500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Warsby Kurt Eichenwald
Kurt Eichenwald—New York Times bestselling author of Conspiracy of Fools and The Informant— recounts the first 500 days after 9/11 in a comprehensive, compelling page-turner as gripping as any thriller.
In 500 Days, master chronicler Kurt Eichenwald lays bare the harrowing decisions, deceptions, and delusions of the/i>/b>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
Kurt Eichenwald—New York Times bestselling author of Conspiracy of Fools and The Informant— recounts the first 500 days after 9/11 in a comprehensive, compelling page-turner as gripping as any thriller.
In 500 Days, master chronicler Kurt Eichenwald lays bare the harrowing decisions, deceptions, and delusions of the eighteen months that changed the world forever, as leaders raced to protect their citizens in the wake of 9/11.
Eichenwald’s gripping, immediate style and trueto- life dialogue puts readers at the heart of these historic events, from the Oval Office to Number 10 Downing Street, from Guantanamo Bay to the depths of CIA headquarters, from the al-Qaeda training camps to the torture chambers of Egypt and Syria. He reveals previously undisclosed information from the terror wars, including never before reported details about warrantless wiretapping, the anthrax attacks and investigations, and conflicts between Washington and London.
With his signature fast-paced narrative style, Eichenwald— whose book, The Informant, was called “one of the best nonfiction books of the decade” by The New York Times Book Review—exposes a world of secrets and lies that has remained hidden for far too long.
Thomas E. Ricks
“With the pacing of a suspense novel, award-winning journalist Eichenwald’s richly researched account … [is] a breathtaking inspection of the war on terror that began on 9/11 and reverberates to this day.”
“Gripping . . . both a page-turning read and an insightful dissection of 9/11’s dark legacy"
“A blow-by-blow, episodic reconstruction of the fallout from 9/11 in the highest spheres of terrorist strategy … demonstrating literally how the anti-terrorist hysteria in the United States, and the hatred of America and general global paranoia, forged the ’trauma that haunts the world to this day.’”
“Eichenwald is a master at making complicated stories easily understood....[500 Days is] a page-turner because of his journalistic attention to detail. Readers get fly-on-the-wall accounts as Bush administration officials weigh life-and-death decisions.”
“Thorough reporting and crisp writing . . . Moves at the pace of a movie-ready thriller.”
“Illuminating and entertaining throughout.”
“An ambitious undertaking and a valuable resource. . . . [Eichenwald] brings home the fundamental rashness and recklessness of the American response to the Sept. 11 attack.”
“Who really made the decision to go to war in Iraq, and how grounded in fact were the "facts" fed to the American public? The author gives us not a seat at the table but an awfully good listening post to the decisions that changed the world.”
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Read an Excerpt
With the flick of a switch, the electronic timer on a concealed briefcase bomb flashed red, its digits counting down from five minutes. A small fan quietly whirred, generating a breath of air that could disperse enough sarin gas to kill everyone within several yards.
A few feet away, George W. Bush set a plate of cookies on a table, shooting a glance outside as he dropped into an overstuffed chair. His beloved ranch was as tranquil as he had ever seen, with sunlight pouring through the trees in streaks of blazing heat. A cow lumbered past, attracting the fleeting attention of the grim-faced visitors who were there to reveal some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets to the Texas governor.
Thirty days earlier, Bush had been selected at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia as the party’s candidate for the 2000 presidential election. By tradition, the Central Intelligence Agency provides a broad-ranging intelligence briefing during the presidential campaign to both the Republican and the Democratic nominees, preparing them for the responsibilities of the White House. On this day, September 2, 2000, four agency officials—led by John McLaughlin, the acting deputy director—had traveled to Bush’s ranch outside of Waco to present him and three of his senior advisors—Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Josh Bolten—with classified information from the most closely guarded sanctums of American power.
