When our world changed forever
It had been months in the planning. And within moments of the attack on 11 September, old certainties had crumbled as surely as those mighty towers. Here we trace the arc of terror, from its secret beginnings and deadly actions to the fallout that will affect us all
Ed Vulliamy and Anthony Browne in New York, Jason Burke, Peter Beaumont, Martin Bright and Kamal Ahmed in London, Paul Simon in Boston, Luke Harding in Islamabad, Kate Connolly in Berlin, and Andrew Osborn in Brussels
The Observer, Sunday 16 September 2001 02.14 BST
They were living the American dream. Through the spring, summer and early autumn, they prospered under a clear blue American sky that arced over their whitewashed houses, their condominiums, their local stores and their childrens’ school. Each week they drove past the parking lots and the burger bars down the wide, empty roads to the mall. They shopped at the Wal-Mart for American Coke and American Pizzas. They watched American films.
Abdulrahman al-Omari arrived with his family in the small Florida beach suburb of Vero Beach in July last year. He signed a $1,400 a month lease to rent one of the pastel stucco houses that line 57th terrace and signed up at a local flying school, the FlightSafety Academy. Every morning the neighbours used to watch him leave his home in his white shirt with gold-and-black shoulder flashes. His wife used to drive their four children to school shortly afterwards.
In Coral Springs, 100 miles inland from Vero Beach, Mohamed Amanullah Atta, a tall, slim, 33-year-old electrical engineer with an aloof manner and a taste for chinos, sports shirts and vodka and orange, was perfecting his flying. He had arrived in the beach town in November with a friend, Marwan Yousef al-Shehri, a small, tubby 23-year-old, who had come over from Germany with him a year before. They were both good students.
There were others. In Daytona Beach, another young Arab, Walid al-Shehri, had been training at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University. In all, at various schools along the East Coast, around a dozen young Arab men, some with aeronautical experience, some without, were all learning how to fly big jets.
Elsewhere in the US another 30 or 40 people were also fulfilling their own more minor roles. Scores more provided marginal assistance. Some of them had been living in America for years – at least two had driving licences dating from 1994. At least one had access to airport accreditation. Some had business visas; most had false passports. And though some have been traced to Los Angeles and New York, the vast majority were based in Florida. Nine, for example, lived in Delray Beach, a wealthy resort on the Atlantic coast. The youngest was 20; the oldest was 51. Atta was the leader. And by last month he was a busy man.
On 6 August, carrying a briefcase, he walked into Warrick Rent-a-car in Pompano Beach, Florida, and rented a 1995 Ford Escort. According to Brad Warrick, the owner, he was polite and and acted like a businessman. ‘He didn’t spend money like there was an unlimited source. He squabbled a little bit over mileage,’ Warrick said. The Escort came back with 254 miles on the clock. No one knows where Atta took it.
Over the following weeks Atta rented more cars and logged thousands of miles. On 15 August, he picked up a 1996 Chevrolet Corsica for two weeks and travelled 1,915 miles in it. On 29 August he rented the Escort again. In the meantime he had also been honing his flying skills. On three consecutive days from 19 August he hired, for $88 an hour, a four-seat Piper Archer plane from the Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana and flew it through the clear summer Florida skies for four hours. He told the manageress at the centre that he wanted to notch up 100 hours flying. The previous November – five months after arriving in America from Germany where he had been training in Hamburg as an electrician – he had taken his Federal Aviation Authority test and had qualified as a pilot for single-engined light planes. The course had cost him $10,000. Since then, at a series of aviation schools, he had been taught to fly bigger, more powerful planes.
Elsewhere, things were also beginning to happen. On 5 September, a white Mitsubishi sedan was seen at Logan International Airport in Boston. The driver had secured a pass that allowed him to drive into secure airport areas. In the next week the car was be seen four times around the complex. Around the same time al-Omari, the clean-living family man from Vero Beach, moved out of his neat all-American home with his family. He promptly disappeared. All over America, others were leaving flats, guest houses, rented homes.
There were some minor problems. In Minnesota, an Arab man was detained when he tried to seek flight simulator training for a large jetliner. The man revealed little under interrogation.
Atta did not appear unduly worried. Nine days ago, he spent Friday afternoon drinking with Marwan al-Shehri and a third man in Shuckums Oyster Pub and Seafood Grill in Hollywood, a small town 30 miles from Miami. Patricia Idrissi, a waitress, remembered that one had gone off to play a video machine at the one end of the restaurant while Atta and al-Shehri sat drinking and arguing. Al-Shehri drank rum and coke; Atta knocked back five Stolichnaya vodkas with orange juice. When it came to pay Atta complained about their $48 bill and argued with the manager.
‘You think I can’t pay my bill?’ Atta shouted. ‘I am a pilot for American Airlines. I can pay my fucking bill.’
Then he peeled out a note from a thick wad of $50 and $100 bills, leaving a $2 tip.
Some 18 men, who would later form into small groups, began heading towards Boston. Many were already in America. Others joined them from Canada, crossing into the northern American state of Maine at remote, lightly patrolled border areas.
Atta and al-Omari spent the night in room 432 of a Comfort Inn in the city of South Portland on the northern seaboard. Al-Omari’s wife and children left their home, and disappeared. At least two other hijackers are thought to have spent the night at the Park Inn in suburban Newton, Massachusetts. Atta checked out last Tuesday morning. He left a plane timetable in his room. He did not need it any more. The time for preparation was over. After years of planning, the operation was finally under way. The objective was clear: the world would change for ever.
