By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006
It remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the Sept. 11 attacks: Who was the 20th hijacker?
Vice President Cheney once suggested Zacarias Moussaoui, the recently convicted al-Qaeda operative, who alternately claimed and denied such a role.
Many other U.S. officials and terrorism experts have said it was probably a Saudi named Mohammed al-Kahtani, now a U.S. detainee at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was thwarted in his attempt to enter the country in the summer of 2001. The Sept. 11 commission, meanwhile, concluded that Kahtani was only the last in a series of nine "candidate hijackers" who, at one time or another, were slated to be aboard a commandeered aircraft on Sept. 11.
Now an al-Qaeda-affiliated committee has offered up a new candidate -- an obscure and deceased operative named Fawaz al-Nashmi -- as the person who was meant to round out a five-man team on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.
The disclosure only adds to the uncertainty that still surrounds some of the basic details of the Sept. 11 plot, including why there were only four hijackers on Flight 93 and whether that plane was headed for the Capitol, the White House or somewhere else.
U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday that they do not believe that Nashmi, a Saudi national also known as Turki bin al-Muteiry, was slated to be a 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001. But they said that al-Qaeda had considered Nashmi as a possible early candidate for the plot. The officials concede that they still do not know who else, if anyone, was supposed to be part of the attack.
Many terrorism experts are suspicious of al-Qaeda's motives in naming Nashmi as a 20th hijacker, arguing that it may be a falsehood intended to remind Americans that the group still poses a threat and that numerous people have volunteered over the years to mount attacks against U.S. and Western targets.
"Why would we wish to take this at face value?" asked Ruth Wedgwood, a terrorism expert and international law professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "What is their interest in helping us identify the 20th hijacker who happens to be dead? It's a technique familiar from B-grade crime movies -- the guy who happens to have already died is the guy who did it."
The Nashmi claim is contained in a 54-minute videotape attributed to al-Qaeda's propaganda arm, the al-Sahab media committee, and obtained Tuesday by an Alexandria-based contractor named IntelCenter. U.S. intelligence officials, who requested anonymity because the topic involves classified information, said they are unable to verify the authenticity of the tape.
The tape shows a man identified as Nashmi speaking about supporting attacks against the West, and contains audio from a May 2004 attack on oil facilities in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that Nashmi took part in. Nashmi was killed the following month in a battle with Saudi security forces.
The video release follows an audio message last month from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who said Moussaoui was not the 20th hijacker "as your government has claimed." He did not provide the name of another candidate.
Terrorism experts stress that even if the claims about Nashmi are true, that does not rule out the likelihood that other operatives were considered as potential hijackers. Evidence for that comes from interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and others. Al-Qaeda also may have been recruiting additional operatives for other attacks, experts said.
"We tend to fixate on the missing 20th hijacker as the only missing piece of the 9/11 puzzle," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., a public policy think tank. "But that precludes that other simultaneous attacks may have been planned or that some other assault teams just couldn't be deployed. . . . There are still many other missing pieces."
Immediately after Sept. 11, Moussaoui emerged as the leading candidate for 20th hijacker, in part because of a suggestion from Cheney and because he was arrested in Minnesota while seeking flight training on jumbo jets.
Moussaoui encouraged the speculation by calling himself the "20th hijacker" in handwritten motions filed from jail, usually in a mocking tone, and in his written agreement to plead guilty. During his sentencing trial, Moussaoui also claimed -- and later denied -- that he was supposed to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House.
Prosecutors repeatedly pointed out that they never called Moussaoui the 20th hijacker in any court proceeding. "The '20th hijacker' theory appears to be a creation of the media coverage and the isolated statements of certain government officials in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks," they wrote in 2003.
Juliette N. Kayyem, a counterterrorism expert and lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said the Nashmi and bin Laden tapes suggest that al-Qaeda is fixated on past events, either for propaganda or to relive successes.
"Their obsession with the 20th hijacker is about as relevant as our obsession with Zacarias Moussaoui," Kayyem said. "It has very little relevance to what is going on today. . . . My fear is not that there is a 20th hijacker; my fear is that there are 2,000 hijackers now."
Staff writers Dafna Linzer and Jerry Markon and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.