At 2:30 a.m. on August 29, 2001, the lead hijacker Mohammed Atta called Ramzi Binalshibh, his al-Qaeda handler, telling him he had a riddle that he was trying to solve: "Two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down—what is it?" Binalshibh thought for a while and suddenly realized that the two sticks were the number 11, and a cake with a stick down was a 9, and that Atta was telling him the attacks would happen in two weeks, on 11/9. That date is known as 9/11 in the United States.
Binalshibh, a slight, intensely religious Yemeni who had volunteered to be one of the hijackers, was turned down for an American visa. As a consolation prize for not becoming a "martyr," Binalshibh took control of the coordination of al-Qaeda's plans for the attacks on America from his apartment in Hamburg, Germany. Atta communicated by email from the United States with Binalshibh, apprising him of the progress of the plot. In his email messages, Atta posed as a university student writing to his girlfriend "Jenny." Atta used an innocuous code to alert Binalshibh that the plot was nearing completion: "The first semester commences in three weeks. . . . Nineteen certificates for private education and four exams." The nineteen "certificates" referred to the nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers and the four "exams" to the four targets of the soon-to-be-hijacked planes.
On September 5, Binalshibh left Germany for Pakistan, where he dispatched a messenger to Afghanistan to warn Osama bin Laden about the exact timing and scope of the attacks. Expecting some kind of American reprisal for the coming assaults on Washington and New York, likely in the form of cruise missile attacks like those President Clinton had ordered following al-Qaeda's 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, all of the organization's camps and residential compounds were put on high alert in the days before 9/11. A Yemeni living at al-Qaeda's al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan recalled that the trainers at the facility said, "If anyone wanted to leave, we were free to leave. There might be problems and there might be bombings." In Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that served as the de facto capital of the Taliban, bin Laden urged his followers to evacuate to safer locations in early September.
Earlier that summer the scuttlebutt around the al-Qaeda campfires was that a large anti-American attack was imminent. Feroz Ali Abbasi, a British militant of Ugandan descent who was eager to conduct terrorist operations against Jews and Americans, remembered "this information being commonly known amongst everybody in the training camps and guesthouses." Even "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh heard an instructor at his camp tell a group of trainees that bin Laden had dispatched dozens of suicide operatives for attacks against the United States and Israel.
In mid-June 2001 bin Laden and his top military commander, Mohammed Atef, also dropped broad hints that a major attack was in the works, during a meeting they held in Kandahar with Bakr Atyani, a correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation. Atef said that "in the next few weeks we will carry out a big surprise and we will strike or attack American and Israeli interests." Atyani asked bin Laden, "Would you please confirm that?" The al-Qaeda leader responded only with one of his slight, enigmatic smiles. The report about al-Qaeda's plans for an anti-American attack was subsequently picked up by the Washington Post on June 23. For those who cared to look during the summer of 2001, al-Qaeda's plans to wreak havoc on the United States were an open secret.
But the timing, targets, and scale of the operation was information that was tightly held, confined only to the top leaders of al-Qaeda and the pilots of the planes to be hijacked. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Jihad group, first learned of the details of the operation in June 2001, and that was only after his organization had formally contracted its alliance with al-Qaeda. Bin Laden even kept his spokesman in Afghanistan, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, in the dark. A former high school teacher from Kuwait, Abu Ghaith learned about the attacks on Washington and New York from media reports.
Similarly, the "muscle" hijackers on the four planes, whose primary role was to restrain the passengers on the flights, knew that they were volunteering for a suicide mission in the United States, but only at the final stage of the operation were they told their targets. Before they journeyed to the United States, the hijackers videotaped suicide "wills," which al-Qaeda's video production arm would release over the coming years to milk the 9/11 tragedy repeatedly.
In the final run-up to the attacks, Binalshibh made a last call to Ziad Jarrah, a onetime Lebanese party boy who had moved to Hamburg in 1996 and had fallen in there with the zealots in al-Qaeda's local cell. Despite his increasing militancy, Jarrah continued to date a pretty Turkish dentistry student he had met in Germany. Now Jarrah was in the States to train as a pilot-hijacker, but in the summer of 2001 Binalshibh was concerned that personality clashes between Jarrah and the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, a dour misogynist known as "the Ayatollah," might endanger the entire operation. Binalshibh asked Jarrah, "How do you feel?" He replied, "My heart is at ease, and I feel that the operation will, Inshallah [God willing] be carried out." Jarrah would soon crash United Airlines Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone on board.
Bin Laden was more optimistic than other al-Qaeda leaders that what they termed the "Holy Tuesday" operation would result in mass American casualties. Drawing on the experience he had working in his father's construction company, one of the largest in the Middle East, bin Laden calculated that the impacts of the crashes of the two planes into the World Trade Center towers would take out three or four floors of each building and would then cause intense fires fed by the jet fuel inside each of the hijacked aircraft, which were both headed to the West Coast on full tanks. As bin Laden explained to a fawning Saudi supporter who visited him a few weeks after 9/11, those white-hot fires would then in turn collapse all the floors above their points of impact. "This is all that we had hoped for," bin Laden told his Saudi guest.
Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who made propaganda videos for bin Laden, hooked up a satellite receiver for the al-Qaeda leader so he could watch live coverage of the attacks, but Bahlul had trouble finding a satisfactory video signal in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. And so as their workday on Tuesday, September 11, finished, eight and a half time zones ahead of Manhattan, bin Laden and some fifty other members of al-Qaeda gathered around radios to listen as the attacks unfolded.
When the news of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center was broadcast on the BBC's Arabic service, it was around 5:30 p.m. local time. Bin Laden's followers exploded with joy at the news, shouting and crying, "Allah Akbar! God is great!" Their leader, knowing there were more attacks to come, urged them, "Be patient!"
Ramzi Binalshibh was in Pakistan watching the attacks live on television with a group of others from al-Qaeda. Knowing how the plot was to unfold, Binalshibh could not contain his own excitement: "Our brother Marwan [one of the pilots] was violently ramming the plane into the Trade Center in an unbelievable manner! We were watching live and praying: 'God! Aim! Aim! Aim!'" Binalshibh remembers the elation of his colleagues: "They all chanted 'Allah Akbar!' and bowed to Allah in gratitude and they all wept."
But shrewder members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban felt otherwise. They realized that the 9/11 attacks might not be the stunning victory that al-Qaeda and many in the West took them to be at the time, and might in fact more resemble a kamikaze operation that would decimate their ranks. Vahid Mojdeh, a Taliban Foreign Ministry official, immediately understood that the game was up: "I was listening to BBC radio broadcasting news that several buildings in the States are burning and planes have crashed into those buildings, and it said that al-Qaeda is behind the attack. As soon as I heard the news, I realized that the Taliban were going to be terminated."
Abu Walid al-Masri, an Egyptian who was an early bin Laden associate in Afghanistan, explains that in the years before 9/11, bin Laden became increasingly deluded that America was weak. "He believed that the United States was much weaker than some of those around him thought," Masri remembered. "As evidence he referred to what happened to the United States in Beirut when the bombing of the Marines' base led them to flee from Lebanon."
Bin Laden's belief that the United States was a "paper tiger" was based not only on the American withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 following the Marine barracks attack there, which killed 241 American servicemen, but also the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia a decade later, following the "Black Hawk Down" incident, and the American pullout from the quagmire of Vietnam in the 1970s. Masri was not convinced by this paper-tiger narrative, though a number of bin Laden's acolytes were: "Some young Saudi followers confirmed to bin Laden his delusions from the gist of the experiences they had gained from their visits to the United States, namely, that the country was falling and could bear only few strikes." Bin Laden came to believe implicitly in his own analysis that the United States was as weak as the Soviet Union once was.
There were others in al-Qaeda's inner circle who worried that large-scale attacks on American targets were unwise. Saif al-Adel, a senior Egyptian military commander, and Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a religious adviser, opposed the attacks because they feared the American response or were worried that the operation would alienate the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Abu Hafs the Mauritanian was also concerned that killing American civilians could not be justified on religious grounds.
Other militants also warned bin Laden that attacking the United States would be counterproductive. Noman Benotman, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization that occasionally aligned itself with al-Qaeda, traveled from London in the summer of 2000 to meet with the group's leaders in Kandahar. He told them bluntly that attacking America would be disastrous. "We made a clear-cut request for him to stop his campaign against the United States because it was going to lead to nowhere," Benotman recalled, "but they laughed when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it." Benotman's warning should have carried some weight because he had known bin Laden since they were both fighting the communists in Afghanistan.
By early September 2001, al-Qaeda was at the height of its power; the group and its Taliban allies were on the verge of taking over Afghanistan entirely.
Yet the curtain raiser for the 9/11 attacks had gone virtually unnoticed in the West; this was the assassination on September 9 of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the coalition of anti-Taliban groups known as the Northern Alliance, which was the only force that stood in the way of the Taliban's total victory in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was well aware that key Taliban officials, such as the foreign minister, Wakil Muttawakil, wanted to rein him in because he was complicating the Taliban's desperate and ultimately ill-fated quest for international recognition of their government. The Taliban put bin Laden on notice to stop his terrorist plotting and stop giving incendiary anti-American interviews on television networks such as CNN and Al Jazeera. At one point Mullah Omar, their strange, reclusive, one-eyed leader, even visited the al-Qaeda leader to tell him to leave Afghanistan. Bin Laden responded, "Sheikh, if you give in to infidel governments, your decision will be against Islam." This argument was persuasive to Mullah Omar, a hyperdevout Muslim who had anointed himself "Commander of the Faithful" when he assumed total control of the Taliban movement in 1996.
Bin Laden agreed to desist from plotting terror attacks and from his media campaign and he pledged a religious oath of obedience to Mullah Omar, in exchange for the continued shelter that the Taliban offered his organization.
Bin Laden would not honor those pledges and he did not clue in Mullah Omar about his plans for attacking America. But he calculated that there was one gift he could give the Taliban that might temper any anger they might have about his coming attacks on the United States: the head of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Excerpted from The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between American and Al-Qaeda by Peter Bergen. Copyright 2011 Peter Bergen. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster.