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9/11, Intelligence Analysis, and Decision-making


To add to the retrospective evaluations of 9/11 ten years later, here is one more which may have parallels in the world of competitive intelligence:


Contrary to conventional wisdom, the description of 9/11 as an intelligence failure may be misplaced. Intelligence agencies provided decisionmakers with strategic warning of the coming threat from al Qaeda, but strategic warning did not lead to an effective strategic response. Instead, policymakers relied on intelligence agencies to “get lucky” at the tactical level (detection and disruption). This approach worked until, inevitably, it didn’t.


Much emphasis has been placed on this tactical ‘failure to connect the dots’…. a Reuters news article this morning started off by saying: “U.S. intelligence agencies will forever be scarred by their failure to connect the dots and detect the September 11 plot.” But is this tactical failure the most important intelligence-related lesson that can be derived from the 9/11 attacks? In my opinion, the answer is ‘no.’ More important are the strategic policy failures that preceded the tactical intelligence failures.


Why does this matter? If this analysis is correct, it implies that much of the effort devoted to fixing or reforming intelligence capabilities after 9/11 would not prevent its recurrence. If we want to prevent the next strategic surprise, we have to stop focusing on the tactical intelligence failures that occurred and instead raise our sights to understand why not enough was done about the terrorist threat well before the events of 9/11 took place.


See below for more on this recently published article, including its abstract and an excerpt from its conclusion. If you’d like a copy of this article for your personal use, please let me know and I’ll send you one. Additional information can be found here:


Stephen Marrin. “The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: A Failure of Policy Not Strategic Intelligence Analysis. Intelligence and National Security. (2011) 26:2-3, 182-202


Abstract: The 9/11 terrorist attacks have been intensively examined as both tactical and strategic intelligence failures but less attention has been paid to the policy failures which preceded them. Perhaps this is due to the presumption that intelligence analysis influences decision-making as a precursor to and foundation for policy. This assumption about the influence of analysis on decision deserves a much closer examination. The 9/11 terrorist attacks provide a good case to study for greater understanding of the influence, or lack of influence, that intelligence analysis has on decision-making. Specifically, the 9/11 Commission Report identifies as a significant failure the lack of a National Intelligence Estimate on the terrorist threat between 1998 and 2001, and implies that if one had been produced it might have helped enable decision-makers to prevent the 9/11 attacks. In other words, a failure of strategic intelligence analysis lay at the foundation of the failure to prevent 9/11. But was this really the case? This article takes a closer look at the case of the missing National Intelligence Estimate by first evaluating what decision-makers knew about the threat prior to the 9/11 attacks, the policies they were implementing at the time, and the extent to which the hypothetical National Intelligence Estimate described by the 9/11 Commission would have mattered in terms of influencing their judgement and policy for the better. It concludes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were more a failure of policy than strategic intelligence analysis.


(excerpt from pages 200-202)


“Explaining the Failure of Intelligence Analysis to Influence Decision-making


Many writers on both intelligence and national security policymaking have fallen prey to the classic mistake of assuming that the primary value of intelligence analysis is to provide an informational and analytic foundation to subsequent decision-making. The flip side of this assumption is that the lack of intelligence analysis on a particular subject precludes a decision from being made because of lack of information. But this kind of thinking is too simplistic. While there may be flaws or inadequacies in the performance of intelligence agencies, such flaws pale to insignificance if the policies they are called on to support contain even greater flaws or limitations….


The real puzzle about the pre-9/11 intersection of intelligence analysis and decision-making is the failure to implement effective policy despite strategic warning. It is, essentially, the failure of intelligence analysis to influence decision-making. As demonstrated above, intelligence analysts provided strategic warning of the threat from Al Qaeda. The primary problem was that decision-makers did not respond effectively to strategic warning. A 9/11 Commission staff statement asks a very pertinent question: ‘if officers at all levels questioned the effectiveness of the most active strategy the policymakers were employing to defeat the terrorist enemy, the Commission needs to ask why that strategy remained largely unchanged throughout the period leading up to 9/11’. Or, to go back to the question posed at the very beginning of this article, how much does intelligence analysis really matter in national security decision-making?...


