It is now well-known that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were planned over a five-year period by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We also know that al-Qaeda had help. Most of it came from a rich sovereign state that already possessed a substantial infrastructure dedicated to performing acts of foreign terrorism; a state with which al-Qaeda had had long-standing operational ties. That sponsor state was the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In this posting, we begin to narrow our focus from worldwide Islamic terrorism down to Iran and al-Qaeda. We will narrow this focus even more tightly in subsequent postings. For now, let us begin by examining key facts that were overlooked in the conventional story of the attacks:
Over the years, bin Laden has had five state sponsors.
Bin Laden’s headquarters was initially in Pakistan. There he was supported financially by Saudi Arabia and operationally by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI.) After failing to establish a base in South Yemen, he moved to Sudan, then Afghanistan, and finally to Iran. In each of these countries — except possibly Saudi Arabia — the Head of State knew that bin Laden was conducting insurgencies or terrorist activities against other governments, and actively protected and supported him.
Bin Laden's sponsorship by a succession of states is not unprecedented: Yasser Arafat (Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini,) leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO,) was expelled from Jordan and Lebanon before settling in Tunisia.
In the West, bin Laden’s group has only recently become known as “al-Qaeda.”
Bin Laden began using the name in 1990. Previously, members of bin Laden’s organization had called the group by different names at different times. So had others. For example, before 1996, Iranian intelligence agents simply referred to them as “Taliban.” The name “al-Qaeda” was not widely used until U.S. intelligence officers began to take an interest in them in 1998.
The name was incorrectly translated from Arabic several times. The current consensus is that “al-Qaeda” means “the base.” However, Federal prosecutors initially thought it meant “the basic rule.” Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, wrote in the Guardian that “al-Qaeda” actually means “the database.” In his view, “al-Qaeda” originally referred to a computerized list of jihadists from many lands; thousands were pouring into Peshawar, Pakistan, to join the Muslim insurgency in Afghanistan against the Russians.
Before 9/11, bin Laden’s associates probably did not use the name “al-Qaeda” often; it has value primarily in the West as a convenient moniker for our enemy. However, today al-Qaeda is a branch of the Iranian government, and our real enemy is Iran.
The hijackers were not members of al-Qaeda.
Not one of the 19 hijackers was a member of al-Qaeda. Neither were any of the men who recruited them. The attackers were foot soldiers recruited indirectly by members of al-Qaeda. The pilots all made a brief visit to bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan to meet him face-to-face. But they were never accorded official membership in his group. (In contrast, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who was planned to be the fifth pilot, was a low-level al-Qaeda operative.)
Few men are as devoted to their own personal survival as the members of al-Qaeda. They are all Arabs of the dominant Sunni sect of Islam. Suicide is not part of their ethos. Al-Qaeda members are mostly upper and middle-class professionals, not warriors. Some of them have PhDs. The foot soldiers — the men who actually carry out the bombings — are another matter: Some of them are upper or middle-class. These are idealists, fanatics, or disaffected students. But most are out-of-work jihadists or just angry, desperate unemployed men.
There are Muslim organizations dedicated to recruiting young men for charitable, religious, and social work. These agencies search for recruits throughout the Muslim world. One of these agencies is the Tabligh. The Tabligh is often described as an Islamic version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a missionary sect of Islam, but some of its recruiters are sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Mohammad Haydar Zammar was such a man. He recruited two of the 9/11 pilots, Mohammad Atta (Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta) and Ziad Jarrah, and the coordinator of the hijackers, Ramzi Binalshibh (Ramzi bin al-Shibh.) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — next to bin Laden, the highest-ranking al-Qaeda member to have a direct hand in the plot — regularly patrolled Tabligh training camps, looking for recruits.
Typically, an al-Qaeda member approaches a recruiter, gives him a profile of the type of foot soldier needed, and then waits for the recruiter to find a willing candidate. However, in some cases, al-Qaeda members do their own recruiting. Usually they look for foot soldiers within the country that is being targeted for attack; but sometimes they recruit a foot soldier in another nation, and then fly him to the targeted country.
Al-Qaeda is no longer an independent terrorist group.
From its inception in 1989, when bin Laden gained firm control, until about 1996, when planning for the attacks began, al-Qaeda was an independent organization. By 2001, all of its permanent members resided in Afghanistan.
However, ever since May 4, 2001, al-Qaeda has been a secret branch of the Iranian government. Bin Laden and all his top commanders are now living and working in Iran.
Between 1996 and 2001, al-Qaeda lived a symbiotic life. It cooperated with many other terrorist groups, and depended on intelligence and logistics from many sponsor states. It also had its own funding: bin Laden’s personal fortune, and worldwide contributions from Islamic charities that funneled part of their money to al-Qaeda. It had significant support from Iraq; but this evaporated as Saddam Hussein’s reign collapsed. In the end, al-Qaeda found Iran to be its most willing and most capable partner.
Al-Qaeda is a relatively small organization.
There are al-Qaeda-related cells in 60 countries. One would think that this necessitates a large number of members, but that is not so. Each cell has only a handful of members, because it is easier to keep secrets if the group is small. For the same reason, the permanent core of al-Qaeda has never consisted of more than about two hundred. Currently, al-Qaeda consists of about 150 men.
Al-Qaeda members are not volunteers.
Full-time members of al-Qaeda receive a regular salary. For example, in 1994, a typical high-ranking al-Qaeda commander got paid $1,400.00 per month. Members are not always happy with their salaries. One al-Qaeda bureaucrat thought he wasn't being paid enough, and began embezzling money from bin Laden's businesses. He later panicked and defected to the West.
