Skip to comments.Hijackers' Meticulous Strategy of Brains, Muscle and Practice
Posted on 11/03/2001 3:06:01 PM PST by abner
merican Airlines Flight 11 was in line for takeoff from Logan International Airport, the passengers already reminded to turn off personal electronic devices, when Mohamed Atta, in seat 8D in business class, dialed his cellphone for the last time.
The call rang aboard another sparsely occupied jetliner a bit farther back on the same tarmac, on a cellphone belonging to Marwan al- Shehhi, in seat 6C on United Airlines Flight 175.
The conversation between the two men, so close that they called each other cousin, lasted less than one minute just long enough, investigators say, to signal that the plot was on.
That simple communication was the culmination of months of meticulous planning and coordination that by 10 o'clock on the morning of Sept. 11 would become the worst terrorist attack in history.
With all the suspects dead and no evidence, as yet, of any accomplices, investigators have been left to recreate the architecture and orchestration of the plot largely from the recorded minutiae of the hijackers' brief American lives: their cellphone calls, credit card charges, Internet communications and automated teller machine withdrawals.
What has emerged, nearly two months into the investigation, is a picture in which the roles of the 19 hijackers are so well defined as to be almost corporate in their organization and coordination.
Investigators now divide the 19 into three distinct groups:
Mr. Atta, considered the mastermind, and three other leaders who chose the dates for the attack and flew the planes; a support staff of three who helped with the logistics of renting apartments, securing driver's licenses and distributing cash to the teams that would take the four planes; and beneath them, 12 soldiers, or "muscle," whose sole responsibility seems to have been restraining the flight attendants and passengers while the leaders took over the jets' controls.
The leaders had researched their plans so well that they knew just when each of the four cross-country flights would reach its cruising altitude the moment, investigators say, when the hijackers stormed the cockpits to confront the pilots with box cutters. The coordination was so thorough that each of the four hijacking teams had its own bank account, and each team's A.T.M. cards used a single PIN. The slightest misstep could trigger intense frustration: more than once last summer in Florida, when money transfers from abroad had not arrived on the expected dates, security cameras captured several hijackers glaring impatiently into A.T.M. screens.
The hijackers made a true technophile's use of the Internet, online chat rooms and e-mail. But when it came to their most crucial communications, they did what Al Qaeda's manual on terrorist operations instructs: they met in person. They chose as their meeting place the same locale where generations of American conventioneers have met to exchange information about their crafts: Las Vegas, where investigators now say they believe the most crucial planning in the United States occurred.
But unlike traditional conventioneers who cluster in casino hotels that replicate the Pyramids or the New York City skyline, the leaders and their logistics men stayed at the seediest end of the famous Las Vegas Strip, next to the "Home of the $5 Lap Dance," at a cheap motel guaranteed not to have surveillance cameras. They stayed briefly, only as long as it took to exchange important information, and apparently did not visit the casinos or any of the other purveyors of easy vice in America's City of Sin.
Most of the 19 hijackers, perhaps all of them, spent time in Osama bin Laden's Afghan training camps, investigators now say. Some of the Sept. 11 soldiers appear to have met there. And like Mr. Atta and the other pilots, the muscle did not seem to fit the profile of suicide bombers as desperate and impoverished young men. With the exception of one, they were all Saudis, relatively well off and well educated. While the leaders seemed to be Islamic zealots, the muscle did not, indulging often in pornography and liquor.
There is still much that investigators do not know. While they contend, for instance, that the plot cost nearly $500,000, they have been able to trace only half of it back to a suspected Al Qaeda source. They know where the leaders met, but not what information they exchanged among hundreds of e-mail messages seized from computers in Florida and Las Vegas, there is no "smoking gun" or reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior investigator said.
The investigators say they are unsure how the soldiers were recruited. And they do not know how those men thought the story was going to end if they were aware that they had signed on to die. "This went totally by the book," one senior government official said. "It has all the earmarks of Al Qaeda. It was well organized, far from a half-baked operation. They had good coordination, excellent communication that is hard to track, and a good, simple plan. Somebody did their homework."
Following the Manual
Investigators say their best theory is that Sept. 11 was a franchise operation, and the leaders hewed closely to the dictates of Al Qaeda's terror manual.
The plot was first pieced together, they say, at least two years ago, in Hamburg, Germany, where three of the men who would later be leaders and pilots Mr. Atta, Mr. Shehhi and Ziad Amir Jarrah were part of a terrorist cell. Three other suspected members of that cell fled in early September and are being sought as accomplices.
