Looking for Answers

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Chapter Four
Looking for Answers

After the second plane, United Flight 175, slammed into the the south tower of the World Trade Center, it was clear that these crashes were not accidental—the result of pilot error or a mechanical malfunction. These were acts of terrorism, violence committed to further a political, social, or religious cause by frightening and victimizing innocent people.

Terrorists by definition are not an army of any nation; they usually consist of small groups who do their killing suddenly and secretively. As was the case in the attacks of September 11, terrorists frequently target civilians.

Proceed Cautiously

Many terrorists exist around the world—including some in the United States. President Bush knew it was important that Americans not jump to conclusions about who had committed the suicide crashes. The nation had learned that lesson after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995.

After that blast, which killed 168 people, many reporters and investigators quickly assumed that those responsible were Middle Eastern terrorists. It was perhaps an understandable presumption, for only two years before, Middle Eastern terrorists had attempted to destroy the World Trade Center by parking a truck laden with explosives in the lower parking garage. However, the Oklahoma bombing was home-grown terrorism, as the nation found out. Two former U.S. soldiers who hated the government, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were convicted of the crime.

Had Americans been behind the terrorism of September 11 as well? It was obvious that the United States had been singled out by terrorists who were willing to die during the course of their attacks. Who were they?

Well Funded and Well Planned

Violent American right-wing groups were eliminated quickly; the cell phone messages from passengers on at least one of the hijacked flights described the men as Arab or Middle Eastern. Also, ground control was able to hear that it was a man with an Arabic accent who made an announcement on Flight 93 before it crashed.

Palestinian terrorists were a possibility. The United States has long been a strong supporter of Israel, against whom Palestinians have been fighting for years. Militant Palestinians often plan and carry out suicide bombings in crowded Israeli market places and streets. Iraq, too, was a possibility. Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, had been a sworn enemy of the United States since before the Persian Gulf War. Although Iraqi or Palestinian groups might have had motive, American intelligence sources did not believe that either would have had the resources to conduct an operation as large as that of September 11.

In fact, no terrorist group except one had ever demonstrated what one reporter calls "the will, wallet, or gall to attack the U.S. before."54 That one was the network known as al-Qaeda, which is a loose-knit group of terrorists controlled by Osama bin Laden—a Saudi Arabian–born Islamic extremist who is known to have trained thousands.

"It Is Something We Wish For"

From the beginning, evidence seemed to point to bin Laden. For one thing, he had targeted the United States before. He was responsible for the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed 224 people. Terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were also responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000—an attack that killed 17.

In an interview with an Arab journalist less than a month before the September attacks, bin Laden mentioned a new, unprecedented attack that he was planning against the United States. He had never been reluctant to express his hate for Americans—or "infidels," as he called them. He saw the United States as a place of wickedness and corruption, and stated that it was a holy duty for Muslims to kill Americans—civilians included.

"Being killed for Allah's cause is a great honor achieved by only those who are the elite of the nation," he told CNN reporters in 1997. "We love this kind of death for Allah's cause as much as you like to live. We have nothing to fear for. It is something we wish for."55

The magnitude of the attack—the planning and coordination required to pull it off—pointed to bin Laden, too. An extremely wealthy man—estimates are that he had access to at least $250 million—he was more than capable of funding projects that might take months or even years of preparation. By the evening of September 11, investigators at the National Security Agency found evidence to further back up what investigators had supposed. They intercepted two electronic messages—apparently from other al-Qaeda operatives within the United States—that were being sent to bin Laden. The messages stated simply, "We have hit the targets."56


Soon after the September 11 attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a major investigation. Like all Bureau investigations, it had a code name—PENTTBOMB, for Pentagon Twin Towers Bombings. One goal of PENTTBOMB investigators was to systematically follow the trail of evidence until they could prove who committed the actions and with whom they were working. The second and more urgent goal was to find out whether more terrorist strikes were planned.

It was probably the largest FBI operation in history. More than seven thousand agents worked with thousands of state and local agencies to follow an overwhelming 63,232 leads in the first week after the attacks. By the following week, the number of leads had ballooned to 149,985. Many agents were hunting down possible accomplices who may have provided money, shelter, or some other support to the hijackers. One reporter noted at the time that "the flow of data is crushing; every day brings new leads—and new dead ends."57 Even so, agents very soon began to get a chilling picture of the complexity of the terrorist operation of September 11.

