Skip to comments.F.B.I. Account Outlines Activities of Hijackers Before 9/11 Attacks
Posted on 09/26/2002 10:36:21 PM PDT by kattracks
ASHINGTON, Sept. 26 An F.B.I. account of the Sept. 11 plot disclosed today that Mohamed Atta, known to other hijackers as the "boss," met monthly with an associate before the attacks. The account also told of how one hijacker coordinated the so-called muscle hijackers who kept passengers on the airliners at bay.
The account said a hijacker who crashed into the Pentagon and who was tracked by the Central Intelligence Agency in the months before the attacks, Khalid al-Mihdhar, organized the travel to the United States for the hijackers who helped seize the flights and who in some instances herded passengers to the rear of the aircrafts.
The account, a written statement delivered in closed-door testimony in June by the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, revealed that another hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, lived so openly in the United States before the attacks that he called the police when he was the victim of an attempted robbery in Fairfax, Va. on May 1, 2001. He later declined to press charges.
The release of Mr. Mueller's statement by the joint Congressional committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks came on a day when the two officials who were in charge of counterterrorism operations at the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. on Sept. 11 defended the performance of their agencies, which have been buffeted by criticism in two weeks of hearings by the intelligence committees.
Dale Watson, who is retiring this month as the head of counterterrorism for the F.B.I., and Cofer Black, who until recently led the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center, said the additional money they received to combat terrorism in the 1990's was never enough to meet the threat.
Mr. Black said that before Sept. 11, the counterterrorism center had only enough staff members to fill three infantry companies. "Three infantry companies can be expected to cover a front of a few kilometers," Mr. Black said. "Our counterterrorism center has worldwide responsibilities for all terrorist threats."
In his statement in June, Mr. Mueller said that after one of the most extensive inquiries ever undertaken by the F.B.I. the bureau had not been able to identify anyone in the United States besides the hijackers themselves who had had prior knowledge of the plot.
"While here, the hijackers effectively operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that alerted law enforcement and doing nothing that exposed them to domestic coverage," Mr. Mueller said. "As far as we know, they contacted no known terrorist sympathizers in the United States. They committed no crimes, with the exception of minor traffic violations. They dressed and acted like Americans, shopping and eating at places like Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut."
Mr. Mueller's testimony about Mr. al-Mihdhar and Mr. al-Hazmi is significant because it reveals fresh details about the role played by the two hijackers who were being tracked by intelligence agencies before the attacks. The handling of information about Mr. al-Mihdhar and Mr. al-Hazmi by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. in the 18 months before Sept. 11 has been a central focus of the Congressional inquiry.
In his testimony, Mr. Mueller also made these disclosures:
¶A cellphone message from one of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, to Mr. Atta referred to him as the "boss," reinforcing the authorities' view that he was the plot's ringleader.
¶During the summer of 2001, some hijackers, including Mr. Atta and Nawaf al Hazmi, met face-to-face for regular monthly meetings that Mr. Mueller said were to discuss the status of the operation and final preparations for the attacks.
¶In a coordinated movement in the days before the attacks, the hijackers moved from places around the country to their final departure cities, with several beginning to assemble on Sept. 5, 2001, and others on Sept. 8.
¶The hijackers communicated with each other frequently using 133 different prepaid calling cards to call from pay phones, cellphones and other telephone lines.
¶The 19 hijackers financed their activities using checking accounts at American banks and debit cards, and some maintained joint bank accounts with other hijackers or shared money to buy airline tickets.
¶The first of the hijackers to enter the United States was Hani Hanjour, a pilot aboard American Airlines Flight 77 who arrived in New York on Oct. 3, 1991, from Saudi Arabia.
¶Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni who was recently captured in Pakistan and turned over to American authorities, tried to enroll in the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Fla., and in August 2000 wired $2,200 as a deposit to the school.
¶When their training was complete, the hijackers made a series of surveillance flights in first class seats aboard cross-country flights from the East Coast to California.
¶Each surveillance flight included a return stop in Las Vegas, which some officials said were meant to be recreational. Mr. Mueller said the authorities were not sure of the purpose of the stops.
¶The hijackers who were not pilots arrived in the United States in pairs within a "fairly short window" in 2001, Mr. Mueller said, with the first pair arriving on April 23 and the last pair on June 29.
In January 2000, the C.I.A. found that Mr. al-Mihdhar had attended a meeting of suspected operatives for Al Qaeda in Malaysia and that he was traveling with Mr. al-Hazmi. By January 2001, the agency concluded that the two were probably Qaeda operatives, but the agency did not ask until late August that they be placed on a State Department watch list to prevent their entry into the country. By then they were both in the country.
Mr. Black, the C.I.A.'s former chief of counterterrorism, told the joint committee today that the agency had erred in failing to ask that the two men be placed on a watch list sooner.
Mr. Mueller's account shows that the F.B.I. has learned much more about the rest of the hijackers and the financial support they received from other Qaeda operatives overseas. He disclosed that investigators had determined that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the operations chief of Al Qaeda, was one of several people who provided either direct or indirect financial support for the hijackers. Records of a Visa card issued in an alias believed to have been used by Mr. Mohammed provide one of the most concrete pieces of evidence linking Al Qaeda's leaders with the 19 hijackers.
Mr. Mueller said that the plot was "hatched and financed overseas over a several-year period" and that Mr. Atta, the suspected ringleader of the plan, first inquired about flight training in the United States in March 2000, when he sent an e-mail message from Germany to several American flight schools. The F.B.I. director added that the hijackers were "apparently purposely selected to avoid notice."
The director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, testified about what was known about the overseas portion of the plot on the same day Mr. Mueller gave his account to the joint committee, but his testimony has not been declassified.
Today's hearing completed the second week of public testimony by the joint Congressional committee, providing an opportunity for senior officials of the F.B.I. and C.I.A. to respond to the joint inquiry's initial reports of its findings.
On Thursday, Mr. Black and Mr. Watson said it was difficult to judge the way they dealt with terrorism before Sept. 11 by the standards imposed after the attacks.
Mr. Watson said he did not believe there was the political will in the country before Sept. 11 for an all-out war on terrorism of the kind the government has waged since the attacks. And he said the defensive battle of the F.B.I. was nearly impossible to win. "We're like a soccer goalkeeper," he said. "We can block 99 shots, and nobody wants to talk about any of those. And the only thing anyone wants to talk about is the one that gets through."
Mr. Black suggested that the C.I.A. recognized before Sept. 11 that military action in Afghanistan was the only way to thwart Al Qaeda but that the country was not yet prepared for it.
"Nobody regrets more that we did not stop the attacks on Sept. 11," Mr. Black said. "Frankly, from an intelligence perspective, in order to have a fighting chance to protect this country from Al Qaeda, we needed to attack the Afghan terrorist sanctuary protected by the Taliban. C.I.A. appreciated this all too well."
We have hypothesized the purpose of the Las Vegas trips here. My guess was the money laundering/get cash aspect, with secondary motives of indulgence in Sin City.
They could do the same thing at Disneyworld but then as you say, there wouldn't be the money laundering advantage or the lapdancer angle.
I'm betting some surviving family members would dispute that assertion.