9-11: The Attack; Chaos Theory, considered


This is the third and final in a series of articles dealing in military terms with the events of September 11, 2001, and the aftermath. The first article dealt specifically with the classic principles of war. The second article examined the components of the attack from a military point of view.  We turn to chaos theory in this last article to better understand why the nation was confused as to what was happening and why it remained confused, thereafter.

In the second article we established that the attack was on two axes, each with two prongs. That is a complex operation, irrespective of scale. Such an attack is intended to create chaos and confuse the opponent.

The descriptive, “chaos,” is routinely used by authors to describe the events of 9/11. The Commission report is no exception.  No author or commentator bothers to define chaos, it is simply used as shared knowledge between author and reader. Here are links to earlier articles that provide some insight.

Chaos Theory and 9-11, some preliminary thoughts

Chaos Theory: 9-11, thinking outloud

Chaos Theory: the butterfly effect, a ghostly experience

Chaos Theory: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, dealing with Chaos

Chaos Theory, Considered

We begin with a brief discussion about the definition of chaos. Here are three useful perspectives, to set the stage:

The dictionary definition is the sense that most people have when they refer to something as chaos or chaotic. And that is the shared, knowing understanding between authors and readers about the events of 9/11.

The Barlett Quotation contrasts what chaos is all about with what we do to get through day-to-day life. We instill order–habits for ourselves, and routines for our families and social groups. For the defenders on 9/11, the order was standard operating procedures or tactics, techniques and procedures, routines that were supposed to work. Even though chaos lurks daily at every turn, we hope that processes and procedures in place will stand us in good stead.

M. J. Girardot, in writing about early Taoism, (Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism) decided that the Chinese word for chaos, hun-tun, was, from Lewis and Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, a portmanteau word, that is one packed with meaning. To Humpty, chortle was chuckle and snort packed together. To us, avionics, aviation and electronics, is a portmanteau word.

Regardless of definition or perspective, chaos is deterministic. Chaos has bounds and can be described using mathematics, the logistic equation and fractal geometry, for example. However, the mathematics of chaos cannot be applied to the events of 9/11, despite the near universal use of the word to describe what was happening and what did happen.

There is a possible exception. It is conceivable that fractal geometry could be used to map the progress of the massive cloud of dust and debris that resulted from the collapse of the two towers.  If so, some future mathematician will create the map.

Mathematics aside, what we can do is use chaos as a metaphor. Specifically, the language of chaos provides a useful qualitative tool for assessing what happened during the battle, in the immediate aftermath, and thereafter, to this day.

The Language of Chaos

Four terms help us “unpack” the portmanteau of chaos concerning the Battle of 9/11.

  • Strange Attractors
  • Nonlinearity
  • Cascading Bifurcation
  • Disruptive Feedback

However, there is a fifth, overarching term that we need to discuss first, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, commonly referred to as ‘the butterfly effect.’

The Butterfly Effect and 9/11

Dependent initial conditions are only knowable retrospectively. I leave it to the long reach of history to provide a refined list of initial conditions important to the events of September 11, 2001. Two candidate topics come immediately to mind; the ‘wall’ between law enforcement and intelligence, and the relaxed visa issuance process in Saudi Arabia that would become Visa Express.

Concerning the Battle of 9/11, two initial conditions stand out, the hijack protocol, and the lack of a defined relationship between the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center).

The hijack protocol was obsolete. It had not been used for years and if exercised at all the exercise play was notional.  Herndon Center did facilitate a conference call with Cleveland and New York Centers and then with New York TRACON when Boston Center notified Herndon about the hijacking of Americsn Airlines Flight 11 (AA 11). However, Herndon Center simply referred the requirement to notify air defense back to Boston Center.

NEADS, the controlling organization for the four dedicated air defense aircraft, had a long established practice of dealing directly with the en route traffic control centers, specifically Boston and New York. At no time during the battle of 9/11 did NEADS ever talk to Herndon Center. NEADS simply got on with business as if Herndon Center did not exist. It is not surprising, in retrospect, that NEADS and Boston Center became “strange attractors” in the language of chaos theory.

Strange Attractors

Ian Stewart in Does God Play Dice, has it about right. “A…dynamical system…in the long run, settles down to an attractor…defined to be…what ever it settles down to.” The concept is that strange attractors cannot be predicted. Things self organize and information flows to and between specific, receptive entities.

Managers and leaders can only strive to organize things in the hopes they might get lucky in their vision of the future. Ideally, one would like the flow of information in a chaotic situation to be to the people or places that need it the most.

The fact of the matter is that information will follow the path of least resistance. If there are barriers in place, ‘The Wall,’ ‘The Green Door,’ A hijack protocol that was in  the words of a Commission Team 8 memo to the front office, “unsuited in every respect” to the events that would occur, then there is no chance in a fast-moving chaotic situation.

In a very perfect world the defense on 9/11 might have had a remote chance, if and only if the strange attractors were the operator of the NAS and its defender on the East Coast. Those were named individuals, Benedict Sliney, the National Operations Manager, and Colonel Robert Marr, the commander of NEADS. They had never met, their predecessors had likely never met, and their organizations did not communicate with each other either in the real world or in exercises.

What ever it settles down to.  Organizationally, the strange attractors became Boston Center and NEADS, but the identity of the strange attractors is far more precise than that. The flow of critical information was largely controlled by just two individuals, the Military Operations Specialist at Boston Center, Colin Scoggins, and the chief of the Identification Section at NEADS, Master Sergeant Maureen “Mo” Dooley.

That was a sub-optimum solution all around. Herndon Center and NEADS, separately, were talking to the front line of troops, the FAA’s en route air traffic control centers—New York, Washington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Boston. However, the two organizations never shared a common operating picture of the battlefield.

Government, by and large, operates in a linear world. In that world, NEADS focused outward and established tactics, techniques, and procedures to protect the nation’s shores. To do so it logically established working relationships with FAA en route centers that controlled overseas and off shore flights. For its part, Herndon Center focused inward to manage the flow of air traffic between en route centers.  There was no logical reason for the twain to meet. So they didn’t.

The NEADS world was linear, punctuated by occasional bursts of chaos when unidentified tracks showed up on their scopes. The Herndon Center world was largely chaotic, by necessity. Its daily foe was weather, a chaotic creature by any definition.  It is no accident that a key position at Herndon Center is called Severe Weather.  To put it another way, the NEADS world was largely linear, the Herndon Center world was decidedly nonlinear.


Nonlinearity is another difficult term to define in terms of chaos theory. Most of us have had experience trying to hit a pitched baseball or softball. If nothing else that experience teaches that we live in a nonlinear world, despite what we might have learned in high school geometry.

For perspective, we turn again to Ian Stewart in Does God Play with Dice. “Linearity…to be brutal…solves the wrong equations.” “[One hopes] that no one will notice when it’s the wrong answer.” “Nature is relentlessly nonlinear. Linearity is a trap.”

And that’s the problem with linear processes or procedures. They provide the wrong answer in a dynamic situation. Yet, with minor exception, the nation’s response on 9/11 was linear. Here is a list of linear processes that solved the wrong equations leading to a series of wrong answers.

  • Hijack Protocol
  • FAA Primary Net
  • National Military Command Center (NMCC) Conferences
  • Secure Video Teleconference System (SVTS)
  • Rescue Coordination Center
  • Continuity of Government

Every process listed was attempted and failed during the battle of 9/11. Why? Each process brought with it the baggage of linearity—things were done by rote, by SOP, or by tactics, techniques and procedures.

