By Patrick J. Kiger
As horrifyingly deadly and destructive as the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington were, it’s perhaps even more chilling to realize that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti Al Qaeda operative who has been indicted for planning the attacks, originally had something much bigger in mind.
According to Mohammad’s 2008 military tribunal indictment and the report of the U.S. Presidential Commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed first met with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a mountain fortress in Tora Bora, along the Afghan-Pakistan border, in 1996 to pitch his proposal to carry out bin Laden’s expressed desire to kill Americans.
The idea was not a totally original one. Mohammed had been involved in a previous plot, Project Bojinka, which had been led by his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, the terrorist behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Yousef’s sprawling, grandiose scheme included assassinating President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, attacking nuclear plants in the U.S., Great Britain and France, and planting and detonating bombs on a dozen airliners headed for the U.S. from Asia, so that they would explode over the Pacific, killing thousands of passengers.
It had all fizzled after Philippine authorities discovered the bomb-making operation in the Manila apartment that Yousef and Mohammed had used as a base, and arrested and interrogated one of their co-plotters, who gave up the details. But one item from the terrorists’ wish list—hijacking an airliner and crashing it into U.S. Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia—apparently gave Mohammed his inspiration. Instead of blowing up airliners, what if hijackers seized them and flew them into buildings, killing thousands of people at once?
The idea had a certain natural appeal to Al Qaeda, which already had conducted a feasibility study about whether planes could be hijacked and used as a bargaining chip to free imprisoned terrorists, according to the 9/11 Commission report. That study had concluded that such operations wouldn’t be useful, and that Al Qaeda’s objective of forcing the U.S. military presence out of the Middle East would be better furthered simply by bombing airliners and killing their passengers. But Mohammed’s twist of flying the planes into buildings was something Al Qaeda leaders hadn’t envisioned.
Mohammed then sketched out a plan that was even more ambitious than Project Bojinka. He wanted to hijack 10 airliners simultaneously. Nine of them would be crashed into targets on both U.S. coasts, including the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, CIA and FBI headquarters, nuclear power plants, the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, and Seattle’s Columbia Center. As the 9/11 Commission report details, the finale would be even more spectacular:
KSM himself was to land the tenth plane at a U.S. airport and, after killing all adult male passengers on board and alerting the media, deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world.
Mohammed’s vision met with a lukewarm response, due to its expense and complexity. But bin Laden was sufficiently intrigued that that he invited Mohammed to move to Afghanistan and work directly with Al Qaeda. Eventually, in March or April 1999, bin Laden summoned Mohammed to Kandahar, where he informed him that he had decided to go ahead with a modified version of Mohammed’s original proposal. Planning for the plot, which Al Qaeda called the “planes operation,” then began in earnest.
In additional meetings that spring in Kandahar, bin Laden, Mohammed and Al Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef gradually worked out the details, according to the 9/11 Commission report. Bin Laden liked the basic idea of hijacking planes and flying them into buildings, but he scrapped Mohammed’s notion of landing one of the planes, killing the passengers and making a political statement. The Al Qaeda leader, who had practical hands-on experience running construction projects, also apparently decided that hitting nine targets was too ambitious. The three men pared down the list. Bin Laden wanted to hit the White House and the Pentagon, while Mohammed also wanted to hit the World Trade Center. All three men wanted to destroy the U.S. Capitol.
But Mohammed still clung to his vision of an even bigger operation, according to the 9/11 commission report. As he worked on setting up the operation in 1999, he saw it as a two-stage operation. The first part would involve flying hijacked planes into U.S. buildings. Additionally, he also wanted seize additional planes in Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong, or Malaysia, and simply crash them. Mohammed figured that could be accomplished without putting strains on Al Qaeda’s talent base, because the Asian hijackers wouldn’t have to be trained pilots. Ideally, he hoped to bring down all the planes simultaneously. In the spring of 2000, however, bin Laden cancelled the Asian hijackings, in the belief that they would be too difficult to coordinate with the U.S. attacks.
By July 2001, when the preparations for the attack were in their final stages, the plan had been pared down even more, according to the 9/11 commission report. Two aircraft would be targeted at the World Trade Center, though one of the hijack pilots, Mohammed Atta, had the option of crashing his plane in the streets of New York if it became impractical to strike the WTC. Another plane was tasked with destroying the Pentagon. Bin Laden indicated to the hijackers that he preferred striking the White House with the final aircraft, rather than the Capitol. But it remains unclear which building was the final target for Flight 93, which instead crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers and crew counterattacked the hijackers and prevented them from completing their mission.