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Al Qaeda Had 10-Plane Plot for U.S., Report Says

Osama bin Laden is said to have rejected the wider 9/11 strike, which included attacks on California, according to commission findings.

June 17, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a scaled-down version of a more audacious plot that involved the hijacking of 10 planes to strike targets on both coasts, including the tallest buildings in California and Washington state, according to a report released Wednesday by the staff of the commission investigating the attacks.

The plan, conceived by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was to have piloted one of the aircraft, received a lukewarm response from Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was scrapped as unfeasible, the report said.

Investigators also found that disagreements among the 19 hijackers and their handlers were widespread and included feuding over personnel and timing as well as targets, a depiction that contrasted with prevailing views of the plotters as a well-oiled terrorist machine.

Among the problems: One of the pilots of the doomed jets developed second thoughts in the weeks before the attacks. The report also found that some senior Al Qaeda officials opposed the Sept. 11 operation partly because they were concerned that the U.S. would respond militarily.

The revelations were among findings by commission staff released Wednesday. The official report of the Sept. 11 commission is due July 26.

The findings, issued as part of a final round of public hearings, were based in large part on previously undisclosed interviews with Sept. 11 mastermind Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, a key coordinator for the plot, both of whom are in U.S. custody.

Mohammed told investigators that his initial proposal involved hijacking 10 planes to attack targets on the East and West coasts of the United States. He claimed that plans also called for crashing planes into CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear power plants and unspecified skyscrapers in the West.

Among evidence offered Wednesday was a report, previously disclosed in 2002, that an unidentified CIA source told the agency three months before the attacks that Mohammed had been preparing operatives to go to the United States. The information was shared with U.S. law enforcement agencies, but witnesses were unable to say what was done with it.

The commission staff also generated an estimated price tag for the attacks -- $400,000 to $500,000, excluding the cost of running camps in Afghanistan, where the hijackers were trained.

"It is absolutely staggering to me the twisted cost-benefit ratio of what Al Qaeda pulled off on Sept. 11," commission member Timothy J. Roemer said at the hearing Wednesday, adding that he despaired at the resiliency the terrorist network had shown since the attacks. "They continue to float and spread like mercury across a mirror all over the world."

The commission has previously examined intelligence breakdowns by the CIA and FBI leading up to the attacks, among other topics, and is expected to scrutinize what the Pentagon and aviation regulators did in response to the attacks in a final hearing today.

Among other revelations, the hearings Wednesday clarified the alleged role of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national and Al Qaeda operative who was arrested in Minnesota a month before the attacks after attending flight school. He is being prosecuted in federal court in Virginia on conspiracy charges.

Commission staff members said that Moussaoui was considered a replacement pilot after one of the original 19 appeared on the verge of backing out, and that he was wired $14,000 to cover the cost of an intensive flight-simulator course in early August 2001.

The staff report said Mohammed ordered the money sent in a coded message: Send "the skirts" to "Sally."

The staff concluded that Moussaoui's arrest "may have prevented him from joining the 9/11 operation."

Edward MacMahon Jr., Moussaoui's lawyer, said Wednesday the statements by the staff were "misleading and incomplete."

His view was supported by the final congressional Report of the Joint Inquiry Committee on the attacks issued in 2002, which said that Moussaoui was never intended to be part of the Sept. 11 operation and "was slated instead to participate in a so-called 'second wave' of attacks on the West Coast."

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

The hearing also shed new light on an illegal immigrant, Mohdar Abdullah, who befriended two San Diego-based hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, helping them obtain driver's licenses and enroll in schools.

The hearings underscored the ease with which the hijackers moved about the United States and became assimilated in the culture.

The testimony of the staff was punctuated with photographs of the hijackers withdrawing money from cash machines taken by security cameras and a photocopy of a speeding ticket that one of the hijackers was issued while driving to his final staging point in New Jersey.

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