'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11 Ten years ago Friday, both the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers and the U.S. counterterrorism chief were at work. They had spent years working on opposing sides of the same war. Retracing the actions of the two men over the years before the attacks shows how luck and focus made all the difference.
NPR logo

'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140321495/140327994" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11

'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140321495/140327994" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Ten years ago this morning, groups of men woke up in small hotels along the East Coast. Nineteen men were in the final stages of an elaborate plan they had made for September 11, 2001. That morning, September 9, their leader, Mohammed Atta, was checking in with the various groups of men on his way to Boston.

GREENE: The White House counterterrorism chief at the time, Richard Clarke, was also at work that day. He had been watching information about al-Qaida all summer long and he knew something was up. He just didn't know what. Both Atta and Clarke had spent years working on opposite sides of the same war. And their paths tell us the story of the run-up to the attacks. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston and Robert Smith report.

ROBERT SMITH: In the days before 9/11, Mohammad Atta took care of tiny details. There was money to be transferred, a trip to Kinko's. On September 9, 2001, when he checked into a hotel in Boston, he had stripped his life down to the essentials. In his bag were a change of clothes, a Koran, and a list of preparations.

Mr. TERRY MCDERMOTT (Author, "Perfect Soldiers"): You know, he's a strange fellow, by almost any measure.

SMITH: Terry McDermott wrote a biography of the 9/11 hijackers called "Perfect Soldiers."

Mr. MCDERMOTT: He wasn't pleasant in almost any setting. It's almost surprising he had any friends at all.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: In his office next to the White House, Richard Clarke was also spending the day alone. He'd been working on counterterrorism from the same room for almost 10 years. The office had oriental rugs, a fireplace, and a stunning view of the Washington Monument.

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Former White House Counterterrorism Chief): It was home, because I spent 14 hours a day there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But not for much longer. Clarke was frustrated that the Bush administration wasn't listening to his advice and he had requested a transfer. In just a few weeks, al-Qaida would be someone else's problem.

SMITH: It's interesting to retrace the steps of the two men over the years before the attacks, because you can see how luck and focus made all the difference.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Frankly, the U.S. kept getting distracted.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The Senate acquits President Bill Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice charges over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

SMITH: There are a bunch of places we can start the story of the 9/11 plot, but the year 1999 is as good as any.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President BILL CLINTON: I want to say how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The 1999 Senate trial of Bill Clinton so captivated the world that it was even the subject of discussion in a small apartment in Hamburg, Germany. Mohammed Atta was an engineering student there. And he and his friends would sit around speculating that Monica Lewinsky was really a Mossad agent sent by Israel to bring down a president.

SMITH: Author Terry McDermott spoke to Atta's roommates and relatives. And it turns out Atta didn't even want to be in Germany. His parents forced him to leave Egypt to make something of himself.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Atta was, above all, dutiful. He was a fellow who would do what he was told. I mean, he was a capable guy and he was bright, but he just had no initiative of his own.

SMITH: McDermott found out from a roommate that Atta hated to eat. He found it boring. He used to boil a whole bag of potatoes, mash them up, and then leave a mound on a plate in the refrigerator. When he was hungry he would simply grab a spoon and take a chunk out of the potato mountain.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The sullen Atta only seemed to find his inspiration at a local mosque. He moved in with some of the men he met there. And the neighbors? They said they would see dozens of pairs of shoes outside the door and hear the men arguing into the night.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: He and his friends in Hamburg spent five years really talking about what they should do, what their obligation was. What should a good Muslim do? What should we do?

SMITH: In 1999, the United States government was also stuck, trying to figure out what to do. At the White House, Richard Clarke had been warning for years about the threat Osama Bin Laden posed. The U.S. had been tracking bin Laden through Afghanistan. President Clinton had given his blessing to capture or kill bin Laden. But Clarke says no one was willing to bomb al-Qaida training camps.

Mr. CLARKE: People were reluctant without a specific provocation or intelligence about bin Laden's location to bomb and destroy those camps. That was the chief frustration I felt.

SMITH: But the world was about to pay much more attention to the threat of terrorism.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: Well, the clock is ticking towards the new millennium.

