At 9:28 a.m. — after two hijacked jetliners struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and shortly before a third plane slammed into the Pentagon — four extremists commandeered United Flight 93 out of Newark by overpowering the pilot and co-pilot as the aircraft headed west near Cleveland.
The lone pilot among the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, executed a U-turn and, at 9:55, dialed the navigational code for Reagan National Airport into the Boeing 757’s flight computer. Jarrah, of course, had no intention of landing at DCA. And the heroic revolt by passengers that began two minutes later meant the jetliner crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., less than 20 minutes’ flying time from the nation’s capital.
But what was the intended target?
Twenty years later, that remains 9/11’s greatest enduring mystery. The authoritative report by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, published in 2004, was inconclusive: It found that “Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House.”
Although the Capitol was widely believed to have been the target, a little-noticed footnote on Page 531 of the 9/11 Commission report cast some doubt on that assumption: “On September 9 — two days before the attacks — it still appears as though the White House would be the primary target for the fourth plane and the U.S. Capitol the alternate.”
As an editor who oversaw 9/11 coverage for USA Today, I’ve long wondered where Flight 93 was headed. Two years ago, when I touched briefly on the mystery in a column about the memorial in Pennsylvania, the piece attracted widespread readership, a sign of significant interest in the question and a reminder that a new generation has come of age since 9/11.
So I dug deeper. As I read, spoke to experts and spent time at a flight simulator with a pilot, an answer — though not 100 percent definitive — came more clearly into view. It suggests whose lives were saved, how the course of history was altered and, disturbingly, how the national security threat has evolved over the past two decades.
Flight 93 is often referred to as the “fourth” plane of the 9/11 attacks, something of an afterthought. It took off last, never reached its target and, unlike the other jetliners, carried four hijackers instead of five. (A man believed to be the intended fifth hijacker was denied entry to the United States and sent back to Dubai from Florida a month before.) But if not for remarkable twists of fate, Flight 93 could have carried out the most significant strike of 9/11, crippling America’s leadership and destroying a citadel of its democracy.
“If either the Capitol or the White House had been hit, it would have been devastating, not only physically, but also psychologically, to the country,” Tom Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey who chaired the 9/11 Commission, told me recently. “Yeah, it matters. It matters a great deal.”
The terrorists planned meticulously, but they failed to account for chronic congestion at the New York area’s three major airports. Flight 93 took off 25 minutes late from Newark International because of air traffic delays during the morning rush. Then, for reasons that remain unknown — cold feet? a lack of cockpit access? — the hijackers waited another 46 minutes to make their move.
These delays allowed the passengers to learn about the other attacks via Airfone conversations and realize that their hijackers were on a suicide mission. Their plan to retake the plane had a plausible chance of success: The 33 passengers included several ex-athletes, a small-plane pilot and a former military air traffic controller. As the passengers attacked the cockpit, Jarrah either lost control or purposely crashed the plane, 125 miles short of his intended target.
“I thought logically it would be the Capitol, but when you are dealing with terrorists you can’t always apply logic,” Kean said. “It could well have been the White House.”
Another member of the 9/11 Commission, former congressman Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), was on Capitol Hill on the morning of the attacks, meeting in his office with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). So as the commission gathered facts later, the Flight 93 target was something he thought a lot about. “We discussed it. We debated it. We decided there probably wasn’t anything that was absolutely concrete, so we shouldn’t make a conclusion,” he said. “But I would hazard to guess, by a 60-40 ratio, that it was probably the United States Capitol.”
Over the years, the question of where Flight 93 would have struck has been the subject of conflicting information in news reports and remarks by public officials.
On 9/11, President George W. Bush was in Florida, leaving Vice President Dick Cheney in charge at the White House. Five days after the attacks, Cheney said on “Meet the Press” that the “target probably would have been the Capitol building. It’s big; it’s easy to hit.” Cheney, who’d been hustled to the White House bunker before Flight 93 would have reached Washington, went on to speculate, without evidence, that the hijacker at the controls of American Flight 77 might have initially headed for the White House but decided to strike the more clearly recognizable Pentagon instead.