The hijack protocol wasn’t even used. It failed when Herndon Center turned the responsibility to notify the military back to Boston Center.

The FAA primary net and the two NMCC conferences that were convened failed to connect the FAA and the military in any meaningful way.

The SVTS, a cold-war, isolated system, to put it bluntly, decapitated the leadership of national level organizations by separating them from their staffs.

The Rescue Coordination Center at Langley knew that American flight 77 (AA 77) was lost at 9:10. That information never made it to Base Operations, a party to the battle stations and scramble calls from NEADS to the air defense detachment at Langley.

The NMCC’s convention of an Air Threat Conference, at NORAD request, brought with it SIOP (Single Integrated Operations Plan)  baggage and facilitated a rapid government decision to implement unnecessary Continuity of Government and Continuity of Operations procedures.

Accurate, controlled feedback was needed all along the line. Uncontrolled feedback becomes disruptive and that is what happened on 9/11. Once it was known Mohammed Atta said, “we have some planes,” and New York Center confirmed,”planes as in plural,” the situation became nonlinear. The nation had no dynamic response. Instead, linear procedures continued and the President and Vice President were summarily dispatched from the battlefield, one to PEOC (President’s Emergency Operations Center) purgatory, the other to hightail it to the hinterlands.

Boston Center and Herndon Center, two notable exceptions

Boston Center, left to its own devices, called Otis Command Post directly in an attempt to get air defense fighters involved. Even so, they ran squarely into linearity and were told that had to work through NEADS.  Later, the Center appealed to Herndon Center to direct cockpit notifications to flights in the air. Boston did not wait for that direction and began calling flights in its air space directly.

Herndon Center, habitually conditioned to handle chaos because of weather, did not wait for guidance from above. Benedict Sliney directed a nationwide ground stop and then grounded all commercial flights in the air. Chaos is deterministic, it can be bounded. And Herndon Center did just that, it bounded a chaotic situation, just as it does every heavy weather day.

Those simple and swift decisions put a stop to cascading bifurcation, the next term on our discussion list.

Cascading Bifurcation

We don’t need a detailed discussion when a picture will do, derived from the work of Ian Stewart.

Cascading Bifurcation Stewart Derivation

In a chaotic situation bifurcation continues until things self-organize differently than they were before. The first two bifurcations should be immediately recognizable. They represent an attack on two axes of advance, each axis with two prongs. For the offense the bifurcation stopped there. For the defense the bifurcation continued as false information, misinformation, and lack of information brought about chaos. And that chaos continued during the battle of 9/11 until Benedict Sliney brought things back to order, certainly much different than they were before. But not before disruptive feedback produced a discordant chorus of information that simply overwhelmed the national level.

Disruptive Feedback

For insight we turn, in this instance, to Jim Lesurf, Chaos on the Circuit Board, “New Scientist, June 1990.” According to Lesurf, “feedback must be added with care….Adding feedback to a nonlinear [situation] with gain is a recipe for chaos.”  Here are the important examples of disruptive feedback that became ingredients for the 9/11 chaos recipe.

  • A new track, AA 11 Alpha
  • False report that AA 11 was still airborne
  • Report that Delta Flight 1989 was hijacked
  • A new flight plan for United Flight 93 (UA 93)
  • Report of an unknown aircraft over the White House

New York Center added a new track because the standard procedure was that Boston Center had to ‘hand off’ AA 11, something it thought it could not do. The new track, combined with a late report that American Flight 77 was lost, may have contributed to erroneous information that AA 11 was still airborne. Delta 1989 was presumed hijacked because it fit the sketchy profile concerning AA 11 and United Flight 175 (UA 175). A sudden change in the flight plan for UA 93 created a track in the Traffic Display System (TSD) that became notional but was perceived as real. The “unknown” over the White House was one of the Langley fighters. In the ensuing chaos, one Langley Fighter was sent to intercept another. Two of the three Langley fighters were squawking identical codes and neither Washington Center nor NEADS could tell one from the other.

A Quick Summary

At this point the reader likely needs time to digest what we’ve covered so far. There are heavy seas ahead as we steer the narrative deeper into chaos by bringing cascading bifurcation back into the conversation. So before we do that, what have we learned?  First, we have learned that the military model we discussed in the first two articles in this series continues to be useful.  Second, we now have a grasp, however tenuous, on the use of chaos as a metaphor, specifically the language of chaos.  Interested readers may want to devote time to Ian Stewart’s book, Does God Play Dice.

Okay, now that we’ve caught our breath let’s return to cascading bifurcation and see what effect the attack on two axes of advance, each axis with two prongs, had on the defense on the morning of September 11, 2001. We start with a timeline of the attack and the national response, a highly condensed but straightforward and expanded depiction of Chapter One of the Commission Report, “We Have Some Planes.”

The Attack, Retrospectively

The Attack, Retrospectively

The base time line represents national level actions. A NOIWON was convened at 9:16, the FAA’s primary net was activated at 9:20, the NMCC’s air threat conference was activated about the time the Pentagon was struck. An SVTS conference was convened at 9:40. The critical 9:10 time, in green was nowhere recognized as an opportunity.

The progression of the attack is depicted above the timeline. Clearly, by the time the national level achieved some semblance of organization, the only plane left to deal with was UA 93.  And it is on this very point that the national level account in the aftermath was incoherent.  The account, which focused on AA 77, was fatally flawed from inception.

The attack began at 5:45 when Mohammed Atta and abdul Azziz al Omari entered the National Airspace System at Portland, Maine.

Chaos was introduced during the period 8:42 to 8:51, the approximate times that UA 175 and AA 77 were hijacked. Bifurcation had begun, but had not yet cascaded.

AA 11 was hijacked at 8:14 and crashed into the World Trade Center, North Tower, thirty-two minutes later, at 8:46. UA 175 was hijacked at 0842 and crashed into the south tower twenty-one minutes later at 0903. The Northern axis of the attack was over and the southern axis overlapped and was in progress.

AA77 was hijacked at 8:51 and slammed into the Pentagon forty-seven minutes later at 0938. The timing of the second prong of the southern axis was delayed by the late takeoff of UA 93 from Newark. That plane was not hijacked until 9:28 and plummeted to ground at Shanksville thirty-five minutes later.

From time of takeover of AA 11 to the demise of UA93, the attack lasted just one hour and forty-nine minutes. The most chaotic time was from 8:42 to 9:03. During that twenty-one minute period two planes were hijacked (UA 175 and AA 77) and two planes crashed into the World Trade Center (AA 11 and UA 175). It was a double bifurcation. The main attack bifurcated into two axes and the northern axis bifurcated into a two-pronged attack.

Dimly aware of the complexity of a single two-pronged attack, and unaware of the developing of a second axis of attack, the national level response was to activate cumbersome linear response systems. While UA 93 was being hijacked the nation was struggling to activate its three primary response processes, the FAA primary net, an NMCC conference of some sort, and an SVTS conference.

No one at the national level realized that all the key agencies were already communicating via secure phone. At 9:16 the CIA convened a NOIWON conference to try and find out what was going on. Every member of the WAOC (Washington Area Operations Centers) was on the line, including the FAA.

The net result of the persistence in following established procedures was that the nation’s leadership and crisis management system had no chance to take advantage of the single time at which actionable information became available, 9:10.