In the end, it appears that the influence that intelligence analysis has on decision-making depends on the decision-makers, the resources available to them, the policy options they consider, and the political context that shapes the process. To understand the failure of decision-makers to respond effectively to early warning from intelligence agencies about the threat from Al Qaeda, one must start with the policy environment at the time rather than the adequacy or sufficiency of the intelligence that they were provided with. One cannot understand the influence, or lack of influence, of intelligence analysis on policy by studying intelligence. Instead, one must study policy.”


Dr. Stephen Marrin
Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies
Department of Politics and History
Brunel University
Uxbridge (West London), England



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911 was a Black Swan event in the sense that there was a Low Probability x High Impact Scenario that the terrorists will hit United States.


Joining the dots was not possible at that time because nobody anticipated that there would be an attack on US soil which will defy the then prevailing logic.


911 was an attack on Political Ideology ie Democracy and Religious Ideology ie Christianity and Judaism.


Sept 11 was followed by Bali attacks on Oct 12 followed by March 11 Madrid attack etc..


Every where  it was an attack on Political Ideology ie Democracy and Religious Ideology ie Christianity and Judaism.


It did not happen because of any wrong policy but it happened because there was a knowledge gap at that time that their one time friends will become foes.


If Osama Bin Laden and Taliban were trained by anybody, then
by the ISI’s Afghanistan Branch.

The weapons would arrive in Karachi, be loaded on
ISI’s trucks, and forwarded to ISI’s collection
points, i.e. depots, like Quetta, for example. Then
the ISI’s head of ISI’s Afghanistan Branch would
decide who’s going to get them and how many: all the
CIA’s attempts to get involved into this process were
prevented. It was the ISI who was training the
Mujaheddin in its barracks, training grounds – or in
the open areas along the border to Afghanistan, not
the CIA.

The ISI’s Afghanistan Branch was excellently organized
and lead between 1984 and 1988, and they perfectly
knew what were they doing.

Under such circumstances, it’s clear that the one who
“teached” Osama Bin Laden to be as elusive as he is, was the best
man to know how to evade in the given terrain. After
all, the same people had extensive previous experience
from organizing similar militant operations in Kashmir
and elsewhere.

One could, eventually, go as far as to conclude that
especially in the early 1990s the same “advisors” were
also perfect in organizing a spread of Pakistani-based
Islamic terrorism to the Philippines, Africa and
elsehwere… – most of which proved as elusive (at


Eric Flis says:

That is correct.

ISI and the pakistani government supported these camps as it was part of their strategy to provide fighters for the Kashmir cause.

Pakistan’s PM at the time played a double game, telling the US it had cut funding, training and supplies while secretly still supporting them in aid of the Kashmir theatre.

Another good book is Ghost Wars, documents event very well.

I would say the biggest contribution the CIA made to the Mujaheddin in the form of Stinger missiles, which probably had the biggest imapct on the anti-Soviet war during this period.


Thomas J. A. Campbell says:

ISI’s support for the militants is a direct result of Pervez Musharraff’s policy of playing both ends off against the middle. He is a master at that policy but unfortunately his inheritors are not! Yes other countries – not just the US – were involved, and still are. This is yet another proxy drugs/politics war being fought on someone else’s soil, [c.f. the 1806 Indian Campaign - 1900 Boxer Revolt etc.] the differences here are the religious dimension and the fragile Worldwide Communications / Transport systems that are open to attack or as vectors for propagation of sociopathic ideologies.


Eric Flis further states:

Benazir Bhutto who was the PM at the time has admitted she had tried to play both sides. It was Pakistans strategy (even before Bhutto) to use the training camps inside Afghanistand to provide foot soldiers for the Kashir theatre.

The US did provide funding for weapons that filtered through ISI, the US was cut out of who got what wepaons etc.

When the US saw the Islamic extermist threat posed by the Arab camps run by bin Laden they cut off ISI. However ISI continued to fuel and fund them for the Kashmir cause.

The biggest conribution made by the US was the Stinger missiles provided dirtectly to the Mujaheddin, it turned the tide of the war.

