• U.S.

The New Breed of Terrorist

22 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary and David Van Biema

It was so ordinary at the time, so ominous in hindsight. An American Airlines agent at Dulles Airport in Virginia looked up as two polite young men of Arab origin handed over their tickets. Odd: they were waiting in the coach-class line, dressed in inexpensive clothes, but their tickets were first class, one way. Prepaid at $2,400 each. “Oil money,” thought the agent. Such passengers are common at Dulles, but these two looked a bit young: one, around 20, spoke a little English; his brother, even younger, spoke none. And they seemed awfully thin, almost underfed. The agent saw they had ordered special Muslim meals, but so had some others on the flight. The brothers gave the right answers to standard security questions and had valid IDs, one of them a proper-looking Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver’s license. The agent wasn’t in a rush and laughed to himself that the two brothers were such infrequent flyers they didn’t know they could check in at the empty first-class counter. But the two were patient, pleasant, low key. There was really nothing to trigger alarms as the brothers and three other passengers of Arab ethnicity boarded American Airlines Flight 77 for Los Angeles.

The two brothers were Nawaq Alhamzi and Salem Alhamzi, who knew they were going to die that morning. They were two of the 19 men who hijacked four planes and turned them into deadly missiles last Tuesday, shocking the world with their new technique for terror. But they were only the visible agents of the conspiracy. As investigators and intelligence services worldwide raced to trace their movements and feverishly searched for other plots, it became increasingly apparent that the 19 were merely soldiers, part of a terrible new army that owes its allegiance to a cause, not a country. There were other hands on the control sticks of those planes: the masterminds who dreamed up the plot and who saw it through to catastrophic conclusion. The goal of the new war on terrorism is not only to arrest perps and break up plots but also to trace those lines of responsibility as far as they go, to prove moral responsibility for terrorist acts on the part of any world leaders who encourage them.

President Bush sounded the battle call last week for a war to be waged on a thousand fronts. The sprawling investigation now under way will help the White House shape a response: not only an attack of retribution against those who plotted this massacre but also a long line of moves designed to forestall future attacks. “This is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads, a conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible. Yet they are mistaken. They will be exposed,” the President said last Saturday. “We will smoke them out of their holes.” Secretary of State Colin Powell spread the word worldwide: You are with us or you are against us.

At the FBI, they’re calling the investigation PENTTBOM, for Pentagon Twin Towers Bombing, and running the probe from inside the agency’s high-tech Special Information and Operations Center, a 40,000-sq.-ft. command post in Washington where FBI Deputy Director Tom Pickard supervises the 4,000 agents and 3,000 analysts and support people working the case. Pickard’s team had received 46,125 tips by last Saturday, which they were farming out to field offices and 31 other agencies working with them on the case. Pickard, 51, a native of Queens, faces the colossal task of shaping the information into a portrait of a criminal organization ingeniously designed to avoid detection.

FBI agents are delving into the training logs and financial records of four Florida flight schools and others around the U.S., compiling a list of other pilots who could form the nucleus of fresh hijack teams that might be scrambling for jet seats even now. A U.S. intelligence official told TIME he believes some 30 terror operatives were deployed on the Sept. 11 mission. “There’s more,” says the official. “More than we have accounted for.” And the hit squads were backed, officials now believe, by a network of financial, informational and logistical support. “There’s a concern that there’s a substantial infrastructure scattered around the country, in Detroit, Florida and Boston, for example,” the intelligence official told TIME.

U.S. security agencies must unravel a conspiracy that stretches back years and across continents. Israel’s Mossad, experts in this sort of thing, estimate that it took at least two years and 100 people to pull it off. Someone thought long and hard how to do it, then found willing fanatics to carry it out. They carried different passports–Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon–and perhaps pledged fealty to different radical factions. What brought them together was first a hatred of America for causing their resentments and frustrations, and then someone who knew how to transform their rage into bloody results. Osama bin Laden may be the top general in charge, but who are the field lieutenants? Even usually placid FBI officers called their search squads “frenzied” as they hunted last week for shadow figures who might be involved. To underscore the broad reach, at New York’s Kennedy Airport Thursday, 10 people were questioned, and one was eventually held as a material witness.