At that time, Indianapolis Center reported the loss of AA 77 to Great Lakes Region and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. NEADS made a critical tactical decision to keep Langley fighters on battle stations and not scramble. The Otis fighters had reached their closest point to Washington D.C. Most important, and undetected because no one cued NEADS, AA 77 was reacquired by the Joint Surveillance System supporting NEADS.

And that is what happened, or rather did not happen. From the attackers’ perspective the attack was over. Now, let’s add cascading bifurcation to the depiction and see what the defense was seeing and doing.

Cascading Bifurcation

Chaotic Situational Awarness

Here is the attack, as observed by the defenders. Situational awareness bifurcated in every case. Three of the four planes changed identities because of the terrorist tactic of manipulating the four transponders in four different ways. AA11 became AA11A, UA175 became code 3321, and AA77 became a fast-moving, non-transponding, intruder.

The tracks for  AA 11 and UA 175 continued, notionally, on their original flight plans in the TSD system. AA 77 also continued notionally, on its original flight plan, and was also reported lost.

In the Northern attack, AA11 flew into the North WTC Tower, but became reborn to the defenders, most likely because of a garbled misunderstanding of the reported loss of AA 77. Mode C Intruder, 3321 (UA 175), flew into the South World Trade Center Tower.

In the Southern attack, the fast-moving unknown (AA 77), itself, became two threats, one to the Pentagon (actual) and one to the White House as perceived by air traffic controllers.

UA 93 was conflated with Delta 1989. That conflation continued in the aftermath. NEADS did establish a track on Delta 1989, the only viable track it established during the battle. Moreover, Delta 1989 was the only plane reported to be hijacked, by NORAD, in the national level Air Threat Conference. UA 93 crashed at Shanksville, a fact known at Cleveland Center, Herndon Center, NEADS, and Washington Center. That fact was reported to FAA Headquarters, but that is as far as national level awareness got. The track continued, notionally,  in the TSD system and “landed” at Reagan National at 10:28. That was the track that Norman Mineta was following.

The national level did not sort out accurate information concerning AA 77 and UA 93. Therefore, those who testified to the 9/11 Commission in May 2003 (Corrected, April 22, 2015) 1993–Garvey, Mineta, McKinley– conflated information concerning UA 93 to apply to AA 77.

Three different threats–AA 11 reborn, the fast moving threat to the White House, a notional UA 93– became added “gain,” disruptive feedback, our next topic for discussion.

Disruptive Feedback

Feedback, in two cases, facilitated the counterattack, but became chaotic thereafter.  The AA 11 reborn false report caused NORAD to launch the Langley fighters, but with an interim destination of Baltimore Washington International airport. The objective was to defend against an attack from the North against the nation’s capital.  The threat, however, was fast approaching from the West; NEADS was unaware until the final moments.

The false Delta 1989 report caused NEADS to expand operations in the sector operations center. NEADS quickly acquired Delta 1989 as a track, which it followed continuously. The disruption came in the aftermath when NEADS conflated its tracking of Delta 1989 to pertain to UA 93.

The disruptive feedback of a notional UA 93 threatening the National Capital Region resulted in the launch of an expeditionary force, the Andrews fighters, into an existing air defense combat air patrol (CAP) established by NEADS using the Langley fighters.  Chaos ensued as air traffic controllers and NEADS tried to sort things out. There were ultimately seven fighters in the CAP, three from Langley and four from Andrews. There was nothing against which to defend.

NORAD and the nation transitioned from that rough beginning to Operation Noble Eagle, a costly, nation-wide effort to patrol empty skies. Concurrently, staffs in the FAA and NORAD chains-of-command set about trying to figure out what had happened. The cascading bifurcation and disruptive feedback we have discussed were never figured out. Critical staff errors made at NEADS were never corrected. Therefore, the national explanation, itself, became a chaotic mess.

It was left to the 9/11 Commission to uncover that mess and get it sorted.  During discovery, Team 8 Team Leader, John Farmer crafted a memo to the front office. There is no better description of what the Commission staff found and what the task was.  Farmer wrote:

“In perhaps no aspect of the 9-11 attacks is the public record, as reflected in both news accounts and testimony before this Commission, so flatly at odds with the truth.” “The challenge in relating the history of one of the most chaotic days in our history…is to avoid replicating that chaos in writing about it.”

Chaos in the aftermath

Tsunami-like, is one way to describe the effect of the tidal wave of chaos that has swept the world since 9/11.  Ted Koppel well described the state of affairs nearly five years ago. Here is what I wrote in 2010.

Ted Koppel

Today’s (Sep 12, 2010) Washington Post featured an above-the-fold editorial in the “Outlook” section by Ted Koppel; “Let’s stop playing into bin Laden’s hands.”  At the end of the continuation, “Our overreaction to 9/11 continues,” Koppel posed a rhetorical question.  “Could bin Laden in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos?”

Readers will pardon me from leaping ahead of my own story; that question by Koppel is too good to resist.  (Koppel, as does nearly every other writer, researcher, and historian, uses the word “chaos” without definition.)

I need to speak to his use of the term in the context of his article, my own understanding of chaos, and my understanding of political revolutionary warfare.

As I am writing, David Gregory on “Meet the Press,” (Sep 12, 2010) is discussing the Koppel article with Rudy Giuliani.  Gregory quotes Koppel extensively including the text: “Through the initial spending of a few hundred thousand dollars, training and then sacrificing 19 of his foot soldiers, bin Laden has watched [al Qaeda] turn into the most recognized international franchise since McDonald’s.”

My initial intent

It was, and remains, my intention to write a series of articles detailing the national level’s descent into chaos the morning of 9-11.  I have posted an initial article depicting the friendly situation at 10:10, the time that Air Force One turned away from a return to the capital.

A paradigm shift

Koppel’s narrative is a game changer.  He extends the chaos metaphor far beyond the events of 9-11 by stating that we have “played into bin Laden’s hands.”  And that leads me to the subject of political revolutionary warfare.

My experience

For six years (1974-1980) I was the lead instructor and course manager for the Navy’s Counterinsurgency Orientation (COIN) course at the Naval Amphibious School, Coronado.  During those six years we changed the focus of the course to revolutionary warfare.  The course name changed as well to become a political revolutionary warfare seminar, “Political Warfare Studies.”

We developed a detailed framework to analyze revolutionary and political movements.  I will write about that framework in the future.  For those interested, I did address the framework in this thread on the Small Wars Council forum.

For now it is sufficient to simply state two things that are inherent in any qualitative revolutionary movement.

First, the goal of any revolutionary movement that knows what it is doing is to give the opposition every opportunity to believe in the myth of a military victory.

Second, in the words of Dr. Tom Grassey, Capt (USN-retired), one of our lecturers, an objective of revolutionaries is to encourage the status quo to “strangle in its own strength.”  (Tom Grassey is the former James B. Stockdale Professor of Leadership and Ethics, Naval War College; and former Editor, Naval War College Review.)

Today, Ted Koppel said, “The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response.”  He  is saying the same thing that Grassey articulated a quarter century ago.

Have we learned nothing?  I will have much, much more to say.

Interested readers may want to review my article “Sudden an Eagle Tarnished,” for additional perspective.

Forward to the present

It has taken me five years to pull everything together in this article. Missing until recently was the clear understanding that the battle of 9/11 was a military action not a terrorist attack, one which triggered a massive military response that continues to this day, with no end in sight.

In our discussion of chaos and chaos theory we have learned that chaos can be bounded. That lesson was learned on 9/11 when Benedict Sliney and his staff at Herndon Center ordered all commercial aircraft to land. The lesson did not resonate at the national level, however.

Thereafter, national actions, specifically the invasion of Iraq, unleashed chaos in the Arab world. What began as an optimistic Arab Spring has bifurcated multiple times and out of that cascade the Islamic State emerged. Ultimately, a new order of things will emerge. Chaos will eventually bound itself; it must. And things will never be the way they were before.

Scholars far more learned will try to tell us about that, but it remains for historians well into the future to try and get the story right.  Hopefully, they will do better than those in government who came up with a nonsensical account of the day of September 11, 2001.


So, we have come to the end of my main work that began with what I felt, heard, and saw when AA 77 slammed into the west side of the Pentagon. The road traveled was interesting, including staff assignments to both the Congressional Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission.

There is remaining work to do on bits and pieces scattered here and there in my posts and pages. I will get at those loose ends at a leisurely pace. I will also continue to monitor things via a 9/11 Google Alert and post when the mood strikes.

Alert readers will know that I have left an interesting story yet untold, one that I promised to include in this article.  Didn’t happen, but I will get around to it.

Amidst the near total chaos during the battle of 9/11 the Otis air defense fighters broke military formation and headed for New York City, leaving the nation’s capital undefended in the process.  The question is did they do that on their own recognizance or were they ordered to do so? The definitive answer is lost in the fog of war and the chaos of the morning. But it is an interesting story that needs to be told.

9-11: The Attack; A Military Operation, examined

Author’s Note

The major sources for this article are the 9/11 Commission Report and Commission Staff, Team 7, Monograph, “Staff Report, August 26, 2004.” All times are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).


This is the second of a series of three articles discussing the attack on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, as a military action. In the first article we discussed the attack in terms of the classic principles of war. In this article we examine the components of the attack in military terms. We begin, however, with a principle we have not discussed, one that overarches the classic principles.

It is a military imperative that the odds of success in battle are improved by getting within the decision cycle of the opponent. Staying inside the cycle, once there, is added exponential value. The 9-11 attackers did all that, not once, but twice.

Decision Cycle Successes

Strategically, the attackers were always well within the decision cycle of the government bureaucracy. The attack came during the transition from one administration to another. Such transitions move forward by fits and starts as a new administration grapples with the policies and priorities of the old order as they fit or, more likely, do not fit well with the policies and priorities of the new order. What to do about counter-terrorism and the emerging threat of the spring and summer of 2001 was just one aspect of the transition.

The details of the transition period are well covered in the reports of both the Congressional Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission. Both the Inquiry and the Commission found that a key transition meeting concerning the terrorist threat was scheduled for September 12, 2001. The attackers were within that decision cycle by one day.

Tactically, the attackers were also well within the decision cycles of both the operator and the defender of the National Airspace System. The operator, the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, moved quickly to a decision to ground all commercial air traffic. Concurrently, the Center moved fitfully to a decision to issue a cockpit warning to commercial aircraft in the air. Both decisions were the right thing to do; both decisions failed to save United Airlines flight 93 (UA93). The attackers were within the decision cycle of their enemy and that advantage held long enough to allow the hijacking of the fourth plane.

The attackers also operated within the decision cycle of the air defenders, overwhelmingly in the attack against New York City, barely so in the attack against Washington, DC.

In the chaotic last minutes of the flight of American Airlines flight 77 (AA 77) the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) did acquire the fast moving unknown (AA 77) as a target; to no avail. The Langley fighters, by then airborne, were 150 nautical miles away, over the ocean. The Otis fighters, available if they had stayed in a holding pattern directed by NEADS, were inexplicably over New York City.

The Langley fighters established a combat air patrol (CAP) over the nation’s capital at 10:00 and were well positioned to deal with the approach of UA93. However, they had no authority to engage. That authority did not reach NEADS until 10:31, well after the remaining crew and passengers aboard UA93 took matters into their own hands.

Not only were the attackers within the bureaucracy’s decision cycle, the cycle, itself, was misfiring on all cylinders. It was badly out of tune. With that preamble behind us we now move to what was promised in the first article, a staff officer’s Powerpoint view of the battle.

The Attack

The following graphic was included in a presentation, “It Was ‘Chaos’ Out There,” on November 17, 2011, at The Air Force Historical Foundation and The Air Force Historical Studies Office 2011 Biennial Symposium, “Air Power and Global Operations: 9/11 and Beyond.” I was on Panel 1: “9/11 and Operation Noble Eagle.” Fellow panelists were John J. Farmer, Jr. and Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, USAF (Ret).

9/11 The Attack

The graphic depicts most of the military components of the attack—infiltration, assembly, preliminary line of departure, line of departure, and attack on two axes of advance, each with two prongs. It lacks one necessary component, the advanced party. We will discuss the battle in terms of the tactical components shown on the slide, but first the advanced party.

Advanced Party

At no time did the advanced party number more than six individuals: the four pilots, Mohammed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah; and two long-time al-Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. Here is the story of their arrival in the United States.

Advanced Party

It took nearly the entire year, 2000, for the advanced party to establish itself, an activity that spanned the continent and avoided detection. Al Mihdhar and al Hazmi arrived on the West Coast in mid-January. Al Mihdhar did not stick around long, departing for Yemen on June 9, 2000.

Al Hazmi remained until Hanjour joined him in early December, transiting Cincinnati, en route. The two soon moved to Tucson, Arizona in mid-December. This was not Hanjour’s first trip to the United States. He had prior entries in 1991, 1996, and 1997, all without incident.

Meanwhile, Atta, al Shehhi, and Jarrah had established an East Coast presence. All three arrived at Newark, al Shehhi first on May 27. Atta followed shortly, arriving on June 2. Jarrah arrived last, on June 27 and immediately flew on to Venice, Florida.

All three traveled abroad in early 2001, Jarrah to Beirut, Atta to Germany, and al Shehhi to Morocco. Both Atta and al Shehhi encountered difficulty upon return. Neither presented a student visa. Both persuaded Immigration and Naturalization Service screeners that they should be allowed reentry to continue flight training. Neither had any problem clearing customs.

The primary purpose of the advanced party was to obtain sufficient training and certification to pilot hijacked commercial airliners. Their main additional duty was to absorb enough cultural, language, and geographical expertise to pave the way for the arrival and care of the troops as they infiltrated. Not once did the six call enough attention to themselves to trigger a law enforcement intervention at any level—local, state, or federal.

With the advanced part well established, trained and mission ready, the next order of business was to infiltrate the troops deemed necessary for mission success.


Infiltration to the East Coast took place swiftly, from April to June, 2001, as depicted on the first slide. Part of that infiltration included the cross-county travel of al Hazmi and Hanjour, who had moved from Southern California to Tucson, Arizona. Hazmi and Hanjour arrived on the East Coast in early April 2001.

Mission requirement was for 15 additional troops to round out the crews. The effort was not quite successful. Thirteen individuals in five groups of two and one group of three infiltrated during the period late April to June 27, 2001. A fourteenth individual, al Mihdhar, himself an original member of the advanced party, completed the infiltration, symbolically, when he entered at Newark, New Jersey, on July 4, 2001. An alert immigration officer at Orlando, Florida, turned a fifteenth individual back on August 4, 2001.

There is scant, inferential content in the “SIGINT Retrospective” provided to the Congressional Joint Inquiry by the National Security Agency that suggests the al Mihdhar spent his final days abroad attempting to recruit one last individual. (This is based on my iterative reading of the Retrospective while on the Joint Inquiry staff.)

Once infiltration was complete the next task was one not included in the Power Point, mission-specific training.

