A decade ago, a cadre of freelance terrorists planned an improbable day of horror in which they would blow up a dozen U.S. airliners, killing, if the men were lucky and good, several thousand people. This plan was foiled and most of the men caught, but one key figure escaped, and the idea went with him. He was something of a ghost, eluding investigators for years, just beyond vision and reach, forever a step ahead. He fled to Afghanistan, where he became a key Al Qaeda agent.
He brought with him the idea of using airplanes as weapons. The leaders of Al Qaeda liked the idea and made it their own.
A small group of men spread across the globe was assigned the task, and
last September they killed more than 3,000 people in New York and
Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. In the first weeks following the
attacks, authorities loudly and frequently blamed Osama bin Laden and
his organization, Al Qaeda. Since then, however, authorities have been
reluctant to say much of anything about the details, in large part
because they do not know them.
Enough is known, however, to describe how the plan to fly airplanes
into buildings came into being, how it was elaborated upon and how it
The story begins in Manila, Christmastime, 1994.
For most of a month, the men with the chemical burns and the misshapen
fingers carted boxes and bottles through the terrazzo lobby of the
Josefa, up six flights and down the hall to the shut door of Apartment
603, a furnished studio with kitchenette, dark parquet floors,
off-white walls and a shuttered window overlooking President Quirino
It was the window that worried the cops.
In normal years, Christmas in Manila is a prolonged celebration. That
December, though, arrived in a meaner season. A typhoon had barreled
through mid-month, ripping out trees and power lines and, for the
authorities, sharpening the edge on an already anxious time.
Pope John Paul II had announced a five-day January visit. There were
substantial fears within the country's intelligence community that
increasingly violent Islamic activists would try to kill him.
The national police had just completed a 182-page catalog of terrorist
activity throughout the island nation. It had been a horrible year:
More than 50 incidents and 101 deaths, with Roman Catholic priests
among the frequent targets. The terrorists were based on the southern
island of Mindanao, but bombs had already exploded in Manila on Metro
trains, at a Wendy's hamburger stand and a local movie theater. Another
had blown a hole in an airliner.
The pope was a complication the cops didn't need. They increased
surveillance and put local officials on high alert. That's where the
window on the sixth floor of the Josefa came in. The apartment is but a
quarter-mile from the Vatican ambassador's residence, where the pope
would stay. The window looks directly down onto a busy street that the
papal entourage would use.
The story has been told for years that on the night of Jan. 6, a week
before the pope's arrival, the men in 603 accidentally started a fire
in the kitchenette, and fled as it set off alarms. Firefighters and
police rushed to the scene. They discovered the fire had subsided
without assistance and prepared to call it a night until one suspicious
police officer insisted on taking a look in the room. Inside, she found
the place littered with beakers, funnels, cotton batting, cans of
gasoline and a pair of king-size Welch's grape juice bottles filled
with what turned out to be liquid nitroglycerin.
The truth about that night and the fire, officials say now, is a bit more complicated.
Manila is a sprawling mess of a metropolis, divided into districts
called baranguays. Local politics operate like a turn-of-the-century
American patronage machine: Each baranguay has a chief who delivers
neighborhood complaints up the line and municipal favors down it. They
keep their eyes open.
The Josefa is in the Malate baranguay. Apolinario Medenilla was the machine's man in Malate. He came around to have a look.
The Josefa is a drab, water-stained stucco, half-hotel, half-apartment
house, with groaning air conditioners and a transient clientele. It
rents rooms by the day, week or month. Next to it is a ragtag slum of
tin-can squatter shacks, dusty pawnshops and two-stool cafes. Manila
Bay is half a mile west, and cargo ship crewing agencies have offices
in the slum, making it a place of constant movement.
The men in 603 had rented the room for a month and were so secretive
they wouldn't let the maid in to change the sheets. It wasn't that they
seemed averse to women, as some Muslim visitors were. They paid
considerable attention to the city's salacious nightlife, coming and
going at all hours, not always unaccompanied. And then there was the
puzzle of all those boxes carted through the lobby. Manila is a
tropical city, a steam room. Labor is cheap and people don't exert
themselves if it can be avoided. Hauling heavy cartons is not typical
tourist behavior. Medenilla passed the information on to police, who
shared his suspicions.
Government officials now say police, worried about the pope's imminent
arrival, started the fire that set off the alarm at the Josefa. When it
sounded, the occupants ran out, the cops walked in and looked around.
They then left and hunted down a search warrant. Even at that,
according to police records, they had to ask 11 judges before they
found one who would sign it.
Whatever the method of discovery, the police hit an intelligence gold mine.
The evidence filled three police vans. There were priests' robes and
collars, Bibles, crucifixes and maps of the pope's prospective travels;
chemistry textbooks and chemicals--acids and nitrates by the gallon,
one finished pipe bomb and another waiting to be packed; there were a
dozen passports and as many Casio watches, apparently to be used as
timers; soldering irons, switches and loops of electrical wire.
The men in 603 were professional terrorists. They had stocked a bomb factory and left behind evidence they intended to use it.
One of them, a Pakistani named Ramzi Yousef, was among the most wanted
men on Earth--the key suspect in the 1993 truck bombing of the World
Trade Center in New York. They had come to Manila with enough new plans
to make New York seem like a warm-up act. The plans were left behind on
a Toshiba laptop. They included a plot to assassinate the pope and
another audacious scheme to board a dozen American jumbo jets, place
homemade bombs aboard them and blow them up over the Pacific. Yet
another plan on the computer called for the terrorists to dive-bomb an
airplane into CIA headquarters.
Through a combination of luck and international cooperation, the two
men in 603 and an accomplice were captured within a year.
Interrogations revealed there were still more plans and more men, men
who have yet to be found. An investigator described the cell as part of
"a strong network, continuously hatching plots." One of the unfound
men, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was a particular mystery. Nobody was quite
certain who he was. Even his name was suspect. There are now more than
a dozen aliases attributed to him.
It turned out he had been living in Manila for most of a year. He told
people he was a Saudi businessman. He stayed in a fancy apartment in a
nicer part of town, across the street from the country's future
president. He drove his own car. He took diving lessons. He patronized
go-go bars and karaoke clubs and held meetings at plush hotels. He
tipped well. He was flashy--once renting a helicopter just to impress a
girlfriend by hovering over her office, calling on his cell phone and
telling her to wave.
Still, police had little idea what his connection to the bombers might be.
Then came Sept. 11 and one of the most intensive police and
intelligence investigations in history. In the course of it,
apparitions of Mohammed kept emerging from the mists of information. By
this summer, American investigators had concluded Mohammed was a
principal planner of the September attacks. The idea to kill thousands
of Americans last fall by turning airliners into bombs might well have
Filipino investigators came to a similar conclusion. The idea to kill
thousands of Americans by blowing up airplanes in 1995 was probably
Mohammed's as well, and Sept. 11 its fulfillment.
Much had happened between the two plots. What the investigator had said
about the Manila cell could easily be applied to all of Osama bin
Laden's Al Qaeda in the intervening years: Foremost, it was a network
continuously hatching plots.
