Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
People take off running, trying to escape the debris as one of the World Trade Center towers collapses yesterday morning in New York City.<br><br>AP PHOTO

WASHINGTON The air attacks yesterday morning in New York and Washington and a jetliner crash in Pennsylvania were the work of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy that deftly skirted a beleaguered U.S. airport security system and placed terrorists on four separate planes, senior FBI officials believe.

Authorities suspect that the terrorists had help from airport ground crews, that they chose cross-country flights because the planes would be heavily loaded with fuel and their ranks included hijackers who could fly planes.

But what investigators found most surprising was the timing. They marveled at how teams of hijackers working in at least three different cities simultaneously overpowered commercial planes in the air before federal authorities could shut down all flights across the country.

In doing so, the terrorists penetrated an airport security net that many had warned previously is inadequate.

Lewis Schiliro, who as head of the FBI office in New York helped oversee investigations into the explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 and an earlier bombing at the World Trade Center, was left in utter disbelief by what he saw unfold yesterday morning.

“I”ve been chilled by a lot of things,” Schiliro said. “But this is something I just can”t begin to comprehend. They put this together very, very neatly.”

A senior FBI official in Washington said, simply: “We”re just amazed at the level of coordination this would have taken.”

Now begins the painstaking law enforcement process of trying to determine how America”s security was breached. “You”ve got every place that these jets were hijacked from,” said one senior FBI official in Washington.

“We will check for cars in the parking lots that may have been left. What happened at the airport gateways? How did they get through? What is on the passenger lists, the luggage lists?

“We will be screening television monitors and if there are cameras available, we will look to see if there was more that one hijacker. There probably were four or five on each flight, maybe, and what are their connections with other passengers?

“Were the tickets purchased sequentially? What about cab drivers? Who gave people rides to the airport? It”s just an incredible myriad of leads to follow up on.”

“And then you look at our own intelligence. Did we miss something? Was there radio telephone traffic that referred to something that was going to occur today?”

It is unclear whether any guns were used in the hijackings. But a passenger in one of the hijacked planes called her husband and reported that the terrorists were armed with knives and cardboard cutters.

“My guess is you have to put somebody in the pilot”s seat, and I would tend to think you would need a gun,” Schiliro said.

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