Mission Training

We know few details about the extent of team training. The assumption is that such training was sufficient for the advanced party to decide who would be on what crews and what role each would play during the actual assault on the crews of the targeted airplanes.

At some point, a tactical decision was made that Ziad Jarrah would be short one team member. We can only speculate on why that decision was made. Atta and al Shehhi were focused on the main target, New York, and needed full teams. Hanjour had two of the advanced party with him, al Hazmi and al Mihdhar, and was the logical next choice for a full team. Those decisions left Jarrah, demonstrably the weakest link, holding the short straw.

Individually, all of the so-called “muscle” hijackers maintained physical fitness and picked up enough social and language skills to operate undetected in an unfamiliar society. Two were selected to participate in the most important training event, an orientation flight.

The military term of art is “terrain walk.” one method of preparing commanders and staffs for imminent battles by having them walk or at least observe the terrain on which they are going to fight. Altogether, six of the hijackers took part in that training, including all the pilots.

Orientation Flights

Orientation flights took place during the period late May (al Shehhi) to August (Hanjour and al Hazmi). Nawaf al Hazmi was Atta’s second in command, according to the Commission report, a logical reason for him to make an orientation flight. One additional attacker, Waleed al Shehri, took an orientation flight, alone.

Al Shehri was a member of Atta’s crew for AA 11 and his point of origin for his orientation flight (July 30) was Boston, as was Atta’s a month earlier. This may have simply been Atta making sure that at least one of his group had some sense of potential barriers to come. It could also simply have been validation and verification of cabin procedures after takeoff.


Once final plans were complete, training accomplished, and tickets purchased (August 25-September 5) the attackers moved quickly to assembly areas near their designated airports, with one exception.

Assembly Areas

AA11. Mohammed Atta and one colleague, al Omari, spent the night in Portland, Maine. The rest of Atta’s crew stayed in Newton, MA.

There is no contemporary information that explains why Atta chose Portland.  Two explanations are logical using a military model. First, the Portland digression may have simply been to allow an early morning probe of the National Airspace System security posture at a small, local hub.

Second, it could have been a Plan B, an alternate scenario to allow Atta and one colleague to hijack one plane and fly it to a catastrophic end, given that all else had failed. That reduced accomplishment would still have been a success of sorts.

UA 175, AA 77, UA93. Al Shehhi and crew stayed at two different Boston hotels the night before the attack. The AA77 crew formed up in Laurel, Maryland and then stayed in Herndon, Virginia the night of September 10. The UA93 crew moved to Newark, New Jersey on September 7, and were joined by Ziad Jarrah on September 9.

The Final Hours. On the night of September 10, 2001, nineteen attackers in five small groups made their final preparations. They had passed through every layer of international, national, state, and local security with no alarm raised. Jarrah, himself, received an early morning speeding ticket in Maryland on September 9, with no consequence.

The attackers were not home free. Remaining ahead was passage into the National Airspace System. They had to cross the designated lines of departure.

Lines of Departure

Lines of departure are control features of any military attack to facilitate planning and execution.  The attack on 9/11 had two such lines, an initial line of departure at Portland, Maine, and a final line of departure that extended the length of the north Atlantic seacoast from Washington DC on the south, through the New York metropolitan area, and on to Boston. Crossing of the lines was near flawless, with one potential misstep.

Portland. Atta and al Omari entered the National Airspace System at 5:45. The attack had begun. Atta’s expectation was that he and his colleague were safely through and would not face a further challenge in Boston. He had misjudged and become visibly angry when he learned he did not have a boarding pass for AA11 which required passing again through a security checkpoint. That was the potential misstep. According to the August 26, 2004, staff report:

The agent explained to Atta that he would have to check in with American Airlines in Boston…The agent remembers that Atta clenched his jaw and looked as though he was about to get angry…He said that Atta looked as if he were about to say something in anger but turned to leave.

The Final Line of Departure

Entrance into the National Airspace System was the single most critical aspect of the attack. Success hung in the balance.  Retrospectively, we can assess that the planning was thorough and the execution swift and certain, as depicted in the following chart.

Flight Scheduled Security Board Take Off
AA11 7:45 7:15+/- 7:31-7:40 7:59
UA175 8:00 7:15+/- 7:23-7:28 8:14
AA77 8:10 7:18-7:36 7:50-7:55 8:20
UA93 8:00 7:30+/- 7:39-7:48 8:42


The overall planned window of exposure (security, board, take off), excluding the Portland initial line of departure, was less than one hour (7:15-8:10). Including Portland, the window was two hours and twenty-five minutes (5:45-8:10).

Mohammed Atta (AA11) allowed al Shehhi and crew (UA175) to board and most likely enter the National Airspace System first, perhaps another probe to protect his own mission. Atta’s flight was scheduled to depart first and his crew boarded with just minutes to spare.

Based on available records, the first two attackers to enter the National Airspace System were Khalid al Mihdhar and Majed Moqed (AA77-Dulles). Both entered security screening at 7:18.

By any measure, the window of exposure was minimized.  All attackers crossed the line of departure in less than 1/2 hour (7:15-7:36) at four widely dispersed entry points into the National Airspace System.  Further, all then boarded within 32 minutes (7:23-7:55) on four different commercial airplanes.

Entrance into the NAS and boarding was predicated on scheduled departure times. The attackers planned that all would be in the air within a narrow time frame, just 25 minutes (7:45-8:10), and out of the reach of law enforcement and intelligence agencies at every level.

All that remained was to commandeer the four flights and fly them to target. Defense then rested with the airline crews, the air traffic control system and, if requested, four active air defense fighters, two at Otis Air Force Base, MA, and two at Langley Air Force Base, VA. Assault was imminent.

Two Axes, Four Prongs

The Northern axis was narrowly defined, a single departure airport, and the two-pronged attack unfolded with military precision.  The Southern axis was broadly defined, two departure airports, and that two-pronged attack failed on one prong.

Takeover of the planes was swift, the crew and pilots were overwhelmed with simple weapons and physical force.

Dominance of the National Airspace System was achieved through tactical manipulation of the transponders. The following table depicts the timing of the attack as we know it, retrospectively.

Plane Hijacked Transponder Impact
AA11 8:15+/- 8:21 Off 8:46-47
UA175 8:43+/- 8:46 Changed 9:03
AA77 8:53+/- 8:56 Off 9:37-38
UA93 9:28 9:41 Off 10:03

Author’s Note. Precise impact times are not relevant to this discussion and I have rounded them. Commission Staff preference was to use times rounded to the minute, but that became problematic concerning the impacts of AA11 and AA77.  Ultimately, times as established by the National Traffic Safety Board were used in the final report.

The Northern Attack

The selection of Boston as a departure point for both planes had major tactical advantages.  First, targeting two planes within a short departure window eliminated a key variable, departure time delay. Second, the narrow flight corridor for west-bound traffic was reasonable assurance that both AA11 and UA175 would be on the same frequency at the same time. Third, the selection of a United flight for the second plane provided an opportunity for Al Shehhi as a passenger on UA175 to listen to cockpit air traffic control communications on cabin channel 9. That was not a given, but likely.

First Prong. Atta commanded the flight efficiently and effectively.  He turned the transponder off before turning south and while still in Boston Center air traffic control space. The sharp turn south in New York Center air space allowed a straight approach on a clear day to a highly visible target.  If necessary he also had the Hudson River corridor to follow.