Whatever Al Qaeda's circumstances, successes or lack thereof, one thing
that never changed was that the plots just kept coming: ships in Yemen,
embassies in Africa, an airport in Los Angeles, a cathedral in France,
a subway in Singapore. As the plots multiplied, Khalid Mohammed kept
Over the years, many of the plots seemed ill-conceived ideas pursued by
ill-equipped or unprepared men. Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the first
attack on the World Trade Center and the plot to blow up airliners,
complained to investigators that if he'd had enough money, he'd have
toppled the trade center towers back in 1993.
It took time, but by the autumn of 2001, money was no longer a problem.
Khalid Mohammed and his cohorts eliminated that and every other
obstacle. Rather than rely on casual collections of hapless men
patching together whatever foolhardy scheme they lit upon, they drew
new men from three continents into their plot--diverse men, including
an architect, an aerospace engineer, a patent medicine salesman, a
computer programmer, sons of the Saudi middle class and an itinerant
Yemeni who lived for two years in a cramped government barracks so
uninviting authorities called it a container.
The organization was patient. While the men from around the globe were
assembled and prepared, it went on doing what it otherwise
did--churning out ideas for new and imaginative ways to kill.
By the time they were done, the old idea, the one with the airplanes, turned out to be the best--or worst--of them all.
Fighters Without a War
Al Qaeda was born in the course of a 10-year resistance to the Soviet
Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The war against the Soviets
became a worldwide rallying cry of radical Islam and, more, a forum for
action. Tens of thousands of young men from throughout Islam answered
the call to arms. The war's end presented a predicament: What would
these so-called Afghan Arabs do now?
Fundamentalist Islam is viewed as a threat in much of the Muslim world.
Many moujahedeen came home to inhospitable regimes. One of them later
described the group as lost, without purpose "except to carry out the
One such man and his wife arrived at a compound of migrant quarters in
tiny Kampung Sungai Manggis, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early
April 1991. He was short, stout, bearded and wearing a skullcap; she,
even shorter, and completely covered in dark dress and full veil. The
couple were strangers to Mior Mohamad Yuhana, the man who owned the
migrant shacks, but they came recommended by a local man, and Mior
thought they looked kindly.
The visitor said his name was Hambali, he was Indonesian and was moving
to Malaysia so that he might practice Islam more freely. Mior told him
he didn't care about that. Stay out of trouble, pay the rent and we'll
be fine, he said. He led them to a tiny wooden shack, about the size of
a one-car garage, with weathered siding, bare concrete floors and a
single lightbulb inside.
Hambali grew up in the volcanic highlands of west Java and attended an
Islamic boarding school and university. He answered the call to jihad
and spent three years fighting in Afghanistan.
Hambali and his wife arrived in Sungai Manggis with the clothes they wore and a single bag each.
"They cooked and ate, slept on the floor," Mior said.
Sungai Manggis is just minutes from the western Malaysian coast, and
from there an hour by boat across the Strait of Malacca to Indonesia.
It is a well-traveled path for poor Indonesians, who come for work. But
Sungai Manggis is not a place to get rich.
The area is blanketed with overgrown rubber plantations, abandoned when
the fickle world market moved on. The landscape is green and tangled,
the earth a deep orange clay that clings as dust in the morning and mud
after the heavy midday rains. The hills are empty as yet of the
Western-style subdivisions of the capital, but the bulldozers are
coming. The area is being pulled into the sprawling compass of Kuala
Roadside stands are piled high with mangoes, pineapple, durian and--an
indication of the oncoming march of the suburbs--sacks of used golf
Hambali did odd jobs and soon began showing up outside the gold-domed
mosque on the southern edge of the nearby market town of Banting,
selling kebabs out of a tri-shaw cart. His wife, joined by her mother,
was seldom seen beyond the rented shack.
Hambali switched from kebabs to patent medicines and began traveling,
on business, he said, disappearing for weeks at a time. At home, he
received what became a steady stream of visitors, Mior said. They spoke
English and Arabic and sometimes carried Duty Free shopping bags. The
men were "in their late 20s or early 30s. They looked tough. I
remembered thinking at that time they would make good footballers,"
Hambali prospered. Soon, he was driving a red Proton hatchback and
juggling calls on a pair of cell phones. Many of those calls,
investigators later determined, were made to a man who had recently
arrived in Manila, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.
Joining the Jihad
When the Soviets left Afghanistan, the country descended into gruesome
civil war. With shifting alliances of tribes, warlords and religious
sects, a network of camps, schools and supply routes that Bin Laden had
helped establish along the Pakistani border was busier than ever.
Ramzi Yousef was one of the moujahedeen who returned to the region.
Yousef was born and raised in Kuwait, where his parents were among
thousands of Pakistanis drawn to the oil-rich kingdom. Yousef had first
come to the camps on a break from college in Wales in 1988. He returned
in 1991, after receiving an associate degree in electrical engineering.
He later told investigators he spent six months training in the camps.
He was so adept at bomb-making that he was known to trainees as "the
After his training, Yousef began recruiting the motley crew with which he would attack the United States.
Yousef later told investigators his principal goal was the liberation
of Palestine, a political rather than religious motive. A boyhood
friend, Abdul Hakim Murad, said that what Yousef really wanted to do
was kill a lot of Jews. He didn't care how or where.
Yousef arrived in New York in the fall of 1992 wearing a three-colored
silk suit and carrying an Iraqi passport with no entry visa. He claimed
to be seeking political asylum. He was given two options--arrest or
deportation. He chose arrest and was then immediately released on his
own recognizance because, an INS agent later testified, "There was a
lack of detention space."
Yousef moved into a Jersey City, N.J., apartment and started scouting
targets. He spent time driving around Brooklyn because he had been told
Jews lived there. Murad, according to transcripts of police
interrogations, had earlier suggested to Yousef that many Jews worked
at the World Trade Center and that maybe he should consider the site as
Five months later, a bomb Yousef built for $3,000 blew up in the
basement of the trade center's north tower, killing six, injuring about
1,000 and causing $300 million in damage. It was less than Yousef
intended. He wanted the bomb to topple the north tower onto the south
and release a cyanide cloud into the complex's ventilation system.
Collaborators were arrested and Yousef's role discovered. An
international manhunt followed, with a reward of $2 million for his
capture. Yousef disappeared for a time into the lawless western
Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where he had relatives. He soon
reemerged as a man about town in Peshawar and Karachi, a kind of folk
hero much sought after among people who wanted to blow things up.
His boyhood friend Murad was living in Karachi. He had recently
returned from the U.S., where he had earned a commercial pilot's
license. Yousef came to see him. He talked, Murad said, about the need
for good Muslims to give their lives, if needed, to the struggle. They
talked about potential targets: Benazir Bhutto, then the prime minister
of Pakistan; nuclear power stations; a government official in Iran; the
U.S. Consulate there in Karachi and a variety of other U.S. government
buildings. There was a plan to assassinate President Clinton.
"If you ask anybody," Murad said later, "even if you ask children, they
will tell you that the U.S. is supporting Israel and Israel is killing
our Muslim brothers in Palestine."
Murad proposed packing an airplane full of explosives and dive-bombing
into the Pentagon or CIA headquarters. Yousef said it was worth
He took Murad to meet a man interested in such things. He said his name
was Abdul Magid. He was a Saudi import-export businessman, he said.
