There was a different mood on the streets of London in early September 2001. Of course, some of the London suburbs had already taken on an Arabic flavor, but downtown was a different story on most days. London was always a very cosmopolitan city, filled with people in all kinds of attire, from all over the world, but that week there was a noticeable increase in dress from Arab countries and North Africa.
It was the first week of September 2001 and I was a special guest of the government of Great Britain, invited to London to meet with various government officials, especially those working in the Foreign Secretary’s section on U.S. affairs. They had special interest in my perspective on U.S. politics after our 2000 presidential election and an intense interest in the style, philosophy and future of our Florida governor, Jeb Bush. At the time Florida was of concern because of heavy British investments in the United States, especially in our state, and the reality was that on any given day there were about half a million British subjects in Florida. We were a very popular tourism destination and still are.
It was an interesting time to be in London. All week there seemed to be an increasing population of Muslims on the central London streets and posters were abundant announcing a rally in Trafalgar Square. The day before the rally we met with British officials, entering through the front door of Number 10 Downing Street. While waiting in the Clock Room, there was a commotion in the hallways and kids were running around, one holding a skateboard. I stepped to the door only to be greeted by Tony Blair and his family, who were entering their residence upstairs after returning from holiday in France. He smiled and we exchanged hellos and up the stairs they went. I mention this to show how relaxed the center of government was in London that week.
So of course on the day of the rally a colleague and I decided to walk to the Square to see what was going on. Our hotel was on Whitehall Place, right at Northumberland, so we began to meander through the streets, past Ben Franklin’s house and Scotland Yard and right up to the Square, which was starting to be filled with folks not dressed as we were. Trafalgar Square was filled with mostly men, all wearing a form of the dishdash, most wearing a keffiyeh held in place by an agal. There were a few women wearing an abaya and hijab, with some in a niqab so that only their eyes were exposed. Needless to say we stood out and in our naiveté we walked among the crowd, not noticing how few “Westerners” there were in the Square that day.
The featured speaker was the firebrand Imam and radical cleric Abu-Hamza al Masri, since convicted of 11 counts of terrorism and currently awaiting sentencing. He was joined by Abu Qatada, later identified as a key figure in the al-Qaeda network. Masri stared a hole through us with his one remaining eye as we moved about the crowd. He had lost one eye and both hands in a bomb-making accident. Before he started speaking I found it amusing that he donned a pair of Ray-Bans. It was clear through the tone — we knew not what they said as it wasn’t in English — that the intent was to inflame the crowd.
Shortly after they began speaking I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a British chap all dressed in black wearing combat boots. “You a Yank?” was all he said. As I nodded yes, he said, “Follow me,” and so we did. We were escorted out of the crowd to Duncannon Street, only to see that every side street around the Square was filled with small personnel carriers and troops holding automatic weapons. Clearly we had not received the memo!
We got the brunt of a harsh scolding, polite but harsh, and we quickly left the area, aware that we had placed ourselves in the middle of a hornet’s nest. British officials knew something was pending. I guess U.S. intelligence did too. But on that beautiful September day in London the world had not yet changed so radically. Those speaking in Trafalgar Square had long ago lost their innocence, but I still had a smidgeon of mine.
In a look back at those times, it is easy to see how little we likely really knew. Our human intelligence capabilities, called HUMINT by our agencies, were weak then. Post-2001, the director of the CIA, George Tenant, reported to the 9-11 Commission that it would take until about 2010, if then, to have the human spy resources we would need. We never had one insider in al-Qaeda pre-September 11 and didn’t even have anyone inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. At the time of the attack on America we had fewer than 1,000 covert field operatives — less than the number of FBI field agents working in New York City at that time.
Yes, on that beautiful day in London it became clear to me that something was up — we just didn’t know what.
A few days later I was sitting in Tom Slade’s office in Tallahassee. We had the television on to find out about the accident that happened at 8:46 that morning, when a plane crashed into the South Tower in Manhattan. As we watched a second plane crash, we knew quickly it was no accident. As the thousands of workers from our own Capitol building flowed into the streets, it became clear that many things were not going to be the same. A year or so later I arranged a meeting in Tallahassee with key local officials and the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer, which followed a long morning meeting at the Mansion with Gov. Bush, the ambassador, the British consul general and me.
Life was different for sure, but as Americans we still know that life goes on. It has been said that “it is always morning in America,” but on at least one morning time stood still as we watched our world change.
Dr. Ed H. Moore resides in Tallahassee and continues to search for truth, justice and the American way. Column courtesy of Context Florida.