For three hours, the conversation roamed the globe—from Russia to China, from the Middle East to Latin America. Ben Bonk, the deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, kept his silence, biding his time as he took the measure of America’s would-be commander in chief.
Bush struck him as intriguingly quirky; here was an aspirant to the highest office in the land attending his first intelligence briefing decked out in full Marlboro Man regalia—cowboy boots, jeans with a big buckle, and a checked short-sleeved work shirt. He was unpretentious, a presidential candidate willing to fetch food from the kitchen for his guests. Just as strikingly, the walls were plastered with tacky memorabilia, like a rubberized bass that could turn its head and break into song—a peculiar choice for a man seeking to become leader of the free world. But Bush’s down-home veneer, Bonk thought, disguised a keen mind. He had expected to be dealing with an intellectual lightweight, reliant on his aides for guidance in the subtleties of statecraft. Instead, it was Bush who peppered the briefers with frequent and often insightful questions, while his subordinates stayed quiet.
Bonk’s plan for this day was itself a testament to the effectiveness of Bush’s aw-shucks folksiness. Because of that reputation, Bonk had overcome his hesitance about sneaking the briefcase bomb into the house, providing Bush a vivid exhibit of the terrorist threat. Even though it contained no poison gas, the device was real enough—the CIA had built it based on a design seized from a Japanese terrorist cult that had used the bomb to kill thirteen commuters in attacks on Tokyo subway stations.
He had let the Secret Service in on the ruse, of course—otherwise, the security detail would probably have arrested him at the door—but the governor had been left in the dark about it. Once inside, Bonk set the briefcase on the floor next to his chair and had now, just before it was his turn to speak, activated the bomb with the switch on the briefcase handle.
The governor’s eyes shifted to Bonk.
“All right, Ben,” he said. “You’re up.”
Bonk looked down at his briefing book. His colleagues had all opened their presentations with a joke—some were even funny—but terrorism didn’t lend itself to laughter. So Bonk had chosen a more attention-grabbing tack: shock.
“Governor Bush, everything you’ve heard today about future events has been qualified as probable or likely things,” he said. “But I can say one thing for sure without any qualification: Sometime in the next four years, Americans will die as a result of a terrorist incident.”
Bush furrowed his brow as the slightest wisps of joviality were sucked out of the room. Bonk paused to let his audience absorb the import of his statement.
Numerous terrorist organizations were on the move, he continued, but the most dangerous were the Islamic extremist groups. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad—the names varied but their recipe for mayhem was the same: suicide and truck bombings, kidnappings, torture, executions.
Still, the bloody toll from those tactics was nothing compared to what lay in store for America and its allies if the terrorists succeeded in their quest for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear weapons, collectively known as CBRN. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, was the group most likely to succeed, Bonk said; it had the deepest pockets and the most far-flung operational networks. Its deadly shopping list was long—sodium cyanide, anthrax, radiological disbursal devices, improvised nuclear arms. If al-Qaeda or another terrorist group got its hands on any of them, it would show no hesitation in using the weapons immediately to murder as many Americans as possible. America’s nuclear arsenal, which had kept an uneasy peace with the Soviet empire in the decades of the Cold War, wouldn’t deter Islamic extremists.
These weapons of mass destruction did not have to be large or cumbersome to transport, Bonk explained. Terrorists could easily slip compact bombs into a crowd without raising suspicion.
Bonk reached for his briefcase, stood, and walked toward Bush. As he approached, he popped it open, then tilted the case forward. Bush saw the red digits counting down.
“Don’t worry,” Bonk said. “This is harmless. But it is exactly the kind of chemical device that people can bring into a room and kill everybody.”
He glanced down at the timer. “And this one would be going off in two minutes.”
Bush looked at Josh Bolten. “You’ve got one and a half minutes to get that thing out of here,” he said.
Outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan
The dilapidated minibus kicked up a cloud of dust as it rumbled over a wasteland of sand and rock. Inside, a Pakistani journalist named Baker Atyani rode in silence, occasionally glancing at the Arab fighter beside him. The man cut an imposing—even frightening—figure, with grenades hung from his belt and a machine gun clutched in his hands. Atyani’s seat had been installed facing the rear, and the windows on all sides were darkened, leaving him unable to see where they were or where they were headed. He knew better than to ask.
For three hours, the rattletrap bounced and shuddered until it finally arrived in front of the towering walls of a compound. The main gate swung open and the bus passed through, heading toward a nondescript mud house. A group of heavily armed men approached; their alert eyes flickered about, looking for signs of danger.
The man in the passenger seat—whom Atyani knew as Osman—rolled down his window. “This is the guy who is supposed to meet the sheikh,” he said.
Okay, a guard replied. But they still needed to search the newcomer.
Atyani stepped out of the bus. Dust stung his eyes and heat baked the air. The security team patted him down for weapons, riffled through his bag, and confiscated his watch, promising to return it later. Then they escorted Atyani and Osman into the house and made them wait for five minutes. Finally, the guard led them to an unimposing room. As they entered, Atyani spotted several men wearing head coverings and dressed in long white robes. Among them was Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world.
Bin Laden approached Atyani, greeting him with a handshake and customary hug. “You are welcome here in Afghanistan, and in my place,” he said.
The moment was dreamlike. As he looked around the room, Atyani could not help but wonder if the house might be bombed while he was there. Yet, it had never crossed his mind to refuse the offer to travel to this remote spot for an interview with a man shaping history, an Islamic radical whose global influence exceeded that of some nations.
Bin Laden preached a philosophy of endless battle, of international conspiracies seeking to destroy Islam by attracting Muslims to the material comforts of jahiliyya, an evil rejection of divine guidance. This was a battle between God and Satan, bin Laden declared, requiring Muslims to wage war against the purveyors of jahiliyya—be they Westerners, Jews, or fellow Muslims. Defending Islam, he said, justified any action—even mass killing.
The army that would scatter the enemy and drive Western nations out of the Middle East was al-Qaeda, a group bin Laden cofounded in 1989 to lead a religious purification of the Muslim world. By 2001, he had transformed al-Qaeda into a formidable fighting force, trained at camps like Tarnak Farms near the Kandahar airport. He and his followers established hideaways and safe houses: Mujama’ 6 in Kandahar; Bayt al-Ruman, a religious institute inside an old Afghani school; Khan Gulan Patsheh, a Kabul guesthouse that was previously part of the palace for the king of Afghanistan; and four mountain military bases named for “martyrs” who killed themselves in battles against the West.
Al-Qaeda had also set up a sophisticated communications system. The solar-powered technology relied on Casio FX-795P computers and handheld Yaesu radios. When a computer operator typed in a message, the Casio system encrypted it into a series of numbers. The operator would then read them over the radio. A second operator would enter the numbers into another computer, which would decrypt the message. The al-Qaeda members used a set radio frequency, but knew to switch to another if someone in the conversation called out a code name.
The true power of al-Qaeda flowed from its arsenal of deadly weapons: SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missile systems, Stinger missiles, self-propelled antiaircraft systems, ZIL-130 vehicles with mounted SA-6 missiles, cluster bombs, RKG-3 antitank grenades, Sagger antitank guided missiles, 30mm automatic grenade launchers, AKSU-74 assault rifles, Uzi 9mm, and scores of other armaments. Most were kept safely stashed in a four-and-a-half-mile tunnel in the vicinity of the Sharsiab camp near Kabul.
While al-Qaeda had yet to obtain chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons, bin Laden’s top deputies had their sights set on a radioactive waste storage site in the Turkmenistan city of Ashkhabad. There, they believed, al-Qaeda could obtain the fissionable material it needed for an atomic bomb or a dirty bomb that would use conventional explosives to spread radiation over a wide area. The group had come close; in March 2000, some of its members had tried to spirit a load of strontium 90 from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan, but it was seized at the border.
