Masterminds of a Massacre - 9/11 - One Year On

by Yosri Fouda
The Australian
September 9, 2002

 


The two men who claimed to have pulled the strings behind the September 11 attacks tell Yosri Fouda how they organised the 'Holy Tuesday' operation

It began with the sound of my telephone. "I know some people who might be able to provide you with something top secret," said the caller, who asked for my personal fax number and hung up.

A few days later my fax machine started buzzing with a three-page message. It was an outline of a television program to mark the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It proposed ideas, locations and personalities. I had the impression its author understood the media very well. I learned later, however, that it came from the al-Qa'ida co-ordinator of September 11. My caller phoned again. He told me to go to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. After two nights there I got my next instruction: "Take the night flight to Karachi."

In that teeming city I was directed to an obscure $55-a-night hotel undergoing renovation. Another two nights and a man knocked at my door. He introduced himself as my mystery caller. Tall, dark and middle-aged, he switched between different Arabic dialects to cover his origins.

As we talked he gave me my first piece of news: Osama bin Laden was not dead, as many commentators had speculated. "Sheikh Abu-Abdallah [bin Laden], God protect him, is an avid viewer of your channel," he said.

"How does the sheikh watch us now?" I asked, fishing for his hiding place.

"Do not worry, brother Yosri. Sheikh Osama, God protect him, is alive and well. Whatever he misses he gets on tape."

I followed new instructions to another address. After waiting five minutes by the stairs, a heavily bearded man with more of a Pakistani than Arab face arrived. He drove me to a busy square and parked for a mango juice. "Do we have time for this?" I asked as politely as I could.

"It is not that we do not have the time," he answered, just as politely. "These are the instructions, brother."

Whose instructions? Who was I going to meet? Long Beard was not forthcoming. He made three visits to a telephone box, then gave me new orders. I had to take a rickshaw to a place that even now I cannot reveal.

It was all becoming a bit silly. The rickshaw man took me on a noisy, bumpy ride through dark alleys -- hitting a dead end at one point. I began to get the idea why Karachi had been chosen for my rendezvous. It is a city of 12 million people with no shortage of anti-American sentiments and a lot of "safe" neighbourhoods inhabited not only by people who would sympathise with Osama (they usually call him by his first name) but also by diehards who have been to Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Islamic flashpoints.

I was dropped off by the rickshaw only to be picked up almost immediately by a waiting car. "Lahore?" the driver shouted. That was my cue. Lahore it was, except that actually it was not.

About 8km outside Karachi, the driver, Hassan, stopped beside a car that looked at first as if it was broken down. Yet another man appeared and they blindfolded me: two balls of thick cotton were taped to my eyes and then covered by sunglasses. I could sense we were moving back from rural to urban until I was fairly sure we were back somewhere in Karachi. There was something familiar about the smell and sounds. Still blindfolded, I was led into a building and up four flights of stairs.

"It is OK now, you can open your eyes," an authoritative but friendly voice said. I did so and instantly recognised, less than a metre away, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 38, one of the most important figures in the al-Qa'ida leadership.

Even before September 11, the FBI had a $US5million (about $9 million) price on his head. He is an uncle of Ramzi Yousef, the Pakistani who is now serving life in a US jail for organising the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993.

Khalid led me into a virtually empty flat. There another shock awaited me. Ramzi Binalshibh, a 30-year-old Yemeni accused by the FBI of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, which killed 17 US sailors, was sitting on the floor surrounded by three laptops and five mobile phones. Khalid and Ramzi both now have a $US25million bounty on their heads.

Ramzi was a flatmate of the key September 11 hijackers when they lived in Marienstrasse, Hamburg, and has been sought around the world.

"Recognised us yet?" Khalid joked as Ramzi shook my hand warmly. "You will when your door is knocked at by intelligence dogs," Ramzi said.

In the Arab manner I began addressing them by their first names, and that is how I shall refer to them now. It is how they are known among their own people.

Khalid struck me as shrewd and blunt. We paused for prayers, led by Ramzi. He used the brief form that a Muslim is allowed to perform when making a journey.