George Bush was a troubled man: there had been further warnings about recession, crucial ingredients of his domestic policies were being attacked, and his team the Texas Rangers had been trounced over the weekend. He had arisen early on Tuesday morning to join his chief of staff Andrew Card, policy spinmeister Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, communications director, for a trip to Florida. On the agenda: his precious Education Bill, and the start of a nationwide push to propel it through Congress, to begin at the Emma E. Booker elementary school in Sarasota, Florida.
Bush was driving to the school in a motorcade when the phone rang. An airline accident appeared to have happened. He pressed on with his visit. Bush moved through into the classroom, and flashed his smile at the assembled second-graders, on the dot of 9am, and listened to them read aloud.
As he was getting ready to pose for pictures with the teachers and pupils, chief of staff Card entered the room, walked over to the President and whispered in his right ear: there had been another ‘incident’. Bush stiffened; he left soon afterwards on a plane bound for Washington.
Boston at dawn: the hijackers assemble
At 5.53 on Tuesday morning Atta and al-Omari passed through security at Portland Jetport in Maine. They had checked out of their room ($149 for smoking, $159 for non-smoking) and had driven the short distance to the airport in a hired car. The Atlantic sparkled bright blue in the crisp clear light of an early autumn New England morning, the short flight to Boston’s Logan International was uneventful. Using their New Jersey drivers licenses as identification, they bought two one-way tickets on a visa card and checked in for American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles . They settled down to wait for Atta’s baggage and the men whom they knew were on their way to join them.
John Ogonowski, the fair-haired, clean-cut captain of Flight 11, was also on his way to Logan. As he passed his Uncle Al’s house, he honked his horn in greeting. At the airport, he met his co-pilot, big, burly Tom McGuinness, a former F14 Navy Tomcat pilot, and the two walked out to their plane.
At about 7.15 a white Mitsubishi saloon pulled up abruptly in the airport car park. It carried three young Arab men. In one window a ‘ramp pass’ allowing access to restricted areas at the airport was displayed. After a short altercation with another driver over the parking space in the airport garage the three moved off into the terminal and checked in. Within quarter of an hour at least five hijackers had passed through airport security. The box-cutter ‘Stanley’ knives hidden in their hand baggage had remained undetected.
By 7.35 most of the 81 passengers had boarded the Boeing 767 that Ogonowski was to fly to LA. Atta was sitting in seat 8D in business class opposite Hollywood producer David Anfell and his wife Lynn. Sitting next to them in 8G was Abdul al-Omari. The remaining seats in the row were empty.
In the next aisle sat Edmund Glazer, the south African born vice-president of a communications company. Glazer, who had rushed to the airport, put in a quick call to his wife to reassure her that he had got the flight.
Ahead of Flight 11 in the queue for take off was United Airlines Flight 175, another Boeing 767, also heading for Los Angeles. It had 65 people on board. Among them were the cousins Marwan and Mohald al-Shehri who had been training in Florida with Atta, Fayez Ahmed, and two brothers, Hamza and Ahmed al-Ghamdi. Their plane took off at 07.58 and a minute later Flight 11 was airborne.
At 8.01, 150 miles further south, United Airlines flight 93 left Newark airport for San Francisco. There were 45 people on board, including five crew and two pilots. Nine minutes after that American Airlines flight 77 left Dulles, Washington’s major airport, for Los Angeles. On board were 64 passengers, including Barbara Olson, a lawyer, political commentator for CNN and wife of the US Solicitor General, and a group of three schoolchildren and three teachers en route to an expedition to Santa Cruz island. There were two pilots and four crew. On each of these four planes – carrying a total of 272 people and thousands of tonnes of aviation fuel for their long transcontinental flights – was a team of hijackers.
Takeover in the cabins and a monstrous plot revealed
At 8.15, as the big plane settled into a its flight over Massachusetts, the cabin crew aboard American Airlines Flight 11 started to prepare breakfast.
Mohamed Atta did not wait for his roll and coffee. He and his four accomplices left their seats and made their way towards the cockpit. They may have forced their way in using knives or box-cutters, or possibly killed passengers or crew to lure Ogonowski or his co-pilot Tom McGuinness out of their locked cockpit. One of the pilots had time to click on a cockpit microphone allowing controllers to hear one of the hijackers say ‘We have more planes. We have other planes. Don’t do anything foolish … You won’t be hurt’ – but the secret four-digit alert code that indicates a hijacking was never sent. The plane was heard from once more when air traffic control were contacted – it is unclear by whom – and an air corridor to JFK air port in New York requested. Then Flight 11’s transponder, which allows the plane’s movements to be tracked, was switched off. Within minutes the plane made a sharp turn to the south and headed down the Hudson river, over Albany and the grey-green Catskill Mountains towards New York.
At 0845 American Airlines Flight 11 turned at 400mph and aimed for Manhattan.
The second hijack was by then under way on United Airlines Flight 175. Around 9am, passenger Peter Hanson had telephoned his parents in Easton, Connecticut, and described how hijackers armed with knives had taken over the plane and a stewardess had been stabbed. The plane had headed south-west across Connecticut and was over New Jersey when it made a sharp left turn. At 8.59, now south of Manhattan, the plane turned again, straightening up on on a course heading directly for the World Trade Centre. Hanson called his parents again and spoke to his father Lee. The plane was ‘going down’, he said, once more the line went dead. At the same time, an unnamed stewardess on board the plane called an emergency number from a phone at the back of the aircraft. She described how her colleagues had been stabbed. At 9.16 the plane, banking slightly, neared its final destination.