Early in the investigation, agents were able to identify the nineteen men who had hijacked the four planes. The hijackers were not from one country; they carried passports from Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But while they were not countrymen, the nineteen almost certainly were united in their radical Islamic beliefs and their eagerness to wage a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

Remarkably, the attacks had taken between three and five years to plan, and some experts in Middle East terrorism estimated that to accomplish what they did, at least one hundred people had to have been involved in some way. One intelligence official confided that the FBI feared that there could be between thirty and fifty teams of terrorists still on the loose. "There's more," he said. "More than we have accounted for."58

Carefully Chosen Planes

As experts pieced together what occurred before the crashes, the extent of the planning became evident. For instance, it was clear that the hijackers, or those directing them, had chosen their planes very carefully. The planes were all westbound transcontinental flights—which meant that they were carrying between ten thousand and twenty-four thousand gallons of highly explosive fuel. Experts were in agreement that the intense heat generated by the burning fuel was responsible for the World Trade Center's structural collapse.

The terrorists also chose a Tuesday, almost always the quietest day of the week on such flights, for their operation. This ensured that the hijackers would have fewer passengers to control or subdue. They also chose the particular flights because of when they took off from their respective airports. "To achieve surprise," explains one source, "the attack had to be carefully coordinated so that all four airliners, leaving from three different cities, hit their targets within minutes of each other."59 Investigators learned, as they went through airline computers, that some of the hijackers traveled on these exact flights for months before September 11—dry runs, most likely, for the actual attack.

As for the weapons used—knives and box cutters—investigators were uncertain whether the hijackers had a source within the airports who could stash the weapons on board beforehand or whether airport security was so lax that the crude weapons did not even register on the walk-through metal detectors before the terrorists boarded their flights. Either scenario, one investigator said, was disturbing.

Two Terrorists Check In

In their Time magazine article "The New Breed of Terrorist," Johanna McGeary and David Van Biema retrace the check-in of two of the hijackers right before they boarded Flight 77.

"It was so ordinary at the time, so ominous in hindsight. An American Airlines agent at Dulles Airport in Virginia looked up as two men of Arab origin handed over their tickets. Odd: they were waiting in the coach-class line, dressed in inexpensive clothes, but their tickets were first class, one way. Prepaid at $2,400 each. 'Oil money,' thought the agent. Such passengers are common at Dulles, but these two looked a little bit young: one, around 20, spoke a little English; his brother, even younger, spoke none. And they seemed awfully thin, almost underfed. The agent saw they had ordered special Muslim meals, but so had some others on the flight.

The brothers gave the right answers to standard security questions and had valid IDs, one of them a proper-looking Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver's license. The agent wasn't in a rush and laughed to himself that the two brothers were such infrequent flyers that they didn't know they could check in at the empty first-class counter. But the two were patient, pleasant, low key.

There was really nothing to trigger alarms as the brothers and three other passengers of Arab ethnicity boarded American Airlines Flight #77 for Los Angeles. The two brothers were Nawaq Alhamzi and Salem Alhamzi, who knew they were going to die that morning."

"Three Hundred Sunny Days a Year"

Even before investigators began digging through the backgrounds of the terrorists, those who were working in air traffic control suspected that the men knew something about airplanes. They had turned off the planes' transponders, which would not have occurred to someone without some knowledge of commercial airplanes.

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But as agents followed the terrorists' trail backwards in an effort to find their associates still at large, they learned that the hijackers had more than a passing interest in flying. In fact, at least one terrorist on each airplane was a certified pilot. And what was most disturbing was that most had attended commercial flight schools in the United States.

Perhaps, say experts, that should not be too surprising, for the United States trains many of the world's pilots. "The backs of international pilot magazines are crammed with ads for flight schools in Florida, California, and Arizona," explains one researcher. "'Three hundred sunny days a year,' some of them proclaim.… If Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. draw the world's future biochemists, these small four- and five-plane aviation schools attract the globe's future pilots."60

Air Time

These small U.S. flight schools attract students from around the world for other reasons. Gas and airplane rental is cheap—often about fifty-five dollars per hour, which is about half of what rental would cost at airports near larger cities. What's more, pilot training in other countries is either not available or too costly. As a result of all these factors, commercial flight schools in the United States train about seventy thousand pilots each year.

For instance, the two hijackers who flew the planes that hit the World Trade towers trained at several U.S. flight schools, among them Huffman Aviation, located between Tampa and Fort Myers, Florida. Mohamed Atta, who flew Flight 11, and his cousin Marwan Al-Shehhi, who flew Flight 175, spent thousands of dollars in cash learning to fly small single-engine planes—a must before learning to fly passenger jets.

