The Hijackers

The hijackers in the September 11 attacks were 19 men affiliated with al-Qaeda. 15 of the 19 were citizens of Saudi Arabia, and the others were from the United Arab Emirates (2), Egypt and Lebanon. The hijackers were organized into four teams, each led by a pilot-trained hijacker with three or four “muscle hijackers” who were trained to help subdue the pilots, passengers, and crew.

The first hijackers to arrive in the United States were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who settled in the San Diego area in January 2000. They were followed by three hijacker-pilots, Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah in mid-2000 to undertake flight training in south Florida. The fourth hijacker-pilot, Hani Hanjour, arrived in San Diego in December 2000. The rest of the “muscle hijackers” arrived in early and mid-2001.

Background

The 2001 attacks were preceded by the less well known Bojinka plot which was planned in the Philippines by Ramzi Yousef (of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Its objective was to blow up twelve airliners and their approximately 4,000 passengers as they flew from Asia to the United States. The plan included crashing a plane into the CIA headquarters, lending credence to the theory that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed evolved this plot into the September 11 attacks. The plot was disrupted in January 1995 after a chemical fire drew the Filipino police and investigation authorities’ attention, resulting in the arrest of one terrorist and seizure of a laptop containing the plans. One person was killed in the course of the plot — a Japanese passenger seated near a nitroglycerin bomb on Philippine Airlines Flight 434. The money handed down to the plotters originated from Al-Qaeda, the international Islamic jihadi organization then based in Sudan.

Selection

Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were both experienced and respected jihadists in the eyes of al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

As for the pilots who would go on to participate in the attacks, three of them were original members of the Hamburg cell (Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah). Following their training at Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, they were chosen by Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s military wing due to their extensive knowledge of western culture and language skills, increasing the mission’s operational security and its chances for success. The fourth intended pilot, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a member of the Hamburg cell, was also chosen to participate in the attacks yet was unable to obtain a visa for entry into the United States. He was later replaced by Hani Hanjour, a Saudi national.

Mihdhar and Hazmi were also potential pilot hijackers, but did not do well in their initial pilot lessons in San Diego. Both were kept on as “muscle” hijackers, who would help overpower the passengers and crew, and allow the pilot hijackers to take control of the flights. In addition to Mihdhar and Hazmi, thirteen other muscle hijackers were selected in late 2000 or early 2001. All were from Saudi Arabia, with the exception of Fayez Banihammad, who was from the United Arab Emirates.

Hijacked aircraft

American Airlines Flight 11 – World Trade Center – North Tower:

Bold/Italic letters note the hijackers who piloted the planes.

Hijackers: Mohamed Atta (Egyptian), Abdulaziz al-Omari (Saudi Arabian), Wail al-Shehri (Saudi Arabian), Waleed al-Shehri (Saudi Arabian), Satam al-Suqami (Saudi Arabian).

Two flight attendants called the American Airlines reservation desk during the hijacking. Betty Ong reported that “the five hijackers had come from first-class seats: 2A, 2B, 9A, 9C and 9B.” Flight attendant Amy Sweeney called a flight services manager at Logan Airport in Boston and described them as Middle Eastern. She gave the staff the seat numbers and they pulled up the ticket and credit card information of the hijackers, identifying Mohamed Atta.

Mohamed Atta’s voice was heard over the air traffic control system, broadcasting messages thought to be intended for the passengers.

We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.

Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.

Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.

United Airlines Flight 175 – Two World Trade Center:

Hijackers: Marwan al-Shehhi (United Arab Emirates), Fayez Banihammad (United Arab Emirates), Mohand al-Shehri (Saudi Arabian), Hamza al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabian), Ahmed al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabian).

A United Airlines mechanic was called by a flight attendant who stated the crew had been murdered and the plane hijacked.

American Airlines Flight 77 – Pentagon:

Hijackers: Hani Hanjour (Saudi Arabian), Khalid al-Mihdhar (Saudi Arabian), Majed Moqed (Saudi Arabian), Nawaf al-Hazmi (Saudi Arabian), Salem al-Hazmi (Saudi Arabian).

Two hijackers, Hani Hanjour and Majed Moqed were identified by clerks as having bought single, first-class tickets for Flight 77 from Advance Travel Service in Totowa, New Jersey with $1,842.25 in cash. Renee May, a flight attendant on Flight 77, used a cell phone to call her mother in Las Vegas. She said her flight was being hijacked by six individuals who had moved them to the rear of the plane. Unlike the other flights, there was no report of stabbings or bomb threats. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, it is possible that pilots were not stabbed to death and were sent to the rear of the plane. One of the hijackers, most likely Hanjour, announced on the intercom that the flight had been hijacked. Passenger Barbara Olson called her husband, Theodore Olson, the Solicitor General of the United States, stating the flight had been hijacked and the hijackers had knives and box cutters. Two of the passengers had been on the FBI’s terrorist-alert list: Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

United Airlines Flight 93:

Hijackers: Ziad Jarrah (Lebanese), Ahmed al-Haznawi (Saudi Arabian), Ahmed al-Nami (Saudi Arabian), Saeed al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabian).

