The Wilson Quarterly

For many Americans, Al Qaeda’s slaughter of nearly 3,000 innocent people on 9/11 epito­mizes irrationality, fanaticism, and madness. But, in fact, the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington in 2001 were slowly and meticu­lously planned over five or more years, then trained for, practiced, tested, and subjected to modified dry runs, notes Gaetano Joe Ilar­di, a police officer and postdoctoral researcher at Monash University in the Australian state of Victoria.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 plot, cultivated expertise in an array of terrorism techniques, from car and aircraft bombing to political assassination and reservoir poi­soning. When he briefed Osama bin Laden in mid-1996 on his scheme to crash planes into buildings in the United States, bin Laden was initially ­noncom­mittal, apparently because he thought the plan was too complicated. But two years later, he was ­sold.

Within months, Khalid began collecting intelligence, Ilardi writes. Initially, he scanned aviation magazines and airline timetables, acquired flight simulator software, and watched hijacking movie thrillers. Soon, newly recruited suicide operatives were taking a short course on how to conduct recon­naissance. They cased planes they intended to hijack, sitting in first class to observe the cockpit doors, to see whether the captain entered the cabin during the flights, and to record the movements of the crew. One hijacker tried to hitch a ride in a cockpit jump seat by claiming that he was about to go to work for Egypt Air. He was kicked out when the crew realized he was lying; he failed in a second attempt to get inside the cockpit on the pretext of needing to retrieve a pen he had left behind. Multiple tests convinced the hijackers that the cockpit doors would be opened between 10 and 15 minutes into each flight. That allowed terrorists on different planes to gain access to the cockpit at approximately the same ­time.

In a test of potential weapons to gain control of the airplanes, a hijacker carried a box cutter into the cabin in his toiletries bag, then observed that when he took it out of his hand luggage, nobody paid any attention. This gave the hijackers confidence that box cutters would suffice to subdue the crews. The hijackers also con­ducted reconnaissance flights along both the Washington and New York corridors, observing how easy it was to spot the World Trade Center towers. Bin Laden was deter­mined to attack the White House, Ilardi writes. But as testing and ­intelli­gence ­gathering stepped up, the Executive Mansion apparently fell off the list for “navigation reasons.”

Extensive intelligence gathering convinced the 9/11 hijackers that they were safe operating in the United States and that their plans had not been compromised.

The extensive surveillance and intelligence gathering convinced the hijackers that they were safe operating in the United States and that their plans had not been compromised. They moved around freely, getting stopped by the police for traffic violations, having their luggage randomly scanned, and complaining to the authorities about street crime. They could have done their training almost any­where else in the world, but they chose the United States, their ter­rorist target. They spent months in the country because of their strong confidence in Al Qaeda’s intel­li­gence-­gathering and security ­measures.

An Islamic jihad handbook notes that U.S. intelligence was once considered so powerful that “if a mouse entered America or came out of it you should be able to find a report about it in the archives of the American intelligence services.” On 9/11, that myth was ­destroyed.

THE SOURCE: “The 9/11 Attacks—A Study of Al Qaeda’s Use of Intelligence and Counterintelligence” by Gaetano Joe Ilardi, in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, March ­2009.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Cyril Attias

Read Next

Winging It