TIME Exclusive: Inside the Plot In an excerpt from TIME's forthcoming special issue, TIME's exclusive reporting on the terror in the sky and the plotting on the ground.
Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2001 Only God knows what kind of heroic acts took place at 25,000 feet as
passengers and crews contended with four teams of highly trained
enemy terrorists. But it is clear that the hunt for the culprits began
way up in the sky, by the doomed passengers and crews themselves,
minutes before the attacks took place. The victims on board at least
two of the four planes whispered the number and even some of the
seat assignments of the terrorists along with their final goodbyes in
their brief and haunting Tuesday morning cell phone calls. A flight
attendant on board American Flight 11 called her airline's flight
operations center in Dallas on a special airlink line and reported that
passengers were being stabbed.
That gave investigators a head start Tuesday
morning that something had gone terribly
wrong, but there were plenty of other clues.
Even before the smoke had cleared, it was
obvious that the culprits knew their way
around a Boeing cockpit - and all the
security weaknesses in the U.S. civil aviation
system. The enemy had chosen the quietest
day of the week for the operation, when there
would be fewer passengers to subdue; they
had boarded westbound transcontinental
flights - planes fully loaded with kerosene;
armed with makeshift knives and retractable
knives; they had gained access to the
cockpits and herded everyone to the back of
the plane. Once there, they turned off the
aircraft's self-identifying beacons known as
transponders, a move which renders the
planes somewhat less visible to air traffic
controllers. And each aircraft performed
dramatic but carefully executed course
corrections, including a stunning last
maneuver by flight 77. The pilot of that plane
came in low from the south of the Pentagon
and pulled a 270-degree turn before
slamming into the west wall of the building.
The hunt for those responsible
By Tuesday afternoon, the spooks were
making progress. Eavesdroppers at the
supersecret National Security Agency had
picked up at least two electronic intercepts
indicating the terrorists had ties to bin Laden.
By nightfall, less than 12 hours after the
attacks, US officials told TIME that their
sense that he was involved had gotten closer
to what one senior official said was 90
percent. The next morning, US officials told
TIME they have evidence that each of the four
terrorist teams had a certified pilot with them,
some of whom had flown for Saudi Airlines.
It?s not yet clear whether the pilots were
trained in the US, or in Saudi Arabia or both.
Intelligence officials believe each team had
four to five persons. Some team members, it
is thought by US intelligence, crossed the
Canadian border to get into the U.S. TIME has learned that within the
past few months, the FBI placed two men associated with an Islamic
Jihad terror group on a border watch list, but through a screwup, the pair
got into the U.S. anyway. The two men appear to have been on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon,
TIME has learned. Boston appears to have been a central hub for the operation; U.S. intelligence believes a bin Laden cell in Florida was a support group helping with the aviation aspects of the attack.
Intelligence officials pouring over old reports believe they got their first
inkling of planning for the attack last June, although at the time the
intelligence was too vague to indicate the scale of the operation. In the
summer U.S. embassies, particularly those in the Middle East, were put
on heightened alert. The U.S. military in the region moved to a higher
level of alert. The CIA was getting vague reports "of some kind of
spectacular happenings" by terrorists, said a U.S. intelligence official,
but the reports were vague as to timing. "A lot of this reporting we had in
the summer that gained our attention and had us concerned, but wasn't
specific, could have been tied to this," said U.S. intelligence officials.
Even had they known more, could officials ever have contemplated the
scale of this thing? The blasts were so powerful that counter-terrorism
teams have begun asking the airlines for fuel loads on the plane; aviation
experts have been asked to calculate the explosive yield of each blast -in kiloton terms. The reason? Washington wants to see if the planes
amounted to weapons of mass destruction. "What we want people to
realize is they?ve crossed a line here," said a U.S. intelligence official. In
fact, some senior administration officials are considering drafting a
declaration of war, although the State Department is leery since nobody
knows precisely who the war would be against.
Placing the blame
"Anyone who says this is not an intelligence failure is blowing smoke.
This is an intelligence failure and a security failure," said Lt. Gen. (ret.)
William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and
the former head of US Army intelligence. "The security guys will blame it
on the intelligence guys and the intelligence guys will tell us the great
successes they had in the past."
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