The West had developed a fairly well-defined profile of the typical suicidal terrorist. That man would be young, 18 to 24, born in poverty, a victim of some personal tragedy, a despairing zealot with nothing to lose. He would be fanatic in behavior and belief: stern, moralistic, teetotaling. The status of shahid, or holy martyr, would solve his earthly issues in paradise, and someone would give money to his family on earth. If he hailed from the rebel training camps of Afghanistan, where the cult of jihad gets its earthly gunmen, he would be fundamentalist in his faith, ignorant of the outside world, immersed in a life of religious devotion and guerrilla instruction. He would speak not in casual conversation but in scripture. An intense, carefully nurtured fanaticism would replace any natural instinct for self-preservation.

But the 19 men who carried out last Tuesday’s attacks were different. They did their most important training right here, among us. They were “sleepers,” unusually purposeful men, living ordinary lives as they prepared for extraordinary deeds; they had plenty of time to change their minds if they had wanted to. They lived by the terrorist handbook cited in the East Africa embassy-bombings trial: “When you’re in the outer world, you have to act like them, dress like them, behave like them.” They were older–one age 33, several in their late 20s–educated, technically skilled people who could have enjoyed solid middle-class lives. Some left wives and children behind. Yet even more ardently than their young predecessors, these men made common cause with each other out of some profound hatred for America. Investigators don’t know yet if they were recruited or they volunteered, but their need to do violence to the enemy and their unflinching will to carry the plan through over months, even years, brings a terrible new dimension to the dynamics of terrorism.

It is one of the truisims of the modern airline industry that the U.S. trains many of the world’s pilots. The backs of international pilot magazines are crammed with ads for flight schools in Florida, California and Arizona. “Three hundred sunny days a year,” some of them proclaim, an enticement to students in a hurry to build up the hundreds of hours of basic prop-plane time needed before moving on to jet training and potentially lucrative careers. If Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. draw the world’s future biochemists, these small four- and five-plane aviation schools attract the globe’s future pilots.

Huffman Aviation, tucked on Florida’s Gulf Coast between Tampa and Fort Myers, is just such a place. The weather is good. Gas and airplane rentals are cheap–you can fly a Cessna 150 single-engine plane for $55 an hour, 40% less than what you might pay in a big city. The airport cafe is open, serving hot, cheap food with aviation nicknames like “Emergency Descent,” a bacon cheeseburger.

For the better part of the past year, as the U.S. elected a new President and pondered the Internet bust, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi spent their days buzzing up and down the Florida coast in small Cessnas, building time. Their training began in earnest in July. They were quiet and private. For a week or two they leased a room–$17 a night–from Charlie Voss, a bookkeeper at Huffman. But Voss’s wife did not like their slovenly habits. In the morning they would pad from the shower with wet hair and snap their heads around. “You’ve been here long enough, and you need to find a place,” Charlie told the two. “Go to it.”

They seemed to be in a rush to fly the big planes. Long before they were really ready, before they had the 1,000 or so hours any airline would demand of a future jet pilot, they invested in expensive time in a training device. The 727 full-motion simulator is a multimillion-dollar contraption that twists and bucks and turns on hydraulic pistons like a Disney ride. But the technology is good enough that airline pilots use simulators regularly to train for emergencies that are too dangerous to practice in a real plane: a double-engine failure or a fire on takeoff. For $1,500, Atta and Al-Shehhi bought six hours of simulator time from Henry George, who owns the SimCenter School in Opa-Locka. He led them through a few basic maneuvers: climbs, descents, turns. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give a beginner pilot a realistic sensation of how to handle a three-engine jet airliner. And enough, later, to break George’s heart. “To think that I helped in any way their terrible cause, that my skills were used for such a terrible deed,” he says. Al-Shehhi was on board United Flight 175 and was probably the pilot of the airliner as it smashed into the side of the World Trade Center’s south tower. Atta was on American Flight 11, which had hit the north tower 21 minutes earlier.