Second Prong. Al Shehhi’s command was equally efficient and effective. Whether or not he heard Atta’s broadcasts on frequency the evidence suggests he heard the UA175 pilot check in with the New York Air Traffic Control Center. Shortly thereafter the plane was commandeered. This had the net tactical result of presenting two different air traffic control situations to two different traffic control centers.

Although AA11 was in New York Center airspace the plane and its flight plan still belonged to Boston Center. There was no formal hand-off from one center to the other. As one result, it was Boston Center not New York Center that asked the cockpit of UA175 to confirm an altitude of 29,000 feet for AA11, which the cockpit did.

Because there was no hand-off, New York Center took initiative to enter a new track, AA11A, into the air traffic control system so that it could track the plane in its airspace. That was a reasonable action to take, but the net result was added complexity to a situation that was about to become significantly more confusing.

Chaos Begins

At precisely the time the fireball from the impact of AA11 became visible Al Shehhi changed the transponder code on UA175 to 3020. That had the tactical effect of introducing a Mode C Intruder into the air traffic control system. Such an intruder is a plane squawking a code not recognized by the system and it “intrudes” on controller scopes by presenting a track with no data block attached. New York Center, and the same controller at that center,  now had multiple problems on their plate at the same time.

Al Shehhi flew leisurely over western Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, well toward Trenton/Philadelphia. He made a second, unnecessary change to the transponder code (3321), made a high altitude, six-minute, 180-degree turn, and then plummeted his commandeered plane in a steep, high-speed dive directly into his target, which he had to bank to hit. The northern attack, a one-two punch with dramatic effect, was complete at 9:03.

That traumatized a nation and left New York Center and the air traffic control system with four known problems and one it did not know about. The known problems were: what hit the World Trade Center north tower? where was AA11? where was UA175? and, what was the Mode C intruder, code 3321, that hit the south tower? The unknown was what was happening to AA77 several hundred miles to the west.

The Southern Attack

The attack against Washington, DC, was likely planned to mirror the attack against New York City, one impact to gain media attention followed by a second impact. We do not know the sequence of attack or the designated target for each plane.

Nor do we know why the departure airports, Dulles and Newark, were selected. What we can assess, retrospectively, is that the plan required airliners that could be hijacked in the airspace of two different FAA en route control centers and not in Boston or New York Center airspace.

What we do know is that one target was the Pentagon and the other target was most likely the Capitol.  I discount the White House as a target. It was too small, too obscure, and paled in comparison to the Capitol as either a target of choice or a target of opportunity.

Whatever the planned sequence for the southern attack, Hani Hanjour completed the mission of striking one of the two targets. Ziad Jarrah did not, for multiple reasons.

The First Prong

Intended or not, Hanjour struck first. The planning and coordination details remain obscure. Retrospectively, however, there is the appearance of detailed planning and coordination.  The transponder on AA77 was turned off  seven minutes after AA11 struck the World Trade Center, North Tower, and 10 minutes before UA175 struck the South Tower.

A simple plan, therefore, would have been to turn AA77 around prior to 9:00 and, concurrently, to turn off the transponder, regardless of what was happening to the North. The tactical actions of Atta and al Shehhi suggest that the southern attack was time-based.

Atta struck early, just fourteen minutes after takeoff, secured the cockpit, turned off the transponder and then turned sharply south and headed directly to target. Al Shehhi, on the other hand, took his time. He struck after UA175 crossed into New York Center airspace, waited for the fireball from the AA11 impact, immediately changed the transponder code, and then leisurely turned UA175 around. Once 9:00 arrived he plummeted steeply at high speed directly to target.

Based on that sequence of actions, my assessment is that AA77 likely was the first prong of the southern attack. I now assess that the timing of the turn back to target was time-based and not geography-based.  That is a change in perspective. The unknown variable that morning was departure time delay. If Hanjour’s task was to commandeer and turn AA77 around in a given time-frame (9:45-10:00 8:45-9:00) then departure time delay did not matter, it was simply factored out of the equation. (Correction made Feb 17, 2015)

It was fortuitous, but perhaps not necessary, that the flight was commandeered in Indianapolis Center air space. The hijackers did not need to know the inherent radar issues at Indianapolis Center. It was sufficient to present a different problem—transponder turned off during the turn back to target—to a different Air Traffic Control Center.  AA77 could just have well been hijacked in Washington Center airspace to meet Hanjour’s timeline.

Hanjour, in his approach to Washington, DC, followed the Interstate 66/Route 29 corridor. He descended from altitude to below 10,000 feet just south of Gainesville, Virginia.  Ironically, at that time he passed nearly directly over Vint Hill Farms, the designated location for the new Potomac TRACON and, ultimately, the site of the new Air Traffic Control System Command Center.

Once Hanjour saw his target he executed a wide, descending, 330-degree turn to lose altitude, regain his target and then accelerate to impact. Hitting the Pentagon was the intent, but any impact short, left, or right would have been devastating.  Coming up short, AA77 would have hit the Navy Annex. Crystal City was to the right.  Rosslyn was to the left as was Arlington National Cemetery.

My seventh floor office at 400 Army Navy Drive, Crystal City, provided an unobstructed view of the Pentagon.  I felt and heard the impact. By the time I got to the window, a matter of seconds, the fireball had dissipated and the sky was filled with black smoke and papers floating around at eye level.

We had no warning. At the time I and most colleagues were surfing the internet to follow events in New York City.

The Second Prong

Earlier we established that Ziad Jarrah had drawn the short straw, one that got even shorter as the morning progressed. The takeoff delay at Newark was 42 minutes, a good half hour longer than that experienced by any of the other three designated pilots. With just three colleagues he was still able to commandeer his targeted airliner, UA93. Whether or not cabin channel 9 was available on that flight, Jarrah and his crew did not strike until the flight was in Cleveland Center air space.

There is no clear picture of planned timing for UA93 as compared to the correlation of AA77 to AA11 and UA175.  Given that UA93 was to be the second prong of the southern attack, the planning would have to correlate to AA77 and adhere to an overall plan to hijack four planes in the air space of four different Air Traffic Control Centers.

UA93 entered Cleveland Center air space at 9:24 and was hijacked within minutes.  Jarrah had to wait 42 minutes (8:42-9:24) regardless of takeoff time.

UA93 was scheduled to depart 10 minutes prior to AA77. The departure delay that morning at Dulles (AA77) was 10 minutes. At Newark (UA93) it was 42 minutes. Assuming the plan was for the two departure delays to be comparable then UA93 was planned to be hijacked in the same time frame as AA77.

In other words, it was the planned intent that both planes in the southern attack be hijacked after the impact of AA11 and before the impact of UA175. Jarrah met just one of his two takeover objectives. He waited until the plane was in Cleveland Center air space. However, he had lost control of the timing.

Nevertheless, Jarrah managed to stay just inside the decision cycle of the defense.  UA93 did take off before a New York Center ground stop was issued. His crew took over the cockpit  as air traffic controllers were attempting to issue cockpit warnings to pilots. Air Force air defenders were poorly positioned. The Otis fighters were over New York City well to the north and the Langley fighters were two minutes from take off far to the South.

Even with those advantages Jarrah was fighting a losing battle. First, he had difficulty controlling the plane. On the turn back to target he could not maintain level flight and ascended to over 40,000 feet. Thereafter, he failed to maintain altitude but did manage to turn the transponder off. Worse, in the cabin, his colleagues were not able to prevent the remaining air crew and passengers from learning enough about events of the morning to take matters into their own hands.