Passenger Jeremy Glick stated that the hijackers were Arabic-looking, wearing red headbands, and carrying knives.

Spoken messages from Ziad Jarrah intended for passengers, were also thought mistakenly broadcast over the air traffic control system:

Ladies and gentlemen. This is the captain. Please sit down. Keep remaining sitting(sic). We have a bomb on board. So sit.

[…]

Uh, this is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands met. Please remain quiet.

Jarrah is also heard on the cockpit voice recorder. In addition, DNA samples submitted by his girlfriend were matched to remains recovered in Shanksville.

Flight 93.
Flight 93.

Investigation

Before the attacks:

Before the attacks, FBI agent Robert Wright, Jr. had written vigorous criticisms of FBI’s alleged incompetence in investigating terrorists residing within the United States. Wright was part of the Bureau’s Chicago counter-terrorism task force and involved in project Vulgar Betrayal which was linked to Yasin al-Qadi.

According to James Bamford, the NSA had picked up communications of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi back in 1999, but had been hampered by internal bureaucratic conflicts between itself and the CIA, and did not do a full analysis of the information it passed on to the agency. For example; it only passed the first names on, Nawaf and Khalid.

Bamford also claims that the CIA’s Alec Station (a unit assigned to bin Laden) knew that al-Mihdhar was planning to come to New York as far back as January 2000. Doug Miller, one of 3 FBI agents working inside the CIA station, tried to send a message (a CIR) to the FBI to alert them about this, so they could put al-Mihdhar on a watch list. His CIA boss, Tom Wilshire, deputy station chief, allegedly denied permission to Miller. Miller asked his associate Mark Rossini for advice; Rossini pressed Wilshire’s deputy but was again rebuffed.

Bamford also claims that al-Mihdhar and Hazmi wound up living with Abdussattar Shaikh for a time to save money. Shaikh was, coincidentally, an FBI informant, but since they never acted suspiciously around him, he never reported them. The CIA Bangkok station told Alec Station that Hazmi had gone to Los Angeles. None of this information made it back to the FBI headquarters.

“[W]e’ve got to tell the Bureau about this. These guys clearly are bad. One of them, at least, has a multiple-entry visa to the U.S. We’ve got to tell the FBI.” And then [the CIA officer] said to me, ‘No, it’s not the FBI’s case, not the FBI’s jurisdiction.’ ”
Mark Rossini, “The Spy Factory”

Attacks:

Within minutes of the attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened the largest FBI investigation in United States history, operation PENTTBOM. The suspects were identified within 72 hours because few made any attempt to disguise their names on flight and credit card records. They were also among the few non-U.S. citizens and nearly the only passengers with Arabic names on their flights, enabling the FBI to identify them using such details as dates of birth, known or possible residences, visa status, and specific identification of the suspected pilots. On September 27, 2001, the FBI released photos of the 19 hijackers, along with information about many of their possible nationalities and aliases. The suspected hijackers were from Saudi Arabia (fifteen hijackers), United Arab Emirates (two hijackers), Lebanon (one hijacker) and Egypt (one hijacker).

The passport of Satam al-Suqami was reportedly recovered “a few blocks from where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood”; a passerby picked it up and gave it to a NYPD detective shortly before the towers collapsed. The passports of two other hijackers, Ziad Jarrah and Saeed al-Ghamdi, were recovered from the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and a fourth passport, that of Abdulaziz al-Omari was recovered from luggage that did not make it onto American Airlines Flight 11.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report, 26 al-Qaeda terrorist conspirators sought to enter the United States to carry out a suicide mission. In the end, the FBI reported that there were 19 hijackers in all: five on three of the flights, and four on the fourth. On September 14, three days after the attacks, the FBI announced the names of 19 persons. After a controversy about an earlier remark, U.S. Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano stated in May 2009 that the 9/11 Commission found that none of the hijackers entered the United States through Canada.

Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour, attended the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia in early April 2001 where the Imam Anwar al-Awlaki preached. Through interviews with the FBI, it was discovered that Awlaki had previously met Nawaf al-Hazmi several times while the two lived in San Diego. At the time, Hazmi was living with Khalid al-Mihdhar, another 9/11 hijacker. The hijackers of the same plane often had very strong ties as many of them attended school together or lived together prior to the attacks

Cases of mistaken identity

Soon after the attacks and before the FBI had released the pictures of all the hijackers, several reports claimed some of the men named as hijackers on 9/11 were alive, and had their identities stolen.