The hijackers hit a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, which had taken off from Washington’s Dulles airport heading for Los Angeles at 8.10am and then a fourth, on its way from Newark to Los Angeles, at about 9.00. Few details have emerged, but the terrorists appear to have gained control of both aircraft without difficulty, quickly herding the passengers and crew to the rear. For air traffic controllers on the ground the first sign that something was wrong was when Flight 77 suddenly disappeared off their radar screens as it headed east.
Someone in the cockpit had switched off the transponder. There was nothing, then an unidentified aircraft appeared on the controllers’ radar screens. But it was heading in the wrong direction. It was flying, at more than 500mph, back towards Washington.
At 9.30 the leader of the hijackers, believed to be Khalid al-Midhar, spoke to the passengers. They should phone their homes, he said, because they were all about to die.
Barbara Olson called her husband from her seat. ‘What do I tell the pilot to do?’ she asked him. Then she was cut off. Theodore Olsen called the Justice Department’s command centre. They said they were unaware of a hijacking. A few minutes later his wife called back. Again she asked for advice. Her husband told her that other hijacked planes had just hit the World Trade Centre. The phone went dead again.
At 9.42 a.m. the plane was seen approaching Washington from the south-west. Just a few miles outside the city it suddenly made a 270 degree turn and lined up on the Pentagon. A minute later the nose went down and, in a steep, short dive, it smashed into a helicopter pad adjacent to the Pentagon’s western wall and ploughed on through three of the five concentric rings of offices that make up one of the largest single buildings on earth. The impact and resulting fireball caused a five-storey section of the building to explode and sent debris, flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. Including the 64 passengers and crew, 190 people had been killed. It was 9.43 in the morning. Air force jets had been scrambled, but they arrived 15 minutes too late.
Flight 93, which had left Newark just as Flight 77 had left Washington, was still in the air. The passengers on board had half an hour to live.
Back in Logan Airport Mohamed Atta’s baggage was waiting for collection. His suitcase contained an instructional video on flying airliners, a fuel consumption calculator and a copy of the Koran.
Assault from the skies: The North Tower
Jim Farmer stuck to his usual routine last Tuesday morning. After getting up and showering at his Manhattan apartment, the 43-year-old film composer ordered a coffee at his local street cafe on West Broadway. He sat outside in the morning sun. It was almost nine o’clock, and people were hurrying to work at their offices in the financial heart of the world’s last remaining superpower.
A strange sound rose above the bustle: it seemed to be the noise of a plane. But aircraft did not normally fly low over the city. Farmer looked up from his newspaper. Other people stopped in the street.
The noise grew louder. Pigeons on the pavements took flight en masse. A blue speck – it looked like a dart – screamed across the skyline and ploughed into the World Trade Centre. There was a loud explosion. People in offices and apartments ran to their windows; people on the street started screaming.
The 110-floor tower was left with a gaping black hole eight or nine storeys high near its peak. Orange fingers of flame groped at the edges of the hole; black, acrid smoke poured out of it. American Airlines flight 11 had reached its destination; and the world started changing.
Twenty thousand people were at work in each of the twin towers of the WTC. Nobody will ever know what went through the minds of those on the floors directly hit as they stared out of the window at their last vision on earth: a 60-tonne plane hurtling towards them at 400 miles an hour.
Stuart DeHann, a freelance creative director, ran onto his roof terrace nearby and watched the unfolding horror. A few floors above the hole in the tower, which was still spewing forth flames and smoke, people were leaning out of the shattered windows. They started jumping from the 90th floor.
‘They were definitely deciding to jump rather than falling. They were standing on the edge of the windows and leaping. They knew it was the end and were making a decision about how to go,’ said DeHann.
The choice was stark: to die by being burnt alive or by jumping from near the top of a 1,300 ft-high building onto concrete. One couple leapt out hand in hand. Another woman’s dress started billowing out as she fell. One man, bare chested, tumbled over and over until he smashed into the paving stones at around 200 miles an hour.
Assault from the skies: The south tower
Eighteen minutes after Flight 11 had ploughed into the north tower, United Airlines flight 175 hit the south tower, its tanks also full of fuel. It hit the building far lower than the first plane had, and appeared to make a far bigger explosion. Eight hundred feet in the air, the flames leapt out almost a block in every direction..
Moments before and 70 floors below, Jimmy Wu, a banker, had been preparing to go into a revenue meeting. ‘We heard a huge explosion. I rushed to the window and saw all these papers floating down,’ he said. He assumed it was another bomb, but when he managed to get out of the building onto the plaza he suddenly realised what it was. ‘There were all these yellow airline safety jackets lying around – there were some airplane seats on the ground. I think I saw some human body parts.’
He used his mobile to phone his brother who worked on the 64th floor of the south tower. He stood under a shelter in the plaza, bodies and glass crashing in front of him, desperately waiting for his brother to answer. He stared up to the floor where he assumed his brother was, and the top third of the tower exploded into an enormous ball of flame. Wu ran. Thousands were still inside, fighting to make it down the stairs, burning alive.
Scenes of chaos and terror in New York were being beamed live on television around the world.The chief of the police, his deputy and mayor Rudy Giu liani arrived at the scene. Bodies littered the plaza. A pair of feet in their shoes lay unattached to a body. The head of a middle-aged man rolled down the street. One woman was sliced in half by a large sheet of glass, which fell from a thousand feet above.
Father Mychael Judge, the chaplain of the New York fire department for the past 10 years, had rushed to the scene and was administering the last rights to one victim. A chunk of debris dropped from the building, killing the priest as he prayed.