"So you are travelling?" I asked.

"Yes. You did not expect us to show you where we live, did you?"

With little fanfare, Khalid got down to business by making an announcement that hit me like a heavyweight punch.

"I am the head of the al-Qa'ida military committee," he said, "and Ramzi is the co-ordinator of the Holy Tuesday operation."

I had wondered for so long who I would be meeting. Bin Laden, maybe, or his deputy, the inscrutable Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

Now it was clear. Khalid and Ramzi were the two master planners of 9/11 -- relaxed, calm and willing to speak. For the first time the men behind the twin towers operation had decided to break their silence.

They swiftly began to explain the planning and execution of "Holy Tuesday" -- or the Manhattan and Washington raids, as they also call them, using an old Arabic word, ghazwah, which refers to a raid against enemies of the prophet.

"About 2 1/2 years prior to the holy raids on Washington and New York," said Khalid, "the military committee held a meeting during which we decided to start planning for a martyrdom operation inside America."

He continued: "As we were discussing targets, we first thought of striking at a couple of nuclear facilities but decided against it for fear it would go out of control."

I was dumbfounded. Nuclear targets? Could he be more specific?

"You do not need to know more than that at this stage, and anyway it was eventually decided to leave out nuclear targets -- for now."

"What do you mean 'for now'?"

"For now means for now," Khalid said, silencing me.

He continued: "The attacks were designed to cause as many deaths as possible and havoc and to be a big slap for America on American soil."

Who would carry this out?

"We were never short of potential martyrs. Indeed, we have a department called the Department of Martyrs."

Was it still active?

"Yes it is, and it always will be as long as we are in jihad against the infidels and the Zionists."

Now it was Ramzi's turn to interrupt the story with a surprise. He had gone to the next room, returning with a dirty grey suitcase. He caught my eye as he unzipped it.

"Yes, it is my Hamburg souvenirs," he smiled, handing me a cup of tea, "and you are the first outsider to have a look at this." He carefully began to unload these souvenirs one by one. Soon, strewn on the floor in front of me, were the bulk of the planning materials used by Mohammed Atta and the other hijack pilots as they plotted their attacks.

A glossy Boeing brochure and manuals, a thick how-to-fly textbook, an air navigation map of the US eastern seaboard, how-to-speak English books, floppy disks, flight simulator CD-ROMs: it had all been in the Hamburg apartment that Ramzi shared with Atta, where in the earliest days the cell had gathered to work out its strategy.

Ramzi had himself been eager to take part in the attacks. He had applied three times for a visa to enter the US for flight training, but he had been turned down on security grounds. He insisted, and I believed him, that he was desperately sad not to have taken part in the operation.

He revealed that his souvenir suitcase and its contents were mostly material brought for him by Atta from the US to study and learn from when he was still expected to be one of the "martyrs". He had learned the annual flight schedules for US airlines in great detail and still had at his fingertips the minutiae of the esoteric symbols for flight variations.

Over the next 48 hours I remained in the flat with these two key figures, hearing in detail how 9/11 had been put together. They were both proud of what they had organised, Ramzi speaking calmly and with authority while Khalid made incisive interventions.

Ramzi was the kind of interviewee who needs a nudge or two to talk, and when he did it was in a sonorous voice that exuded authority. Khalid was more active. His hands never stopped moving as he wandered erratically around us. He was the doer while Ramzi was the thinker.

It was Khalid, as chairman of the al-Qa'ida military committee, who had come up with the proposal that the "martyrdom operation" in the US should target prominent buildings. Superficially his plan was similar to an earlier one to send 12 airliners simultaneously into US landmarks.

Intelligence agencies know about this previous Bojinka plot, as they call it, because it went disastrously wrong. Khalid had worked on it in 1994-95 with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who was on the run after the first World Trade Centre bombing. Hiding in Manila, Yousef had worked on bomb designs and initial logistics. Fleeing when bomb chemicals in his apartment caught fire, he left behind a laptop containing details and was arrested within months in Pakistan.