Even without weapons of mass destruction, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had orchestrated large-scale assaults on Americans. They bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, slaughtering 224 people; in 2000, they crippled the USS Cole, a navy destroyer, killing 17 sailors. The attacks were a triumph for al-Qaeda, yielding a bonanza of recruits eager to wage jihad.
Al-Qaeda rarely varied its basic plan for carrying out its lethal missions. The group would spend years planning an attack, then, before it was launched, bin Laden would issue a public warning that a strike was in the offing. Atyani had traveled to this terrorist enclave anticipating that he would hear just such a proclamation of calamity to come. It would be the biggest scoop of his career.
His voice quiet and measured, bin Laden invited Atyani to sit. The men settled down on flowered throw cushions and started talking. There was the usual delicate choreography of an interview, until Atyani shifted the conversation away from pleasantries to the matter at hand.
“Now, I need to do my job,” he said.
Bin Laden nodded gravely. “We will bring the camera,” he said. But circumstances had changed since his followers had last contacted the reporter.
“I know we agreed for you to come here for an interview with me,” bin Laden said. “In fact, I cannot give interviews myself.”
He was a guest of Afghanistan’s ruling government, the Taliban, bin Laden said, and he had promised them that he would no longer speak with reporters. Speaking on camera would be too egregious a violation of his word.
“But we will give you something better. There is some footage we are going to give to you, and some news.”
“Have you watched CNN or Al Jazeera in the last few days?” bin Laden asked. There had been some video of al-Qaeda members training, images from the heart of the group’s operations.
“I will give you that film and more,” bin Laden said. “We will give you better than what’s already been shown, so you can use it in your story.”
Amazing. Bin Laden knew the rules of television broadcasting—a video already shown on another network was old news. To generate a new report, there needed to be fresh footage. And apparently, bin Laden had saved some film for Atyani. He might live like a nomad, Atyani thought, but bin Laden was pretty media-savvy.
Bin Laden played one videocassette and one DVD for Atyani. It was standard propaganda, showing al-Qaeda fighters training and bin Laden praising jihadists who killed Americans. Once the screening finished, bin Laden told Atyani that he could have the videos.
At that point a man limped into the room carrying a television camera and began setting it up. Bin Laden invited senior al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs to sit beside him. Zawahiri stepped forward, while Hafs stood back.
“I don’t want to be on camera,” he said.
After less than a minute of filming, bin Laden went silent, deferring to Hafs for the first time since the meeting began.
“Just wait,” Hafs said. “In the coming weeks there will be a big surprise.”
“What do you mean by ‘a big surprise’?” Atyani asked.
“We will strike American and Israeli interests.”
There it was. The threat of an attack, the news they had brought Atyani into Afghanistan to hear.
Atyani turned to bin Laden. “How much of this is correct? What are you planning?”
Bin Laden smiled but said nothing. Another man in the room, an African, confirmed Hafs’s statement.
“Okay,” Atyani said. “Then I am putting this on the news that you are preparing a surprise.”
Bin Laden nodded. “You can carry the news,” he said. “And you can quote al-Qaeda as saying that the coffin business in the United States is going to increase.”
CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia
Frustration was building inside the Counterterrorist Center. For months, credible intelligence had been flowing in that al-Qaeda was preparing another spectacular attack. Electronic intercepts, informants, details from foreign intelligence services—everything pointed toward something big on the way. Topping it off, bin Laden had practically announced the plans to a Pakistani journalist. But the administration wasn’t responding.
