucker, who was once asked, “What is the worst mistake you could make?” According to Morse, Drucker replied: “To be prematurely right.”

‘I took pleasure in watching the pundits twist themselves in knots trying to explain this thing they’d said couldn’t happen’

Allan Lichtman on Donald Trump winning the 2016 US election

Days after the 2016 US presidential election, Allan Lichtman received an envelope. Inside, the history professor found a print-out of an interview in the Washington Post, in which he had predicted a win for Donald Trump. Trump had posted the piece to Lichtman, scrawling on it in thick marker pen: PROFESSOR – CONGRATS – GOOD CALL – DONALD TRUMP.

“I keep this on my wall,” Lichtman says, at home in Washington DC, where he teaches at American University. Speaking via Zoom, he’s holding up the framed article. “My wife wanted me to burn it.”

Lichtman, 75, has little time for Trump’s politics. But as a renowned forecaster of US presidential elections, who has correctly predicted the popular vote since 1984, the nattily dressed professor was tickled to receive a note from a winner. “I didn’t get a message from Joe Biden in 2020,” he says, ruefully.

Lichtman says 2016 was his toughest call in 10 elections over almost 40 years. “I was virtually alone among professional forecasters and you can imagine it did not make me popular in DC, which is over 90% Democrat,” he says. “I tried to explain to people that it wasn’t an endorsement.” He was prepared to go out on a limb, he says, because his analysis told him to. Before each election, he goes through the same 13 true-or-false statements. His “keys to the White House” prediction system (also the name of a book he published in 1984) includes factors such as when “there is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination” and “there is no sustained social unrest during the term”. Only two keys directly relate to a candidate’s character. The statements, which also concern midterm election performance and foreign policy, are broadly crafted to measure the strength of the incumbent party. Answers of “true” favour re-election. But if Lichtman judges six or more answers to be “false”, he calls it for the other party.

The “keys” date back to a fateful meeting with a Soviet seismologist. In 1981, Vladimir Keilis-Borok got chatting to Lichtman about his ambition to apply mathematical pattern recognition to politics. Democracy being in short supply in the Soviet Union, he suggested a joint focus on the US. “I thought the guy was either nuts or KGB,” Lichtman says.

The Russian, who died in 2013, formed an unlikely partnership with Lichtman. Their work included a study of presidential elections going back to 1860. “In seismology, they look at what patterns are associated with stability and earthquakes in the physical world,” Lichtman says. “We looked at what patterns are associated with political stability and earthquakes.”

History told the men a sitting president has a major advantage over a new candidate from the same party, making the end of a second term especially fraught (the US has a two-term limit for presidents). This was part of his Clinton calculation in 2016, which also followed Obama’s midterms trouncing. The academic was working for Al Jazeera in Doha when he watched the 2016 results come in. “I took a bit of sardonic pleasure in watching the conventional pundits twist themselves into knots trying to explain this thing they’d all assured us couldn’t possibly happen.”

The pressure to be right mounts with each success. “If I’m wrong, a ton of bricks are going to fall on my head because so many people are just itching to prove me wrong,” Lichtman says. His critics have included pollsters, about whom he is withering: “Polls should never be used for prediction, they are just snapshots at a given point in time.”

It’s too early to call 2024, but Lichtman says Biden’s fitness to stand for a second term is vital. With the disadvantage of a fight to elect a new candidate, as well as the absence of a unifying heir, he says that the Democrats would be two keys down before they’d even begun campaigning. “They must run Biden,” he says.

‘Most of the developed world didn’t take us seriously. They told us 2C was safe enough’

Leon Charles on the climate crisis

In the 1990s, Leon Charles worked as a geography teacher in Grenada, the Caribbean island where he was born. He followed weather patterns and tracked hurricanes, and was increasingly worried. “The timing of the seasons was changing,” he says. “And in some places people would point to a spot in the sea and say, ‘That was land 20 years ago.’”

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In 1999, after a stint as a businessman, Charles, 65, got a job with the government to coordinate Grenada’s role in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body whose most recent annual meeting was 2022’s Cop27. He devoured the scientific literature, and the earliest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Charles did not predict the climate crisis; for more than a century, scientists have warned the world about the warming impact of carbon dioxide emissions and the role of industrialisation. But, while working for a country with a population smaller than that of Norwich, he would play a vital role on the global stage in predicting the scale of disaster for coastal populations everywhere, should the world fail to take sufficient action.

