Previously on The Looming Tower, “Mercury”
On December 27, 1999, border patrol agents commandeer a bilingual man at Port Angeles, Washington after his car is found to have bomb making materials in it. Apparently, there was a plan for a suicide bombing in the LAX airport. The would-be-terrorist gives the FBI a Brooklyn number as a point of contact in the al-Qaeda pipeline. The number turns out to be the landline of Abdhul Ghani Meskini. Agents Kathy Shaughnessy and Floyd Bennet interview Jamaal al-Fadl, the FBI informant that was introduced in episode two, about Meskini’s role in the terrorist organization. After the threat of being sent to Rikers for a relaxing vacation, al-Fadl surmises that Meskini funnels money from Brooklyn to al-Qaeda operations. This speculation proves true when Ali Soufan witnesses Meskini collecting money from supporters in a restaurant after he breaks protocol and follows him from his apartment. Soufan even gives Meskini $100+ for the cause and Meskini invites him to the family. In fear of an attack on New Year’s Day, O’Neal hastily orders the arrest of Meskini and his operatives.
Another one of al-Fadl’s “hunches” pans out. In episode two, Jamaal had hypothesized that a man named Khalid could be involved in the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania. If he was actually referring to Khalid al-Midhar is unclear, but so far Jamaal is two for two in my book. Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the newer Saudi al-Qaeda recruits, lands on the NSA’s radar and turns out to be the son-in-law of al-Hada (terrorist serving as a switch board for al-Qaeda). Alec Station becomes aware that Mihdhar plans to travel from Yemen to Dubai, Kula Lumpur, and finally the US via a multiple entry visa. FBI agents Vince Stuart (who I mistakenly referred to in previous reviews as the actor’s real-life name of Louis Cancelmi) and Toni draft a cable message to be sent out at Alec Station warning to flag Mihdhar’s passport. However, for reasons unknown, Diane Marsh does not approve the message even though 53 people have seen it. Stuart speculates that Alec Station is looking out for themselves in some way.
Mihdhar is unfortunately allowed into the United States. Stuart contemplates informing O’Neal of this but decides to just celebrate him when an attack does not happen on New Year’s Eve. O’Neal proclaims that even though a Y2K attack did not occur, it is only a matter of time before another unexpected attack happens. Now that it is January 1, 2000 the audience knows that O’Neal’s worst fears will be realized in one short year, nine months, and eleven days.
The Alec Station cable mishap is brought up at the 9/11 Inquiry conducted by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. Richard Clarke testifies that contrary to George Tenet’s testimony, the cable message regarding flagging Mihdhar’s passport was never moved up the chain of command to him or to O’Neal; Clarke proclaims that this had to be a deliberate act. The reasoning behind this madness is potentially alluded to when Tenet meets with the Saudi ambassador to celebrate coming to a solution to a peculiar problem that is sealed with a peace offering of figs. Is it possible that Tenet did not allow the cable to be sent out so that Mihdhar could come into the country? If so, I guess thousands of American lives were worth it.
I had few gripes about this episode besides the usual eye roll for the Marsh/Schmidt and Soufan/Heather relationships.
The main issue I had was the confusing nature about the CIA cables. More explanation should have gone into the hierarchy of Alec Station and how information travels up rank. I do not understand how 50- 60 people saw the cable that FBI agents drafted regarding Mihdhar heading to the US, but Clarke and supposedly Tenet did not see it. Can more senior officials only see a cable if it is officially sent out? Cables seem to work differently than actual emails. Hopefully more details on this will be revealed in a future episode.
Additionally, I totally disagree with O’Neal ordering the arrest of Meskini and that Soufan be present for it. In this regard, I see what Martin Schmidt was quibbling about in previous episodes about the FBI merely arresting people and never getting the leaders of an operation. Even with the looming threat of an attack on New Year’s Day amidst the chaos of Y2k, O’Neal acted way too hastily in blowing Soufan’s cover and revealing to al-Qaeda that the US government was aware of Meskini. After his impromptu donation, I was looking forward to Soufan possibly going undercover to learn more about al-Qaeda’s operations from Meskini, but O’Neal made sure to crush those dreams.
I always get my life to Soufan pointing out the lack of diversity in the FBI and how it hinders the agency. This week’s episode was no exception. When Meskini leaves his apartment, Soufan scoffs at Chesney that the FBI has two white guys patrolling him on the streets. It was not until Soufan inconspicuously walks into the mosque behind Meskini that I fully grasped his chagrin. Soufan followed Meskini because he knew he could enter his community without raising any alarm bells. He knows the customs, the language, etc. and can therefore fit right in. Later, it was quite entertaining to witness Soufan use the “religion card” on ONeal to justify his choice of breaking protocol as a mere need for noon prayer.
- O’Neal lost his palm pilot at Union station in Washington D.C. He asks the security officer several times if he was the only one to handle the device. Union station, DC. I wonder if this will come into play later as a possible security breach since it seems like a filler scene at the moment.
- Khalid al-Mihdhar is a patron of a porn magazine named Black Rider (LOL).
- Once in the United States, al-Mihdhar and his friend meet a Saudi man at a restaurant who works for the Saudi Consulate. With the suspicious interaction between the Saudi ambassador and Tenet, I am doubting that this is just a coincidental interaction.
- There is no way Maria, O’Neal’s wife, does not know that he is cheating. The episode ends with O’Neal entering Liz’s apt and cuddling her sleep on the couch. He does not even spend New Year’s Day with his family.
- The interview of Jamaal al-Fadl comically happens as he is on the toilet.
- O’Neal becomes upset when he learns agent Sanchez was given the job of leading the New York office.
The Looming Tower S1E5 Review Score
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nezar Alderazi, Sullivan Jones, Erica Cho, Katie Flahive