The Road to Ground Zero, Part Five: A Trail of Missed Opportunities

The Sunday Times
February 3, 2002

 

American authorities failed to follow up numerous leads that could have stopped the September 11 hijackers before their deadly mission

On October 12, 2000, an American destroyer, the USS Cole, slipped into Aden for a refuelling stop known as a “gas-and-go”. Two hours after docking, sailors on deck waved to two men approaching in a white skiff. The men waved back. Then, inexplicably, they stood to attention. There was a huge explosion as the skiff hit the destroyer. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 injured by 500lb of plastic explosive.

Within hours of the attack John O’Neill, the FBI’s New York chief of counter-terrorism, dispatched a dozen agents to Aden to find the killers. It was the start of the final inglorious episode in the Clinton administration’s failed war on Osama Bin Laden. All attempts to kill the terrorist leader had failed, and his agents were attacking American interests with impunity. Secretly, the advance guard of a squadron of young suicide-terrorists was already in America.

On arrival in Aden, O’Neill’s men sweated in the Movenpick, a “five-star” hotel. In their haste, the agents had neglected to bring any money. The nearest cash dispenser was 700 miles away, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They wired back to New York for funds.

O’Neill, an aggressive but dapper figure, arrived two days later dressed for October in New York. The temperature in Aden was 102F, the humidity 99%. In suit and tie, O’Neill walked down the Movenpick’s dank corridors to the room of Barbara Bodine, America’s ambassador to Yemen.

Bodine, a career diplomat, had been in Yemen for three years. She had served in Kuwait City during the Iraqi occupation and had been co-ordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department.

O’Neill found her barefoot in a polo shirt and blue jeans. “You’d better get rid of that suit,” she thought to herself. “You’ll die from the heat.”

O’Neill said Bin Laden was behind the bombing of the Cole.

“He’s out to get me,” he added.

“Who?”

“Bin Laden. He wants to kill me,” said O’Neill, exposing the pistol strapped to his ankle.

“He’s after all of us,” said Bodine. “He wants to kill any American. Besides, I have a slightly higher profile here than you.”

O’Neill glared at her and exploded. It was the first of daily confrontations. They argued over the kind of guns his men could carry. He wanted them all to tote sub-machineguns. She said that would scare the hell out of the Yemenis. Eventually they struck a compromise: 24 FBI agents would carry long guns to protect a further 150 agents packing only pistols.

“O’Neill was rude. He was bullying . . . and he raised his voice with everyone,” says Bodine.

The Yemenis had arrested some suspects, but at first would not allow the FBI to have direct access to them. Bodine says O’Neill’s ways hadn’t helped: “I had to act as a cultural interpreter. They have endured first British colonialism, and then the Soviets. These people have only had foreigners telling them what to do. Now O’Neill and his men were coming in, doing essentially the same thing.”

After three weeks, Bodine asked the State Department to have O’Neill recalled. The attorney- general, Janet Reno, was a strong O’Neill supporter but she gave the order and he was back in New York for Thanksgiving.

“If O’Neill hadn’t left, the entire investigation would have collapsed,” Bodine says now.

Friends of O’Neill disagree. “It was bullshit,” said one former senior FBI man. “We needed those f guns in Yemen, and she wouldn’t let him have ’em.”

Porter Goss, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, says both were right — but O’Neill had a touch of Inspector Clouseau about him: “So we have got a kind of a Pink Panther scenario going.”

The failure in Yemen may have blocked off lines of investigation that could have led directly to the terrorists preparing for September 11. The FBI knew of a Yemeni whose phone was used by Al-Qaeda to exchange messages. Bin Laden had used his number. Now he was called by Khalid al-Midhar, who was both a relative and one of the future September 11 hijackers training in America.

If the number had been under surveillance or the Yemeni fully investigated, then al-Midhar might have been unmasked before September 11. There was also a failure of will. Michael Sheehan, Clinton’s counter-terrorism ambassador, had warned the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan that they would face a military reaction if Bin Laden struck from Afghan territory. Yet there was no retaliation for Cole.

Here newly installed officials of George W Bush’s administration, which took power in January 2001, can take most of the blame. In February, the FBI and the CIA secretly told the Bush White House that Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was responsible for the Cole attack; but the president and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, decided against any immediate military response. That would have been no surprise to Bin Laden, who had long argued that America was a paper tiger that he could hurt with impunity. Al-Qaeda pressed ahead with a plan that would push the Cole incident into the footnotes — the attacks in America itself.

