WASHINGTON – Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, has told American interrogators that he first discussed the plot with Osama bin Laden in 1996 and that the original plan called for hijacking five commercial jets on each U.S. coast before it was modified several times, according to interrogation reports reviewed by The Associated Press.
Mohammed also divulged that, in its final stages, the hijacking plan called for as many as 22 terrorists and four planes in a first wave, followed by a second wave of suicide hijackings that were to be aided possibly by al-Qaida allies in southeast Asia, according to the reports.
Over time, bin Laden scrapped various parts of the Sept. 11 plan, including attacks on both coasts and hijacking or bombing some planes in East Asia, Mohammed is quoted as saying in reports that shed new light on the origins and evolution of the plot of Sept. 11, 2001.
Addressing one of the questions raised by congressional investigators in their Sept. 11 review, Mohammed said he never heard of a Saudi man named Omar al-Bayoumi who provided some rent money and assistance to two hijackers when they arrived in California.
Congressional investigators have suggested Bayoumi could have aided the hijackers or been a Saudi intelligence agent, charges the Saudi government vehemently deny. The FBI has also cast doubt on the congressional theory after extensive investigation and several interviews with al-Bayoumi.
In fact, Mohammed claims he did not arrange for anyone on U.S. soil to assist hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi when they arrived in California. Mohammed said there “were no al-Qaida operatives or facilitators in the United States to help al-Mihdhar or al-Hazmi settle in the United States,” one of the reports states.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were on the plane that was flown into the Pentagon.
Mohammed portrays those two hijackers as central to the plot, and even more important than Mohammed Atta, initially identified by Americans as the likely hijacking ringleader.
Mohammed said he communicated with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar while they were in the United States by using Internet chat software, the reports state.
Mohammed said al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were among the four original operatives bin Laden assigned to him for the plot, a significant revelation because those were the only two hijackers whom U.S. authorities were frantically seeking for terrorist ties in the final days before Sept. 11.
U.S. authorities continue to investigate the many statements that Mohammed has made in interrogations, seeking to eliminate deliberate misinformation. But they have been able to corroborate with other captives and evidence much of his account of the Sept. 11 planning.
Mohammed told his interrogators the hijacking teams were originally made up of members from different countries where al-Qaida had recruited, but that in the final stages bin Laden chose instead to use a large group of young Saudi men to populate the hijacking teams.
As the plot came closer to fruition, Mohammed learned “there was a large group of Saudi operatives that would be available to participate as the muscle in the plot to hijack planes in the United States,” one report says Mohammed told his captors.
Saudi Arabia was bin Laden’s home, though it revoked his citizenship in the 1990s, and he reviled its alliance with the United States during the Gulf War and beyond. Saudis have suggested for months that bin Laden has been trying to drive a wedge between the United States and their kingdom, hoping to fracture the alliance.
U.S. intelligence has suggested that Saudis were chosen, instead, because there were large numbers willing to follow bin Laden and they could more easily get into the United States because of the countries’ friendly relations.
Mohammed’s interrogation report states he told Americans some of the original operatives assigned to the plot did not make it because they had trouble getting into the United States.
Mohammed was captured in a March 1 raid by Pakistani forces and CIA operatives in Rawalpindi. He is being interrogated by the CIA at an undisclosed location.
He told interrogators about other terror plots that were in various stages of planning or had been temporarily disrupted when he was captured, including one planned for Singapore.
The sources that allowed AP to review the reports insisted that specific details not be divulged about those operations because U.S. intelligence continues to investigate some of the methods and search for some of the operatives.
The interrogation reports make dramatically clear that Mohammed and al-Qaida were still actively looking to strike U.S., Western and Israeli targets across the world as of this year.
Mohammed told his interrogators he had worked in 1994 and 1995 in the Philippines with Ramzi Yousef, Abdul Hakim Murad and Wali Khan Amin Shah on the foiled Bojinka plot to blow up 12 Western airliners simultaneously in Asia.
After Yousef and Murad were captured, foiling the plot in its final stages, Mohammed began to devise a new plot that focused on hijackings on U.S. soil.
In 1996, he went to meet bin Laden to persuade the al-Qaida leader “to give him money and operatives so he could hijack 10 planes in the United States and fly them into targets,” one of the interrogation reports state.
Mohammed told interrogators his initial thought was to pick five targets on each coast, but bin Laden was not convinced such a plan was practical, the reports stated.
Mohammed said bin Laden offered him four operatives to begin with – al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi as well as two Yemenis, Walid Muhammed bin Attash and Abu Bara al-Yemeni.
“All four operatives only knew that they had volunteered for a martyrdom operation involving planes,” one report stated.
Mohammed said the first major change to the plans occurred in 1999 when the two Yemeni operatives could not get U.S. visas. Bin Laden then offered him additional operatives, including a member of his personal security detail. The original two Yemenis were instructed to focus on hijacking planes in East Asia.
Mohammed said through the various iterations of the plot, he considered using a scaled-down version of the Bojinka plan that would have bombed commercial airliners, and that he even “contemplated attempting to down the planes using shoes bombs,” one report said.
The plot, he said, eventually evolved into hijacking a small number of planes in the United States and East Asia and either having them explode or crash into targets simultaneously, the reports stated.
By 1999, the four original operatives picked for the plot traveled to Afghanistan to train at one of bin Laden’s camps. The focus, Mohammed said, was on specialized commando training, not piloting jets.
Mohammed’s interrogations have revealed the planning and training of operatives was extraordinarily meticulous, including how to blend into American society, read telephone yellow pages, and research airline schedules.
A key event in the plot, Mohammed told his interrogators, was a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, that included al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi and other al-Qaida operatives. The CIA learned of the meeting beforehand and had it monitored by Malaysian security, but it did not realize the significance of the two eventual hijackers until just before the attacks.
The interrogation reports state bin Laden further trimmed Mohammed’s plans in spring 2000 when he canceled the idea for hijackings in East Asia, thus narrowing it to the United States. Bin Laden thought “it would be too difficult to synchronize” attacks in the United States and Asia, one interrogation report quotes Mohammed as saying.
Mohammed said around that time he reached out to an al-Qaida linked group in southeast Asia known as Jemaah Islamiyah. He began “recruiting JI operatives for inclusion in the hijacking plot as part of his second wave of hijacking attacks to occur after Sept. 11,” one summary said.
Jemaah Islamiyah’s operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin Hambali, had attended part of the January 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur but Mohammed said he was there at that time only because “as a rule had had to be informed” of events in his region. Later, Hambali’s operative began training possible recruits for the second wave, according to the interrogation report.
One of those who received training in Malaysia before coming to the United States was Zacarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui has denied being part of the Sept. 11 plot, and U.S. and foreign intelligence officials have said he could have been set for hijacking a plane in a later wave of attacks.