Khalid managed to escape. He was not heard of again until his name was given to FBI interrogators by Abu Zubaydah, a senior bin Laden deputy who was arrested after a gunfight in Pakistan in March this year. Now Khalid was explaining how he not only resurrected the plan but refined it into a devastatingly effective act of war.

There has been much conjecture over the past year about when Atta and the other key figures were first recruited. Khalid's story confirmed that, working and studying in Hamburg as a town planner since 1992, Atta was an al-Qai'da sleeper. During 1999 he and other sleepers were earmarked by the military committee as pilots for the death flights.

Late that year they got together to start detailed planning. They met in the dust and dirt of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the effective capital of the Taliban. Their gathering place was a building often used by volunteers from Saudi Arabia. It was even known as al-Ghumad House, after the Saudi al-Ghamdi clan -- four of whose young members would be foot soldiers in the hijackings.

"There was a shura [council] consisting of the four pilots, as well as Khalid al-Mihdar and Atta's deputy, Nawaf al-Hazemi," said Ramzi, naming other key figures. It had never been revealed before that al-Hazemi was Atta's second-in-command. He was with Hani Hanjour on American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

Khalid revealed: "After the shura we sent at least four reconnaissance units to America in pairs or singles over the space of five to six months." Also shortly after the shura, Atta left for Germany -- where, to avoid questioning over the Pakistani visas that his passport contained, he reported it stolen.

Two of the other young men at the shura -- Marwan al-Shehhi, who was to pilot United Airlines flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Centre, and Ziad Jarrah, who flew UA flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania -- reported their passports stolen, too.

The next stage was to learn the rudiments of flying. In the summer of 2000 Atta entered the US and began flying lessons in Venice, Florida, along with al-Shehhi. Jarrah was nearby in another training school. Hanjour, already a trained pilot, was undergoing further training in Arizona.

In July, Atta flew from the US to Madrid, where he met Ramzi and other al-Qa'ida operatives to finalise details. It was agreed Atta would have full control over the choice of targets and the timing of the attacks. An elaborate code was agreed so that Atta could keep in touch with his al-Qa'ida commanders via email and internet chat rooms.

Atta was given the codename Abu Abdul Rahman al-Masri (the Egyptian). Some of the other codenames resonate with Islamic heroism. Ziad Jarrah was Abu Tareq -- a reference to the Arab conqueror of Andalusia. Al-Shehhi became Abul Qaqaa, who ripped through the Persians for Islam.

Ramzi spoke to me very emotionally of "brother Abu Abdul Rahman" for his "genius" and with great admiration of "brother Abul Qaqaa" who, long before he learned of the operation, "used to have beautiful visions that he flies in the sky with huge green birds and crashes into things".

What things? "Just things."

What struck me, however, as they reeled off the codenames, was that neither Khalid, whose committee took the decisions, nor Ramzi, who co-ordinated the "raids", could remember the real identities of their "martyrs".

Khalid produced another revelation: the targets had also been given codenames. The Pentagon was the Faculty of Fine Arts, while the twin towers -- reflecting Atta's hatred of high-rise buildings -- were the Faculty of Town Planning. Ramzi revealed that the target of the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was Capitol Hill, the heart of American democracy. Its codename? The Faculty of Law.

Ramzi dug into his computer files and showed me a message on screen. "This one was three weeks before September 11," he said, rather sadly and full of emotion. It was the last cyber-discussion between Atta and Ramzi. Conducted in German, it had taken place in an internet chat room. Atta had pretended he was a young man in the US talking to Jenny, his girlfriend in Germany.

"The first semester starts in three weeks," Ramzi translated from the German. "Nothing has changed. Everything is fine. There are good signs and encouraging ideas. Two high schools and two universities. Everything is going according to plan. This summer will surely be hot. I would like to talk to you about a few details. Nineteen certificates for private study and four exams. Regards to the professor. Goodbye."