With no help from any level of government, solely on their own recognizance, passengers and crew forced UA93 to crash, far short of the intended target. By 10:03 the battle was over, at least for the attackers.  Not so for the defense.

The Defense

Concerning the Northern Attack, crews of two planes had been overwhelmed, their planes commandeered and flown to catastrophic fate.The Federal Aviation Administration knew it had a problem, but had no idea of what else was to come. An active air defense had finally been mounted, but solely in response to events in New York.

The Otis fighters were placed on battle stations at 8:40, scrambled at 8:46, and airborne at 8:52, an elapsed time of 12 minutes from the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) obtained actionable information from Boston Center, an outdated set of coordinates.  That was a reasonable response, accelerated a bit because the Otis pilots had heard Boston Center’s initial call to Cape TRACON and, in effect, put themselves on battle stations before the order came to do so.

Shortly after the Otis fighters were airborne their controllers learned that they no longer had a target, a fact the pilots also knew, according to air traffic control communications. NEADS, the controlling organization made the tactical decision to continue and to put the fighters in a holding orbit in a military training area south of Long Island.

The fighters reached their western most point about 9:10 and began a holding pattern. That was, retrospectively, the single critical time for the defense.

The defenders had that single, fleeting moment of opportunity to better defend the nation’s capital. However, that is only known through retrospective analysis. No one, at the time, knew what else was happening. The one clue was that AA 77 had gone missing. That clue, unrecognized as another hijacking, was only known by Indianapolis Center. The Center decided that the plane was lost and initiated rescue operations.

The Southern Attack on the nation’s capital had begun, unrecognized. The attackers were still well within the decision cycle of their opponent.

9:10 EDT, A Critical Time, Retrospectively

At 9:10, the Otis fighters were at their closest point to Washington, DC, 225 nautical miles. The Langley fighters were on the ground in the Norfolk, Virginia area, 115 nautical miles to the south. AA77 was eastbound over central West Virginia, 48 nautical miles east of Charleston, WV, and 80 nautical miles west of Harrisonburg, VA. UA93 was westbound over Central Pennsylvania, just northwest of State College, PA.

In military terms, here is the disposition of friendly and enemy forces at 9:10:

0910 Tactical Situation

At 9:10, Indianapolis En Route Traffic Control Center concluded that AA77 was lost and it initiated rescue procedures by notifying its higher headquarters, Great Lakes Region. Concurrently, the Center notified the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

At 9:10, the joint surveillance radar system supporting NEADS reacquired AA77 as a primary only, search target. NEADS surveillance technicians and identification technicians know what to do with primary targets. Finding, identifying, and tracking them is their bread and butter. No one told them to look to the West. Instead, they were concentrating on the skies over New York City and Boston.

At 9:10, NEADS considered engaging its remaining two air defense aircraft, the fighters at Langley Air Force Base.  The NEADS Mission Crew Commander recommended the fighters be scrambled. The Battle Cab directed otherwise and the last remaining air defense fighters in the inventory were placed on battle stations.  That was a reasonable decision at the time, given the information available. Retrospectively, it was exactly the wrong decision.

The Otis fighters were 25 minutes flying time away from the Pentagon. The Langley fighters were 13 minutes flying time away, but were still on the ground.  The Otis fighters were airborne in 12 minutes from the call to battle stations (8:40-8:52). Applying that same standard to the Langley fighters they were also 25 minutes away.  If tasked, in a perfect world, either set of fighters would have reached the Pentagon at about 9:35. (Flight times are based on a rate of progression of .9 Mach, as established by NORAD in its September 18, 2001, published timeline, explanatory note ****.)

9:10 EDT was the single, most important opportunity for the defenders to protect the nation’s capital. No one, at any level, had any idea of the disposition of enemy forces. Even worse, as events progressed, no one at any level had a coherent picture of the disposition of friendly forces. And that begs a question, Why Not?

Why Not

First the attack on September 11, 2001 was an attack against the National Airspace System. That precisely defined system had a single, named operator and a single, named defender on the East Coast.

The operator was the National Operations Manger (NOM), Benedict Sliney and his supporting organization the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center. The defender was the Commander, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Air Force Colonel Robert Marr and his supporting organization, the Sector Operations Center.

Sliney, in his first day on the job, and his predecessor had never met Marr. The two organizations had never interfaced in any meaningful way. Despite multiple exercises that suggested otherwise over the years, the two organizations had no procedures in place to rapidly share information or to handle hijackings. They did not share and had no way of sharing a common operating picture of the battlefield.

Second, the hijack protocol was not just out of date, it was obsolete. But no one knew that because if it had been exercised at all it was done so notionally. For example, the tapes from NEADS show that the exercise cell at NEADS played the roll of all higher headquarters in the ongoing exercise in the Vigilant Guardian series.

Third, not one national level mechanism for sharing information had yet been convened. The earliest convention was at 9:16, a NOIWON, a watch officer informal information exchange network. It was convened by the CIA watch center simply to try and find out what was going on. Ironically, the key voices (FAA, NMCC) were on the NOIWON call, but no one recognized that. (The 9:16 time is derived from documents released by NSA in reponse to a FOIA request for CRITIC messages of the day.)

FAA convened its primary net at 9:20, which included a link to the National Military Command Center (NMCC). That net never became operational and was subsumed into the FAA’s internal tactical net.  The NMCC, at its end, convened a Significant Events Conference shortly thereafter. FAA could not be linked and the conference was terminated in favor of an Air Threat Conference at about the time the Pentagon was struck. FAA could not join that conference, either.

At the White House, the Secure Video Conference System (SVTS) was activated at 9:25. Richard Clarke convened a meeting of senior officials shortly after 9:40. Logs of the day show that Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator, and George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, entered at that time.

Also at the White House, the PEOC (President’s Emergency Operations Center) became operational at about the time the Pentagon was struck. The Vice President arrived shortly before 10:00 according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

National Command Authority

United 93 plunged to earth at 10:03. The battle was over and the National Command Authority (NCA) was just getting itself organized. The fate of UA93, known to Cleveland Center, the Air Traffic Control System Command Center, and FAA Headquarters, did not register at the Pentagon or the White House. The NCA diligently followed what it thought was UA93 because that is what they gleaned from TSD (Traffic System Display) information.

I established earlier that the simple tactical plan was to present four different situations to four different Air Traffic Control Centers using transponders as the weapon.  There was no need for the attackers to know or even anticipate what would happen. It was sufficient to just create four different situations. Each Center reacted differently to the situation presented.

Boston Center could not hand off AA11 to New York Center. New York Center left the flight plans for both AA11 and UA175 in the TSD system and created a new track for AA11, AA11A. Indianapolis Center concluded that AA77 was down and initiated rescue coordination procedures.  Cleveland Center was more creative and that became a problem no one anticipated.

Cleveland Center was tracking UA93 and knew it would enter Washington Center airspace if it continued on course. The Center, therefore, took the logical step, it entered a new flight plan for UA93 into the TSD system. That flight plan terminated at 10:28 when UA93 “landed,” notionally, at Reagan National Airport.

And that is the “plane” that Norman Minetta in the PEOC was following.  His testimony to the Commission was one hour off. The time was 10:20, not 9:20 as he stated.  National level awareness and understanding remained confused and conflicted thereafter.

Why? A fatal flaw in the NORAD timeline of September 18, 2001, established that the military was notified about AA77 at 9:25. That time was etched in stone in October, 2001, when General Ralph Eberhart testified to that time in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thereafter, the administration struggled to establish a narrative that the national level was responsive to the approach of both AA77 and UA93.