It is a misconception that the US ‘trained’ bin Laden. There is absolutley no evidence of this. In fact during this period bin Laden was not ‘operational’. He was an organiser, recruiter for the cause and financier, not a planner and doer.


In November 2002, terrorists fired two
SA-7 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) at an Israeli airliner departing Mombassa,

With regards to Stingers, I believe Hekmatyar had a dozen or more and refused to sell them back to the CIA. He said he was going to use them against Iranian forces (being Pushtun he believed once the Soviets were gone the next threat would be from Iran).

Where Massoud (being Tajik) was thinking he would use them against Pak and affiliated forces. Interesting that during this period Massoud aligned himself with the Soviets and India through arms deals.


Mathew Maavak states:

There are only two certainties in Afghanistan. India had always supported the Northern Alliance and its successors (along with the Soviets and later Russia) and that Ahmad Shah Massoud was strongly aligned with both India and Russia as he understood the nature of the Mujahideen beast. This is the Axis of Realism.

It is no coincidence that Massoud had to be taken out on Sept 9, 2001 — two days before 9/11. He certainly wasnt a saint but he deserved the epitaph of Lion of Panjshir, though “Panjshir” itself means “Five Lions.”


Richard Silva states:


A cursory look at history will show that today’s friend/good guy may become tomorrow’s enemy. Unfortunately it is difficult to impossible to predict who will be what. This is true in the political, military, and even corporate world.



Where is the old goat anyways?


The answer is the old goat is Canned.

Strategic Assumptions + Tactical Indicators + Knowledge Gaps = Intelligence

The new article by Stephen Marrin is very interesting but I find it very difficult to agree with him. 9/11 is a classic case of Intelligence failure by the US Intelligence Community. US intelligence had all information it needed in order to give a focused alert regarding the coming attack. It was stated clearly by the 9/11 commission report.  This is one of the cases where you have the information but missed the deep understanding of this information, i.e. the intelligence.  The intelligence is expected to present its analysis clearly to the decision- maker and also to present them with the options opened to the enemy. This was not done in this case. There are a lot of reasons for this failure but this time it is not right to blame the decision makers. What can they do if a huge Intelligence community with endless budgets is incapable of delivering a two page report which says what is going to happen soon? Very soon! Just read Richard Clark in "Against All enemies". US I intelligence community did not stand firmly on its assessment saying "this is going to happen" as they suffered from a cognitive biases that the US cannot be attacked on its territory.  It is not important what the decision makers knew before 2001 – it is important to ask: did the US intelligence community fulfilled and the answer is no! It seems to me the Dr Marrin is maybe  is not familiar enough with the discipline of Counter Intelligence – contrary to Intelligence – here it is often enough to produce one alert that indicates the coming attack and as a result to start moving towards countering this threat by other governmental organizations. As you may know – we in Israel have a lot of experience in this combined activity but unfortunately the US prior to 9/11 did not developed this discipline and the interface between Intelligence and internal security and how to implement it. Just one example – the security of airlines and air ports before 9/11 in the US was very poor so even in case when the counterintelligence does not deliver the alertthere is still a second circle of stopping the terrorists on sites.

Avner Barnea

Avner Sir,


I agree 100% with you as you rightly said "This is one of the cases where you have the information but missed the deep understanding of this information, i.e. the intelligence".



Thank you Dr Marrin for sharing the article. It indeed seems that there are many lessons that the intelligence& analysis community can learn from it.

In general I believe that in such cases it also important to factor in ”the benefit of hindsight” to human decision making. The job of the analyst & intelligence community would be to bring forward a clear pattern. However, is it possible that the pattern emerges clear only in retrospect? Could it be that it is hindsight that turns unexpected events into expected ones? 

What do you think?