Senior law enforcement officials say the Hamburg plotters received the blessing and, crucially, cash from Al Qaeda, although investigators say they do not know who in Osama bin Laden's organization approved the operation. Several officials say they suspect it was Mr. bin Laden himself, and investigators have also said his top three associates were involved in the planning. "They met with somebody else who was calling the shots" in Germany, one official said. "But we don't know who that person is.'`
Mr. Shehhi and Mr. Atta received visas to enter the United States in January 2000, and Mr. Jarrah arrived in June of that year. Another pilot, Hani Hanjour, had been living in Southern California since 1996, and two of the logistics men, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, had moved to San Diego in 1999.
Investigators are not certain how the Hamburg and California groups came together, but evidence suggests it was through Al Qaeda channels. Investigators say they have linked Mr. Almihdhar to the attack on the American destroyer Cole and perhaps to the 1998 bombings of American Embassies in east Africa.
The money for the operation began arriving at branches of the SunTrust Bank and Century Bank in Florida, in the summer of 2000. Mr. Atta received slightly more than $100,000, Mr. Shehhi just less than that amount. About half of the $500,000 used to pay for the operation, senior Federal Bureau of Investigation officials say, was wired by an important bin Laden operative, Mustafa Ahmad, from the United Arab Emirates, and much of the rest from Germany. However, one official said the authorities suspect the money trail began in Pakistan. Travel records show each of the men making several trips in and out of the United States in 2000 and early 2001 to Spain, Prague, Bangkok and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Atta took seven international trips; Mr. Shehhi took five. In this country, they all had begun taking flying lessons, in Phoenix, San Diego and South Florida.
By spring 2001, the 12 men whom investigators call the muscle had begun to arrive from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, stung by American reports that most of the hijackers received visas from their country, initially said that the hijackers used fake identities stolen from innocent citizens. But the F.B.I. says that it has confirmed the identities of all 19 of the hijackers, and that 15 were Saudis.
While the Saudi government has restricted the F.B.I. and reporters from interviewing the families of the men, the families of some of the foot soldiers have told Arab newspapers that their sons left within the last 18 months, variously saying they were going to seek religious counseling, on pilgrimage or on jihad in Chechnya. An investigator said there was evidence that these men spent at least a year in Al Qaeda training camps.
The family of one, Mohand Alshehri, said he had studied at Imam Muhammed Ibn Saud Islamic University in Abha, Saudi Arabia, for one semester. The father of two others, Wail and Waleed Alshehri, said they had studied to become teachers. Another, Ahmed Alnami, had studied law in Abha. The man the F.B.I. identifies as the third logistics man, Majed Moqed, studied at King Saud University in Riyadh, in the faculty of administration and economics, according to Arab newspapers.
Most hailed from poor villages where fundamentalism thrives. But their families appeared to be on the upper rungs; their fathers were religious leaders, school principals, shopkeepers and businessmen.
None had visited the United States before, and several appeared to speak little or no English. Once they arrived, the logistics men helped them fade into American life.
Hani Hanjour helped some rent an apartment in Paterson, N.J. Others cycled through one apartment in Delray Beach, Fla. Mr. Almihdhar helped some obtain illegal driver's licenses and photo ID's in Virginia.
The leaders and logistics men seemed to "buddy up" with their junior partners. When Ahmed Al Haznawi had an ulcerated leg, Mr. Jarrah took him to Holy Cross Hospital in Palm Beach County, Fla. At first, Mr. Atta and Mr. Shehhi lived together in Florida; Mr. Al-Shehhi then moved in with Fayez Rashid Ahmed Hassan al-Qadi Banihammad, and Mr. Atta with Abdulaziz Alomari, the last hijacker to arrive.
Most of the 19 obtained Social Security numbers, which allowed them to open bank accounts and obtain credit cards. They seemed, the F.B.I. says, to remain self-contained, with little or no help from a support network in the United States. Investigators suspect the help came from money men in the United Arab Emirates and several important lieutenants in Germany and Afghanistan.
Research and Planning
Al Qaeda's manual, which prosecutors say was used in the embassy bombings, outlines three stages of any operation: research, planning and execution.
"In order to discover any unexpected element detrimental to the operation," it says, "it is necessary, prior to execution of the operation, to rehearse it in a place similar to that of the real operation."
So beginning in May, the leaders and logistics men began taking trial flights on cross-country routes, though they never took the exact flights that they would later hijack.
After each flight to the West Coast, they flew to Las Vegas. And each time, they flew first class as most of the 19 would on Sept. 11. Although they traveled first class, their accommodations were distinctly low- rent, at an Econo Lodge on the faded end of the Strip.
Although several of the hijackers are believed to have had numerous meetings in South Florida and Paterson, senior investigators say they are convinced that the most important American planning occurred in that dingy hotel room.