His real name, police later determined, was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He
wasn't Saudi, but like Yousef a Baluchi, born and raised by expatriates
in Kuwait. He is thought to be Yousef's uncle.
Foreign workers flooded the Gulf states in the 1970s and '80s. The oil
economy couldn't have functioned without them, but they were not
encouraged to think of it as home. In Kuwait, they are referred to as
bidoon, translated as "without," as in without citizenship.
Like Yousef, Mohammed had gone abroad to study engineering. He enrolled
at a two-year college in North Carolina in 1984. After college, he came
home to Pakistan and joined what appears to have been the family
business--jihad. A Kuwaiti newspaper has reported that he went to work
as secretary to an Afghan warlord. It is likely his older brother Zayed
arranged the job.
Zayed was a Pakistani representative of Mercy International, a
Saudi-funded relief organization. The Kuwaiti government this summer
said Zayed was a full-fledged member of Al Qaeda.
Murad said his first meeting with Magid/Mohammed was at Mohammed's
Karachi apartment. He said Mohammed was very interested in learning
everything he could about pilot training: how long it took, how
expensive it was and who could qualify for it.
Yousef took Murad to see Mohammed a second time. Again, Murad said, Mohammed talked almost exclusively about flying.
By now, Yousef had persuaded Murad to join the cause. The two of them
moved to an open-air compound where Yousef taught Murad to build bombs.
Making chocolate, Yousef called it. In one practice session, a
detonator exploded in Yousef's face. Yousef lost partial sight in one
eye, Murad said.
As Yousef recuperated, Mohammed showed up out of nowhere, Murad said, to pay the bills.
Khalid Mohammed, Yousef and a third plotter, Wali Shah Khan, arrived in
the Philippines in early 1994. Khan had stopped en route in Kuala
Lumpur, where he and Hambali, the Indonesia patent medicine salesman,
incorporated an export company called Konsojaya. Its real purpose,
police say now, was to serve as a financial conduit for the plotters.
In Manila, the trio acted like anything but Islamic terrorists. All had
local girlfriends. They hung out at karaoke bars and strip clubs.
Yousef and Mohammed, just weeks before they intended to blow up the
pope, went on holiday to a coastal resort, where they took scuba-diving
Yousef's friend Murad joined them just before Christmas. The plans for
the airplane plot--which they code-named Bojinka, Serbo-Croatian for
explosion--called for men to board flights in Asia that had
intermediate stops before heading across the Pacific. They would plant
Yousef's bombs on the planes, disembark at the intermediate stop and do
the same thing on another flight. The bombs' timers would be set so
that all the bombs would go off more or less simultaneously.
Yousef did a trial run Dec. 9, planting a small version of his bomb on
a Philippine Airlines flight to Tokyo. It exploded, killing one man. It
would have caused the plane to crash if not for what were described as
heroic efforts by the pilot.
That was the end of it, though. Police intelligence and fears for the
pope's safety led to the fire alarm and discovery of the bomb factory.
Murad was caught that night when Yousef sent him back to the apartment
to get Yousef's Toshiba laptop. Yousef walked off into the night. He
made his way via Thailand to Pakistan. He was betrayed there by a man
he tried to recruit and captured in a raid by U.S. agents and Pakistani
security forces at a small hotel in Islamabad.
When Khan was arrested seven months later, just one of the known Manila plotters remained at large--Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Authorities think now he stayed for some days, perhaps weeks, in
Manila, then made his way to Doha, Qatar, where he apparently enjoyed
the patronage of a high-ranking member of the government.
One of Mohammed's brothers had attended university in Doha in the 1980s
and became a much respected teacher. He reformed a network of social
clubs that had previously been disreputable and made them a key feature
in Doha's social and religious life. Many people there still speak
fondly of the brother, and this apparently helped Mohammed settle
quickly into Qatar society.
Mohammed was a kind of happy networker, said Khaled Mahmoud, an acquaintance.
"He knew your name the second time you met him and remembered things about you from previous conversations," Mahmoud said.
Mahmoud recalls running into Mohammed at the mosque. They chatted for
perhaps 30 minutes, during which they were repeatedly interrupted by
people coming up to say hello to the short, slightly plump, slightly
balding young Mohammed.
Mohammed is said to have been funny and charming, an image that fits
with the evidence of him as Manila raconteur. His very public lifestyle
caught up with him in 1996. U.S. investigators identified him as their
Manila suspect, and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh sent a letter to the
Qatar government asking for permission to send a team after Mohammed.
The government agreed and the team moved in, according to Robert Baer,
a retired CIA officer. Baer said his account of the attempted capture
was given to him later by the head of Qatar's national police, who told
him he was ordered by a member of the Qatar ruling family to provide
Mohammed and four other men with blank passports. The police chief said
the other men included top Bin Laden aides Ayman Zawahiri and Mohammed
By the time the FBI team arrived, Mohammed and the others were gone.
American officials decline to speak about the escape, except to say
that cooperation between Qatar and the U.S. is excellent now.
U.S. officials think Mohammed moved to Afghanistan, where he went to work for Al Qaeda.
In discussions of terrorism at the time, Bin Laden's name was mentioned in passing, if at all. That was about to change.
In late 1995, a National Guard post in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had been bombed, and five Americans were killed.
The U.S. had begun to suspect that Bin Laden was training and
dispatching terrorists from his base in Sudan. When they pressured the
Sudanese to expel him, there were not many places he could go. Of
these, Afghanistan was the most likely.
In May 1996, Bin Laden and an entourage of 150 men, women and children arrived by C-130 transport plane in Kandahar.
In June, a fuel truck exploded at a U.S. Marine barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19.
Bin Laden did not claim responsibility for the attacks, but he conspicuously praised them.
In August, Bin Laden issued from his new home in the Afghan mountains a declaration of war against the United States.
Taliban leaders welcomed Bin Laden. He repaid the favor by furnishing
them fighters and money. The moujahedeen training camps were
rejuvenated by Bin Laden's presence.
In 1998, Bin Laden issued a second declaration of war against the U.S.
and announced a merger of his Al Qaeda with organizations from
Pakistan, Egypt and across Africa. The merger brought experienced
fighters and strategists under Bin Laden's banner.
The new organization declared: "To kill Americans and their allies,
both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is
able, in any country where this is possible."
It was a call for a new generation of jihadists.
A Place of Comfort and Hate
On a typically gray, damp day in Hamburg, when steel-hard winds blow
down from the Baltic and the city grows dark and the evening cool turns
cold, the thing that is noticed first when men come out of the weather
into Al Quds mosque is the warmth they bring with them. A hand is
clasped; bearded cheeks brush one against another; shoulders are
squeezed; smiles, soft words and quiet laughter are shared.