The following year, a CBS News article carrying the headline “White House Was Flight 93 Target” quoted government sources as saying a high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee, Abu Zubaida, had told investigators that the jetliner was bound for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Five years after the attack, the movie “United 93,” written and directed by Paul Greengrass, showed the Jarrah character clipping a photo of the Capitol to the aircraft’s yoke, leaving little to viewers’ imagination. But an NBC News article that same year said that Tyler Drumhiller, head of CIA operations in Europe at the time of the attack, “suspects the target was the White House.”
In 2009, a bronze plaque installed in the east lobby of the Capitol stopped short of certainty. It says the Flight 93 passengers “may have saved the U.S. Capitol from destruction.”
On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, said at a Capitol commemoration ceremony: “The plane was headed here. . . . That night we didn’t know that when we met here, but we know it now.” (Reid said in a recent interview that his conclusion wasn’t based on any classified information, just a recognition that the Capitol is an easy target and the White House a relatively small one. He said he was at a Democratic leadership meeting on 9/11 and “just barely” got out before Flight 93 would have hit. “It scared the hell out of me,” he recalled.)
A 2013 article in Roll Call, headlined “Were They Aiming for the Dome on Sept. 11? A Capitol Myth That’s Hard to Shake,” concluded that “the limited available evidence” suggested that the White House was the prime target.
And during remarks last year at the Flight 93 National Memorial, President Donald Trump, not normally a stickler for accuracy, avoided the question entirely. “The terrorists on Flight 93 had a fourth target in mind,” Trump said. “It was called our nation’s capital.”
Unraveling the mystery requires going back to the origin of “the planes operation,” as the plot became known. Only a small circle of people was privy to the targeting decisions for Flight 93.
Four of those people are dead: Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, who was killed during a 2011 raid on his compound in Pakistan; Muhammad Atef, the top al-Qaeda military commander, killed in 2001 by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan; Mohamed Atta, the ringleader among the hijackers, who piloted the first plane into the World Trade Center; and Jarrah, the Lebanese national who piloted Flight 93.
Two others — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind known as KSM, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who acted as a liaison between KSM and Atta — were captured in Pakistan and eventually transferred to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they are still awaiting trial.
Initially, KSM proposed hijacking 10 jetliners in the United States and crashing nine of them into high-profile targets on both coasts. KSM would then land the 10th plane at a U.S. airport, kill the adult male passengers and deliver a manifesto attacking American support for Israel and repressive Arab governments. Even bin Laden thought this scheme was grandiose and impractical. He approved a scaled-back version, which became the 9/11 plot, in early 1999.
According to the 9/11 Commission report and subsequent court filings, by 2001, the plotters had settled on hitting sites that were economic (the World Trade Center’s two towers), military (the Pentagon) and political (the Capitol or White House). This created a mismatch: Four planes. Five potential targets.
As the attack grew closer, bin Laden — who was focused more on leadership decapitation than practicality — pressed his preference for the White House, using Binalshibh to communicate his wishes to Atta, the 9/11 Commission reported. Atta, the operation manager, thought the White House was too difficult to hit and strongly preferred striking the Capitol, particularly while Congress was in session. Perhaps to placate bin Laden, he had two of his operatives rent small planes and do reconnaissance over Washington.
The two surviving plotters have both said the Capitol was the prime target. Under interrogation after he was captured in 2003, “Sheikh Mohammed said that the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania was targeted at the Capitol building,” according to a defense exhibit at the 2006 trial of al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui.
The temptation might be to dismiss anything KSM told investigators after his capture. He was, after all, held in a series of secret CIA prisons where he was waterboarded 183 times, kept nude and deprived of sleep. His account, however, is consistent with what he said before he was tortured.
In 2002, when they were still fugitives, KSM and Binalshibh were interviewed in Pakistan by Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda. Both told Fouda that the target of Flight 93 was the Capitol. To Peter Bergen, a national security expert and the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden,” this was persuasive. “I’ve always relied on [the Fouda interviews] because no one had any reason to lie,” Bergen told me. “It was pretty compelling stuff, and I don’t see any evidence that contradicts that.”