Pieces of paper floated down from the sky, settling on the bodies: lawyers letters, cashflow statements, future business plans.
The trade centre collapses
While the buildings and their skins of steel supports withstood the crash, the fuel burnt ferociously at a temperature of more than 1000 C. The steel supports started melting and buckling and the top floors crashed down on those below. That set off a chain reaction where storey crashed down on storey, the whole building cascading down on itself. Thousands were still inside.
The panic spread. People ran from the debris, hiding in shops, taking refuge under cars. Some could not outrun the cloud of thick dust from tonnes of falling rubble that surged between Manhattan’s skyscrapers. They were sprinting along the streets, looking over their shoulders, like characters in a film. Many were engulfed. Choking dust reduced visibility to zero.
Two hundred firemen, including the chief and deputy chief of the fire service, who were trying to help evacuate people at the bottom of the towers, were engulfed in the rubble. Seventy police officers were swallowed up along with unknown thousands of people who had not yet managed to escape the devastated area. Almost all of those who died, but who had managed to survive the crashing debris, are thought to have suffocated in the stifling smoke and ash.
A few minutes later the south tower collapsed and a second wave of debris covered an area of 10 blocks around south Manhattan. Cars were piled on top of cars and crushed; buses were lifted up and smashed against buildings. A section of the World Trade Centre, several storeys high, was propelled into another building. Huge chunks were gouged out of neighbouring tower blocks.
It was barely an hour since the twin towers had stood almost a quarter of a mile tall. Now they were reduced and compressed into mounds of rubble and steel that stood a bare hundred feet high. As the dust continued to fall, millions of office documents lay everywhere; torn clothing and shoes were scattered around. Small fires were last night still burning. Almost 5,000 people were feared dead.
In just over an hour on the morning of Tuesday, 11 September 2001, the world had changed for ever.
On board Airforce One:
A threat to the President
After Andy Card broke the news, Bush hurried to Air Force One, waiting on the tarmac at Sarasota airstrip. There, he made his first remarks, vowing to pursue and punish the ‘folks’ who had attacked New York.
Bush wanted to return to Washington, but was told by Karl Rove that the safest place to be was in the air, under the escort if a fleet of F-14 and F-16 jet fighter bombers. The Presidential jet duly took off at 9.55 am. Bush sat in the huge armchair behind his L-shaped desk; Card joined him for most of the journey. The mood on board was tense. No one in the Secret Service department, nor any of Bush’s aides, was told where the plane was flying.
The television reception on board cut in and out; when it worked, the Secret Servicemen were watching their own headquarters crash to the ground. Bush himself had to be reminded where they were going: an Air Force base at Barksdale, Louisiana, which had nothing in particular to be said in its favour at this critical moment in US history – besides being near Texas and a long way from Washington and New York, in the opposite direction. Even the route to Eastern Louisiana was erratic and uncertain: from Florida, the plane flew east to the Atlantic, then north as though to Washington, then west and finally south-west to Shreveport.
Out of the windows, Bush and his crew could see their escort of fighters, and when the plane finally landed, it was immediately surrounded by airforce commandos in full combat gear – fatigues, flak jackets and drawn M-16s. Bush insisted that he return to Washington, to deliver a message of stability to the nation.
The President called Dick Cheney, his Vice President – who was alone running the White House. He also called his wife Laura, then set off for his next destination. The Security Services wanted Bush taken deeper into the interior of America. They headed for deepest hole of all: the lonely centre of the heartland, Nebraska. Bush again protested that he wanted to return to the capital. Rove said that he had obtained ‘credible’ evidence of a threat to the President and his jet.
Few places could be further from the grief and courage of stricken New York and Washington that day than the Offutt Air Force base near Omaha, which is precisely why it was chosen as the place to which Presidents flee in times of crisis. It is the most secure military installation in the US, in the security of which the President can sit at a videophone during times of extreme emergency and speak to whoever is left at the White House. Which is what Bush now proceeded to do.
In Washington, it was announced that the White House had been evacuated after the Pentagon attack- but this was untrue. Dick Cheney – the master of silence – was left alone in charge, along with his trusty assistant, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had bunkered down, underground, in what they call the ‘Sit. Room’, from which the President and his team – if stranded in Washington – would direct a nuclear war. Neither volunteered any information to anyone.
Shock around the world: How Blair heard the news
In room 713 of the Grand Hotel, the Fitzherbert Suite, Tony Blair was putting the finishing touches to the speech that was to set the political tone for the week. It was a bright Tuesday lunchtime in Brighton, and the Prime Minister was preparing to make his most positive comments yet about whether Britain should join the single currency. He was going to say just enough about his enthusiasm for the euro to knock the issue of privatisation of public services off the front pages.
In the next door room, 714, Downing Street staff were running over the final draft of Blair’s words. In the corner the television was tuned to the news, a normal precaution in case something of political importance happened. Remarkable pictures had started running of an accident the like of which the world had never seen. An aeroplane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre.
With the second to last draft of the speech in his hand, a Downing Street official walked through the connecting door and presented the script to Blair. ‘There appears to have been a major incident in America,’ he told the Prime Minister. Blair, in shirt sleeves sitting on the sofa, asked to be kept informed.
Fifteen minutes later, there were gasps of amazement. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s head of communications who was in the room with the Prime Minister, turned on the television. Both men watched in shock at the pictures coming from America. Blair asked Campbell if he should cancel the speech. Campbell nodded in agreement. Blair’s first telephone call was to Jonathan Powell, the No 10 chief of staff, who was watching the same footage back in London.