The two also paid thousands of dollars for time on expensive simulators—often $250 or more per hour. Both Atta and Al-Shehhi were reportedly eager to get beyond small planes and fly jets. Simulators allowed them to experience what flying a three-engine jet was like. Explains one researcher:

The 727 full-motion simulator is a multimillion-dollar contraption that twists and bucks and turns on hydraulic pistons like a Disney ride. But the technology is good enough that airline pilots use simulators regularly to train for emergencies that are too dangerous to practice in a real plane: a double-engine failure or a fire on takeoff.61

After the attacks, people connected with these and other flight schools were both angry and embarrassed. One man said he felt used, because all of his teaching had been twisted into something evil. Another said that looking back, he is surprised he wasn't more suspicious. "It was a little strange that all they wanted to do was turns," says one flight school owner. "Most people who come here want to do takeoffs and landings."62

Blending In

Investigators found that many of the terrorists were in the United States for six months or more before the September 11 attacks and that some were in the United States as far back as January 2000. What is alarming to agencies such as the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is how much they differed from the intelligence community's profile of a typical suicide terrorist—a person who almost certainly would have been noticed early on.

The classic suicide terrorist, based on the profile of others through the years, would be a loner and quite young—between eighteen and twenty-four. He would be fanatic in his actions and his beliefs—a stern, outwardly very moralistic person who would never smoke or use alcohol. In addition, he would be extremely ignorant of many devices of modern technology, and would have neither the ability nor the interest in joining the activities of the larger society.

The nineteen men who committed the suicide attacks on September 11 could not have been further from that profile. They were older—most in their mid- to late twenties, and one was thirty-three. Several were married and had children. When investigators conducted hundreds of interviews with those who had lived or worked near any of the hijackers, almost no one sensed that they were different or suspicious. "My kids played with his kids," says one San Diego neighbor. "I was stunned."63

Mastering the Technology

Far from being ignorant of modern technology, the terrorists were technologically very savvy—from the complexities of flying an airplane to video and computer games. Neighbors of some of the terrorists recall that the men spent hours playing computer flight simulator games at night. With a horrible irony, Time magazine's Nancy Gibbs notes, "The Microsoft flight simulator and Fly! II—the two most popular simulators for personal computers—allow you to pretend to fly between the World Trade Center towers, and into them. Anyone looking to practice can buy the software off the shelf."64

Investigators followed paper trails—receipts, tickets, and other clues—that showed that the hijackers lived in dozens of different cities. They were divided into four small groups, called cells. Each of the cells would eventually be responsible for the hijacking of its particular airplane. The FBI found no evidence that the cells met face-to-face; it is very possible that they never saw one another.

However, it was crucial that the members of each cell communicate with one another, particularly as September 11 neared. Much of this communication was done via the Internet. Agents found hundreds of e-mails on computers in various public libraries. The messages, written in both English and Arabic, openly discussed the hijacking four weeks before it occurred.

"Like Rattling Doors Through the Neighborhood"

What became frustrating to many agents was the way the terrorists were able to do so much damage using freely available technology. Some have compared them to a judo expert who knows the secret of beating a bigger opponent is to use the opponent's strength and size against him. "Bin Laden's operatives," notes one researcher, "have learned how to turn two of America's greatest strengths—openness and technology—into weapons against the American people."65

Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, finds that discouraging. "The ability to take our expertise and turn it on us is exhilarating to them," he says. "They stay at it and stay at it to learn how to defeat our technological systems. It's like rattling doors through the neighborhood, looking for one to break in. That's what they're doing with our technology."66

The Twentieth Hijacker?

One of the aspects of the case that initially puzzled investigators was the finding that three of the flights had five-man cells, and the fourth—Flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania—had only four. That led officials to wonder if there had been a twentieth person who did not make the flight for some reason.

That speculation led agents to a thirty-four-year-old man from Morocco who was arrested on immigration charges less than a month before the attacks. Instructors at an Eagan, Minnesota, flight school had become suspicious when the man offered them a great deal of cash if they would teach him how to steer a large plane. He did not, instructors said, want to learn how to land or take off.

