By JR on Sunday, September 11, 2011
All the intelligence needed to stop the attacks was there but nobody at the top wanted to hear it
Like millions of people around the world, former US intelligence operative Haig Melkessetian remembers exactly what he was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington.
But even as he learnt of the carnage, he felt sick with anger and frustration. Over the preceding two years, Melkessetian had taken part in two separate investigations in the Middle East which might have thwarted the attacks – only to find his work dismissed as irrelevant.
He had identified the secret ‘hawala’ method which the hijackers would use to transfer money from al-Qaeda into their bank accounts, and the very office in the Persian Gulf they would use.
He also passed on to his bosses the real means by which the Taliban could be ousted and Bin Laden delivered up: by ‘buying off’ much of their tribal, military support. This was the very plan later deployed to defeat the Taliban - but only after the disaster of 9/11.
Like many other ground-level operatives in Western intelligence and security services, he had to stand back while the hidebound bureaucrats at the top failed to take action.
‘In 2001, you could feel the terrorist train coming down the tracks,’ says a former FBI counterterrorism analyst. ‘But at the top, they just weren’t listening to the people in the trenches, and their perspective was ignored.’ And while Melkessetsian’s story exemplifies that problem, it hasn’t, he adds, been rectified.
Ten years later, his bitter disappointment is as intense as ever. ‘I watched it unfold on TV,’ his says Melkessetian. ‘I knew immediately that this was a terrorist attack. And my next thought was that this should never have happened.’
A Christian Lebanese of Armenian descent who has been a naturalised US citizen since 1984, Melkessetian, 49, has revealed his story to the Mail on Sunday for the first time. But inside the secretive community of counterterrorism experts, he has long inspired awe.
‘We see movie characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne, and we assume they’re simply fiction,’ says a former US State Department official who knows Melkessetian well. ‘But then you meet Haig and realise he matches the fictional narrative with fact.’
Melkessetian’s attitudes were determined by his upbringing. ‘Being a Christian in the Middle East wasn’t easy,’ he says. ‘The terrorists started with us and just kept on going until they blew up New York.’
By the age of 17, he was fighting with the Christians’ special forces in Lebanon’s brutal civil war, and in the 1980s he played a key role in a secret intelligence unit that located the secret prisons run by Shia extremists, where more than 20 western hostages, including the British journalist John McCarthy, were being held hostage.
By the summer of 1986, he and his colleagues had planned a daring military operation that would have both freed the hostages and inflicted serious damage on the terrorists’ network.
But after months of Washington in-fighting, it was vetoed. ‘They were just too risk-averse,’ says Melkessetian. ‘The same weakness bedevilled us before 9/11.’
Melkessetian’s fluent Arabic and cultural knowledge meant he was able to move freely around the Gulf states, mixing easily with all strata of society, from Arab police and security chiefs to the denizens of the souks.
‘Pretty soon his unit, Detachment 246, was the single most productive source of actionable intelligence in the whole CENTCOM area [which covers most of the Middle East and Central Asia],’ the former State Department official says. ‘That was down to Haig.’
Melkessetian’s March 2000 official staff appraisal praised his ‘extensive knowledge of terrorist groups, membership and leadership,’ and his ‘unique ability’ at recruiting local sources. It added: ‘His role was the reason for gaining vital intelligence information, which was passed on to the highest levels of the US government.’
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