9-11: The Attack; A Different Perspective, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM)


In a recent article I defined the 9-11 battlefield and discussed both the attack and the counterattack.  In this article I will build on our earlier discussion of the attack and focus specifically on one of its architects, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).

The Moussaoui Trial

KSM “testified” at the Moussaoui Trial in an interesting way.  He spoke for the defense; his testimony is defense exhibit 941, “SUBSTITUTION FOR THE TESTIMONY OF KHALID SHEIKH MOHAMMED.”  And that raises the immediate question, “why the defense?”  The answer is straight-forward and concise.  KSM testified that “[he] denied that Moussaoui ever had a 9/11 role.”  KSM further stipulated that “Moussaoui did not know Atta and there was never any contact between the two of them.”

KSM, a problematic witness

A few voices have argued that because KSM was subjected to torture any statements attributed to him are without value.  I assess that position as naive and largely self-serving.  KSM is a valuable secondary source of information, understanding that such information was derived from interrogation.

Here is how the Moussaoui defense framed the testimony.  “You should assume that if Sheikh Mohammed were  available to testify in this courtroom under oath and subject to perjury he would have said what is contained in these statements.”  The defense further elaborated, “In evaluating the truthfulness of these statements, you should consider all other evidence in this case, including all exhibits, regardless of which side may have produced the exhibits…”

It is precisely on the point, “consider all other evidence,” that KSM’s testimony is valid and relevant.  The convergence of evidence is compelling and conclusive that the events of 9-11 occurred as reported by both the 9-11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry.  KSM’s testimony adds substance to what we already know from other primary and secondary source information.

Moreover, for those who claim that Chapter One of the Commission’s Report, “We Have Some Planes,” is flawed because it relied on information from KSM’s interrogations, consider this:  not one of 241 end notes to chapter one makes reference to KSM.  In writing the first chapter, we did not use or take into consideration the reports of KSM’s interrogations.

Atta as “Emir”

KSM stipulated, “At some point during Atta’s training, Bin Laden decided that Atta would be the “emir” of the hijackers in the U.S., with [Nawaf] a-Hazmi serving as Atta’s deputy.”  KSM recalled that “Atta was a good operative.  Atta had extensive exposure to the West, worked hard, and learned quickly.”  KSM “gave Atta enough authority that he wold not need to consult with them frequently, and would be the decision maker.”

That decentralized approach to management is one reason that the nation was caught by surprise.  Atta left no unusual trail other than an unthinking abandonment of a plane on the tarmac of Miami International Airport.  Moreover, he was able to leave the country soon after al-Midhar entered on July 4, 2001, and well after the system was “blinking red.”  Further, he was allowed to return without suspicion.

The planning was so decentralized that “The final decisions to hit which target with which plane was [sic] entirely in the hands of the pilots.  Atta informed Bin al-Shibh [of the targets] in July 2001 when they met in Spain…”

Operational Security, a Quick Comment

The totality of KSM’s testimony details good operational security; but the biggest offender in this regard was bin Laden.  We know that Atta and Moussaoui were compartmented.  KSM maintained that just six individuals knew the plot details: “Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, Ziad, Jarrah, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Khalid al-Midhar.”    KSM further revealed that, “he learned of the impending date of the hijackings via courier.”  He also described the process of traveling to see bin Laden in person with specific details.

It was bin Laden who was largely responsible for the “chatter,” the series of over 30 signals intelligence (SIGINT) reports that caused the system to “blink red.”  According to KSM; “During the summer [sic], Bin Laden made several remarks vaguely hinting at an upcoming attack, which generated rumors throughout the worldwide jihadist community.”  During a speech at the al-Faruq camp, bin Laden, “urged the trainees to pray for the success of a major operation involving 20 martyrs.”  KSM stipulated that he and others were concerned “about this lack of discretion.”

Bin Laden’s lack of discretion did cause the system to “blink red” in late spring, but the attack did not proceed on the timetable he wished, nor on the timetable the counterterrorist community saw in the reporting.  Nothing happened after the flurry of SIGINT reports.  Bin Laden’s vision did not coincide with that of his chosen “Emir,” Atta.

“Blinking Red,” in perspective

When officials describe the system as “blinking red,” they are referring to the counterterrorism system.  While on the Joint Inquiry Staff I looked at all the Senior Executive Intelligence Briefs (SEIB) and Chairman, JCS, intelligence briefs for the period Mar 1-Sep 11, 2001. The intelligence system as a whole was not “blinking red.”  Was there a spike in terrorism reporting?  Yes.  Did that spike show in the overall intelligence reporting?  Yes, but as a transient, for a short period of time.

The percent of articles/briefings on terrorism was small, never more than five percent of the total reporting and usually substantially less. So what caused the spike?  I attribute it to al-Shehhi’s report immediately after he made the first terrorist cross-country orientation flight on May 24, 2001.

It is my recall that on his return al-Shehhi immediately called the Yemen number from the baggage claim area at JFK airport.  The spike in SIGINT reporting began a few days later when bin Laden compromised operational security.

April 1, 2001, an interesting date

I categorized articles/reports in about ten categories, most geographic (Eastern Europe, Middle East, e. g.), some functional (terrorism, specifically).  The plurality of briefings/articles was not on a subject you might expect; it was on China.