With more than four years experience, and the President of the United States still feeling his uncertain way in world politics, the man who used to be derided as Bambi was now the elder statesman. The test was ahead. The special relationship, Britain’s place in the world, public opinion, the pressure of the Middle East against the needs of our Atlantic ally – all had to be carefully balanced in Blair’s first response to a truly world tragedy.
There was a train at 3.40pm, in just under an hour’s time. Blair, his personal secretary, Anji Hunter, Campbell, Smith and the rest of the Downing Street staff would be on it. The Prime Minister did not make his speech.
On the train to London, Blair called Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary. Blair then sat down with Campbell and Hunter and the initial strategy was worked through. The immediate top line was agreed. This was an attack not just on America but on every right-thinking nation in the world. The response had to be resolute and rapid.
The key, the three agreed, was building an international alliance which included the rest of Europe, the Muslim nations, China and Russia. There had to be no repeat of the suggestion post the Gulf-war that it was the US and Britain standing alone against the world. That had led to resentment and increasing danger. During the summer holidays one of Blair’s reading-bundles put together by his staff was on the Middle East. He had read security reports on Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan, and Islamic fundamentalism. He had read parts of the Koran to try and understand aspects of the faith and fathom out whether a justification for terrorism could really be found, as often argued, in its pages.
Blair arrived at Downing Street at just before 5pm. At 5.30pm he chaired the first meeting of Cobra, named because of the meeting’s location in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, with key aides, Ministers and intelligence chiefs.
The meeting lasted 30 minutes. In Downing Street, Blair held his first press conference. It will be remembered for one phrase: standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the Americans. Immediately there were rumblings of discontent. In the Foreign Office, which well remembered the disaster of the US-inspired attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, following the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, fears were raised that the message smacked too much of the gung-ho.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Blair spoke about the ‘vast majority of Muslim people’ reacting with revulsion to the attack. As he took questions, Hunter walked in at the back of the state dining room and passed a note to Campbell. ‘He’s got to finish,’ she whispered. Campbell scribbled a few lines on a scrap of paper and told an assistant to give it to Blair. The White House was on the line.
Blair spoke to Bush for 20 minutes. He urged caution, while reiterating Britain’s full support. Convincing evidence must be produced regarding culpability if the world was to be convinced that the USA was acting for reasons of justice rather than revenge. Carpet bombing of innocent civilians could be counter-productive. The Middle East vacuum must be tackled. Bush agreed, telling Blair that there was no point ‘bombing sand’ with a few cruise missiles.
Bush had been on the phone since 7am that morning. As well as Blair, he called Jacques Chirac in Paris, Gerhard Schröder in Berlin and Jiang Zemin in Beijing. Only one leader was treated to two calls: Vladimir Putin of Russia, the owner of a limitless border with Afghanistan, and a disastrous memory of what it is like to mess with Osama bin Laden on his own terrain. Bush assembled his team around him: Colin Powell, Cheney, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Henry Shelton and Condoleezza Rice.
The investigation: The FBI launches a dragnet
FBI Director Robert Mueller took the first call from Bush at his offices in Washington within minutes of the first attack just after 9am on Tuesday 11 September. Wiry, grey haired and tough, the 56 year-old former Marine and veteran prosecuter – confirmed in his 10-year post as head the world’s most famous law enforcement agency barely a month before – had already begun his investigation, alerted by initial police reports of a disaster and by live television pictures being watched by his agents.
The phones were also ringing throughout the FBI’s headquarters: in the Counter Terrorism Division and in the office of Ron Dick, director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center, established in 1998 to be the point of focus in exactly this kind of disaster.
Also on the line to Mueller was his friend and long-term supporter, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had been on his way to Milwaukee for a Justice Department event when the planes struck the World Trade Centre. Landing in Milwaukee Ashcroft returned to Washington immediately, arriving at the FBI’s headquarters in a convoy of heavily armed vehicles. Fearful of another attack on Washington, Mueller, Ashcroft and senior FBI and Justice officials moved quickly to an emergency operations centre within the FBI building where they sketched out their strategy.
By this weekend, the investigation launched by Ashcroft and Mueller had become the biggest criminal investigation in American history, deploying 4,000 FBI officers and 3,000 support personnel.
Within hours of the first crash Mueller had launched a massive dragnet. Agents were immediately tasked to call police in Boston asking for all their files on Boston cab drivers of Middle Eastern descent. FBI officials also began the laborious search of all their records relating to those logged as having potential links to terrorist organisations, in particular from the Middle East. It was a daunting task.
The car park at Boston’s Logan airport from where Flights AA175 and UA11 began their fatal journeys 18 minutes apart is vast and impersonal lot, full of equally anonymous cars, none more so than the white Mitsubishi sedan with its five Arab-looking passengers.
What was remarkable – at least for one still unidentified American who arrived at the car park at the same time – was the aggressive attitude of the Mitsubishi’s occupants who argued with him over a parking space.
It was a significant encounter. A few hours later when the motorist heard about the hijacking he called state police, on a hunch, and led them to the car, hired from Alamo. It was vital break. Videotape taken from the carpark’s closed-circuit camera showed the Mitsubishi had been a suspicious and frequent visitor to the car park.
It had entered the lot up to five times between Wednesday of the previous week and last Tuesday, apparently on practice runs for the attack.
Rental records for the car quickly provided a name: Mohamed Atta. If there was any doubt that the FBI had found one of the hijackers, it was dispelled when agents quickly checked the name against the passenger list of flights AA175 and UA11.