Investigators say they can confirm only one overlapping visit to Las Vegas, on Aug. 13 and 14, although they say the picture may not be complete. An Algerian who is believed to have helped train the pilots, Lotfi Raissi, drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas at least once last summer, and hijackers may have done the same.
Mr. Alhazmi and Mr. Hanjour arrived together and appear to have spent most of their time together; Mr. Atta spent most of his time alone, disappearing into the dark cavern of Cyberzone, an Internet cafe where young men slouch in front of a half-dozen brightly lighted computer terminals, surfing the Web.
Investigators are not sure why the plotters chose Las Vegas. "Perhaps they figured it would be easy to blend in," one senior official said. The men were most likely following the manual's protocol: meet at a place that offers good cover.
It is not unusual for criminals to launder money in Las Vegas casinos, but surveillance tapes show no trace of the hijackers. Based on that and on interviews, the F.B.I. says it believes the hijackers did not gamble. Nor have investigators found any local terrorist cells there.
There was one curious disruption in their pattern, on the last trip east from Las Vegas. For the flights in May, June and July, the hijackers booked nonstop, round-trip tickets. But on that final flight, they bought one-way tickets to different destinations, with layovers, and they flew coach, not first class.
Investigators speculate that with their test flights completed, the hijackers now wanted to save money. They may also have wanted to see if they could buy one-way tickets without attracting attention which is what they did over the next two weeks as they purchased tickets for Sept. 11.
Carrying Out the Mission
Those return flights put the men in position to execute the plot. Mr. Hanjour and Mr. Alhazmi flew to Baltimore, where they would soon join their soldiers in nearby Laurel, Md. From there, on the morning of Sept. 11, they would leave for Dulles International Airport and American Airlines Flight 77.
Mr. Atta flew from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., near where much of the muscle was living.
Investigators see a spike in the number of cellphone calls between the 19 in those final weeks. The hijackers bought plane tickets, each team choosing almost exactly the same seats on the planes. The Florida group moved north to Boston; the New Jersey group moved out of the Paterson apartment. Three hijackers wired money back to Mr. Ahmad in the United Arab Emirates.
On Sept. 10, Mr. Atta and his charge, Mr. Alomari, drove from Boston to Portland, Me.
Why Portland? Again, it may have been protocol: the manual warns against traveling in large groups and suggests boarding "at a secondary station" to deflect notice.
The next morning, they almost missed their connecting flight at Logan Airport in Boston, making it with minutes to spare.
As the hijackers may have anticipated from test runs, the planes hit cruising altitude after about 40 minutes. The hijackers, who had cared so little about learning to take off and land a plane, began their work.
Four of the five men on American Flight 77, the jet that plowed into the Pentagon, had helped with the logistics or are considered by investigators to have been leaders. It is assumed that several of the logistics people, including Mr. Almihdhar, also carried box cutters and served as muscle.
That plane, apparently flown by Mr. Hanjour, began to jerk wildly in the air. There may have been a struggle with the pilots, but investigators say it was more likely a result of Mr. Hanjour's poor skills his flying school teachers would later say he had been a sorry student.
Based on one cellphone call from one of the planes, the F.B.I. now contends that the muscle began to herd passengers into the back of the planes, and forced the pilots from the cockpit by telling them it was a traditional hijacking, one where, if demands were met, the passengers and crew would be released without harm.
As the planes accelerated toward their targets, the muscle men, too, may have believed the same thing. This question remains the subject of debate within the F.B.I. Some investigators note that in surveillance photographs taken at a Portland A.T.M. the previous night, Mr. Alomari appears to be grinning, an expression more befitting a petty thief about to go on a stealing spree.
One F.B.I. official said the prayers found at the crash sites seemed to exhort the foot soldiers to be strong in prison unlike the four-page set of instructions and prayers found in Mr. Atta's luggage, which made it clear he believed he was going to his eternal paradise.
Investigators in this country and abroad note that this would be in keeping with terrorist patterns.
As Al Qaeda's manual instructs, "The operation members should not all be told about the operation until shortly before executing it, in order to avoid leaking of its news."
This is the first I've heard about the plane to plane telephone call! (hurray for roving wiretaps)
I've been wondering for awhile about something. Did ANY of these guys have real jobs?
Sounds like the so-called zealous Muslims didn't have common decency to inform these stooges of their fate and their real mission. I wonder if you get the 72 virgins if you committed suicide for allah but weren't told you were doing that.
More proof that they
are were cowards.
I'll ask what I've asked before about this Gremany connection. Does anyone know what Andreas Strassmeir has been up to for the past few years?
Any news about Andreas Strassmeir and his possible ties to 09-11-01 planning?
Why would the Saudi government essentially lie to 'protect' their citizens' involvement in the Sep 11 hijackings? Did they think the lie would stick?
Very interesting article.
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