On April 1, 2001, the Chinese forced down a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft on Hainan Island, a serious international incident that focused the government’s attention.  It was the first major challenge for the Bush administration.  Moreover, China was the emerging threat after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On April 1, 2001, Nawaf al-Hazmi received a speeding ticket while traveling through Oklahoma.  He was sent on his way; Hani Hanjour was likely with him.

On  April 23, 2001,  the hijacker accomplices began arriving in the United States.

Timing of the Attack

KSM testified that he “withstood pressure from Bin Laden to launch the operation earlier than planned.  The first time was in the spring of 2000, shortly after Atta and the other pilot/hijackers arrived in the U.S….”  The other two occasions were in the “Spring of 2001…”

More specifically, bin Laden wanted to strike on “May 12, 2001, exactly seven months after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.”  That not being feasible, bin Laden then wanted to strike “in either June or July 2001 because [he] had learned from media reports that Ariel Sharon would be visiting the White House.”

According to KSM, he learned that “Atta had all selections and assigments finalized in late August 2001.”  As we stated earlier, KSM learned of the actual date via courier.  According to KSM, bin Laden “notified the al Qaeda Shura council that a major attack against unspecified U.S. interests was scheduled to take place over the coming weeks, but he did not reveal additional details.  His attention to operational security improved considerably, it seems.

The Targets

The overall concept was simple.  According to KSM, “Bin Laden indicated that he wanted to hit a military, political, and economic target.”  That was at a time that there were only three pilots; Hani Hanjour had not yet been identified.

KSM revealed that, later, “Bin Laden told Atta that Atta must hit both towers of the WTC, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol, but that additional targets from which Atta could choose included the White House, the Sears Tower, and a foreign embassy…”  KSM also said that “the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania was targeted at the Capitol building (Congress and Senate).”

According to KSM, “Hanjour was one of the best-prepared operatives sent by Sheikh Mohammed to the U.S.”  KSM told Hanjour that he wanted him “to pilot the plane that would strike the Pentagon…given that the Pentagon would be a tough target…[KSM] figured that Hanjour would be the best qualified of the pilots.”

Pilot Qualifications

Some voices argue, ethnocentrically, that the hijacker pilots were poorly trained and inadequate to the task, specifically Hanjour.  None of these voices consider the obvious point that it may well have been in the hijackers’ best interest to be perceived as inept and inarticulate; to fly under the radar screen of suspicion, so to speak.  The whole notion that, for example, Arabs cannot learn to fly is nonsensical.  For starters, I recommend that people inclined to that point of view read The Bin Ladens, An Arabian Family in the American Century, by Steve Coll.  The book describes a family that lived, and died, in the air.

The Assault

KSM testified about the camp training the so-called “muscle” hijackers received.  He explained that he “instructed the muscle hijackers to focus on seizing the cockpit first and then wory about seizing control over the rest of the plane.  The hijackers were told to storm the cockpit at the moment that the pilot cabin door opened, and to avoid trying to break down the door if necessary.”

The Results

In the end, Atta, the “emir,” took the bare bones of his assignment to hit economic, military, and politic targets and conceived and executed a tactical plan that accomplished two-thirds of his mission, with the added bonus of taking out the entire World Trade Center complex.  Atta had quality time measured in days, weeks, even months to hammer out details and discuss what-ifs with his colleague, al-Shehhi.  The attack was no casual “back-of-the envelope” affair.

Atta survived his own miscue at Miami International as well as the premature and ill-advised pronouncements of bin Laden to the Shura.  It is my assessment that he was able to do so because the operation, twice, got inside the nation’s decision-making cycle. All 19 hijackers were in country and ready for final planning and training before the government got itself organized to deal with the threat that was “blinking red.”

The last hijacker, al-Midhar arrived, ironically, on July 4, 2001, six days before a White House meeting dealing with the threat.  It took the Intelligence Community a month to deliver its assessment to the President, the August 6, President’s Daily Briefing (PDB).  I will address that briefing at the close of this article.

By that time Atta had departed and returned and Jarrah had made one last trip out of country to see his girl friend.  Both trips were dangerous in terms of operational security, but the system did not pick up the trail. Separate voices in the government were picking up the trail–in Phoenix and in Chicago.  The Counterterrorism Security Group, CSG, scheduled a key meeting on September 12, 2001.  Atta’s schedule stayed within his enemy’s decision-making cycle by just one day, and that was enough.

PDB: “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in the U S”

On August 6, 2001, The President’s Daily Brief included a summary article on the threat.  My understanding of that article is that is was the result of guidance to the intelligence community to put the “chatter,” the “system blinking red” into perspective.  It took the community nearly a month to do the assessment, get it coordinated, and present it.

The August 6, PDB was “Defendant’s Exhibit 901, U.S v. Mouassaoui, Cr. No. 01-455A.”  As far as intelligence analysis articles go it was not all that remarkable and did not contain any specifics as to time, place, or threat.  Those who consider the document to be the “holy grail” for 9-11 miss both the point and the content of the document.  It was a summary, largely historical on the intelligence side, and vaguely reassuring on the law enforcement side.

A parallel Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB) was seen by a larger audience; mid- and senior-level officials in far better position to make an informed judgment.  The intelligence summary was, to them, old information repackaged.  What was new and not contained in the SEIB was the law-enforcement information.

(Author’s note.  My understanding of the PDB and SEIB is based on my work on the Joint Inquiry Staff.  We had a copy of the SEIB and knew what the PDB contained.  I participated in interviews of several intelligence community analyst supervisors who saw the SEIB, but not the PDB.)

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