Atta’s name was there – one of 12 men with Arab surnames checked on to the two flights. In the hours that followed the discovery of the Mitsubishi, the FBI was also on the trail of a second rental car used by the hijackers. With a name to go on, Atta’s luggage had been tracked down to Portland, Maine.
Inside the suitcase belonging to Atta, investigators found a Saudi passport, an international driver’s license, a videotape on how to fly a Boeing 757 and 747, and ‘some kind of religious cassette tape’. They also had an address.
By late Tuesday night FBI agents with search warrants had converged on Atta’s apartment in the Tara Gardens Condominiums complex at 10001 in Coral Springs, Florida searching Apartment 122 for several hours, and showing a picture of Atta to residents. Later two FBI agents visited Shuckum’s, a local bar, near Atta’s home showing staff photographs of two Middle Eastern men. She immediately recognised one as a customer who had given her a hard time the previous Friday over a bill paid from a wad of $100 and $50 bills.
And it was not just large sums of cash that Atta and his colleagues had available. An extensive list of Visa card receipts seized in the raids quickly led the FBI to cast their net wider, uncovering evidence of a massive and well-funded conspiracy involving, according to Ashcroft, as many as 50 people in the United States alone.
If the passenger list had provided the first indication of those behind the conspiracy, by Wednesday investigators were rapidly uncovering links between Atta and other names on the list. Among the names were those of brothers of Marwan and Waleed al-Shehri.
FBI officers also visited the home of a Florida man, Charles Voss, who told them that Atta and a man whom he knew only as Marwan had stayed at his home last year while they obtained flight training at a Florida flight school.
In Vero Beach, Florida, FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies raided three houses in two neighborhoods, with armed agents serving search warrants on students or former students of the training school Flight Safety International.
The Investigation: Arrests in Britain, raids in Germany
As Robert Mueller went before the cameras to announce the first fruits of an investigation now stretching from the Canadian border, where officials suspect some of the hijackers entered the country, to Florida the picture of the conspiracy was becoming clear.
One hijacker on each of the four flights had been trained in fly in America itself. In barely two days his agents had established that Atta and his fanatical colleagues had used Saudi Arabian Airlines – by whom some were employed – as cover both for their pilot training and to infiltrate America’s civil aviation system. Among them was Abdulrahman al-Omari, in Federal Aviation Authority records as having worked in flight operations for the Saudi airline and who was sitting next to Atta in the business section of American Airlines Flight 11.
What was also becoming clear to Mueller and his colleagues was how Atta and his fellow hijackers had at almost every turn unerringly homed in on, and exploited, glaring weaknesses in America’s immigration and security apparatus: travelling back and forth into the US from Canada via a tiny border crossing in Jackson, Maine and using the cover of America’s closest ally in the Arab world – Saudi Arabia. Mueller’s conclusion was that this was an operation that had been planned for years.
Federal authorities also revealed that they believed that suicidal air assaults were carried out by small terrorist cells whose individual members did not even know that other planes would be hijacked and other targets struck at the same time.
The investigation by now had taken on an international dimension. In Rome police reopened the files on the theft of American Airlines uniforms, found in luggage abandoned by the hijackers. In Hamburg, German police and intelligence officials, acting on a tip-off from the FBI, raided apartments, detaining two men and confirming that Atta and Marwan al-Shehri, had attended a local technical university.
In Karlsruhe, Germany’s chief federal prosecutor revealed that a third suspect who also died, belonged to a terror group formed ‘with the aim of carrying out serious crimes together with other Islamic fundamentalist groups abroad, to attack the United States in a spectacular way through the destruction of symbolic buildings.’
‘These people were of Arabic background and lived in Hamburg and were Islamic fundamentalists,’ Nehm said. ‘They formed a terrorist organisation with the aim of launching spectacular attacks on institutions in the US.’
Britain was also on a high state of alert. MI5 director Stephen Lander ordered an immediate trawl through the thousands of pieces of intelligence collated on Islamic radicals over recent months in a desperate attempt to identify whether there had been any significant warnings they had failed to notice.
As a result of checks, on Wednesday three key suspects, Saudi dissident Khaled al-Fawaaz and two Egyptians, Ibrahim Eiderous and Abdul Bari, were moved to high security Belmarsh prison from Brixton in response to events.
Khaled al-Fawaaz is accused of being Osama bin Laden’s link man in London and is alleged to have received phone calls from bin Laden associates around the time of the US embassy bombings in Africa..
On Thursday, another man, Algerian Amar Makhlulif, otherwise known as Abu Doha, appeared at Belmarsh magistrates court. He is accused of conspiring to cause explosions on American soil.
Makhlulif was arrested earler this year trying to board a flight from Heathrow to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. He has been linked by the US authorities to plans for a ‘millennium spectacular’ at Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve 2000. The plot was foiled when police apprehended another Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, trying to cross the US-Canadian border. When police searched his car, they found a business card belonging to Abu Doha with a London telephone number. A search of his British home allegedly found passports, fake ID papers and chemical formulae for explosives.
On Thursday the identity of the ‘Mister Big’ was officially confirmed for the first time by Secretary of State Colin Powell. ‘We are looking at those terrorist organisations who have the kind of capacity to conduct the kind of attack that we saw,’ Powell told a packed news conference. Asked whether he was referring to bin Laden, he answered: ‘Yes.’
By Friday Mueller’s men had made their first arrests. An as yet unnamed man was arrested as a material witness in the New York attack and two men detained in Texas were flown to New York by the FBI.