Mohammed Atta, the movement’s Egyptian protégé, and his sidekick Marwan al-Shehhi had been in America since July 2000. After arrival from their base in Hamburg, they had begun $1,000- a-week flying lessons in Florida, using funds wired by a Bin Laden operative in the United Arab Emirates. In all, they received almost $90,000.

By the end of the year, they had their pilot’s licences. Staff at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, found Atta arrogant and inattentive. He and al-Shehhi caused panic at Miami international airport on Boxing Day 2000 when their light plane stalled while taxiing to the runway. “They were just sitting there, stupid as sitting ducks,” said Rudi Dekkers, Huffman’s owner. As darkness fell, they abandoned the plane among a log jam of airliners and paid a $200 taxi fare back to Venice.

One night last spring, Atta was driving through Tamarac, a town set in a belt of dull suburbia, when a sheriff’s deputy pulled him over to check his documents. Atta had no driving licence with him. He kept his cool, however, and within minutes was on his way, having been issued with a summons — made out to a false address — to attend court and pay a small fine.

When Atta failed to appear, the court issued a warrant for his arrest. It was little more than a formality, however. The local backlog of unpaid traffic fines goes back to 1977, and is not on computer networks. This meant that, five weeks later, officers missed a chance to take Atta into custody when they stopped his white Chevrolet Malibu speeding through a 25mph zone. He was waved on his way with a standard printed police request to “try to help make our streets a safer place to be”. A third member of the Hamburg ring, Ziad Jarrah, arrived from Germany. He was joined by Ahmed al-Haznawi, a 20-year-old Saudi who would fly with him on United Airlines flight 93. It was time to start bringing in the footsoldiers, the Saudi-born or Saudi- educated men who would provide the gang’s muscle when it came to seizing the airliners. Seven arrived in May and six in June.

Atta and al-Shehhi were now paying $840 a month for an apartment in a condominium in Coral Springs. Al-Shehhi spent his days washing piles of laundry for the gang in the development’s washing machines. Atta was often in the parking lot, chain smoking.

Jarrah joined the US 1 Fitness Center in Dania Beach. The owner, Bert Rodriguez, remembers: “He wanted to learn about fighting and control — about being in control and how to control somebody.”

Atta was on the move in and out of the country. There is evidence that a trip back to Germany was used as a final planning session.

At least two witnesses from Hamburg’s technical university (FH-H) — where Atta had studied — have told German federal police (the BKA) that they saw Atta and al-Shehhi last June or July in the ground-floor workshops of the architecture department. The head of the workshop, Herr Kniephoff, witnessed them on at least two occasions with a scale model, measuring approximately 3ft square, of what he believes was the Pentagon.

Kniephoff told the BKA that the two men were joined by a third, unnamed person, whom he believed to be a current student at the university. He suspected that the model had been built elsewhere on the site and had been brought to the workshop for Atta to inspect.

It is understood that Kniephoff told police he was struck by Atta’s “evil” aura and by al-Shehhi’s subservience.

Petra Louis, 32, an architecture student, also told the BKA she had seen them. “I saw both Atta and al-Shehhi here in the workshop with a white model of the Pentagon,” she said. “What caught my eye was the way they were both wandering around, obviously looking for someone.”

There are clues that they had not yet made a final decision on targets. According to two senior sources at the FH-H, between 60 and 80 slides of the Sears building in Chicago and the World Trade Center were found to be missing from the technical library after September 11. The library is 50 yards from the workshop were Atta and al-Shehhi were spotted. The disappearance of the slides has been reported to the BKA.

It may be that they were passed to the terrorists by a student who had a legitimate reason to use them for a seminar. According to Professor Gerd Kaehler, an Afghan student gave a talk on New York in July, attended by about 25 students. This provided a good reason to take out slides of the skyscrapers, although these were by no means the main point of the talk.

By August 6 Atta was back in Florida, where he rented a white Ford Escort. Over the next month he travelled 3,204 miles in it, co- ordinating the hijackers. He visited Las Vegas, as did other members of the gang. A stripper later complained that one of them paid her only $20 to lap dance for him.

In Washington, there had been celebrations in May when four followers of Bin Laden were found guilty of the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998. But there was still a lack of urgency about trying to discover what Al-Qaeda might be planning to do next.

When intelligence intercepts in May revealed that Bin Laden might be planning to strike at America itself during the July 4 celebrations, the White House’s Counter-Terrorism Security Group did not formally meet to discuss the threat. The CIA seemed adrift — talking tough, while doing little.

There was also trouble at the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit. In June, O’Neill ordered his empty-handed investigators back from Aden. Soon he would resign from the bureau, his life’s passion, and take a job as chief of security at the World Trade Center.