The CIA officers had hit a wall. They could gather all of the information possible about the nature and severity of a threat, but it was the political leaders who decided whether and when to take action. Sometimes, the two sides worked well together—when a drumbeat of intelligence in 1999 alerted the CIA that al-Qaeda was planning significant strikes on the first day of the new millennium, the government sprang into action. George Tenet, the CIA director, had ordered the Counterterrorist Center to throw everything it had into thwarting any attacks. From the White House down through the executive branch, the mobilization of forces was astonishing and had succeeded in foiling multiple plots around the globe, including one operation to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
That was just one of an almost endless series of planned terrorist operations over the years, many of which the CIA prevented. In 1998, the CIA learned that al-Qaeda was set to launch a new attack against an American embassy, this time in Tirana, Albania; the plotters were identified and snatched up. That same year, the agency disrupted terrorist plans by Turkish extremists connected to bin Laden; the men, who were arrested, had hoped to crash an airplane filled with explosives into the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Turkish war of independence, during a government ceremony marking his death. Still, counterterrorism officials knew the odds were not with them. There was always too much worrisome information flooding in too fast. To stop al-Qaeda’s relentless operations, the intelligence community had to be successful every time. The terrorists had to be successful only once.
Now the evidence of a potential attack was as stark as it had ever been. Cofer Black, the chief of the Counterterrorist Center, had already accompanied Tenet and other CIA officers to the White House to sound the alarm. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had detected the emerging threats; the National Security Agency was picking up a disturbing increase in the amount of “chatter” among terrorists and their sympathizers. But the warnings engendered no coordinated, government-wide response, no sense of urgency to match the reaction to the millennium threat. No orders to strain budgets to the limit. No instructions to step up support for the Northern Alliance, the American-backed fighting force in Afghanistan that was battling al-Qaeda and the Taliban for control of the country. A gathering danger to the homeland was being met with a collective yawn.
On July 9, a Monday, the center’s top officials gathered in a basement conference room at headquarters to gauge the hopelessness of their dilemma. They knew the awful reality of what was coming—a massive terrorist attack, potentially on American soil. They knew, too, that they had a shield against the outcry that was bound to be hurled their way in the aftermath of a terrorist onslaught. Critics might rail that the Counterterrorist Center had fallen asleep at the switch, but the group’s records would prove otherwise—Cofer Black had retained a trove of classified PowerPoints that his team had presented in repeated briefings to senior government officials, all of them warning in dire terms of the impending disaster. His people were putting together another one at that moment, in a last attempt to get the message across that the administration was slumbering though an emergency.
Yet they knew, despite that proof of their diligence, the politicians would still make them the scapegoats if the worst happened. Not so much for their failure to collect intelligence, but for their failure to persuade the White House to listen.
As the meeting unfolded, one official offered a suggestion. “You know, if we were smart, we would rotate out of here and they can bring some new guys in to ride this thing down. ’Cause it’s going to be really, really bad.”
From the head of the table, Black waved away the idea. “Sorry, I don’t think we can do that,” he said. “First of all, we’d have to find somebody that’s capable of coming in here quickly, and I don’t think that’s likely.”
He flashed a smile. “Nobody’s more qualified than us to ride this thing down.”
Everyone laughed uneasily.
FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
“You’re not going to believe this!”
Tom Pickard, the acting director of the FBI, was fuming as he stormed into the office of Dale Watson, the top FBI official in charge of counterterrorism. It was about one o’clock on the afternoon of July 12 and Pickard had just returned from briefing the new attorney general, John Ashcroft, on the status of the FBI’s most pressing items.
The opinion within the FBI of Ashcroft had rapidly soured, and every few days brought another “you’re not going to believe this” story. He refused to allow security agents to check the locks and alarms in his house, or even to lay their eyes on his family members, whom they were duty-bound to protect. Then, in May, as the CIA was warning of a potential attack, Ashcroft had released a department-wide statement of his top priorities, and it hadn’t even mentioned terrorism. Pickard and Watson had been flabbergasted.
Despite Ashcroft’s apparent indifference, Pickard tried to hammer home the magnitude of the terrorist threat almost every time they met. But at this latest briefing, Pickard told Watson, the attorney general had gone off the rails.