In its coded language, it encapsulated the full story of the attacks. Two high schools and two universities -- the twin towers, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Nineteen certificates for 19 hijackers and four exams for four targets. What was not mentioned was the date for the attacks. That crucial detail was to come in the most intriguing way.

At 3am on Wednesday, August 29, 2001, a week after the chat room discussion, the phone rang in the second-floor flat at 54 Marienstrasse in Hamburg. Ramzi Binalshibh grabbed the phone. He heard a familiar voice with an Egyptian dialect at the other end. "I have a joke and a little puzzle," said the caller. "A mate of mine bothered me with this puzzle and I was hoping you would help me solve it. Two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down -- what is it?"

Still slightly befuddled, Ramzi could not grasp the riddle. Suddenly, however, his mind jumped into gear. He got the message. "Sounds like a sweet puzzle. Let your mate know he has nothing to worry about," he reassured his caller.

Sitting in front of me on the floor of the Karachi safe house, Ramzi turned his head away with a proud smile and then said in his serious tone: "That caller was none other than brother Abu Abdul-Rahman [Atta].

"He was unbelievable! Unbelievable! God bless his soul and put paradise under his feet, for he is, inshallah, among the shuhadaa [martyrs]."

But what was the puzzle all about? Sticks and cakes with tails -- I was completely lost.

Ramzi explained: "Two sticks is the number 11, a dash is a dash, and a cake with a stick down is the number nine. And that was the zero hour -- September 11."

The Americans may call it 9/11 but in Britain and in Arabic it is 11/9 -- and the numerals look much the same in English and Arabic.

One of the last people to hear about the date was bin Laden, according to my original mystery caller, who spoke to me again after the interviews in Karachi were over.

First, Ramzi had ordered active cells around Europe, the US and elsewhere to be evacuated. He packed his souvenir suitcase and wiped the Marienstrasse apartment clean. Finally, he left for Pakistan. Only then could bin Laden -- through a messenger sent by Ramzi on September 6 -- learn that his 2 1/2-year-long plan to humble the US would bear fruit in five days' time.

Throughout the two days and one night of my interview, I was not allowed to leave the apartment. Khalid and Ramzi stayed with me all the time. At the end, I left as I had arrived -- blindfolded and bundled into the back of a car to the airport.

As I flew out, I reflected on this extraordinary meeting and on the fate of bin Laden.

Before I met Khalid and Ramzi, I had thought the chances of his being still alive were 50-50. Now, despite the fact that my mystery caller said he was alive and well and watching TV -- and, as he told me after the interviews were over, had handpicked me to meet Khalid and Ramzi -- I have changed my mind.

Khalid made a slip of the tongue, referring to bin Laden in the past tense. But I also began to see cracks opening up in the organisation. Most tellingly, my videotapes of the interviews with Khalid and Ramzi -- which they said they would keep for two weeks to blank out their faces -- were never returned.

Why was this? After all, they had requested the interviews, they controlled them and they wanted them to be broadcast.

I am driven to the interpretation that something is wrong within the upper reaches of al-Qa'ida -- some sort of disruption. I now believe it is more likely that bin Laden is dead.

Who would replace him? It was Ramzi Binalshibh who made an enduring impression on me. His philosophy, even his vocabulary, is very much like bin Laden's. He also has the sheikh's serene charm, zest and religious knowledge.

At just 30, he eclipses his master with field experience in co-ordinating an unprecedented operation on Western soil. I can see him one day leading the organisation. This is our future bin Laden.

Yosri Fouda is an investigative journalist with al-Jazeera Television.

An unusual channel

AL-JAZEERA is an Arabic-language satellite TV channel based in Qatar. Last year it showed an exclusive videotaped statement by Osama bin Laden following the attack on Afghanistan, and it enjoyed access to Taliban-controlled areas. Despite its reputation as an informative news channel, US officials have accused it of anti-Americanism.

Yosri Fouda's interview with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh was conducted in June in Karachi. A documentary based on the interview, Top Secret: The Road to September 11, will be shown by al-Jazeera on Thursday night.

 

Copyright 2002 Nationwide News Pty Limited

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