The Hamburg terror cell

The Hamburg cell or Hamburg terror cell was, according to U.S. and German intelligence agencies, a group of radical Islamists based in Hamburg, Germany that included students who eventually came to be key operatives in the 9/11 attacks. Important members included Mohamed Atta, who led the four hijacking teams in 2001 and piloted American Airlines Flight 11; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who conspired with the other three members but was unable to enter the United States; and Marwan al-Shehhi, who piloted United Airlines Flight 175, Ziad Jarrah, who piloted United Airlines Flight 93 and failed to hit a target in Washington D.C., claimed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to have been the Capitol. Less important members included Said Bahaji, Zakariya Essabar, Mounir el-Motassadeq, and Abdelghani Mzoudi.

Background:

The Marienstraße 54 (left) in Hamburg, where Mohamed Atta lived from 1998 to 2001.
The Marienstraße 54 (left) in Hamburg, where Mohamed Atta lived from 1998 to 2001.

On November 1, 1998, future-hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh moved into a three-room apartment (two bedrooms, one living room, one kitchen) together on Marienstraße 54. Here they formed the secretive Hamburg cell, which also included other minor participants in the 9/11 plot. They met together three or four times a week to discuss their anti-American and anti-Israeli views, and to decide how best to fight for their cause.

As late as 1999, the four core members of the group had intended to wage jihad in Chechnya, where Islamic jihadists were then and are now rebelling against the parent country of Russia. The 9/11 Commission Report notes in Chapter 5 that “according to bin al-Shibh [who is now in U.S. custody], a chance meeting on a train in Germany caused the group to travel to Afghanistan instead. An individual named Khalid al Masri (or Khalid al-Masri) approached bin al-Shibh and Shehhi (because they were Arabs with beards, bin al-Shibh thinks) and struck up a conversation about jihad in Chechnya. When they later called Masri and expressed interest in going to Chechnya, he told them to contact Abu Musab in Duisburg, Germany. Abu Musab turned out to be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a significant al-Qaeda operative who, even then, was well known to U.S. and German intelligence, though neither government apparently knew he was operating in Germany in late 1999.”

Marienstraße 54, Hamburg-Harburg.
Marienstraße 54, Hamburg-Harburg.

Bin al-Shibh, Shehhi and Jarrah visited Slahi in Duisburg, where he convinced them that it would be best to train in Afghanistan first, because further experience would be useful, and anyway it was difficult at that time to get into Chechnya. Slahi instructed them to travel to Karachi, Pakistan, then to the Taliban office in Quetta, Pakistan, where they were to contact a man named Umar al Masri. Atta and Jarrah left Hamburg during the last week of November, 1999. Shehhi left by himself around the same time; bin al-Shibh followed two weeks later.

“Umar al Masri” turned out to be a nonexistent person. The name was a code word that instructed members of the Taliban office to escort the men to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where they were convinced to join the al-Qaeda network and wage jihad against America. They met with Osama bin Laden himself and swore their loyalty to him. Mohamed Atta was chosen by Bin Laden as the leader of the group that would attack America; Atta would contact Bin Laden several more times before the attacks. The men then returned to Germany to enroll in flight training school, and later moved on to flight training schools in the United States at the recommendation of one of their instructors based in Germany.

Inside Atta's Apartment: Marienstraße 54, Hamburg-Harburg.
Inside Atta’s Apartment: Marienstraße 54, Hamburg-Harburg.

The members of the Hamburg Cell were a boon to the 9/11 plot, which Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had proposed to Bin Laden in 1996. The Hamburg students were fluent in English, educated, accustomed to the Western lifestyle, radically Islamic, and capable of learning to pilot aircraft. “Bin Laden and Mohammed Atef wasted no time in assigning the Hamburg group to the most ambitious operation yet planned by al-Qaeda,” the 9/11 Commission Report says.

Many al-Qaeda members lived in the Hamburg apartment at various times. In all, 29 men listed the apartment as their home address while Mohamed Atta’s name was on the lease. Reportedly, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed visited the apartment repeatedly.

German intelligence monitored the apartment, but did not find any evidence against the residents. Both the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency and German Intelligence have received criticism for failing to share information on these and other al-Qaida members.

Ziad Jarrah:

Hijacker and pilot Ziad Jarrah is listed by the 9/11 Commission Report as being a part of the Hamburg cell as well. He did not live with any of the others, however, and can only be confirmed to have met with any of them in Hamburg on a single occasion: that of Said Bahaji’s wedding at the al-Quds Mosque. The closeness of his connections with the others is not known. He left for Afghanistan with the others, can be seen in a video tape with Atta made there.

The Hijackers.
The Hijackers.
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