Mr. CLARKE: We began to get intelligence that al-Qaida was planning a series of attacks around the millennium. And so we developed a plan to try to identify where those attacks would be but also just try to rattle their cage and smoke them out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This was near the end of the Clinton administration. And while Clarke still wasn't getting the go ahead to bomb training camps, the U.S. did put the nation on high alert.

Mr. CLARKE: We think it stopped attacks. Some of it was good luck. Some of it was because of the effort we made.

SMITH: Turns out al-Qaida was luckier. They were about to find the men they needed for their most audacious plan yet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It almost didn't happen. As the millennium approached, after long nights of debate Atta and his friends made a decision. They would fight in Chechnya, against the Russians. And by chance they met another Muslim on a train, who basically said, how are a bunch of amateurs like you going to get to Chechnya? He suggested they go to Afghanistan instead and get training first.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: And the coincidences here just pile on top of one another. I mean, it couldn't have been more than a month after bin Laden had approved the plot that these guys stumbled into Kandahar. It's a remarkable coincidence.

SMITH: Think about it. Osama bin Laden had just given the OK to the plot, something he called the planes operation. And it required men who were willing to die, and yet smart enough to fly a plane. They had to know the West and be able to get a U.S. visa, and then Mohammad Atta just shows up in Afghanistan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The plot was in motion, but it would take another year for the U.S. to know something was in the works. Let's jump to the end of the year 2000 and another distraction.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

SMITH: On day 34 of the recount, the focus moved from Florida to Washington.

TEMPLE-RASTON: By the time George W. Bush was sworn in as president, Richard Clarke was getting tired of waiting. Al-Qaida had blown up a U.S. warship in Yemen. The Cole attack killed 17 members of the U.S. military. And in the mess of the election season, the country never hit back.

SMITH: And then came the summer of 2001, likely to go down in history as the summer of missed opportunities.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, we were listening to al-Qaida people. We were intercepting their phone calls. We were intercepting their emails. And all of those indicators were coming back that there was a major attack in the works.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And still clues were overlooked. A man named Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota after his flight school instructor said he was acting like a hijacker. The CIA gave President Bush a briefing with the now famous title of "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

SMITH: But all summer, Clarke couldn't get the Bush administration to plan a cabinet level meeting on al-Qaida. Too many people were on vacation. By the time a meeting was scheduled in September, Clarke was already planning on transferring jobs.

Mr. CLARKE: So I left the September 4 meeting frustrated that they hadn't made decisions, and frustrated that they still hadn't got it and thinking, well, at least in three weeks it won't be my responsibility anymore.

SMITH: Mohammad Atta never wavered in his responsibilities. We can now see his path through the summer of 2001 and he was a master of details. Atta had shaved his beard, finished up his flight classes in Florida.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: I mean he was a pretty good student. There was nothing about it that seemed odd to anybody.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He was busy. He opened bank accounts, went on reconnaissance flights to Las Vegas. Terry McDermott has seen his credit card receipts and he says it's amazing.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: These guys were cheap. They shopped at Wal-Mart. I mean, they ate at Denny's. They didn't splurge on anything.

SMITH: Atta picked the date, September 11. He bought plane tickets.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: It's truly the banality of evil. It isn't made up of high thoughts. It's made up of logistics.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And Mohammad Atta, the rule-follower, even had the guts to contradict his boss. Bin Laden had wanted one of the planes to strike the White House. Atta argued that the Capitol Building would be easier.

SMITH: Which brings us to 10 years ago this weekend. In Mohammad Atta's luggage, investigators found a long list of what the hijackers were supposed to do on the night before September 11. They must wash, it says, shave excess hair from the body, and completely forget this world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But Atta had a few more mundane errands to run on his final night. He went to a Wal-Mart in Portland, Maine, pulled money out of an ATM.

SMITH: We can't know if Atta followed the detailed instructions, if he sharpened his knife, if he said a prayer as he packed on the morning of September 11.

TEMPLE-RASTON: We only know that at 5:33 a.m., Mohammad Atta checked out of Room 233 at the Comfort Inn and he headed to the airport.

I'm Dina Temple-Raston.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.