Al Quds occupies a warren of sparsely decorated rooms upstairs from a
downscale gym. It sits in a poorer quarter of Germany's richest city,
on a hard, seamy street just east of Hauptbahnhof, the city's main rail
station. The location, amid but removed from the drug dealers and
hookers on Steindamm Street below, is perfect: Rent is cheap and the
train station makes Al Quds accessible from all points on the Hamburg
The men come to evening prayer from across the city and from across the
Arab world. Hamburg has a sizable Muslim population, about 5% of its
almost 2 million people, and mosques are spread throughout the city to
serve them. The overwhelming majority are Turks, but Al Quds is not a
There is within Islam, as they say, only one God and God is great, but
any religion that requires its faithful to pray five times a day can
expect them to exercise some discretion in determining where and with
whom those prayers are said. Mosques, like churches in Christendom,
segregate themselves by ethnicity, economics and scriptural
interpretation. The version presented at Al Quds is Arab, dispossessed
and harsh, which fit exactly the world view of certain Muslims in the
"The Jews and Crusaders must have their throats slit," is the way one
Al Quds preacher put it. This was for most of the decade not an unusual
A match had been struck in Afghanistan, and Islam was aflame. Al Quds
was distinctive in Hamburg but no different from thousands of other
mosques around the world--from San Diego to Jakarta to London--where a
new radical Islam was nursed to a fire, and the fire fed.
There are two smaller, mostly Arab mosques very near Al Quds, and
members of what later came to be called the Hamburg terrorist cell
sometimes worshiped at those as well. But investigators think it was
within Al Quds' plain rooms that a group of like-minded young men found
one another and, for many of them, a calling.
The group was small--investigators think fewer than 20 people. It
produced three of the Sept. 11 pilots--Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi
and Ziad Samir Jarrah. Two other men apparently wanted to join
them--Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Zakariya Essabar, both of whom were denied
U.S. visas. When the pilots left for the United States, Bin al-Shibh
became the key contact--and a conduit for money--back in Germany.
Essabar, Bin al-Shibh and a roommate of Atta, Said Bahaji, all fled
Germany before the attacks and remain fugitives.
The men of the Hamburg cell came from different backgrounds and
countries but in ways were strikingly similar. Many were physically
slight, men the size of boys; most were from the fringes of whatever
society they came from and whatever schools they attended. All but one
enrolled in college and many did not fit well into German life. Several
had never before expressed much interest in religion or politics.
The men came to Germany at different times and to different cities over
five years, beginning in the summer of 1992 when Atta, then 24, arrived
from Egypt. He eventually enrolled at the Technical University of
Hamburg-Harburg, studying urban planning.
Atta lived as a strict Muslim from the time of his arrival in Hamburg.
He fasted during Ramadan and observed dietary prohibitions carefully.
He prayed five times a day. He visited mosques when his schedule
permitted; otherwise, he prayed wherever he was--at home, school or
During his first years in Hamburg, Atta gave no sign of being anything
other than an exceptionally disciplined student. He went to class, did
his work and prayed. A roommate took him to a movie once. Atta hated it
and they never went again. He made few friends. He generally ate alone
and, his roommates said, not with any joy.
"I remember," a roommate said, "sitting down at the table and Mohamed
sighing, 'This is boring. Eating is boring.' He said it wasn't just
that he wanted different food, it was just the act of eating."
He was an oddly self-contained man, the roommate said, "reluctant to any pleasure."
It is not certain when Atta started going to Al Quds, but a friend
recalls meeting him there soon after the mosque opened in 1993. He went
to mosque daily and sometimes returned to his room in the evening with
Foreign undergraduates must demonstrate German language competence
before being admitted to university. When the other members of the cell
began to arrive in Germany in 1994, they all enrolled in language
programs, most of them in smaller cities around Germany.
When Said Bahaji came to Hamburg at the beginning of 1995, it was a
homecoming of sorts. His Moroccan father and German mother met and
married in Germany, and Bahaji was born there in 1975. The family moved
to Morocco when he was 9. He came back for college.
He enrolled in the electrical engineering program at the technical
university in 1996. He lived at a student home and spent weekends with
his aunt Barbara Arens, a graphic designer with whom Bahaji shared an
affinity for computers. He called her his "high-tech aunt." He had been
secular, she said, until introduced to radical Islam by fellow
students. Arens eventually kicked him out of the house.
Ramzi bin al-Shibh came to Germany not as a student, but, using the
name Ramzi Omar, by claiming to be a political refugee from Sudan.
No one knows exactly when he arrived in the country. He made an asylum
claim in 1995, which was denied; he appealed and was assigned to what
the Germans call a container camp north of Hamburg. The camp in the
little town of Kummerfeld is a single building about the size and shape
of a ship container. The container is divided into three sleeping
rooms, one bathroom and one kitchen. It's cramped, drafty and
unpleasant. Container residents were paid a modest monthly stipend.
They were encouraged but not required to find work. Typically for
Germany's modern bureaucracy, as long as they showed up for weekly roll
calls, they were free to come and go as they pleased.
Bin al-Shibh's asylum appeal was eventually denied. The judge in the
case said he doubted Bin al-Shibh was even Sudanese, much less fleeing
persecution. The judge was right. Bin al-Shibh was born in Yemen, in
the mountain valley region of Hadramaut, the ancestral home of Osama
The dismissal of the claim had little effect. Bin al-Shibh had already
returned to Yemen, then, using his real name, he received a German visa
and reentered the country legally.
Marwan al-Shehhi came from a small town north of Dubai in the United
Arab Emirates. His father was a Muslim cleric, and the son has been
described as an especially devout Muslim. He enrolled in a language
institute in Bonn in February 1996. He boarded with a local family. He
took language classes for more than two years before he demonstrated
sufficient competence to enroll in university.
He didn't move permanently to Hamburg until 1999.
This seems to some investigators quite late for someone who would play
such a key role in the plot. Al-Shehhi had spent several months in 1998
in Hamburg, trying to pass his language exams. Presumably, had he
passed in Hamburg in 1998, he would have stayed. He didn't, however,
and had to move back to Bonn.
Just after Al-Shehhi left, a Pakistani student named Atif bin Mansour
arrived in Hamburg. Early the next year, Mansour, whose name has never
been released by German authorities, was Atta's co-applicant for a room
for a new Islamic study group at the technical university. Mansour was
a pilot on leave from the Pakistani Air Force. This in itself is
intriguing--a Pakistani pilot? Investigators acknowledge they haven't
figured out Mansour's role in the plot, if any. The German Federal
Bureau of Criminal Investigations said he remains "a very interesting
Mansour's brother, also in the Pakistani armed forces, was killed in
battle that spring of 1999. Mansour rushed home to be with his family
and never came back. Not long after, Al-Shehhi returned to Hamburg. It
is as if they replaced one another.
Ziad Samir Jarrah came from a well-known and secular family in Lebanon.
He moved to Greifswald, in the former East Germany, in the spring of
1996 to begin college. Almost immediately, Jarrah met a medical
student, a woman named Aysel Senguen, and within the year they were
living together and plotting their escape from Greifswald.
Jarrah moved to Hamburg in 1997, enrolling in the aeronautical
engineering department at the University of Applied Sciences. The
summer after he started classes, he worked in the paint shop of the
Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. He was there at the same time,
apparently on the same shift, as a young Moroccan student, Zakariya
Essabar, who, that fall, also moved to Hamburg and enrolled at Applied
The Big Man
Bernhard Falk, vice president of the German investigative agency, said
the recruiting of men to join the jihad seldom occurred in the open. It
was "in the backrooms, in closed circles. Only there, they preach hate
and anti-Western sermons, and say what they really think. And there,
the radicals try to convince certain people to go to Afghanistan."