They were not, it seems, alone in their training. Waleed Alshehri, in his mid-20s, had graduated in 1997 with a degree in aeronautical science and a commercial pilot’s license from the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where nearly a quarter of all commercial pilots train. He surely knew how to fly the large aircraft the terrorists planned to ram into their targets. He was on American Flight 11 with Atta. Abdulaziz Alomari told his Vero Beach landlord in July 2000 that he was a Saudi commercial pilot when he moved in with a wife and three kids. He was then taking classes at FlightSafety Academy, often patronized by employees from Saudi Arabian Airlines. He too would have had the rudimentary skills needed to steer an airliner. Says a neighbor: “My kids played with his kids. I’m stunned.” He was aboard Flight 11 as well. Of the five hijackers on board, four were U.S.-trained pilots.

As far back as 1996, at least two other men were following a similar course. Hani Hanjour, another of the eventual hijackers, was working with a CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. By 1999 Hanjour had accumulated enough hours–250–to fly with an FAA examiner for his commercial pilot’s license. It was awarded and issued that same year. His address: a post-office box in Saudi Arabia, though for much of the past year he had lived with two other men, Nawaq Alhamzi and Khalid Al-Midhar in a San Diego apartment complex.

They were a quiet lot. “I saw them watching and playing flight-simulator games when I was walking my dog at 10 or 11 at night. They would leave the front door open,” recalls Ed Murray, who lived across from them. It was the closest contact anyone at the complex had with the three. “Anytime you saw them, they were on their cell phones. What I found strange was that they always kept to themselves. Even if someone got in the pool, they got out.” Another neighbor, Nancy Coker, 36, saw them getting into limos late at night, even though the car that neighbors said they drove was a gray Toyota Camry, early ’90s vintage. “A week ago, I was coming home between 12 and 1 a.m. from a club. I saw a limo pick them up. It wasn’t the first time. In this neighborhood you notice stuff like that. In the past couple of months, I have seen this happen at least two or three times.” Last week Hanjour was the probable pilot when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon with Alhamzi and Al-Midhar aboard.

Hollywood, Fla., is an overlooked burg outshone by Miami on one side and Fort Lauderdale on the other, trying to grab some limelight with a string of sushi and blues restaurants. One such establishment is Shuckums Oyster Pub and Seafood Grill, a music showcase with the requisite life-size shark mounted on an ocean-colored wall. It was at Shuckums, on Sept. 8, that Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi did some pre-mass murder tippling. Atta drank vodka and orange juice, while Al-Shehhi preferred rum and cokes, five drinks apiece. “They were wasted,” the bartender recalled, and Atta objected to the $48 bill. Tony Amos, the manager, asked if they were short the cash. “No,” said Atta. “I have plenty of money. I’m a pilot.” And he hauled a wad of $50 and $100 bills from his pocket, eventually leaving a $3 tip.

Atta and Al-Shehhi, his close companion, are the two hijackers the investigation has been most successful in profiling. Before journeying to Florida, Atta studied for several years at Germany’s Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg and shared an apartment with Al-Shehhi. According to German chief prosecutor Kay Nehm, they were linked with a group formed with the “aim of carrying out serious crimes, together with other Islamic extremist groups abroad, to attack the U.S. in a spectacular way through the destruction of symbolic buildings.”

There, in a 780-sq.-ft. apartment in a working-class district, they appear to have lived a life involving deepening Islamic practice and community. They had frequent visitors, sometimes as many as 20 at a time, witnesses told the New York Times. The group left their shoes at the door and could frequently be heard reciting from the Koran. They wore traditional Islamic garb, at least some of the time. The men often sat in circles on the floor praying, a neighbor reported. When they caught her watching, they installed blinds. They spoke good German. One neighbor complained about loud Arabic music. Despite Nehm’s claims, the German sojourn has the feel of a somewhat more relaxed period, of working toward a goal that was not yet imminent.

