Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/11: A journey through memory and airspace

This is a picture of me on the top of the World Trade Center South Tower in late August 1991 or early September, roughly ten years before 9/11. The picture was taken by my then-wife when we were on a delayed trip around the world a year after we married. Memories being fragile and fragmental, I don’t have much recollection of the building other than vague inklings conjured up by that photo. I do remember the fantastic views and from that spot I looked out to the Statue of Liberty. In those days the Statue was still open to the public but the queue to climb the stairs was too long so we didn’t bother going to the top when we were there the day before.

Getting to the top of the World Trade Center was far less problematic. I don’t remember the queue being onerous, the minute long trip to the 107th floor was probably just as uneventful as this one in September 2000 just one year before the towers were obliterated. Yet something had already changed between 1991 and 2000 – the World Trade Center had been seriously bombed. While I was on honeymoon, the planning to destroy the towers had already begun. The aim of the 600kg explosion that went off in February 1993 was to knock one tower into the other and bring both tumbling down. That didn’t happen but the blast killed six people, seriously damaged five sublevels and sent smoke spiralling up 93 floors of both towers making evacuation difficult and two hours long.

The 1993 perpetrators came from all over the Middle East led by Kuwaiti-born Ramzi Yusef. The bombing was financed by Yusef’s uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who is now in Guantanamo Bay and probably the main reason Obama broke his election promise to close it. As well as WTC 1993, his terror credits included the 1995 Bojinka Plot to blow up 12 US airliners and also crash a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Yusef said the idea for using planes to crash into buildings came from his friend Abdul Hakim Murad, who in turn heard it from the CIA. An undeterred Khalid Mohammed apparently proposed the plan of the 9/11 plot to Bin Laden in 1996.

Whether that is true or not is debatable, but the idea of suicide attackers has long been an extreme staple of warfare because it is so difficult to defend against. It entered the political landscape in 1881 when Tsar Alexander II of Russia was attacked by Nihilist Ignaty Gryniewietsky who who blew himself up killing the Russian ruler in the process. Gryniewietsky’s last letter read: "Alexander II must die...He will die, and with him, we, his enemies, his executioners, shall die too...How many more sacrifices will our unhappy country ask of its sons before it is liberated? It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me.”

Gryniewietsky's dangerous conflation of honour and purpose was exactly the same as that inspired Japanese kamekazes in WW2 and later infused Yusef, Sheik Mohammed and those that came after them in 2001. Osama Bin Laden is now dead so there is no way of knowing what role he played in 9/11. What is clearer is the role of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 19 terrorists that brought down the four planes in the attack. Atta was one of just 4 who weren’t from Saudi Arabia.

Born in Egypt, he graduated in architecture at the University of Cairo and was the key person in the Hamburg cell of radical jihadists that got together from 1998. Atta and other members of the cell went to Afghanistan to meet Bin Laden where they agreed to work with Al Qaeda. In March 2000 he sent an e-mail to 60 companies inquiring about flight training, "Dear sir, we are a small group of young men from different Arab countries,” Atta wrote. “We would like to start training for the career of airline professional pilots.”

His application for a 5-year US visa was approved and he flew to Newark in June 2000 to enrol in the Accelerated Pilot Program at the Academy of Lakeland in Florida, bankrolled by Sheik Khalid. Within a month Atta was flying solo as was his friend Marwan al-Shehhi (who would lead the South Tower attack as Atta took out the North). With daily training. Atta earned his commercial pilot’s licence in November 2000. He told trainers he was hurrying because he had a job lined up at home. With plenty of money to wave around, no one asked him any questions.

By the end of the year, Atta was studying flight deck videos for most of the major commercial airline planes including Boeing 767s and Airbus A320s. In July 2001 Atta went to Spain to meet Yemeni-born Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a fellow Hamburg cell co-conspirator. Ramzi was supposed to be one of the attackers but could not secure a US visa because immigration officials thought Yemenis would illegally overstay their visit. Ramzi supposedly passed on Bin Laden’s instructions what was to be targeted: "four symbols of America”: Congress, the Pentagon, and the two towers.

A plan to get a 20th hijacker to replace Ramzi was thwarted when Saudi-born Mohammed al-Qahtani (also now at Guantanamo) was not allowed in the country because he arrived with a one way ticket and not enough cash to convince authorities he wouldn’t end up an illegal immigrant. It meant Flight 93 had four hijackers unlike the five on the other planes making overpowering them slightly more feasible.

On 23 August 2001 two events occurred that might have raised the alarm about Atta. His driving licence was revoked in court for failing to turn up to defend driving when without a licence earlier that year. The same day Mossad included him on 19 names they gave to the CIA they said were planning an imminent attack. But no-one connected the dots. On September 10, he drove to Portland, Maine where he was scheduled to fly to Boston at 6am on the 11th. At the airport the following morning, Atta was selected for extra screening by the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System.