Another terrorism expert, former FBI agent Ali Soufan, says he has “no doubt in my mind” that the target was Congress, which the terrorists code-named “the faculty of law.” Soufan — who questioned Binalshibh and bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, after they were captured — writes in the declassified version of his book “The Black Banners,” published last year, that bin Laden mistakenly believed that the U.S. military had shot down Flight 93. “If the Americans hadn’t shot that plane it could have hit that big dome,” bin Laden told his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to Soufan’s account. (The 9/11 Commission debunked initial claims by U.S. air defense officials that fighter jets would have taken down Flight 93 before it reached Washington.) If accurate, this suggests that, by Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden expected the Capitol to be the target.
But the final decision was in the hands of the pilot. Jarrah was an unlikely extremist. He had one foot in the jihadi world and one in the secular world. Even as he became increasingly radicalized, he couldn’t quit his longtime girlfriend in Germany. For someone supposedly in a sleeper cell, he was unusually active, taking five foreign trips after entering the United States, making hundreds of phone calls, sending frequent emails and getting a speeding ticket in Maryland for driving 90 mph on I-95 on Sept. 9, 2001.
He was not a natural in the cockpit. Though he had obtained a private pilot’s license to fly single-engine planes, he was the only one of the four hijacker-pilots who hadn’t earned commercial certification. After the takeover, he had trouble stabilizing Flight 93 and mistakenly broadcast to air traffic control messages intended for passengers.
To better understand what Jarrah would have faced, I sat down at a flight simulator with Jonathan M. Stern, an aviation lawyer who has done 9/11-related work. Stern, a former air traffic controller at DCA, holds a commercial pilot’s license and wrote two books on flight simulation.
Stern settled into the pilot’s seat; I sat in the co-pilot’s seat. The first thing I noticed was that, because of the Boeing’s instrument panel, the cockpit’s windshield affords less downward visibility than a car’s does, making it harder to see a ground-level target.
We picked up where Flight 93 left off, over the Laurel Highlands of southern Pennsylvania, under CAVU conditions. At 10:05 a.m., we were about 100 miles from Washington, going 525 miles per hour. We passed over the peaceful Pennsylvania countryside, then the piece of northeastern West Virginia that juts into Maryland.
In all probability, Stern said, Jarrah would have followed the Potomac River toward Washington. At 10:18, we passed by the office tower in Rosslyn, Va., where I worked on 9/11, and the National Mall came into view on the left. Off to the right, Jarrah would have seen smoke billowing from the Pentagon.
Everything seemed to speed up. Stern spotted the West Front of the Capitol, with its iconic dome, at the far end of the Mall. “That’s such an easy shot,” he said. “It’s like a bowling alley lane to your target, which is very distinct.”
And the White House? “I can tell already: It is hard. At high speed, it would have been very hard to find. The White House is buried among those other office buildings. From above, there’s nothing all that distinctive about it, and it’s surrounded by buildings of similar size.”
Getting a clearer shot at the White House would have involved continuing down the river to DCA, performing a U-turn back north and avoiding the Washington Monument on the way over the South Lawn toward the Truman Balcony.
Stern’s bottom line: Striking the White House in a fast-moving 757 would be a difficult maneuver for any pilot, much less a nervous novice like Jarrah. “It would,” he said, “be very hard to target the White House and very easy to target the Capitol.”
The simulator experience and other reporting convinced me, with near certainty, that the lives preserved by the passengers of Flight 93 were those of the people who were at the Capitol on the morning of 9/11.
“I am eternally grateful to Todd Beamer [the Oracle employee who said ‘Let’s roll!’ to his fellow fliers as they began their revolt against the hijackers] and the other people on that plane,” said Roemer, the former congressman and ambassador who served on the 9/11 Commission. “They saved my life and countless others, and they preserved the symbol of freedom to the entire world.”
Answering the question about Flight 93’s destination also led me to consider some new ones. How would the 40 passengers and crew members feel about the return to power in Afghanistan of the Taliban, which harbored their attackers? What would they think upon learning that the building they saved from foreign terrorists was attacked two decades later by domestic terrorists? That the threat to our democracy these days is as much internal as external?
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks, these are all worth pondering. The least we can do is declare a cease-fire in our political and culture wars long enough to honor the courageous patriots of Flight 93 — whose remains rest not on Capitol Hill but in a field of wildflowers in Somerset County, Pa.
A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misstated the name of Lyra Nacke's uncle, who died on Flight 93. He was Louis J. Nacke II, not Larry Nacke.