Charles was particularly concerned about what already seemed to be an unquestioning pursuit of a 2C target for limiting the rise of global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Yet scientists were predicting such a rise could lift sea levels by almost a metre by 2100, among other calamities – game over for places like Grenada.

By 2004, when Hurricane Ivan devastated the island, the climate crisis was impossible to ignore there. Charles’s earliest work had been devoted to raising awareness, including better teaching in schools. “We were starting from zero,” he says. But awareness at home could achieve only so much; small islands are damned by emissions produced far beyond their shores.

The most vulnerable countries had started to organise as the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis). When Grenada assumed the chair in 2006, Charles spied an opportunity. In 2008, he flew to Poznań in Poland as lead negotiator for Grenada at Cop14, to propose a 1.5C target as an achievable, less catastrophic goal. He then hoped to campaign for it to be adopted in Copenhagen the following year. “But most of the developed world didn’t take us seriously,” he recalls. “They told us that 2C was safe enough.”

Illustration of a finger with a fortune teller’s globe on top of it, with an eye in it
Illustration: Nicolás Ortega/The Guardian

Weeks before Cop15 in Copenhagen, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives staged an underwater cabinet meeting in scuba gear to hammer home the threat and further burnish Aosis as a formidable negotiating force. Grenada’s delegation arrived in Denmark with high hopes – and the backing of more than 100 countries. But during heated negotiations, China tried to remove any mention of 1.5C. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” Nasheed shot back. In the end, the Copenhagen Accord included 1.5C as a long-term goal to be revisited by 2015 – if further science supported it. “We were just happy that it wasn’t thrown out,” Charles says.

Undeterred, Aosis worked hard to promote further study and support. At the Paris climate conference in 2015, Grenada was again a key part of negotiations that resulted in the legally binding Paris Agreement. It set the goal to limit warming “to well below 2”, while “pursuing efforts” to target 1.5C. The UN also asked the IPCC to report on the impacts of the lower target. That report, which came out in 2018, detailed how the half-degree difference would spare more than 10 million people the worst effects of sea level rises. A 1.5C target was not only preferable, it said, but feasible with urgent action. “That’s when the ground really shifted,” Charles says. “We treated it as a victory.”

When I first speak to Charles in November last year, he’s standing in the sun outside Cop27 in Egypt. A year earlier, in Glasgow, countries had agreed once and for all to focus on 1.5C, the goal he has fought for for 15 years. As success continues to hang in the balance – the UN said in October that there was “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place” – the geography teacher turned negotiator, who has a grown-up daughter, tries not to think too much about the fate of future generations on Grenada. “You have to be a pragmatist to do what I do,” he says. “But when I look at where we’ve come since 2008, when we had nothing, it tells me there will continue to be progress.”

Meredith Whitney on the 2008 financial crash

Life for Meredith Whitney changed in a flash on Halloween 2007. She was 37 and had built up a solid career as a Wall Street analyst specialising in banks and brokers. Beyond occasional appearances as a TV pundit, including one where she met a champion wrestler turned financial adviser whom she would later marry, she operated below the radar as (her words) “a research nerd”.

But Whitney, 53, was really good at research – and increasingly concerned. The global financial crisis was brewing, largely as a result of the industrial-scale flogging of sub-prime mortgages and the knock-on effect on the banks that had invested in them. As things got worse, Whitney dug deep into one bank and didn’t like what she saw. Her 2007 market report laid out how Citigroup had been on a huge acquisition and dividend spree without raising capital. Unless it cut dividends or sold assets, it would go under. As Michael Lewis wrote in The Big Short, his book about the financial crisis, “By the end of trading, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of … had shaved 8% off the shares of Citigroup and $390bn off the value of the US stock market.”

“I was used to making a call, hearing crickets, and having it come true later,” Whitney tells me from her home in Washington DC, where she lives with John Layfield, the wrestler. “I didn’t expect this one to cause an immediate global eruption … I remember watching TV at my desk the next morning and this reporter dismissing it, saying, ‘I’ve never heard of her.’ And I got a lot of angry calls.”

But Whitney, who would also predict peril for other banks, including Lehman Brothers, was right. Within days, Citigroup’s CEO resigned and dividends were slashed. An outsider had thrown doubt into the heart of the financial system. Soon she was being hailed as the “Oracle of Wall Street” and blue-chip clients were buying her wisdom for $100,000 an hour.