“I was telling him about the high level of chatter, and how it suggested something big was about to happen,” Pickard told Watson. “And then he interrupted me and said, ‘I don’t want to hear about that anymore.’ ”
“He didn’t want me to talk to him about al-Qaeda or the threats. He said there was nothing he could do about that.”
At that point the analysis indicated that any attack would occur overseas, but still. Investigating a strike on American interests, anywhere, would fall to the FBI. Americans would certainly die. All of the law enforcement machinery in the Justice Department—the FBI, the INS, the Border Patrol, the Marshals Service—needed to be oiled and ready. Why couldn’t Ashcroft grasp the obvious?
“I told him he should sit down right now and talk to George Tenet so he could hear from him right away about what was happening,” Pickard told Watson.
He had tried getting in Ashcroft’s face, and pushing back as much as he could. “But it didn’t work,” Pickard said. “He doesn’t want to hear about it.”
The customs agent was at a loss. Since the Saudi had come to her booth minutes before, nothing had gone right.
The traveler had arrived that day, August 4, at Terminal A of the Orlando International Airport aboard Virgin Airlines flight 15 from London. He walked to customs and, after a short wait, presented his passport, declaration, and arrival-departure form.
But the documents had been filled out incorrectly, and the agent was struggling to solve the problem. The visitor, Mohammed al-Qahtani, didn’t speak English and was combative. The agent decided to refer him to another inspector, who could bring in a translator.
Just past 5:30 that afternoon, Qahtani was sent for further questioning to José Meléndez-Pérez, a twelve-year veteran. He’d often dealt with Saudi travelers and was accustomed to helping them straighten out problems with entry forms. This, he figured, wouldn’t be difficult.
Quickly, he realized how wrong he was. Qahtani’s dark, angry eyes frightened him. His body language conveyed pure arrogance. He seemed consumed by hate.
Before working as a customs agent, Meléndez-Pérez had spent twenty-six years in the military, and to him, Qahtani looked like a soldier. He was dressed in black, with short hair and a thin mustache. He appeared to be very strong.
Meléndez-Pérez shuffled through Qahtani’s paperwork and saw more problems—there was no return airline ticket, and no listed hotel reservation. This was suspicious. The agent requested an Arabic interpreter, and was soon questioning Qahtani.
“Mr. Qahtani, why are you not in possession of a return airline ticket?”
“I don’t know where I’m going when I leave the United States,” he snapped in Arabic as he jabbed his finger toward the agent’s face.
Meléndez-Pérez stepped back. Is this guy a hit man? Such hired guns often improvised their travel plans as they went along. On the other hand, Meléndez-Pérez thought, maybe he had watched too many gangster movies. Either way, Qahtani’s answer wasn’t reassuring. The agent tried again.
“A friend of mine is arriving in the United States at a later date,” Qahtani said. “He knows where I’m going. He is going to make the arrangements for my departure.”
“Do you know when your friend is arriving?”
“Three or four days,” Qahtani said with a sneer.
“What’s the purpose of your trip?” the agent asked. “And how long are you staying?”
“I’ll be vacationing and traveling through the United States for six days.”
“Why would you be vacationing for only six days, and spend half the time waiting for your friend?”
Qahtani threw out a dismissive response. Meléndez-Pérez changed subjects.
“Where are you going to be staying?”
Again, nonsense. “With you not speaking English, and without a reservation, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting around Orlando.”
“I have a friend waiting for me upstairs.”
“All right,” Meléndez-Pérez said. “What’s the name of your friend?”
Qahtani thrust his chin forward in defiance. “No one is meeting me.”
A contradiction—in a matter of seconds.
“So, this goes back to what I asked before,” Meléndez Pérez said. “How are you getting around Orlando?”
“I have to call my friend. Then he’ll pick me up.”
Meléndez-Pérez tried to show no reaction to what he knew was a stream of lies. “All right, give me your friend’s name and number.”
“No!” Qahtani barked. “It is none of your business!”
