The Hijackers: How bin Laden Set Plan in Motion in '99


The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 16 - In early 1999, Osama bin Laden summoned Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to his well-guarded compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to confide to the lieutenant that his long-discussed proposal to use aircraft as terror weapons against the United States had the full support of Al Qaeda.

That meeting, described for the first time by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, set in motion an extraordinary series of events. But the path from Kandahar to the World Trade Center was anything but a straight line.

Described in vivid detail by two captured Qaeda operatives who helped plan the attacks, the plot was more troubled and improvisational than had been previously understood.

As late as August 2001, one commission report says, Mr. Mohammed fretted about infighting between Mohamed Atta, the mission leader, and a Lebanese pilot, Ziad al-Jarrah. With his frosted hair and his fondness for Beirut nightclubs, Mr. Jarrah seemed so close to choosing a girlfriend over Al Qaeda that the plotters scrambled to line up a replacement pilot. But in the end, Mr. Jarrah was at the controls of United Flight 93 when it crashed in Pennsylvania.

Of the four Qaeda operatives first assigned to the plot in 1999, only two ended up among the final 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks. Both of them - Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi - washed out as student pilots and were relegated to lesser roles. To take their place as pilots, Mr. Mohammed turned to other recruits spotted at the camps in Afghanistan.

Mr. Atta, the Egyptian pilot who was at the center of the core group, did not join the team until after the plot was well under way. The lineup of hijackers was changing throughout the two years of preparations. Meanwhile, an impatient Mr. bin Laden began pressing for an attack as early as 2000, even if it meant using untrained pilots to crash into the ground instead of into buildings.

At the start, though, Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Mohammed envisioned attacks even mo re audacious than the one that was ultimately carried out, the report said.

Mr. Mohammed, the American-educated Kuwaiti from Pakistan who emerges in the commission's account as a main partner of Mr. bin Laden, at one point planned an attack involving 10 planes. Mr. Mohammed wanted to hijack the last plane himself, then kill every man on board and land to deliver an anti-American diatribe. Another version, scrapped in 2000, envisioned near-simultaneous attacks involving aircraft in Southeast Asia and the United States. Still another, discarded only in the summer of 2001, conceived of a second wave of strikes, after those in Washington and New York, that would target skyscrapers in California and Washington State.

The date of the attacks was not settled until mid-August, the report says, and even in the final days, Mr. Atta and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another top Qaeda lieutenant, had not decided whether the fourth plane, the one piloted by Mr. Jarrah, should aim at the Capitol or the White House.

"In the end," the report said, "the plot proved sufficiently flexible to adapt and evolve as challenges arose."

The Training and the Targets

Mr. Mohammed first presented his plan to use airliners in suicide attacks to Mr. bin Laden in 1996. Then, the Qaeda leader listened, but did not commit himself.

The proposal sketched out an aerial suicide plot that seemed to come straight from a 1995 plan by Mr. Mohammed and others in Manila to blow up 12 American commercial jets over the Pacific Ocean.

Three years later, at their meeting in Kandahar, Mr. bin Laden said the plan now had Al Qaeda's full support. Mr. Mohammed and Mr. bin Laden chose an initial list of targets. Mr. bin Laden wanted to hit the White House and the Pentagon. Mr. Mohammed wanted to strike the World Trade Center. To that list they added the Capitol, one commission report said.

Mr. bin Laden quickly supplied Mr. Mohammed with four recruits to carry out the scheme, drawing from the thousands of young men who tra ined in his camps a few especially ardent followers he had singled out for martyrdom missions.

The four men were Mr. Alhazmi; Mr. Midhar; Walid Muhammad Salih bin Attash, known as Khallad; and Abu Bara al-Taizi. Only Mr. Alhazmi and Mr. Midhar stayed to the end.