There were notable exceptions to this. One man everyone within Al Quds
knew was a big, beefy, bearded middle-aged fellow named Mohammed Haydar
Zammar. He was an auto mechanic who had been unemployed for years. He,
his wife and six children survived on welfare payments.
Zammar's bluster matched his size. In almost any discussion, his was
the loudest voice and most radical view. He was well-known in many of
the city's mosques as an advocate of jihad; though he spoke of serious
things, he was not always regarded seriously.
The president of the neighboring Muhadjirin mosque said Zammar was "like a little boy" who talked too much.
Even Zammar's brother said, "His tongue was his problem."
Zammar was familiar to authorities too, because of his boisterousness
and because he was apparently an acquaintance of a man arrested as a
suspected Al Qaeda agent in 1998, charged with complicity in the
bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
In part because of Zammar's outspokenness, authorities tend to discount
his role in the Sept. 11 plot. They concluded no one would entrust
information to a braggart like him. It is clear, though, that Zammar
knew the men in the Hamburg cell, in particular Said Bahaji. In part
because of the acquaintance, German police in 1998 performed what they
describe as limited surveillance on Bahaji.
Bahaji at the time was living with Atta and Bin al-Shibh. Nothing came of the surveillance and it was discontinued.
In Germany in the 1990s, the threat of terrorism of any sort seemed
distant. The last real threats had come from the political left, in the
Red Army Faction, successor to the 1970s Baader-Meinhof gang. But that
threat ended years before. The class struggle was history.
The only thing young Germans, Generation Golf, as they were called,
shared with the Maoists was an affinity for black turtlenecks. Rather
than rejecting the status quo, they wanted what their parents had and
worried they might not be able to get it. Germany might have been the
safest place in Europe to establish an Al Qaeda cell.
One measure of the seriousness with which Germany viewed the threat of
terrorism from within its fast-growing Muslim population is the
distribution of counter-terrorism resources. In Hamburg, authorities
had one man assigned part-time to monitor radical Islam. That's half a
man to watch 80,000 people.
Law enforcement authorities say they viewed men such as Zammar as individuals, not connected to any formal networks.
"We only knew them as radical Muslims. This is not a crime," one
investigator said. "They might have had contact with followers of Osama
bin Laden. This is also not a crime."
There were, however, fundamentalist recruiting networks. In some
instances, these networks overlapped with--and took advantage of--a
missionary sect of Muslims called the Tabligh.
The Tabligh proselytizes throughout the world. It professes to be
peaceful, but intelligence services throughout the Mideast say the
group was hijacked by organizations, such as Al Qaeda, to recruit
Zammar was a Tabligh, according to his brother. He had traveled to
Pakistan at the group's invitation some years ago and joined, he said.
Since Zammar no longer worked, religion became almost a full-time job.
To recruit people for jihad was not unusual, or illegal. For more than
a decade, thousands of men throughout Western Europe went to
Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya to fight or, more usually, as a sort of
baptism to the broad goals of radical Islam. It became, within that
world, an almost hip thing to do.
That was part of the ingenuity of the Sept. 11 plot. Much of it could
be put into place without crimes being committed. Those would come
The Soft Man
German law enforcement officials think the recruitment of the Hamburg
cell probably didn't take place until 1998. The officials claim,
without describing it, to have one solid piece of evidence from that
period that indicates Atta played an unspecified lead role.
These officials describe the most likely recruitment process as being
less formal than has generally been reported. They think there might
have been several steps in the process: first, a soft, mainly religious
recruitment, drawing the men into a deeper commitment to their
religion; second, an urging or outright invitation to go to Afghanistan
to see what it was like; third, at the camps, a harder recruitment for
those, perhaps few, deemed worthy of joining Al Qaeda; and finally, a
selection process for specific missions.
They think Zammar would have contributed to the second stage, acting as
a sort of travel agent for people who wanted to go to Afghanistan.
A principal candidate for the first-stage recruiter is a Hamburg postal worker named Mohammed bin Nasser Belfas.
He was born in Indonesia and spent part of his childhood in Yemen. He
went to university in Cairo. Belfas came to Germany on a six-month
tourist visa in 1972. He stayed 13 years before he was discovered and
jailed. When he was released, the Germans tried to deport him. But
there was no place to deport him to. He was stateless. The Germans
relented and allowed him to stay. He was granted citizenship in 2000.
Belfas works the night shift at a suburban postal facility. He is
almost constantly in the company of young men. He is quite well-known
among Muslims. Friends say he is a lay missionary who has made it his
task--one called it a mission--to unite the various ethnicities and
sects of Muslims in Germany. He speaks German, Arabic, Indonesian and
He travels the country, paying particular attention to college towns,
where he will speak to any group no matter how small. He is, in every
sense, a recruiter, whether he knows it or not.
For several years, Belfas has conducted regular study meetings at his
apartment. Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were regular members of
the study group. Atta, one attendee said, acted almost as Belfas'
Once, said Volker Harum Bruhn, a member of the group, they watched a
CNN newscast on suicide bombers in Israel. Part of the program told the
story of a bomber who set off his charge prematurely, injuring only
himself. He was rushed to an Israeli hospital unconscious. He awoke on
the operating table, looked up and said: "Is this heaven?"
The doctor asked whether the bomber thought there were Jews in heaven.
The bomber replied, "No."
"Then," the doctor said, "I guess you're not in heaven."
This cracked everybody up, Bruhn said, even Atta, who didn't laugh much.
Atta left Hamburg over the winter holiday, as he usually did, in 1997.
This time, he didn't return for three months. He told his roommate he
had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He had been to Mecca 18 months
earlier and it would be unlikely for a student--even one so devout--to
go twice so quickly or stay so long.
It was the biggest gap in his schedule since he had come to Hamburg and
the first opportunity he would have had to go to camps in Afghanistan.
After he returned in the spring of 1998, almost everything the core
members of the group did, they did with others in the group. That
spring, Bin al-Shibh left the container camp and lived for a time with
Belfas. That summer, Atta, Bin al-Shibh, Al-Shehhi and Belfas worked in
a computer warehouse together, packing boxes. Authorities say they
don't know quite what to make of this. The man who owns the company
said he hired students when he had extra work. It is normal summer work
for students, but Belfas? Even the man who owned the company thought it
odd that a middle-aged night postal worker would spend his days in a
Atta left the student house at the end of summer. He and a group of
men--nobody knows how many--moved for a couple months into a project
flat on a cold stretch of road on an island in the Elbe River. They had
no furniture, only mattresses. Neighbors said they were out of the
house all day and they talked long into most nights.
In the winter, Atta, Bin al-Shibh and Bahaji moved into a neat, newly
refurbished three-bedroom apartment at Marienstrasse 54, near the
Some investigators theorize the men in the Hamburg cell might have been
recruited by Al Qaeda scouts in the smaller German towns where many
lived, then sent to Hamburg. As possible evidence of this, they cite
the fact that several of the cities where the hijackers lived--even
small towns such as Greifswald and Muenster--had well-known radical
The biggest argument against the "sending theory" is that it assumes
there was some sort of control center in Hamburg, operating for many
years, and authorities have no evidence of this. German officials, in
fact, think the planning and control for Sept. 11 occurred almost
entirely in Afghanistan.
