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 succeeded.
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 Avenue.
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 been his.
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 reappearing.
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 jihad."
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 Lumpur.
Roadside stands are piled high with mangoes, pineapple, durian and--an indication of the oncoming march of the suburbs--sacks of used golf balls.
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," Mior said.
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 chemist."
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 a target.
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 considering.
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 lessons.
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 Atif.
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 map.
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 Turkish mosque.
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 1990s.
"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 formulation.
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 work.
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 Arab friends.
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 bin Laden.
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 figure."
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 Sciences.
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 moujahedeen.
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 later.
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 English.
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' deputy.
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 computer warehouse.
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 university.
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 preachers.
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 cell.
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 government.
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 Islamic Center.
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 plane tickets.
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 souvenir.
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 of residence.
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 citizens.
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 from there.
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 answers.
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 of town.
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 there.
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 pursuers.
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.