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Terrorist Analyst Recounts the Day the Towers Fell
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Saturday, September 11, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Gina Bennett will never forget how beautiful the morning of 9-11 was in Washington, D.C. It was a sunny, crisp morning so very different from the muggy days that smother the nation’s capital in late summer.

But Bennett and her colleague had a sense of foreboding as they walked into the CIA Building. On their minds was the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, which had occurred a couple days before in Afghanistan.

The United States had had a good relationship with Masood, who was fighting the Taliban in the north. So, to see him assassinated felt like a bad omen, she recounted to a couple hundred people at last week’s Conversations with Exceptional Women conference held in Ketchum by the Alturas Institute.

Bennett and her colleagues were surveying intelligence that had come in overnight, trying to understand what the assassination meant when they heard about the first plane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“At first,” she said, “We thought, ‘How could someone do that? Maybe mechanical failure.’ ”

But, as they listened to the chatter from the Federal Aviation Administration, they decided to check it out on a TV in an empty office.

“As soon as we saw the big hole, the smoke coming of the tower, we realized it was larger than a small plane. Then we saw the second plane strike the South Tower. It was so large it did not seem real. But, as soon as we saw it, we knew exactly what was happening. We knew this was the opening salvo of war on the United States. And we knew instantly that it was al Qaeda—no question.”

“We had no other adversary at the moment so there was no other explanation,” she continued. “Of course, you have to look at all the possible perpetrators so some of my colleagues were looking at that. But we had a gut feeling…we knew immediately who it was.”

Bennett, one of the longest-serving intelligence analysts on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, was the first to warn national security officials of the threat Osama bin Laden posed 10 years earlier In a classified report titled “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous.”

But, when 2000 came and went without any provocations, senior national security officials began to think she was over-warning.

Within moments of the second plane hitting the second tower, CIA Director George Tenet began evacuating the CIA headquarters, based on earlier intelligence that al Qaeda planned to attack the CIA. But Bennett and her colleagues refused to go.

“We ‘re first responders…we’re trained to do what we do. We had to chase our manifests, track down the operatives, nail down every person and plot involving al Qaeda. We had to figure out who was on the plane and what was coming next,” she told her Sun Valley audience. “There was no reason to believe that it was just those two planes. We knew of al Qaeda’s ambitions. There was no panic. We just got back to work”

Colleagues from other parts of the agency risked their own lives to volunteer what help they could.

“They could have gone home but they were not thinking of themselves,” Bennett said. “They wanted to help us. We’re a small organization and it took a while to get everyone up to speed. But we knew there was another plane in the air and we didn’t know where they were going. And we’re thinking:  No way are you going to do that to us.”

Bennett, the mother of five children, said she doesn’t remember the night that followed. She barely remembers the weeks that followed.

The first time Bennett emerged in public was four days after the terrorist attack when she attended her 11-year-old son’s baseball game. She wore sweats and stood off to the side, cognizant of that fact that she hadn’t had an opportunity to shower.

She watched the boys sing the national anthem from the baseline.

“I heard the coach say, ‘Now we’re going to have a moment of silence for the tragedy of Tuesday.” And it hit me, ‘This is real. This is actually real.’ And then the boys grabbed their gear and sprang into action and they were so adorable. And it was in that moment that I realized that we were going to be okay, that America was going to be okay.”

The youngest of five children born to a Korean War veteran, Bennett started out as a typist at the Department of State and worked her way into a role as a senor counterterrorism adviser at the National Counterterrorism Center.

Her book, “National Security Mom,” looks at terrorism trends and national security policymaking from a parent’s perspective and shows how securing the nation is similar to how parents secure their families.

David Adler, who organizes the annual conference, noted that women have played a crucial role in defending America’s security since the beginnings of the nation. In fact, it was a woman who outed the traitor Benedict Arnold.

“Womens’ heroic role is underappreciated,” he said, ascribing women’s ability to multitask to their success in doing the painstaking, methodical work.

Analyzing terrorist and other threats is a never ending 24/7 job, agreed Bennett, who also teaches at Georgetown.

“You have to be a stubborn person. You can’t stop questioning--just when you think you know what’s going on, the world has a way of humbling you. But we know how the terrorists think. The more they influence, the more power they have. Take their relevance away and they have less power.

The United States and the rest of the world will never know all we know,” she added. “We’re on guard all the time. But, at the end of the day, no one need to be afraid because we’ve got it.”

 


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