The simplest explanation of the movement of the members of the Hamburg
cell is that it was completely natural. Most Arab students--not just
those who become terrorists--leave the smaller college towns after they
pass language tests and most of them head for Berlin, Hamburg or
Frankfurt. These are the largest cities in Germany and the cities with
the largest Islamic populations.
However they arrived, by the end of 1998, all of the men in the Hamburg cell except Al-Shehhi were in Hamburg and ready.
Given his taste for the high life and pretty girls, Khalid Shaikh
Mohammed can't have enjoyed Afghanistan much under the puritanical
Taliban. He seems to have gotten away often.
European intelligence experts say in 1996 and '97 he spent time in the
Czech Republic capital of Prague, a key crossroads then for
questionable men and dirty money.
American intelligence officials say he was in Germany in 1999. The
Americans speculate that Mohammed was there to meet with the Hamburg
He is thought to have made repeated visits to Southeast Asia--Malaysia
and the Philippines. Once, in 1999, Philippine intelligence officials
say, the FBI tipped them Mohammed was back to visit an old girlfriend.
He vanished before agents arrived to arrest him.
American officials have told Italian authorities they suspect Mohammed
was in Rome for as long as three weeks in 2000. Others say he played a
central role that year in organizing the bombing of the U.S. destroyer
Cole in Yemen.
Finally, this summer--even after Sept. 11--a report circulated in
Manila that Mohammed was back in town to see a girlfriend yet again.
Police found only a rumor and no man to back it up.
It is uncertain when Mohammed first proposed the Sept. 11 airliner
attacks on the United States, but captured Al Qaeda officers have told
interrogators it was in fact Mohammed's idea, according to a U.S.
intelligence official. American officials think Mohammed brought the
airliner idea to the Al Qaeda hierarchy, which approved it and gave
Mohammed and perhaps another Bin Laden lieutenant, Abu Zubeida, who ran
the training camps, responsibility to manage it.
Mohammed wouldn't need bombs this time. The airplanes would become the
bombs. What he would need instead were pilots. Zubeida's camps would be
a good place to find them.
This operation was different from previous Al Qaeda plots: It was of a
grander scale, more ambitious and expensive. It seems to have been more
closely controlled. The men seem to have been more carefully chosen,
more cosmopolitan and technically proficient.
German investigators think the men were already committed to Al Qaeda
by the time of Mohammed's 1999 visit to Germany, although Atta for one
seemed to retain doubts.
Throughout 1999, Atta regularly attended Belfas' Islamic study group.
After one of these meetings, Atta asked to see Volker Harum Bruhn
privately. At that meeting, Bruhn said Atta warned him strongly to stay
away from Islamic extremists, to follow the Koran strictly but to live
a careful life.
Later in the year, after Atta finally received his master's degree in
October, he went home to Cairo one last time. While there, according to
his aunt, he asked his mother, who was ill, whether he could remain in
Egypt permanently, to begin a career and care for her.
She insisted he continue his education, to go on to a doctoral program
in the United States. He did, of course, go to the United States, but
the next step in his education was in Afghanistan.
Officials with the German federal police say they have uncovered
airline data that indicate Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah--three Sept. 11
pilots--and Bin al-Shibh, who applied for flight school but was never
able to get a U.S. visa, all flew to Pakistan in November. They went
from there to an Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar.
Al-Shehhi, who was paid a $2,000-per-month stipend from the United Arab
Emirates Army the entire time he was in Germany, withdrew $6,000 from
his bank account to pay for the tickets. They flew separately, with at
least some of them using aliases through Istanbul to Karachi. The
timing of the meeting suggests this could have been when they committed
to the mission and were told it would involve learning to fly airplanes.
Building a Terror Business
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed wasn't the only one who got away after the
failed Manila bomb plot. Hambali, the Indonesian businessman, didn't
just elude capture; he eluded detection. Authorities didn't even know
he was involved.
He remained in his little hut along Manggis River Village Road and,
security officials now say, began constructing a regional network. Two
other Indonesian fundamentalists lived in the village for much of the
same time Hambali did. Together, the three embarked on a long, patient
recruiting process. The other men preached frequently at mosques.
Hambali spoke only to small groups in private.
One follower later told police what was most impressive about Hambali
was "his quiet and humble manners." He made a regular circuit of small
prayer groups; he raised money and insisted that jihad was the answer.
Malaysian police say they have since arrested several men whom Hambali
sent to Afghanistan for training; several bombing plots have been
attributed to his network.
At the time, no one paid any attention.
One of Hambali's disciples was Yazid Sufaat, a former Malaysian army
captain and Cal State Sacramento graduate. Sufaat and his wife, also a
Sacramento alumnus, had prospered after their return to Kuala Lumpur.
She owned a computer services firm; he did drug testing for the
They lived with their young children in a small row house in a
middle-class Kuala Lumpur suburb. It is not lavish; the house has the
decaying look of many things in the tropics, where time, heat and
humidity conquer all. But the couple were able to buy a weekend getaway
at a new condominium complex in the hills out of town. The development
advertises "city living, country style." With its Jack
Nicklaus-designed golf course, sports clubs, foot reflexology and
postpartum slimming classes, the development could be in Orange County.
One notable difference was that Sufaat frequently lent the condo to
Afghan war veterans who came to town to get artificial limbs. It
probably didn't seem all that unusual then, in early January 2000, when
a small group of Arabs, one missing a leg, showed up at the condominium.
The one-legged man was Tawfiq bin Atash, for many years a personal aide
to Osama bin Laden. With him were two men who would become Sept. 11
hijackers: Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. At least two other men
attended, one of whom has been identified, tentatively, as Ramzi bin
al-Shibh from Hamburg.
The men were followed at the request of the CIA. The Americans had
intercepted a telephone call to Yemen in which Almihdhar detailed
arrangements for the trip. The Americans didn't know Almihdhar, but
they knew the number he called was used as a dispatch center for Al
Qaeda. Bin Laden had called it dozens of times over a period of years
in the late 1990s, according to court records.
The CIA asked the Malaysians to monitor the Kuala Lumpur meeting. The
Malaysians photographed the men going in and out of the condo.
It was not until much later that CIA analysts figured out who the men
in the photos were. Atash was determined to have been one of the
coordinators of the October 2000 attack in Yemen on the destroyer Cole.
Yemeni authorities say Almihdhar also helped prepare the attack.
Bin al-Shibh has not been positively identified from the photographs.
German police, however, say they have credit card receipts that
indicate Bin al-Shibh was in Malaysia at the same time.
Sufaat, who has been arrested, told Malaysian officials he allowed the
condo to be used at Hambali's request and had no idea who the men were.
He said he does not know whether Hambali attended the meeting but said
Hambali has his own key to the condo.
Investigators do not know who else the men might have met while in
Kuala Lumpur. They do know that Malaysia was a frequent haunt of one of
Hambali's old business partners, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. It would have
made sense for him to be there, but no one knows whether he was.
The meeting occurred in early January 2000, just after a series of
planned Al Qaeda millennium attacks failed. Intelligence officials
believe the men met to discuss new attacks: the Cole and, given the
timing, Sept. 11.
