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Hijackers used brains, muscle and practice

Investigators piece together a plot run like a corporation, with perhaps only the leaders knowing the whole picture.

©New York Times,
published November 4, 2001


American 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 first class, dialed his cell phone for the last time.

The call rang aboard another sparsely occupied jetliner a bit farther back on the same tarmac, on a cell phone 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 told the New York Times, to signal that the plot was on.

That simple communication was the culmination of months of meticulous planning and coordination that by 10 a.m. on Sept. 11 would become the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

With all the suspects dead and no evidence, as yet, from 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 cell phone calls, credit card charges, Internet communications and ATM 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:

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 carried out 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 told the New York Times, 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 ATM card, and they all 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 ATM 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 an al-Qaida 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 for Sept. 11 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.

Many 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 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. Yet 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 believe that the plot cost nearly $500,000, they have been able to trace only half of it back to a suspected al-Qaida source. They know where the leaders met, but not what information they exchanged -- among hundreds of e-mails seized from computers in Florida and Las Vegas, there is no "smoking gun" or description of the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior investigator told the New York Times.

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 knew they had signed on to die.

Investigators say their best theory is that Sept. 11 was a franchise operation and the leaders closely hewed to the dictates of the al-Qaida terror manual.

The plot was first pieced together, they believe, at least two years ago, in Hamburg, Germany, where three of the men who would later be leaders and pilots -- Atta, Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- were living as students. Senior law enforcement officials told the New York Times those three men then received the blessing -- and, crucially, cash -- from al-Qaida, although investigators say they do not know who in Osama bin Laden's organization approved the operation. Several officials say they suspect it was bin Laden himself, the newspaper reported.

Shehhi and Atta received visas to enter the United States in January 2000, and 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 Alhamzi and Khalid Almihdhar, had moved to San Diego in 1999.

The money for the operation began arriving in bank accounts in the United States, at SunTrust Bank and Century Bank in Florida, in the summer of 2000. Atta received slightly more than $100,000, Shehhi just less than that amount. About half of the $500,000 used to pay for the operation, senior FBI officials told the New York Times, was sent in wire transfers from banks in the United Arab Emirates, and much of the rest from Germany, but one official said the authorities suspect it originated in Pakistan.

By spring 2001, the 12 men whom investigators call the muscle had begun to arrive from Saudi Arabia.

While the Saudi government has restricted the FBI and reporters from interviewing the families of the men, the families of the group the FBI labels the muscle have told Arab newspapers that their sons left within the past 18 months, variously claiming they were going to seek religious counseling, on pilgrimage or on jihad in Chechnya. An investigator said there was evidence that the muscle spent at least a year in al-Qaida training camps, the newspaper reported.

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 the hum of American life. Hani Hanjour helped some rent an apartment in Paterson, N.J. Others cycled through one apartment in Delray Beach. Almihdhar helped some obtain illegal driver's licenses and photo identifications in Virginia.

The leaders and logistics men seemed to "buddy up" with their junior partners. One muscle member had an ulcerated leg, and a pilot-leader took him to a hospital in Palm Beach County. At first, Atta and Shehhi lived together in Florida; Al-Shehhi then moved in with Fayez Banihammad, and 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 FBI 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 key lieutenants in Germany and Afghanistan.

The planning

The al-Qaida manual, which prosecutors say was used in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Africa, outlines three stages of any operation: research, planning and execution.

Investigators say the research began in earnest in May of this year, when the leaders and logistics men began taking trial flights on the same cross-country routes as the planes they would later hijack -- though none ever took the exact flights they would later hijack. As the manual instructs, "In order to discover any unexpected element detrimental to the operation, it is necessary, prior to execution of the operation, to rehearse it in a place similar to that of the real operation."

After each flight to the West Coast, they flew to Las Vegas. And each time, they flew first class, as they would on Sept. 11. They stayed in the Econolodge 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 important American planning occurred in that hotel, the New York Times reported.

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 to Las Vegas at least once last summer, and hijackers may have done the same.

Alhamzi and Hanjour arrived together and appear to have spent most of their time together. Atta spent most of his time alone; he disappeared 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 they chose Las Vegas. The men were most likely following the al-Qaida manual's protocol: meet at a place that offers good cover.

The execution

On their last trip from Las Vegas, they bought one-way coach tickets. Those return flights put the men in position to execute the plot. Hanjour and Alhamzi flew to Baltimore, where they would 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.

Atta flew from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, where much of the muscle was living. The group worked its way to Boston and New Jersey in early September.

On Sept. 10, Atta and his charge, Alomari, drove to Portland, Maine.

Why? 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 about 40 minutes in. 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 Almihdhar, also carried box cutters. That plane, apparently piloted by Hanjour, began to jerk wildly in the air. There was perhaps a struggle with the pilots, but investigators believe it was more likely a result of Hanjour's poor skills -- his flying school teachers would later say he had been a sorry student.

Based on one cell phone call from one of the planes, the FBI now believes 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.

Investigators say the dozen men they call the muscle may have believed the same thing. This question remains the subject of debate within the FBI. Some investigators note that in surveillance photographs taken at a Portland ATM the previous night, Alomari appears to be grinning, an expression more befitting a petty thief about to go on a stealing spree.

One FBI official said the prayers found at the crash sites seemed to exhort the foot soldiers to be strong in prison -- unlike the instructions found in Atta's luggage, which made it clear he believed he was going to his eternal paradise.

And investigators in this country and abroad note that this would be in keeping with terrorist and al-Qaida patterns.

As the al-Qaida 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."

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