The interview went on for an hour and a half. A search turned up $2,800, hardly enough for a six-day vacation plus a hotel room and return airfare. Qahtani said a friend was bringing him more money—a friend he hadn’t known long.
Meléndez-Pérez suppressed a smile. Someone this guy barely knew was going to shell out hundreds of dollars for his airline ticket? Another lie. The agent asked if Qahtani would consent to being placed under oath. The Saudi agreed.
Meléndez-Pérez swore in Qahtani and asked his first question.
“I won’t answer,” he replied brusquely.
The interpreter translated the words, then looked Meléndez-Pérez in the eye. “Something’s wrong here.”
The agent nodded. That was clear. He would not allow Qahtani into the country.
Meléndez-Pérez explained his decision to his bosses. They authorized him to put the man on a plane back to London. The agent returned to Qahtani and told him that he was being turned away and advised that he voluntarily withdraw his application for admission.
Qahtani responded in fury. “I am not about to pay for a return ticket!”
Meléndez-Pérez nodded. “No problem,” he said. “We’ll place you in a detention facility overnight and tomorrow we will make the necessary arrangement to get you a plane ticket so you can go back where you came from.”
When the words were translated into Arabic, Qahtani’s face fell. All right. He would withdraw his application.
Arrangements were made for the return flight. Just before departure time, Meléndez-Pérez summoned another inspector, and the two of them escorted the Saudi to his gate. As he was about to board, Qahtani turned and glared at the two inspectors.
“I’ll be back,” he growled, his first English words since his arrival.
Qahtani, an al-Qaeda operative assigned to help fellow terrorists seize and crash commercial airliners, stormed onto the plane. Outside the terminal, Mohammed Atta, the leader of the plot, waited in vain for the arrival of the twentieth hijacker. But Qahtani would never return.
The air was stale and warm inside the interrogation room at the St. Paul field office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Two rumpled federal agents—Harry Samit of the FBI and John Weess of the INS—sat across from a moonfaced, heavyset French citizen named Zacarias Moussaoui. He had been arrested the previous day for overstaying his visa, but the charge was mostly a pretext for holding him; the agents believed he might be a terrorist.
An official at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan had called the FBI to report suspicious behavior by Moussaoui. He had never made a solo flight but wanted to be trained to fly 747s. He paid wads of cash just to use a flight simulator. And he was Muslim.
When they arrested Moussaoui, the agents questioned his roommate, Hussein al-Attas, who told a frightening story: Their suspect had talked about killing civilians for jihad and proclaimed his willingness to become a martyr for Islam. Then, when the agents first questioned Moussaoui, he had played the fool, claiming not to know where he worked, what he did for a living, or how much he was paid. He was carrying thousands of dollars in cash that he said had been given to him by associates whose names he didn’t know. And even as he was being questioned, he begged the agents to let him finish his flight lessons.
This time, the pleading had resumed as soon as Samit and Weess walked into the interrogation room. Moussaoui promised to answer all of their questions, but only if they allowed him to continue his training. Once he finished, he would gladly come back for deportation.
“Not now,” Samit replied. “Too many questions still need to be resolved.”
Let’s discuss the money again, he said. How was it that Moussaoui couldn’t identify the people who sent him so much cash?
“I’ve told you about that!” Moussaoui shouted.
He spluttered angrily that he was being treated unfairly. Then he tossed out the name of the men who had financed him—Ahmed Atif and someone named Habib from Germany. Weeks would pass before the agents proved Moussaoui was lying about his supposed benefactors.
There was something else, Samit said. During his initial interview, Moussaoui had mentioned conducting Internet searches for flight schools. A laptop computer had been recovered among Moussaoui’s things. “Would you allow us to search that computer?” Samit asked.
“No. I won’t permit that.”
That was his right, Samit responded. But now, he said, he wanted to tell Moussaoui a few things.
“Your story doesn’t add up,” Samit said. “You haven’t given us a satisfactory explanation for why you’re in the United States, or why you came here for flight training. The reasons you give don’t make any sense.”