At last, in July, the administration shifted into high gear after the CIA intercepted a mobile phone call in Milan that threatened Bush. It seemed that an Al-Qaeda cell was planning to assassinate the president during his first state visit to Italy. Bush fumed. He compared the previous plans to defeat Bin Laden to “swatting at flies”. He demanded a strategy to “bring this guy down”.

A plan was quickly developed to provide the CIA with some $200m to arm the Taliban’s enemies and develop on-the-ground intelligence sources. General Wayne Downing, a retired special forces leader, was brought in. He had cultivated a relationship with the Iraqi National Congress to devise a secret military plan to topple Saddam Hussein. Now he was asked to work on a similar insurgent strategy to kill Bin Laden.

In August, an opportunity to find out what Bin Laden was planning inside America was wasted.

A man called Zacarias Moussaoui caused immediate suspicion when he enrolled at the Pan Am International Flight Academy near Minneapolis. He paid $6,300 in cash and became angry when questioned about his background. Instructors became deeply concerned about his interest in using commercial jet simulators, and one contacted a local FBI agent.

Moussaoui was arrested the next day. The FBI checked with foreign intelligence services and the French warned he might be linked to a terrorist group. But FBI agents were unable to persuade lawyers at the Justice Department to let them search his possessions, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires prima facie evidence that a suspect is an agent of a foreign power or terrorist group.

Moussaoui is now regarded as the “20th hijacker”, as the hard drive of his computer might have revealed — along with sufficient evidence possibly to have forestalled the September 11 attacks. A prisoner in Seattle could have identified him for certain as an Al-Qaeda terrorist.

Ahmed Ressam, awaiting sentencing for his role in plotting a bomb attack on Los Angeles international airport, had begun co-operating with the FBI. After September 11, he was to identify Moussaoui as a militant he had seen at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Too late. He was not asked about Moussaoui before September 11, say legal sources.

In early September, Atta’s teams were making their final preparations. With just four days to go, a telling scene occurred in a Florida seafood restaurant, Shuckums. Al-Shehhi was drinking screwdrivers (orange juice and vodka), while an unidentified companion drank rum and Coke. At the other end of the bar, Atta, in a dark blue shell suit, drank cranberry juice, played games on a video console and leered at passing waitresses. One later said she felt he was trying to “undress” her with his eyes.

Al-Shehhi got into a wrangle over his $48 bill, then ostentatiously pulled a wad of notes from his pocket and declared: “I’m an airline pilot.” The group paid and walked out, insisting they were not just any airline pilots; they were American Airlines pilots.

The hijackers began positioning themselves for their last flights. Jarrah’s team travelled to Newark. Another team led by Hani Hanjour, a mysterious figure who had entered America on a student visa but had never taken up his studies, was in Maryland, close to Washington’s Dulles airport.

Al-Shehhi’s and Atta’s teams moved to Boston, where some of the junior members are thought to have hired a prostitute on at least two occasions. On September 9, the woman took a cab to the Park Inn and spent 20 minutes in a room with one of the hijackers, charging him $180. The cab driver later claimed he had taken the same woman to the Days Inn near Boston University, where she had spent time with another of the men.

In Washington, there was increasing concern about Bin Laden but no awareness of what was about to happen. In early September, the anti-Bin Laden plan of attack was approved by Condoleezza Rice. A strike against him by special forces and unmanned planes was ready. The proposal was due to be presented to the president on Monday, September 10; but Bush was travelling that day and did not receive it.

That night, as Atta spent his last hours in Portland, Maine, Jarrah and his team were in the Newark Airport Marriott hotel, just two minutes from the terminal from which they would set out to commit mass murder in the morning.

It was an expensive place to spend their last night alive. A three-tier chandelier hung over the polished marble of the lobby. Jarrah paid an extravagant $450 in cash for two no-smoking rooms, each with a double bed, on the third floor of the tinted-glass building. He chose rooms with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The hijackers could see the television mast on the north tower, the office lights, now blinking out, one by one, as workers left their desks and headed for the subway below — and the red lights twinkling from the tops of the towers, warning aircraft to keep clear.


This article concludes Insight’s five-part investigation, The Road to Ground Zero. Reporters: Stephen Grey, Jon Ungoed- Thomas, Gareth Walsh, Nicholas Hellen, Richard Miniter, John Goetz, Nicholas Rufford, Uzi Mahnaimi, Gulam Hasnain, Hartwig Nathe, Issandr el Amrani, Zoe Thomas and Ben Smalley

 

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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