Bush, Powell and the Building of a coalition against terror
Two days earlier, Colin Powell had been ordered home from an official trip to Peru and rushed to the White House for an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. It was a critical meeting that was to define America’s military and diplomatic response to an attack that senior officials were already privately convinced was the work of Osama bin Laden.
The strategy as it emerged that evening among Bush’s shocked officials was to be twin-track. Bush, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage would work rapidly to build an international consensus. The message for waverers, officials briefed the US media, was to be absolutely clear. It was a black and white choice in their relationship with the United States. ‘You’re either with us or against us.’
By Wednesday Powell himself was reinforcing the message. ‘As we gather information and as we look at possible sources of the attack, it would be useful to point out to the Pakistani leadership at every level that we are looking for and expecting their fullest cooperation and their help and support,’ Powell said.
Powell and Bush talked to to America’s allies and potential allies. By Wednesday – after a night and day of whirwind diplomacy – Powell had enlisted support from world leaders ‘to make sure that we go after terrorism and get it by its branch and root’.
Even as the full enormity of the attack continued to sink in, Nato and the UN Security Council were falling in behind the US line. The Security Council, condemning the action, called for ‘all necessary means’ to combat the threat of terrorism – an expression usually the shorthand for military action.
On Wednesday night the 19-member Nato Council was also in full session. At the encouragement of its Secretary General, Lord Robertson, Britain’s former Secretary of State for Defence (and a close ally of Tony Blair), Nato invoked for the first time Article Five of its founding charter that declares an attack on one member an attack on all of the alliance. While falling short of endorsing full Nato support for military reprisals it was in marked contrast to the deep divisions that split the Council’s members over the Kosovo war.
It was left to General Henry Shelton Chairman of the Joint Chiefs discreetly to work out the details of President Bush’s ‘global war on terrorism’ with the Secretary for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld.
Speculation was also mounting this weekend that Vice President Dick Cheney – sent to a secret site by Bush to work on the crisis – had been put in overall command of any attack on bin Laden and Afghanistan. Cheney was taken to Camp David, Maryland, on Thursday to keep him physically separate from Bush. ‘They are going to continue to work on providing aid and comfort to the victims of the crisis and also on establishing who did this,’ said an aide. Another US official described the meeting as intended to begin the decision-making process for military action.
The hard details, however, will be left to Shelton. A former Special Forces veteran from Vietnam who served as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the Gulf, Shelton is one of America’s most decorated senior officers, and former Commander in Chief of Special Operations. In contrast to Powell, Shelton has been markedly more reticent about his brief, coolly declining to discuss the content of any military thinking.
As both houses of Congress moved to rally behind Bush’s efforts to deal with the attacks, the Senate also approved a resolution authorising Bush to ‘use all necessary and appropriate force’ against the perpetrators, including any nations that may have helped them. It was tantamount to a declaration of war.
Indications of what that war might entail were building up in compelling detail by yesterday . For in addition to approving funding for the war – $20 billion for the military effort itself – Congress also gave approval to the call-up of 35,000 reservists, ostensibly for home defence. Defence officials stressed additional activations were likely later to help the active military mount a war against both those who were behind the atrocity last Tuesday and the countries that support them.
At the same time, it emerged from shipbrokers on Friday that the US Military Sealift Command – the US navy’s logistic organisation – had put out tenders for two oil tankers to take 235,000 barrels of marine fuel from Kuwait to Diego Garcia, the US bomber base in the Indian Ocean. It had also booked another tanker, the Cypriot flagged Presnya to carry 28,000 tonnes of aviation fuel from Greece to southern Spain.
The timing of the bookings is significant. It suggests that Shelton planned to have sufficient supplies to fight a war in Afghanistan by the end of this month. And already his officials have been careful to leak the most apocalyptic details of the plans under consideration: of cruise missile strikes from US ships in the Gulf and overflying bombers and of a possible land invasion. One senior official, who asked not to be identified, suggested a raid against Afghanistan, where Saudi-born bin Laden is believed to be based, could come as early as next weekend or the following week. All eyes have turned to the East.
Pakistan: The key to the taliban’s back door
This unwelcome attention was getting to President General Pervez Musharraf yesterday. Four days after the bombings, the charming, urbane Pakistani dictator was locked in discussions with his closest advisors at his low, white presidential palace at the end of Islamabad’s broad Constitution Avenue. He had become the crucial figure in US plans for a retaliatory strike against bin Laden and his Taliban supporters.
Wendy Chamberlin, a 52-year-old mother of two, had visited him last week on her most arduous task since being appointed US ambassador in Islamabad a month earlier. She needed to convince Musharraf to commit to the unthinkable and break his regime’s long-standing alliance with Afghanistan’s brutish Taliban militia at the risk of igniting a fire of Islamic extremism in Pakistan.
On Thursday morning, Chamberlin spent 40 minutes with Musharraf reeling off a list of 18 specific demands from US military planners in what officials described as a ‘frank and forthright’ meeting. Colin Powell followed up with a 15-minute phone call later that night.
Musharraf was left in little doubt as to the gravity of the decision he is now making. In public he immediately offered ‘unstinted cooperation’. In private, he spent hours with his most senior generals wrestling with the question of how much support to give to the US military.
He was preparing to take the biggest gamble of his life last night amid unconfirmed reports that US forces would be allowed to use Pakistan as the launchpad for any attack. Most contentiously, Pakistan’s military ruler has allegedly agreed to allow a multinational force to be stationed inside the country’s borders.