Some of the future hijackers developed a connection with Portland, Maine, that investigators are still puzzling over. Getting to and from that city has become easier in the past few years as the big airlines have laid on small-jet routes to link it to Boston and other Northeastern hubs. The Portland airport still has just one security checkpoint, which has a surveillance camera pointed at it. On Tuesday, shortly before 6 a.m., the camera captured an image of Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari clearing security in the quiet airport for a US Airways flight to Boston. “In the photo, Atta has a ticket in his hand and a small shoulder bag,” says Michael Chitwood, who runs Portland’s 155-man police department. Both men were dressed in Western garb.

They evidently arrived in Boston the previous Sunday, drove back to Portland and then flew again to Boston. But this would have increased their exposure to airline security, which they had to clear once in Portland and again in Boston, since US Airways and American Airlines operate from opposite ends of the terminal. Yet, says Chitwood, “if these guys carried out this attack the way they did, they had a reason to be up here, but who the hell knows what it is?”

The movements, however, suggest a group of hijackers quite familiar with airport and immigration security, men who had figured out how to move in and around the U.S. without attracting notice. This is especially remarkable since several of them, sources tell TIME, were already on FBI watch lists. Toward the end of 1999, the CIA received sketchy information connecting two of the dead hijackers–Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi–to bin Laden’s organization. Officials tell TIME the CIA information was considered too vague to pass along, but by this summer those suspicions had firmed up. There was no indication of the plot they had in mind, but there were strong hints of links to bin Laden associates, including a connection to a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, enough to raise a flag in the CIA database. A U.S. official deep in the investigation says it has now been determined from Immigration and Naturalization Service records that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi visited the U.S. briefly in 2000. They returned in July 2001, giving “Marriott in New York City” as their destination. On Aug. 23, the CIA passed their names to the FBI and the INS for inclusion on the U.S. watch list, and FBI agents searched the country for the two. But they had left addresses that turned out to be useless, and the FBI never found them until they crashed into the Pentagon. Only afterward did the FBI turn up the address for Al-Midhar in the Claremont area of San Diego.

The suicide squads seem to have regularly used their own names, or at least consistent noms de guerre, when they enrolled in flight school, rented apartments, bought cars. Police have impounded cars they used and searched apartments up and down the American East Coast and in Germany, hauling off bags of potential evidence. In Florida, the FBI picked up a discarded tote bag at the Panther Motel, where Al-Shehhi stayed during the past two weeks. Its contents: maps, flight manuals and martial-arts books.

Some of the men seemed to use the same Visa card, on which they rang up substantial charges, and gave the same Mail Boxes Etc. addresses, especially toward the last days of their lives. On attack day, four to seven cross-country tickets were billed to the same card. The same card number showed up on the rental contract for a car the hijackers left at Logan Airport and for a Boston hotel room some slept in. The pile of credit-card receipts, rental-car contracts, hotel bills and airline tickets tracks their movements as they eventually made their way from Florida to three chosen airports. By then, the ones determined to die didn’t seem to care whether they left a trail, but investigators say the paperwork also opens useful leads in new directions.

Investigators don’t know how much the suicide pilots knew about their confederates before they gathered Tuesday morning at their assigned planes–or if they knew others would undertake similar missions. But preliminary information suggests that the cells followed classic bin Laden practice: over time, cell members built up a small local support network to collect information, rent houses, buy equipment for the “sleeper” operatives while they waited to be activated. As happened with the East Africa embassy bombings, agents think only a few superior handlers–a Commander X or two–sent perhaps by HQ at the penultimate moment, knew how the final pieces were meant to fit together. They’re the ones Washington desperately wants to find, because they might provide the definitive link to bin Laden and interdict more terrorist acts.

But there are plenty of clues to retrace the steps of the hijackers in their final days and hours. Boston seems to have served as a forward staging area, a big city where the terrorists could vanish in the large Arab population. Three times last month Atta rented cars from Warrick’s Rent-a-Car in Pompano Beach and checked one back in with 2,000 miles on the odometer. He brought the last one back Sept. 9. Parking-lot cameras picked up a white Mitsubishi sedan leased from an Alamo franchise that had gone in and out of Boston’s Logan Airport five times between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11.

