Al Qaeda Scaled Back 10-Plane Plot
The panel identifies 10 candidates besides Binalshibh who were considered for inclusion in the attacks but backed out or were removed by al Qaeda leaders. One was a Tunisian named Abderraouf Jdey, who may have been part of the Sept. 11 plot or a later attack and is now the subject of a global FBI manhunt.
Al Qaeda originally envisioned 25 to 26 hijackers taking part, as many as seven hijackers on each plane, Mohammed said. One investigator said that even late in the game, Mohammed would have tried to arrange the hijacking of as many as six jetliners if he had recruited enough pilots.
As the plot evolved, however, so did the participants and the potential targets, according to the report. Bin Laden approved and then abandoned a plan for simultaneous jetliner hijackings in the United States and Southeast Asia, and he and Mohammed would later curtail the plan again, eliminating the West Coast component. Bin Laden also discarded Mohammed's wish to personally commandeer one aircraft and use it as a platform to denounce U.S. policies on the Middle East.
"The centerpiece of his original proposal was the tenth plane, which [Mohammed] would have piloted himself," the report notes. Instead of crashing it in a suicide attack, Mohammed would have killed every adult male passenger on the plane, contacted the media while airborne and landed at a U.S. airport. There he wanted to deliver his speech before releasing all the women and children, the report says.
Planning for the assaults began in earnest in 1999. The targets considered over the next two years included not only those hit on Sept. 11, but also the headquarters of the CIA and the FBI; nuclear power plants; and the "tallest buildings in California and Washington State," according to the report. Bin Laden was intent on striking the White House, while Atta and Mohammed argued that the Capitol was an easier target.
Atta told Binalshibh he would try to hit the White House but reserved the option to have Jarrah divert toward the Capitol if that proved impossible. As late as Sept. 9, 2001, the report indicates, the fourth target may still have remained uncertain.
The evidence is mixed on whether al Qaeda had a practical plan for a "second wave" of attacks, the report shows. Mohammed told his interrogators that Moussaoui was part of such a plan, which also included Jdey and another operative named Zaini Zakaria. But the latter two had backed out by the summer of 2001, according to the report, and Mohammed said that by that time "he was too busy with the 9/11 plot to plan the second wave attacks."
The investigators indicate that plan was beset by garden-variety organizational problems and personality conflicts, concluding that "internal disagreement among the 9/11 plotters may have posed the greatest potential vulnerability for the plot." Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, the plot's first volunteers, were unable to complete either English language or pilot training after entering the United States in January 2000. Mohammed would have removed them altogether if bin Laden had not favored them, the report says.
But perhaps the most serious conflict is the one that developed between Atta -- the plot's "emir," or leader -- and Jarrah, a trained pilot who would help commandeer Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. In a coded message, Mohammed referred to the two as an unhappy couple on the cusp of divorce.
Jarrah was more gregarious and seemingly westernized than his accomplices, and he pined for his girlfriend. He had married her in an Islamic ceremony not recognized by German law, and called her almost daily. The breaking point appears to have come in July 2001, when Atta took Jarrah to the Miami airport for a one-way flight to Germany.
Although Jarrah would rejoin the plot the next month after an "emotional conversation" with Binalshibh, the panel concludes that there is significant evidence that Mohammed was preparing Moussaoui to take Jarrah's place.
The panel also portrays an ongoing high-level argument among bin Laden, Mohammed, Atta and others over the timing of the attacks. Bin Laden, the report says, "had been pressuring [Mohammed] for months to advance the attack date," asking that the attacks occur as early as mid-2000 after Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli cabinet minister, visited a Jerusalem site sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In 2001, Mohammed said, bin Laden pushed for a May 12 attack date -- exactly seven months after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen -- and later for June or July, to coincide with a visit by Sharon to the White House.
"In both instances," the report says, Mohammed "insisted that the hijacker teams were not yet ready. Other al Qaeda detainees also confirm that the 9/11 attacks were delayed during the summer of 2001, despite bin Laden's wishes."
Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said: "This is the first I've heard of any targeting of Sharon. I do know that on 9/11 our embassy was evacuated, a very rare move. Obviously, there was a perception that the embassy was a possible target."
Bin Laden also had to wrestle with demands by Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who provided al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, to avoid direct attacks on the United States. Many of bin Laden's own advisers sided with Omar and urged him to call off the plot, the report shows.
The document also mentions a long controversial intelligence tip received by the CIA in June 2001 that Mohammed was sending operatives to the United States for a mission. Democratic commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Indiana congressman, sharply questioned FBI and CIA officials yesterday about that information, demanding to know why it did not prompt more investigation.
The report notes that Mohammed "was widely known within al Qaeda to be planning some kind of operation against the United States." In the companion report also released yesterday, investigators say that bin Laden was intent on carrying out attacks on the United States as early as 1992, but U.S. officials were not aware of the plans or knowledgeable about his organization until four years later.
As al Qaeda developed, its terrorist training camps in Afghanistan provided fertile ground for its operatives "to think creatively about ways to commit mass murder," the investigators said. The ideas included "taking over a launcher and forcing Russian scientists to fire a nuclear missile at the United States; mounting mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iran; dispensing poison gas into the air conditioning system of a targeted building; and last, but not least, hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport terminal or nearby city."
Staff writers Susan Schmidt and William Branigin contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company