By summer 2008, Whitney feared the worst. “It feels as if I’m at the centre of the biggest financial crisis in history,” she told CNN. She wasn’t alone in predicting a disaster. Michael Burry, the investor played by Christian Bale in the film adaptation of The Big Short, had bet on a mortgage crisis as early as 2005. But Whitney stood out as an analyst in a world dominated by male egos. “I was a relatively young woman – and the only woman doing what I was doing – and I was challenging the entire system,” she says. (It’s interesting to note that, while she played a pivotal role in Lewis’s book, there was no place for her in the movie.) Her response was to work incredibly hard – she remembers sleeping three hours most nights – and make a virtue of her status. “It’s such a massive advantage to be underestimated,” she adds.

Whitney had grown up outside Washington and excelled as a history student at Brown University on Rhode Island. Weeks after appearing on the cover of Fortune magazine for “calling the credit meltdown”, she was back home visiting her mother, a former executive recruiter, when the crash climaxed with the dramatic collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. “I knew it was about to get much worse but … when you see it in front of you, oh my gosh it was so shocking,” she says.

Notoriety could be tricky. In 2010, Whitney stunned the markets again by predicting on live TV that municipal bonds, which she had researched for months, were the next debt bubble waiting to burst. Big names including George Soros had said similar things, but when events didn’t precisely follow Whitney’s prognosis, the backlash was severe. “I probably didn’t appreciate that I had such a target on my back,” she says.

Whitney stands by the broad assertions she made in 2010, but the episode was tough. Tightening regulation in Wall Street also presented her with less to get her teeth into. After running her own advisory firm for several years, she has since worked for startups and sat on boards. She looks back on 2008 with a sense more of sadness than vindication. “None of it ever made me happy,” she says. “People lost everything.”

‘After the cold war, people believed Russia was on a transition to a liberal democracy. It wasn’t’

Paul Miller on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In March 2012, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told CNN: “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” In a televised presidential debate six months later, Barack Obama quoted Romney’s words back at him and said: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the cold war’s been over for 20 years.”

The zinger was well received by Democrats, but not everyone was impressed. As a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, Paul D Miller, then 34, had contributed to its assessment of Russia’s threat. Vladimir Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was, to his eyes at least, a pretty clear statement of intent.

“And there were seeds even earlier than that,” Miller, 45, says from his office at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he is a professor of international affairs. In 2000, early in his first term as president, Putin resurrected the Soviet national anthem. In 2007, he suspended a key cold war-era arms agreement. “And then after 2008 it became more and more clear what his grand strategy was,” Miller adds. “He wants to live in a world without Nato or any challenge to his authority.”

Not long before the Romney/Obama debate in 2012, Miller had cited Putin’s Georgia invasion when arguing that the world should “look for a sequel in Ukraine”. His eyebrows hit the roof when Obama appeared to joke about Putin. “It was a very dismissive thing to say,” Miller says. “I think the Obama campaign really congratulated themselves for a clever comeback. And then, two years later, Russia invaded Crimea.”

When Putin invaded Ukraine last year, Miller shared none of the shock of many other supposedly well-informed observers. “People were saying, ‘He wouldn’t dare do this.’ Have a look at history! A dictator invades a foreign country? That’s not surprising.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of Miller’s earliest memories of world events. “My dad sat me down in front of the TV and said, ‘You will never forget this for the rest of your life.’” He studied government at Georgetown and Harvard before joining the US army’s intelligence school in Arizona, where he was stationed on 9/11. “I was mobilised three days later,” he says.

After a spell as an army intelligence analyst at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, Miller worked for the National Security Council and the CIA. He believes allied failure in Afghanistan, culminating in the 2021 troop withdrawal, only emboldened Putin. Yet for more than 20 years, world leaders had willed cold war politics to be over.

In 2001, after Putin’s first meeting with President George W Bush at Bush’s ranch in Texas, a journalist asked both men if Russia could be trusted. “I could ask the very same question [of America],” Putin said, smiling. Bush immediately followed: “I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

“After the cold war there was widespread triumphalism,” Miller says. “People believed Russia was on a transition to a liberal democracy. And I think many continued to believe that narrative long after it had essentially been disproven. It was naive liberal internationalism. We wanted it to be true but it wasn’t.”

Miller is now focusing on China, where he is far from alone in predicting what he calls “some kind of militarised crisis” over Taiwan or Korea in the next five to 10 years. “I feel heartened that far more people seem willing to recognise that than recognised the threat from Russia 10 years ago,” he says. “And that is what might prevent it from happening, which is the point. By warning about something, I hope to be proved wrong in my prediction.”

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