On Jan. 8, the men left Kuala Lumpur.
On Jan. 15, Almihdhar and Alhazmi arrived in Los Angeles.
On Jan. 18, in the United Arab Emirates, Marwan Al-Shehhi, using a
brand-new passport, became the first of the Hamburg cell to apply for
and receive a U.S. visa.
In March, Mohamed Atta began e-mailing 31 flight schools in the United States.
In May, Atta, also using a new passport, received his U.S. visa.
By the end of June, Al-Shehhi, Atta and Jarrah were all in the United States, looking for flight schools.
R&R in San Diego
It's not clear when Omar Al-Bayoumi arrived in San Diego, who he was,
whom he worked for, why he came or why he left. What is clear is that
he had more to do with two men who later ended up aboard American
Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11 than anyone else in town.
Al-Bayoumi appears to have arrived in San Diego in 1995. He lived with
his wife and four children at a suburban apartment complex. He told
people he was a student of international business, but it seemed
unlikely because he was already 40 years old and he never went to
school. He didn't work, either. He explained that by telling some
people he received a monthly stipend from his former employer, an
aviation company in his native Saudi Arabia, and telling others he had
a Saudi government scholarship.
Al-Bayoumi almost always carried a video camera and taped everything.
He spent a lot of time at the Islamic Center of San Diego, which is the
hub of the city's multiethnic Muslim population. He paid particular
attention to newcomers and could be counted on to help them find
housing and get settled.
In late 1999, he brought to town two young Saudi students and asked
people to help them settle in. They hardly spoke English and would need
help getting Social Security cards, driver's licenses and bank accounts.
The two men Al-Bayoumi brought to San Diego were Almihdhar and Alhazmi.
Alhazmi later told a friend he and Almihdhar met Al-Bayoumi at a Los
Angeles restaurant, when Al-Bayoumi overheard them speaking Arabic and
introduced himself. Al-Bayoumi learned they were new to the area and
offered to drive them to San Diego and help them get settled.
They took him up on the offer, Alhazmi said. Al-Bayoumi brought them to
the Parkwood Apartments, got them a room and even paid the rent for the
first couple of months.
He threw them a welcome party. Al-Bayoumi told people they were in San
Diego to learn English, although, like him, no one can remember either
of them ever going to a single class. Alhazmi spent a lot of time at
the San Diego State library, surfing the Web.
Alhazmi signed a six-month lease. And despite the fact that Al-Bayoumi
paid the first two months' rent, they complained that they couldn't
afford the place. They moved out, taking a room in the house of a
retired professor. In the spring, Alhazmi told a friend he was having
$5,000 wired to him from Saudi Arabia, but he had no account. He asked
whether the money could be sent to the friend's account. The friend
agreed, but when the money arrived it was from the United Arab
Emirates, not Saudi Arabia, and the sender was identified only as Ali.
The money was intended for flight lessons, which both Alhazmi and
Almihdhar said they wanted to take. Another friend took them to
Montgomery Field, north of San Diego, and arranged for them to start
lessons. They took one and quit.
"The first day they came in here, they said they want to fly Boeings,"
recalled Fereidoun "Fred" Sorbi, the instructor. "We said you have to
start slower. You can't just jump right into Boeings."
Acquaintances said the pair seemed to regard their time in California
almost as R&R. Alhazmi had season passes to Sea World and the San
Diego Zoo. They bought a Toyota sedan and liked to make the run up to
Las Vegas. In town, they hung out at Cheetah's, a nude bar near the
The center itself is hardly a haven for radical Islam. It is
multiethnic and promotes assimilation. All the signs in the building
are in English. In 2000, a group of men showed up and passed out
literature praising Bin Laden. Center officials confiscated the
leaflets and told the men to leave and not come back.
Almihdhar left San Diego in June 2000. Alhazmi stayed until December.
He took a job for a few weeks, washing cars at a Texaco station. The
station was owned by two Palestinians and was a hangout for Arab men,
who sat outside at a picnic table, talking and drinking coffee. Alhazmi
hung out with them even when he wasn't working. He talked often,
friends said, about Muslims being treated unfairly around the world.
He did not tell his San Diego friends that he had left Saudi Arabia
three years earlier to go to Chechnya to fight, which is what his
family says now.
In December, another young Saudi arrived. Alhazmi introduced him as
Hani. The man was apparently Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who had spent most
of three years in Arizona in the late 1990s, training at various flight
schools. He was by every account a horrible flight student, but
eventually in 1999 managed to obtain a commercial license, after which
he returned to Saudi Arabia. Now back in the U.S., he and Alhazmi went
off to fly airplanes in Arizona.
On the Move
The core of men involved in the Sept. 11 attacks did an enormous amount
of traveling. Much of 2000 and 2001 is a blur of movement. They put
thousands of miles on rental cars. They spent thousands of dollars on
Atta and Al-Shehhi each made at least two separate transatlantic trips.
Ziad Samir Jarrah arrived in the U.S. for flight training in late June
2000. In the next 13 months, he left the country five times.
On Oct. 20, 2000, one of the odder trips occurred. Mohammed Belfas,
Atta's Hamburg mentor, accompanied Agus Budiman, a young architecture
student he had known for years, from Germany to the United States.
Belfas later said he simply wanted to see the United States. He and
Budiman flew to Washington, D.C. Budiman--like Belfas, an
Indonesian--had been coming to the United States for years. He had
family in the Washington suburbs, and even had a Virginia driver's
license, and now wanted to move permanently to the U.S.
While here, Belfas occasionally accompanied Budiman to his job as a driver for Take-Out Taxi restaurant delivery service.
Belfas offered to help drive the delivery car if Budiman would help him
get a U.S. driver's license. Budiman told Belfas he didn't need an
American license. Belfas insisted, saying he wanted the license as a
On Nov. 4, Belfas and Budiman made the first of two trips to the
Department of Motor Vehicles office in downtown Arlington, Va. On the
first trip, Belfas received a Virginia identification card after he and
Budiman swore that Belfas lived in Arlington. When they went back two
days later, they got his driver's license, using the ID card as proof
That's all there was to it. Belfas had his souvenir, if that's what it was. Within the week, he returned to Germany.
In the summer of 2001, as they too neared the ends of their stay in the
U.S., seven of the 19 hijackers visited the same office to get IDs or
driver's licenses in exactly the same way. They didn't need Budiman.
They paid other men to sign on their behalf.
They used the IDs to make purchasing airline tickets and boarding planes simpler.
Of all the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar is the one who seems to have the
broadest contacts with Al Qaeda. He appears to be the son-in-law of a
well-known Yemeni Al Qaeda figure and is believed to have had a role in
the Cole bombing.
Almihdhar left the U.S. in the summer of 2000 and did not return until
July 4, 2001, by which time 12 other young Saudi men and one from the
United Arab Emirates had arrived at various locations on the East Coast.
Less is known about these late-arriving men, in part because Saudi
Arabia has barred most reporters from the country. For months after the
attacks, the Saudi government denied even that the men were Saudi
Most of the men were from the southwestern provinces of Saudi Arabia.
Most were from relatively well-off but not wealthy families. Two-thirds
of them told their families they were leaving to join the jihad.