The Clinton administration launched CAPPS in the late 1990s as a response to the growing terrorist threat. The system uses information on the ticket booking matched against no-fly lists, FBI fugitive lists and other data to assign a risk score. CAPPS deemed 8 of the 19 attackers worthy of further attention. One was ignored because he had no bags, and the rest, including Atta passed muster because their bags contained no explosives. The process was designed to stop people leaving bombs in the luggage and then leaving the airport. But it did not take into account people who wanted to use the planes themselves as another example of the poor man’s air force.

On arrival at Boston, Atta and the others had to go through security again – something the hijackers were not expecting and got angry about - but they got through without incident. The Portland detour served several purposes – a smaller airport was easier to get through, it deflected attention from the fact 8 other Middle Eastern men were leaving directly from Boston and also left the operation intact if Atta had been arrested in Maine.

There was no evidence Atta had box cutters aboard the plane. He did have two Swiss Army knives and a Leatherman multi-tool. He boarded American Airlines Boeing 767 Flight 11 to LAX scheduled to depart at 7.45am. 81 passengers (out of a 158 capacity) and 11 crew were aboard. Two hijackers sat in first class, Atta and two others sat in business class with none in economy (coach). Flight 11 took off at 7.59am and was close to cruising altitude in 15 minutes. The last routine instruction the plane responded to was “American 11 turn 20 degrees right”. When air traffic control radioed Flight 11 seconds later to climb to 35,000 feet, there was no response. They asked 8 more times in the next 10 minutes with no answer.

By now Atta and his 4 helpers stabbed and slashed their way to control of the cockpit. At 8.19am flight attendant Betty Ong rang the NC reservations office to say there was something wrong. She rang that number because it was a common help line for passengers with reservation issues. Her call lasted 25 minutes, though only a default first four minutes was recorded. A calm sounding Ong told the bemused operator the cockpit was not answering her calls and she thought they were getting hijacked. She said two attendants had been stabbed.

By 8.25am Boston air traffic control knew there was a hijack situation. They heard a hijacker’s voice saying “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be okay. We are returning to the airport”. Seconds later Boston Control heard him say “If you try to make any moves you will endanger yourself and the airplane.” As they escalated the information, Ong told NC the plane was flying erratically. Boston told FAA command in Virginia the flight had entered New York air space.

Another Flight 11 attendant Madeline Sweeney got through to Boston Airport and spent 12 minutes talking to the American Airlines flight service manager. The airline then set up an emergency response centre. By now Ong was reporting a fatality in seat 9B held by former Israeli soldier Daniel Lewin. A minute later Boston heard another message from the cockpit: "Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport.” Boston desperately tried to raise Cape Cod military staff to get fighters airborne to tail the plane.

By 8.38am Ong was telling the operator the flight was descending rapidly. At the same time, Boston told the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Northeast Air Defense Sector a plane had been hijacked. Battle Commander Colonel Robert Marr was getting ready for a NORAD exercise when he confirmed this was "real-world" and ordered fighter pilots at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts to battle-stations. He phoned Major General Larry Arnold who confirmed the order to scramble the planes and “get permission later”.

At 8.44am the Ong call ended abruptly. At the same time Sweeney was saying “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent... we are all over the place." The flight service manager asked her to look out the window to work out where they were. Sweeney told him, "We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low." Seconds later she said, "Oh my God we are way too low" and her call ended.

A minute later the Air Force was scrambled but had no idea where to go. At 40 seconds past 8.46am, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center. Atta, Ong, Sweeney and 89 others in the plane were dead as well as countless others in the North Tower. The full horror of Sheik Mohammed’s planned day would take just two more hours to enfold on the world, mostly on live television. The scars it left on America’s psyche, the Arab world and the airplane-travelling public have yet to heal 10 years later.

Ultimately Sheik Khalid Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden were successful in hastening the destruction of US power. In October 2001, Bush turned down a Taliban offer to hand over Bin Laden to a third country and as early as late 9/11 Rumsfeld was pushing the line to bomb Iraq “because there were no targets in Afghanistan”. At no point was any effort made to punish Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for providing most of the terrorists or Egypt's Mubarak for providing Atta.

Instead the PNAC agenda pushed the 9/11 disaster cost of $240 billion out to the dubious double war cost of $1,248 trillion and counting. At 10 percent of US GDP in a time of financial crisis, neither crippling war can yet be considered a success. Instead, they represent a victory to terrorists far greater than they could have imagined with the long-planned destruction of large buildings.

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