The narrative was doomed from the start. No one at any level vetted the work of staff officers at NEADS who made the initial error. Moreover, when NORAD and FAA prepared themselves for May, 2003, testimony to the Commission, no one at any level in either organization validated and verified the original NEADS staff work. The testimony of both Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator, and Norman Minetta, Transportation Secretary, conflated information concerning UA93 to correlate to AA77. NORAD representatives who followed did no better in their testimony.

So, how did the national level get it wrong?  The answer, in part, is in the language of chaos theory. And that discussion will be the third and final article in this series.

In the telling we will also look at why the Otis fighters were not available for the defense of the nation’s capital.  Whatever else we might observe about their tactical maneuvering that morning they clearly disregarded the advice of Wayne Gretzky.

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.





The Battle of 9-11: An Act of War; the Principles of War, considered


Heretofore, the conventional wisdom has been that the event known as 9/11 was a terrorist attack. Many analyses, including mine, have bounced along that road, poorly defined, with predictable results. The literature, published or web, has yet to come to grips with what happened that day.

In this article I take a new approach. After months of reflection, measured in years, my understanding is that the chaos of the day, in the days thereafter, and continuing to this day, is the aftermath of a deliberate military strike, an attack on two axes of advance, each axis with two prongs.  The purpose of such an attack is to cause confusion and chaos that becomes unmanageable for those who defend against it.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to begin a new discussion, one that will ultimately lead us to chaos theory. We begin with a classical approach, consideration of the Principles of War.

The Principles of War

All students at the several military colleges and schools, to include the service academies, and ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) chapters at high schools, universities and colleges have learned these principles by studying significant battles of history, such as Gettysburg, for example. It is time to add the battle of 9/11 to the study list.

Here are the principles as published Army doctrine, as taught at the Worchester Military Institute. The order of listing provides a convenient memory aide MOOSE MUSS, the first letter of each principle.

9 Principles of War

The nine Principles of War, as defined in the Army Field Manual FM-3 Military Operations:



Mass Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time
Objective Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective
Offensive Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative
Surprise Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared
of Force
Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts
Maneuver Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power
Unity of
For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander
Security Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage
Simplicity Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

The Principles and the Battle of 9/11

Mass. The attackers concentrated combat power at the decisive place and time.  The matter of scale does not matter. The attack was small scale in terms of the actual mass; it was large scale in terms of the effect of that mass.  Grade: 100/100.

Objective. The attackers directed the operation towards two clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objectives. The preliminary objective was to overwhelm the National Airspace System (NAS) by commandeering four commercial aircraft operating in that system.  The final objective was to use those four aircraft as missiles and damage or destroy four specific targets; the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol. Grades: 100/100 and 75/100, respectively.

Offensive. The attackers seized, retained, and exploited the initiative. They successfully passed through every barrier to entry to the NAS, to include secondary screening at security checkpoints. A misstep occurred when Mohammed Atta became visibly angry when he learned he would have to pass through security a second time at Logan International. The attackers failed to retain and exploit the initiative after they seized United Airlines Flight 93 (UA 93).  Grade: 74/100.

Surprise. The attackers struck the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he was unprepared. Surprise was near total, at all levels of government, highest to lowest. The attackers did not maintain the advantage of surprise aboard UA 93. The remaining crew and passengers on that flight learned enough of the battle plan to thwart the attack on the final target. Grade: 88/100. (half credit for UA 93, initial objective achieved, final objective not achieved)

Economy of Force. The attackers allocated no essential combat power to secondary efforts.  Further, retrospectively, they assessed that each attack element required 5 members; two in the cockpit, one to guard the cockpit door, and two to control the passengers. We know there were two in the cockpit based on the cockpit voice recording from UA 93. At some point, a tactical decision was made to allocate just four attackers to flight UA 93. This is an indicator that New York City was a higher priority than Washington D.C. Grade: 95/100.

Maneuver. The attackers placed the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Once the aircraft were commandeered their combat power resided in the transponders. We know, retrospectively, that each of the four transponders was manipulated differently and each manipulation provided a different problem to a separate Air Traffic Control Center.

Boston Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding before its turn towards target. Boston Center retained responsibility for American Airlines Flight 11, leaving the AA 11 flight plan in the system because the Center concluded it could not hand the plane off to New York Center.  New York Center, therefore, had to enter a new track, AA 11A, in order to follow the flight.

New York Center, while engaged in the hunt for AA 11/AA 11A, was confronted with a Mode C intruder, code 3020/3321. The intruder was United Airlines Flight 175, a transponding aircraft that did not correlate to anything in the air traffic control system.

Indianapolis Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding during its turn towards target. Further, Indianapolis Center lost the capability to display American Airlines Flight 77 as a radar target on its air traffic control scopes. Indianapolis Center concluded that the plane was lost, perhaps down, and it initiated rescue procedures by contacting its next higher headquarters while concurrently notifying the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB.

Cleveland Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding after its turn toward target. Cleveland Center concluded that it could transfer control to Washington Center and did so by entering a new flight plan for United Airlines Flight 93 into the system.  Whereas Boston Center left the flight plan for AA 11 in the air traffic control system, Cleveland Center entered a new flight plan for UA 93. United 93 “landed” notionally at National Airport at 10:28 EDT.

The attackers ability to maneuver was transcendent. It did not matter whether or not they had any idea of what would transpire in the defense. It was sufficient for them to understand that four different situations presented to four different air traffic control centers would be problematic. Grade: 150/100. (bonus points awarded)

Unity of Command. The attackers, for every objective, ensured unity of effort under one responsible commander. The planners delegated significant authority to the attacking party. The attacking party responded to the leadership of Mohammad Atta. Even though the fourth pilot, Ziad Jarrah, designated pilot for UA 93, was consistently distracted that distraction did not detract from this principle of war. Grade: 100/100.

Security. The attackers, with the exception of those in the cabin of UA 93, never permitted the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage. With the exception of Atta’s anger, as discussed previously, not one attacker flinched or betrayed that attack at any point while entering the NAS. The attackers lost the advantage of security aboard UA 93 because they were short one member and those in the cabin did not deny the passengers contact with the outside world. Grade: 80/100.

Simplicity. With the understanding that this was not a simple attack, the attackers did prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding. Every attacker understood his job and everyone was well prepared for the task at hand. The Last Night document attests to the detail of the planning.

By extending the scope of the attack to include an assault on Washington D.C., the attackers introduced a level of complexity that, while unnecessary for an attack against New York City, was necessary to cause uncertainty and confusion in the defense. Atta’s pronouncement to the air traffic control world, “we have some planes,” was, in my estimation, deliberate.  The attackers disregard for simplicity in favor of complexity was intentional. They took their chances with this principle of war. Grades: 100/100 for execution, 75/100 for planning.


Overall, in terms of the principles of war, the attackers met nearly every requirement for a high, but not perfect, score.  The attack was necessarily complex, it lacked focus in the southern axis of attack, and it lacked a 20th attacker to round out the fourth crew.

The battle of 9/11 was a preemptive military strike against an unprepared enemy and it caused chaos, the ripple effect of which is felt to this day.

What’s Next

I will publish two additional articles in this series. The next article will discuss the military aspects of the operation as they might have been drawn up by a planner or tactician using the staff officer’s tool of choice, a powerpoint. The final article will extend the discussion to chaos theory.

An attack on two axes each with two prongs is intended to cause confusion and chaos in the defense. And that is exactly what happened.