After the attacks on September 11, French investigators told U.S. agents that the man had long been on their "watch list" of people suspected of being terrorists. He remained in custody but refused to speak

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with investigators. "I don't know what his intentions were for September 11," said a Minnesota official. "But whatever it was, he was unable to carry them out because he was in custody."67

Anger Turned Inward

While following the threads of evidence such as this one in Minnesota began to give investigators a clearer picture of the terrorists, it also supported what many officials in Washington, D.C., had been saying since the September 11 attacks. Agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, and others who are in the business of gathering intelligence and upholding the nation's security had failed mightily. Many in Washington were openly angry at the FBI and the CIA, saying that what occurred on September 11 was the most massive failure of readiness the nation had ever seen. "After we identify the party or parties who were responsible for this," promised Maine senator Olympia Snowe, "we will also have to identify what went wrong on our side."68

No one denies that it was the terrorists and their backers who were responsible for the attacks and the deaths of thousands of people—and it is they who should be the target of U.S. anger. However, it is also true that the United States was caught unprepared—landmarks destroyed, four planes hijacked, and thousands killed by men armed only with box cutters and knives. How could such a thing have happened? Where were the people who were charged with keeping America safe?

For Americans who always thought of their country as powerful in world affairs, seeing it so easily attacked was both frightening and humiliating. One twenty-one-year-old marine corporal said that he talked to his family soon after the attacks to get their reaction. "They felt embarrassed," he admitted. "They thought we had more protection as a country."69

While quick to offer their sympathy and support, U.S. allies were appalled at the lack of American readiness. "At least 19 people worked for as long as five years," wrote one journalist in Britain's Economist, "mostly in the United States, on a complex operation to crash multiple airliners into several targets. And America's $30 billion-dollar-a-year intelligence services barely got a whiff of them. Why not?"70

Waiting and Watching

In the days after the terrorist attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies were feverishly going back over old tips they had received, wondering how they could have known which were accurate and which were false. In this excerpt from his Newsweek article "We've Hit the Targets," Michael Hirsch relates why some of the information being fed to U.S. intelligence might have been intentionally leaked by bin Laden's terrorists.

"Some counterterrorism operatives now speculate that intelligence picked up by U.S. agencies about possible terrorist attacks on Americans last June may actually have been leaked by operatives associated with bin Laden. Now it appears the terrorists 'may have been testing where and how we picked up information—and what were the things we missed,' says a U.S. investigator based in the Persian Gulf. 'They saw where we reacted, and presumably also where we didn't react.' Were they casing American airports to see if extra precautions went into effect? 'They not only know how to plan, but they know how to test,' said this source, 'and they know, obviously, where the gaps are.'

Among the worst of those gaps is the ram-shackle state of security checks at U.S. airports. The ability of unknown bombers to exploit these soft spots—and to do it so jarringly, ripping a hole in the heart of America's financial and military power—could itself have serious consequences. For it demonstrates that it can be done again. In fact, terrorism experts say that for years their worst fear has been that a suicide bomber would hit inside U.S. borders."


Many experts agreed that even though the intelligence community should have known more hard facts, those agencies are not entirely to blame. Various parts of government had been given warnings all along, but few officials took those warnings seriously. In early 2001, for instance, the CIA told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Osama bin Laden posed the most immediate threat to the United States and its citizens around the world. But because the United States had not suffered large terrorist attacks in the past, many people—including Congress—assumed it could never happen.

The American military was also guilty of a kind of denial. In 1998 the Pentagon made a detailed assessment of ways in which it might be vulnerable to an attack, and personnel offered ideas about correcting possible weaknesses. According to one official who was involved in the assessment, the military response was simply:" No one would dare attack the Pentagon."71

The same sluggishness affected the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the government agency that is responsible for air safety in the United States. After an explosion on board TWA Flight 800 in 1996 which killed 230 passengers, a panel of experts was asked to make recommendations to keep the nation's air travel safer and more secure. There was no evidence that terrorism was involved in that tragedy; even so, many of the panel's recommendations for airlines and airports were made with the idea that future terrorism was a grave threat to the nation.


One member of the panel is convinced that Congress and others in Washington—including the FAA—disregarded their recommendations for the very reason that Flight 800 was an accident rather than a terrorist attack. There was no threat, and therefore no sense of urgency that made fixing the system a priority. "The FAA returned to business as usual," he says, "the commission's recommendations … all but ignored."72

But the attacks of September 11 were not accidents, and afterward there seemed to be no lack of urgency among the nation's leaders. Security was a top priority. From examination of other possible terrorist weapons, to plans to increase safety on airplanes, to strategies to put more muscle in the intelligence-gathering agencies, the United States was feverishly looking for ways to make sure that such horrors never happened again.

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