Several mentioned wanting to fight in Chechnya. Several left with
friends or relatives.
It is not known who recruited them for the Sept. 11 plot, but those who
went for training in the Afghan camps could easily have been recruited
there. Almihdhar's absence from the U.S. for the entire time during
which they were presumably recruited suggests he might have played some
role in recruiting them.
In one sense, it isn't surprising that so many Saudis would be among
the attackers: It is easier for Saudis to get American visas.
From the beginning, too, Saudis were the largest national group among
the Afghan Arabs. Bin Laden obviously is Saudi and so were many of the
financial backers of the moujahedeen and, later, the Taliban.
The relief groups and charities that have been among the most prominent
supporters of the Taliban and have been implicated in various Al Qaeda
plots are either based in Saudi Arabia or derive much of their support
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's brother ran one such agency.
A Meeting on the Coast
Two months before he made history, Atta made one last overseas trip. On
July 8, he flew from Miami to Madrid. The next day, Atta rented a
silver Hyundai and set off for Tarragona, an eight-hour drive. It was
his second trip to Spain that year. This time, he spent 11 days. For
most of that time, Atta's former roommate Ramzi bin al-Shibh was also
in Spain, in the same region.
Bin al-Shibh checked into the Hotel Monica in Cambrils. Atta stayed in a hotel in Tarragona 15 minutes away.
The next day, Bin al-Shibh checked out without breakfast and
disappeared for five days. Atta too largely dropped off the screen.
Most investigators suspect the two came not to meet just one another,
but also with someone else--an operational commander such as Khalid
Shaikh Mohammed, or a courier relaying instructions. Perhaps, some
suspect, this was when the final details of the plot were set--the date
of the attack, maybe, or who would go on which airplanes. A meeting
could have taken place in a safe house provided by a local network.
This theory is consistent with the length of time they stayed and with
their disappearance for the bulk of it. But in Spain, as elsewhere,
despite months of investigation, the plotters left more unknowns than
Another theory is the meeting concerned finding a replacement pilot for
Bin al-Shibh, who despite four applications was unable to get a U.S.
visa. The replacement, according to this theory, was Zacarias
Moussaoui, a muscular, angry French Moroccan veteran of the Afghan
camps and Chechnya.
Moussaoui is the only man charged by the United States with involvement
in the Sept. 11 plot. The logic of the U.S. indictment of Moussaoui is
that because Bin al-Shibh could not get into the United States, the
hijackers were one man short of the four teams of five designated to
commandeer the planes; Bin al-Shibh brought in Moussaoui as a late
replacement, prosecutors allege.
On July 10, the day after Atta and Bin al-Shibh arrived in Spain,
Moussaoui paid the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Minnesota for
a flight simulator course, according to the indictment. He was still in
Norman, Okla., where he had washed out of a course earlier in the year.
He made another payment to the Minnesota school July 11.
Bin al-Shibh returned to Hamburg on July 20. On July 29 and Aug. 2,
Moussaoui made several calls to a number in Dusseldorf, Germany. Bin
al-Shibh received wire payments totaling $15,000 from the suspected
9/11 paymaster in United Arab Emirates on July 30 and 31 in Hamburg,
then wired $14,000 to Moussaoui on Aug. 1 and Aug. 3.
A week later, Moussaoui left Oklahoma for Minnesota, where he paid
approximately $6,300 in cash to the Pan Am International Flight Academy
on Aug. 10 and started his course. He quickly attracted suspicion,
resulting in his arrest on Aug. 17. Some investigators suspect his
arrest set the attacks in motion, perhaps prematurely.
Not long after Atta returned to the United States from Spain, he made a
quick trip to Las Vegas, his second of the summer. He stayed, as usual,
in a cheap motel off the Strip. At least two other hijackers were in
town at the same time--Alhazmi and Hanjour.
Like much else about the plot, no one knows whether they met, or if
they did, why. Alhazmi and Hanjour by that point were living in New
Jersey. Atta had bought his Madrid air ticket the previous month near
the same New Jersey town where Hanjour and Alhazmi were living. They
could easily have met in New Jersey. Las Vegas wasn't convenient. So
why go there a month before the attacks?
It could well be they were in Las Vegas to meet someone else, just as
in Spain. Las Vegas certainly seems like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's kind
The next month, in effect, the last month, has been well-documented.
The Saudis were integrated with the Hamburg cell. They moved in varying
combinations up and down the East Coast. They worked out at gyms and
reserved and purchased air tickets.
In Europe, the remaining members of the Hamburg cell were making
preparations as well. Three months before Sept. 11, Said Bahaji told
his employers at the computer company he would be quitting his job in
the fall. He had accepted an internship in Pakistan, he told them, and
would be moving. His employers say he was an exceptional worker. They
were sorry to see him go.
He told his family the same thing. His aunt Barbara Arens heard about
the internship, and she says now that she didn't believe a word of it.
She says she even went to the police before Sept. 11 to try to get them
to do something. Like what, they asked.
Bahaji left Hamburg on Sept. 4, flew to Karachi via Istanbul and
disappeared. German agents later determined two other passengers on the
same flight stayed in the same room with Bahaji at the Embassy Hotel in
Karachi. They were traveling with false identification papers. Zakariya
Essabar disappeared from Hamburg at the same time. Investigators think
he might have been one of the men with Bahaji. They don't know who the
third man might have been.
Ramzi bin al-Shibh returned to Spain on Sept. 5, flying from
Dusseldorf. He stayed at a private home in the Madrid area,
investigators say. He did not use his return ticket to Germany and is
presumed to have made his way to Afghanistan.
All the while, it was later determined, FBI agents were trying
unsuccessfully to get a look at Zacarias Moussaoui's computer. Other
agents were searching for Alhazmi and Almihdhar after having been
belatedly notified by the CIA that the two men were known to have
associated with terrorist suspects.
There was in the intelligence community a general air of concern,
verging on panic, that something very bad was about to happen. The
signs were there. The intelligence machine produced enormous amounts of
information and people were beginning to make sense of it. Electronic
intercepts, telephone chatter, warnings from foreign services, internal
memos--everything pointed in one direction. There was something out
In retrospect, the information makes the Sept. 11 attacks seem
inevitable. Unfortunately, retrospective analysis is useful in
understanding the past, not changing it, or even guaranteeing the
future will be different. For now, one thing has not changed whatsoever:
U.S. agents have been chasing the specter of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
since 1994. They've come close to catching him at least twice, but
every time he managed to slip away, to stay a step ahead of his
This spring, with the Afghan war fought and resolutely won, with many
key Al Qaeda operatives dead or captured, with the organization flushed
from its hide-outs, on the run and in some disarray, a truck bomb
exploded outside a synagogue in Tunisia, killing 19 people. Al Qaeda?
Before the attack, one of the bombers called a cell phone belonging, it
is thought, to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who some believe has assumed a
more central role in the organization and who, whatever his role,
remains, still, a step ahead.
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Spain, H.G. Reza in San Diego,
Mark Fineman in Virginia, Bob Drogin, Josh Meyer and Judy Pasternak in
Washington, Patrick McDonnell in Los Angeles, and special
correspondents Dirk Laabs in Hamburg and Paul Schemm in Qatar
contributed to this report.