This could backfire on Musharaff. Pakistan’s Islamic clerics have threatened to revolt and the loyalty of the many rightwing officers in his army will be sorely tested.
‘I think if General Musharraf allows the Americans all the access they want, the people of Pakistan will revolt. They will dominate and overwhelm the country,’ said Talat Masood, a retired general and close friend of the dictator. ‘This will not just happen here but in the whole of the Middle East and elsewhere.’
Other sources, however, claimed that no decision had yet been taken on how far to acquiesce to US requests for help. They said Musharraf was unlikely to allow US troops to be stationed in Pakistan – except on a clandestine basis – because of fears of an Islamic backlash from religious parties and from Pakistan’s powerful militant groups.
The US has asked Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan and to allow its airspace to be used for possible strikes. It has also demanded that Pakistan share any intelligence it may have over the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Pakistan, in return, is believed to sought assurances that any ground troops dispatched to Pakistan would be multinational, not only American, because of Islamic sensitivities.
The talks yesterday followed a meeting of Musharraf his corps commanders, some of whom are known Islamists, at Army House in Rawalpindi for more than six hours. As they talked they would have heard the loudspeakers broadcasting sermons for Friday prayers in mosques across the city.
The destruction of the World Trade Centre was a ‘punishment from God for what the Americans have done to Muslims,’ Maulana Abdul Aziz told his congregation. ‘We will join the jihad (holy war) against the West if the Americans dare attack Afghanistan,’ said Hasan Jan, another cleric.
Even the rarefied atmosphere of Islamabad, a neat but lifeless city of bureaucrats sitting at the foot of the lush Margalla hills, was broken as overcrowded mosques spilled out onto the streets as thousands gathered to hear the clerics preach.
‘We shall be on the streets. We will be shouting against Americans and the whole Muslim world will be shouting against Americans if Pakistan caves in to Washington,’ said Munawwar Hassan, a leader of Jamaat-e Islami, Pakistan’s largest Islamic party.
Anger and fervour: America prepares to take action
Musharraf’s unease will not have been helped by the latest news yesterday. Public anger was mounting in America along with outpourings of patriotic fervour. Some had little interest in justice, just revenge.
Joan Renshaw, a grandmother in Atlanta, said: ‘I’m angry. I’m hoping we wipe these people out, and if we need to, wipe out the country that is hosting them. Just get rid of the them all.’
Phil Beckwith, 63, a former navy chief petty officer from Wyoming, had another idea. ‘I know just what to do with these Arab people,’ he said. ‘We have to find them, kill them, wrap them in a pigskin and bury them. That way they will never go to heaven. Bury Osama bin Laden with a pigskin, donate blood for the people in New York and God bless this great country.’
At the Panhandle Gunslingers, a gun shop in Amarillo, Texas, the owner had placed a pile of photocopies of Osama bin Laden by the till for customers to have as ‘free targets’.
In New York, taxis, restaurants and shops are all draped with the stars and stripes. Sales of American flags are at a record high. In Times Square, every public TV screen was filled with pictures of the stars and stripes, and the hoardings draped with dozens of flags. Huge painted banners declared: ‘Freedom will be defended.’
One survey showed that 86 per cent of Americans now consider the country to be at war. More firefighters died in the collapse of the World Trade Centre than all personnel killed in all US conflicts since the invasion of Granada in 1983.
At an enlistment centre in the Aurora Mall in Denver, Jason Stuart was yesterday waiting to follow in the footstep’s of his grandfather. ‘The very day after Pearl Harbour, my grandad told his family he wanted to join the military and I couldn’t get that out of my mind,’ said Stuart, 24, who had watched the attacks on television. ‘I thought somebody has to pay for this. I felt this was something I had to do.’
Haunted by America’s last great war against Vietnam, other Americans opposed to military action held candlelit vigils in Manhattan on Friday night.
In Union Square, the biggest rally gathered beneath an equestrian statue scaled by mourners, draped with American flags and covered with the word ‘Peace’, in chalk. ‘Pray for the Dead,’ read one placard, ‘And Fight Like Hell For the Living’. ‘An Eye for An Eye Makes the World Blind’, said another.
From the bombed-out wastes of Afghanistan, the country’s Islamic spiritual leader and close friend of bin Laden also issued a rally call to his countrymen. ‘We must stand steadfast against the enemy,’ Mullah Mohamed Omar said in a radio address. ‘Death comes to everyone. We must stand proud as Afghans in the defence of Islam. Believe in God, for with the grace of God the American rockets will go astray and we will be saved. We shall be victorious!’
In Baghdad, they had celebrated the New York and Washington attacks, raising speculation that Iraq may also become a target for American strikes. US officials have made clear that they are investigating links between Iraq and bin Laden.
‘America needs wisdom, not force,’ Saddam Hussein said in an open letter to the west carried by the official Iraqi News Agency (INA) and television and radioyesterday. ‘It had used force, along with the West, to its extreme extent, only to find out later that it did not achieve what they wanted.
‘Will the rulers of America try wisdom just for once so that their people can live in security and stability?’ he asked.
On a tour of New York on Friday, George Bush had a message to his people. As dust-covered rescue workers stopped digging through the rubble for a moment, Bush declared: ‘I can hear you and the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.’
Bush was last night holding a top-level summit at Camp David, surrounded by generals, intelligence chiefs and key advisers. Armed with congressional approval to ‘use all necessary and appropriate force’, the President was meeting to plot a war. Reporters and television crews from dozens of countries stood around outside in the crisp autumn sunshine.
The world is watching, and waiting, for news.