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01 Jan 2002 00:00
The September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were meticulously planned and carried out with military precision, according to investigators.
Nobody knows exactly where and when the deadliest terrorist attack in history was first hatched, but investigators believe the operational planning began in Germany in 1988.
In Hamburg, Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian student, shares an apartment with Ramzi ben al-Shibh, a 26-year-old Yemeni national. Atta is the team leader.
At the Hamburg Technical University, he plays a key role in an association of Muslim students.
Al-Shibh is the operational coordinator, tasked with making bank transfers on behalf of al-Qaida to fellow team members through Hashim Abdulrahman, an intermediary based in the United Arab Emirates.
Investigators believe Al-Shibh was to have taken part in the operation but was prevented from doing so as his application for a US entry visa was turned down four times.
Two men make frequent visits to the Hamburg apartment: Ziad al-Jarrah (25) who piloted the United Airlines flight that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside; and Marwan al-Shehhi, a 23-year-old from the United Arab Emirates who steered the second passenger plane into the World Trade Center.
The “Hamburg Cell,” investigators believe, was set up by German-Syrian Mohammed Haydar Zammer—currently jailed in Syria, who served as liaison between Atta and al-Qaeda military chiefs in Afghanistan.
1999: the terrorists make several trips across the United States but also hold secret meetings in Europe and Asia.
Malaysia, January 2000. A secret al-Qaida meeting is held in a Kuala Lumpur apartment belonging to Yazid Sufaat, a 37-year-old, US-educated microbiologist who became a bin Laden follower.
US intelligence operatives tap a telephone line in Yemen and obtain the names of at least two participants: Khaled Al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi (two hijackers aboard the American Airlines flight that slammed into the Pentagon).
And a third al-Qaida member, at the very least, was also present at the meeting: Hamburg coordinator Ramzi al-Shibh. The Central Intelligence Agency asked its Malaysian counterpart to monitor the meeting.
After identifying Al-Midhar and al-Hazmi as terrorists, the CIA put them on a watch list at all US borders. But it is too late, both men have already reached San Diego, California, where they had been living since November 1999.
Al-Midhar and al-Hazmi get driving licenses and enrol in a flight school. The CIA fails to alert the Federal Bureau of
Investigation of their presence. On June 3, 2000, Atta, showing an United Arab Emirates passport, enters the United States for the first time, five days after his friend al-Shehhi. They both enrol in a flight school in Venice, Florida, get their pilot’s license and train for commercial flights on simulators. Atta travels a lot. According to Czech authorities, he visits Prague in May 2000 and again a year later to meet with an Iraqi embassy’s senior intelligence officer, Ahmed al-Ani, who will be expelled later from the Czech Republic.
But the United States is unable to find records of Atta’s trips to the Czech capital.
Atta returns to the United States from Madrid on January 10, 2001. He previously overstayed his entry visa by 32 days, but US immigration fail to notice and let him in.
All the other hijackers arrive in the United States between April 23 and July 19, 2001.
The 19 terrorists, who according to the FBI have a total budget of $500 000 for the operation, open 35 bank accounts in which they transfer $325 000. The rest of the money is believed to have been carried in cash.
June 29, 2001: Mohammed Atta rents a room at a Las Vegas motel and meets discreetly with Salem Al-Hazmi, Hani Hanjour and his former Hamburg buddies al-Shehhi and Jarrah. The four September 11 team leaders are present.
July 2001: final preparations for the attacks are worked out during another meeting near Tarragona, Spain, by Atta, al-Shehhi, coordinator al-Shibh.
Three other Islamic militants attend the meeting. One of them is Mohamed Bensakhria, a French-based Algerian whom Spanish authorities identify as bin Laden’s lieutenant in Europe. He will be later extradited to Paris.
Investigators believe the date of the attack was decided at this meeting. They also decided to send more money to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan origin linked to al-Qaida. Moussaoui is said to have received a total of $15 000 in money transfers from al-Shib, under the name Ahad Sabet, on August 1 and 3.
According to US authorities, Moussaoui, currently in jail awaiting trial next January, was to have replaced al-Shib as the 20th hijacker.
In April 1998, London-based Moussaoui, is spotted in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. In October 2000, investigators locate him in Kuala Lumpur, where he receives $35 000 from Yazid Sufaat and a contract as a marketing adviser for the Malaysian firm Infocus Tech.
After a visit to Pakistan in December 2000 and a brief stopover in London, Moussaoui travels to Oklahoma in February 2001 for flying lessons.
In August, his instructors at the Minnesota flight school grow suspicious because of his strange behaviour. He is arrested on August 17 and jailed.
The FBI interrogates him but learns nothing and turns him over to the immigration service for deportation since his visa has expired.
A few days later, an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, issues a memo warning that some Islamic militants are undergoing pilot training perhaps to carry out an attack, but there is no followup.
Final preparations. Between August 25 and 29, 19 airline tickets are bought on four different flights, all for the same date: September 11.
In early September, French intelligence informs Washington that Moussaoui is an al-Qaida operative, but US authorities take no action.
Six days before the attack, Ramzi bin al-Shib leaves Germany for Pakistan. He is currently being sought by authorities in several countries.
The final details are in place. On September 8, Atta and al-Shehhi are in New York entering the geographic coordinates of the World Trade Center in their portable Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.
Three days later, armed with box cutters and religious instructions in Arabic, the 19 “martyrs” board their flights for their journey to death. - Sapa-AFP
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