Someone, maybe Atta, was meticulously casing the airport, checking plane schedules, looking for half-empty flights, testing security measures. He and his accomplices obviously learned a great deal about airline schedules, aircraft capabilities and fuel loads, perhaps even seat configurations. The car was found there again Tuesday night, containing a “ramp pass” to enter restricted areas of Logan Airport. Maybe that someone was reconnoitering with accomplices who worked on the planes, who could plant weapons onboard. Monday night, some of the Boston suicide squads collected at the Park Inn in suburban Chestnut Hill. By Wednesday dozens of police in bulletproof vests descended on Room 432 to collect and remove evidence.

When the four cells arrived at their takeoff airports on Tuesday morning, they no longer needed the karate and flight manuals investigators would later discover. Two teams of five rendezvoused at Boston’s Logan, a third group of four at Newark and the last five men at Dulles, with their knives and their box cutters either stashed in their shoulder bags or perhaps already concealed onboard. Wail Alshehri, Waleed Alshehri, Mohamed Atta, Abdulaziz Alomari and Satam Al Suqami boarded American Airlines 11 and drove it square into the World Trade north tower at 8:45 a.m. A few minutes later, Marwan Al-Shehhi, Fayez Ahmed, Mohald Alshehri, Hamza Alghamdi and Ahmed Alghamdi departed on United Airlines 175 and rammed it through the corner of World Trade south tower 21 minutes later. Khalid Al-Midhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaq Alhamzi, Hani Hanjour and Salem Alhamzi embarked on American Flight 77 out of Dulles and swung it around to smash into the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m. The cockpit voice recorder that might have clarified whether this plane intended to take out the White House or the Capitol was found too badly damaged to provide any information. Only the kamikazes who got on United 93 in Newark were thwarted, after determined passengers decided to die “doing something about it” rather than let the terrorists crash the plane into their apparent Washington target.

What we know now is only the surface. The unidentified support structure worries intelligence officials just as much. Officials want to know too the whereabouts of others from the Muslim world who enrolled at the same flight schools, trained with the kamikazes and perhaps connected to field supporters of the operation. More than 100 names of acquaintances of the hijackers have been forwarded to 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and 20 overseas FBI offices in hopes that a few will help identify terrorists still living. Some raw intelligence led to speculations there might be a phase-two operation, maybe involving car bombs. Some leads suggest a fifth suicide effort was aborted when its target air flight to L.A. was canceled in the wake of the other terrorists’ successes.

What we still need to know is the deeper connections: the radical affiliations of the hijackers and the links that connect those 19 dedicated death seekers to the men who ordered them to do it, and the men who would like to emulate them. Their personal agendas are less important than who recruited them, financed them, oversaw their mission. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday, “When you are attacked by a terrorist and you know who the terrorist is and you can fingerprint it back to the cause of the terror, you should respond.” Now the public tips and paper trails, worldwide investigation and local canvassing need to hunt down that fingerprint.

Nearly everyone in Washington has all but concluded the whorls and ridges belong to bin Laden. President Bush named him the “prime suspect” on Saturday. When you look at the point of this attack, who better does it serve? The faceless enemy needs no claim of responsibility to get his message across; he has no agenda that can be met. What he wants is to make a statement: to carry out attacks to prove that he can. What better recruiting poster than that searing image of a plane shearing through the south tower: it tells the faithful, Look at me, look what we can do, join me.

The U.S. will have to keep cool in the coming days as it proceeds to give life to Bush’s vow of war on terrorism. It may lift our hearts now to pledge an end to it, but heartache and heartbreak lie ahead in what promises to be a long, painful struggle to prevail. “You will be asked for your strength, because the course to victory may be long,” said Bush last week. Even if bin Laden worked “alone” this time, he is not alone in his enmity. His ideas and thousands of men like him are still out there.

–Reported by Carole Buia/New York, Teresa Brumback and Elaine Shannon/Washington, Jeanne DeQuine/Miami, Yvette C. Hammett/Vero Beach, Broward Liston/Daytona Beach, Rochelle Renford/Venice, Jill Underwood/San Diego, Eric Francis/Boston and Kathie Klarreich/Coral Springs

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