Now that al-Qaeda is a part of Iran's government bureaucracy, members' salaries are paid from the treasury of the Iranian people.
Bin Laden was not the only planner of the attacks.
The attack had a succession of planners. These included Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Osama bin Laden, Saad bin Laden, Imad Fayez Mugniyeh, Ramzi Binalshibh, and finally Mohammad Atta.
The plan changed constantly between 1996 and 2001. As September 11 approached, the plan changed almost daily. Initially, bin Laden, himself, did not know that both towers of the World Trade Center had been targeted. No one in the world suspected that the towers would collapse.
As late as July, 2001, there were two more targets: the Presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, and the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia. This would have required a total of six pilots. The conspirators only managed to obtain four.
The attacks were expensive and required a huge amount of preparation.
The attacks took five years of planning, logistics, recruitment, training, and preparation. During the final year, hundreds of men were involved. Few of them were al-Qaeda members. Many were Iranian. Large divisions of at least three agencies of the Iranian government were dedicated to the task. All of Iran’s top political leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, knew of the plan, approved it, and ordered their employees to support it.
Since secrecy was essential, all important communications in the field had to be done in person. This required an immense amount of travel, usually by air. (Ziad Jarrah, the Flight 93 pilot, took six trips abroad after he got into the United States, including visits to Europe, Beirut, and the Bahamas. He also traveled to California, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, and New Jersey.) There were many airline tickets, reservations, visas, and passports obtained. Some of the chief players habitually traveled first-class.
Everyone who traveled needed hotels, rental cars, railway or mass transit tickets, food, entertainment, communications, and spending money. Conspirators had to call home periodically or visit at least once to allay suspicions. The pilots had to pay for training, first on small single-engine planes, then later on Boeing jets. They also had to pay for time on Boeing flight simulators, and for actual flight time on jumbo jets. They had to pay rent during the many months of training. They moved often.
All of this required a great deal of money. It had to be sent to the United States on a regular basis without arousing suspicion. Most of it came via wire transfers that originated in the United Arab Emirates. If a conspirator ran out of money between the periodic transfers, Binalshibh made up the difference via wire transfers from Germany. Some of the hijackers were still being supported by their families. (Jarrah, for example, received $2,000.00 per month from his family in Beirut.) In a pinch, those who were not receiving regular support simply telephoned their families, and asked for money.
Eighteen months before the attacks, the Iranian government purchased a Boeing 757/767 flight simulator through European Airbus. The Iranian who made the purchase was in the United States on the day of the attacks. One of the towers of the World Trade Center was brought down by a Boeing 767; the Pentagon was struck with a Boeing 757.
The execution of the plan did not go smoothly.
As the day of the attack approached, the conspirators encountered a host of unexpected problems, made blatant mistakes, and had serious disagreements among themselves. At least six conspirators, and perhaps as many as ten, never made it into the United States. Some of the hijackers caught the attention of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and FBI almost immediately; one was actually deported.
On a training flight on December 26, 2000, Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi landed their rented Piper Cherokee at Miami International Airport. Unable to restart the engine, they panicked and abandoned the plane near a runway.
In July 2001, Ziad Jarrah, one of the pilots, threatened to withdraw from the plot because of a personal rivalry with Mohammad Atta. Binalshibh managed to broker a peace between them.
After three months and 50 hours of flight time, Zacarias Moussaoui still could not fly solo; Binalshibh had to drop him from the roster of pilots. Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar couldn’t make it as pilots either; Binalshibh dropped them, too. Binalshibh, himself, was desperate to get into the United States in order to coordinate the attacks more closely. Despite many attempts, he never succeeded in getting a visa.
Nawaf al-Hazmi (or perhaps his traveling companion, Hani Hanjour) got a speeding ticket; so did a Ziad Jarrah; so did Mohammad Atta.
On the night before the attacks, some of the hijackers tried to hire prostitutes.
The passengers on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and saved the White House from destruction. The flight that struck the Pentagon did relatively little damage to the building.
The CIA was explicitly warned in advance of the attacks.
At least two Iranian defectors warned the CIA and FBI in advance of the attack:
On July 26, 2001, a former Iranian intelligence officer named Hamid Reza Zakeri (a pseudonym) defected to the West through Azerbaijan. Zakeri was a security specialist in Section 110 of the Office of the Supreme Leader. The Office of the Supreme Leader is equivalent to the Office of the White House Chief of Staff. In Azerbaijan, Zakeri was extensively questioned by the CIA. He told the CIA that Iran was planning to attack five targets within the United States on September 11. The CIA ignored the warning.
On September 10, 2001, a former Iranian intelligence officer named Abdolghassen Mesbahi called the German police, asked to enter their witness protection program, and told them that Iran was planning to attack America. Mesbahi was a former member of the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS. Inside Iran, MOIS is known by its Farsi acronym, which was originally VEVAK but is now VAJA.) MOIS is the Iranian equivalent of the CIA. Mesbahi was a credible witness who had testified against Iran's top terrorism leaders in a German court in 1997. He was well known to the German police.
Mesbahi told the Germans that Iran intended to hijack commercial jets and fly them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Germans were uncooperative. He tried the FBI; no reaction. Then the planes slammed into their targets. Mesbahi switched tactics. Having failed to prevent the attacks, he could at least make sure that America knew who had perpetrated them. Mesbahi contacted, directly or indirectly, the American ambassador to Germany, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and finally the CIA. No one listened.
What is notable about these warnings is that they did not mention al-Qaeda or bin Laden. Both defectors were very clear on this point: in their minds, it was Iran that was going to attack America.