The terrorist threat was known to intelligence agencies well before the 9/11 attacks. I worked at CIA from 1996 to 2000, part of which (1996-98) on an account that wasn't CT but still led to receipt of questions re: who is Usama Bin Laden. I would forward those requests for info to CTC to answer, but was generally aware of the threat from AQ and what intell agencies knew about the threat at the time. This was not a black swan event from the perspective of the intelligence agencies. It was a target they were tracking quite closely for many years. That they failed to detect and stop 9/11 is not a reflection on the *strategic* state of knowledge about the threat; its more a failure...perhaps inevitable the detection of specific terrorist plots before they happen. But the strategic picture was quite well known. Below is a snapshot of some of that knowledge as per my PhD dissertation. The article contained a truncated version, but the longer version is worth a close read given questions of whether or not this was a black swan event or the extent to which hindsight has changed the nature of the evaluation after the fact. The point I which to highlight is that the snapshot below is circa 1995...there was a significant growth of knowledge about the threat after this timeframe, particularly post-Khobar Towers (which turned out not to be linked to AQ directly) and then the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. Yes, there was a tactical intelligence failure associated with the specific attack related to 9/11. My question is: if there was significant advance warning (in terms of years of strategic warnings) about the growth of the threat prior to 9/11, how effective was the strategic response to those warnings?


(excerpt from Marrin PhD dissertation)


In July 1995…  the NIC produced an NIE titled “The Foreign Terrorist Threat in the United States” which—according to former DCI George Tenet—“warned of the threat from radical Islamists and their enhanced ability “to operate in the United States.”[1] In retrospect, this 1995 NIE was substantively accurate in terms of its portrayal of the terrorist threat. The 9/11 Commission Report said that the 1995 NIE was “an excellent summary of the emerging danger, based on what was then known,” primarily because it “warned that this danger would increase over the next several years,” and “predicted future terrorist attacks against the United States—and in the United States.”[2]


Specifically, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, “this 1995 estimate described the greatest danger as “transient groupings of individuals” that lacked “strong organization but rather are loose affiliations.” They operate “outside traditional circles but have access to a worldwide network of training facilities and safehavens.”[3]


In the most comprehensive published description of the NIE’s content, Pillar said that the NIE “postulated that the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993…had probably crossed a threshold in terms of ''large-scale terrorist attacks'' and that more of the same would be coming. The kinds of targets the estimate identified as being especially at risk were ''national symbols such as the White House and the Capitol and symbols of U.S. capitalism such as Wall Street.' Even more striking, that estimate also made clear that the most likely foreign terrorist threat stemmed from the network of Islamist groups that had formed during the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It noted the network's continued reliance on training in Afghanistan, and the animus of its members toward the United States. It warned that members were seeking cover by blending in with the growing Muslim immigrant community in the United States, and that they could move freely because ''they know how to take advantage of U.S. laws.'' Among its key judgments, the intelligence estimate assessed that members of this Islamist network posed the most likely threat of terrorist attack in the United States, and that growth of the network was ''enhancing the ability of Islamic extremists to operate in the United States.'' It also highlighted civil aviation as a vulnerable and attractive target.” [4]


In terms of capabilities and targets, the 1995 NIE “judged that the odds were increasing that terrorists would try to use chemical or biological agents, but that they ''were more likely to use the conventional weapons with which they are familiar and which can be extremely destructive,’ according to Pillar.[5]


So much of the content of this NIE was substantially accurate, and in light of the 2001 attacks presciently so. There are no indications, however, that this NIE led to any changes to counterterrorist policy.

[1] Tenet, At the Center of the Storm, 104.

[2] 9/11 Commission Report, 341.

[3] 9/11 Commission Report, 341.

[4] Pillar, A Scapegoat is Not a Solution, New York Times, June 4, 2004

[5] Pillar, A Scapegoat is Not a Solution, New York Times, June 4, 2004



I'm really surprised that there is no mention in this article of the extensive intelligence provided by the french secret services, who were not only very experienced in the field of islamic terrorism (a special "ossama ben laden cell" already existed as soon as 1995, monitoring him and his organisation)  but which also gave   the american services, way before september 11, extremely detailed reports of what was going on. Even the names of the airplane companies which would be tasked to carry out the attacks were pointed-out as soon as january 2001. All of it was ignored by the US administration of that time, except for a few in the FBI (also ignored). So in this case, the problem was not about the intelligence available, but  the blind eyes and def ears of those in power.

@Stephen Marrin,


Thank God for Special Activities Division and Kidon, that the world is a better place and will be a better place.


Kind regards

Vivek Raghuvanshi


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