He leaned in. “We know you’re an Islamic extremist, Mr. Moussaoui. We know you talked about violence before. We know you’re planning something. I want you to tell us what your plot is and who you’re working with.”
Moussaoui stiffened. “My training is just for fun. I am not a terrorist. I’m not part of a terrorist group. I don’t have any contact with terrorists.”
Samit’s gaze bored in. “Mr. Moussaoui, we know you’re involved in a plot, a plot involving airlines,” he said.
“I want to remind you, you are in custody. And if anything happens, you will be held accountable by the United States, by the American people.”
Moussaoui stared at Samit in silence.
FBI supervisors in Washington wouldn’t authorize an investigation of Moussaoui. There wasn’t enough information to justify a search warrant, they said, or to push through an application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—FISA. Finally, Samit’s boss, Greg Jones, called Michael Maltbie, the supervisory special agent in Washington who was blocking the case. Tempers flared.
The FISA application—in fact, the whole case—was built on air, Maltbie argued. “What you have done is couched it in such a way that people get spun up.”
“Good!” Jones replied. “We want to make sure he doesn’t get control of an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center or something like that.”
Ridiculous, Maltbie scoffed. “That’s not going to happen.”
Takhar Province, Afghanistan
As the first cool nights of fall approached, the American-backed Northern Alliance was struggling in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The change of weather punctuated the end of a failed summer offensive by the force led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the alliance’s most important commander and Afghanistan’s only credible threat to bin Laden. An attempt to capture the city of Taloqan, lost to the Taliban in 2000, had flopped. American support was inadequate, but Massoud still made a show of bravado, promising his fighters that they would soon take Kabul.
Amid the strategic planning, a phone call came in that puzzled Massoud. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were building up forces on the front line, he was told, but were not pushing forward to the north. Then Massoud learned that Taliban communications had been intercepted, instructing the units not to attack yet. It was as if the Taliban and al-Qaeda knew that something big was about to happen.
As this turn of events was unfolding, two journalists—Karim Touzani and Kacem Bakkali, who both carried Belgian passports—were pestering Massoud’s top officers to arrange for an interview with the military leader. They said that they had traveled from London to document Islam in Afghanistan. After three weeks of waiting, on the night of September 8, the men begged for the meeting to take place within the next twenty-four hours. After that, they would have to leave for Kabul.
Just before lunch the next day, Massoud agreed to get together with the men for their interview. He motioned to his friend Masood Khalili.
“I want you to sit with me, and translate,” he said.
The visitors, who had turned unusually quiet, set up their camera on a table in front of Massoud. “I want to know your questions before you start recording,” he said.
The men agreed, but their words had to be translated from French. Touzani brought out a blue pen and started scribbling: Why are you against Osama bin Laden? Why do you call him a killer? If you take Kabul what will you do with him?
After writing down fifteen questions, Touzani handed the notes to Khalili, who translated; eight of the queries were about bin Laden. That struck Khalili as odd, and he glanced over at Massoud. There were five worry lines on his forehead, instead of the usual one.
“Okay,” Massoud said. “Let’s film.”
One of the men asked something—no one would remember what—and Khalili started interpreting.
Then, an explosion. A bomb hidden inside the video camera detonated; Touzani set off explosives that were strapped around his waist, blowing him to bits. Amid the chaos, Massoud’s guards started shooting, killing the other man.
Massoud, critically injured by the attack, was rushed to a helicopter, which flew to a hospital in Tajikistan. But it was too late. When the chopper landed, he was dead.
The most important challenger to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the man most likely to help the Americans hunt down bin Laden, had been taken out of the equation.
September 11, 2001
By 7:00 A.M., only a smattering of passengers had arrived for United Airlines flight 175 at Boston Logan International Airport. Gail Jawahir, a United customer service representative for thirteen years, had been at work for two hours and was surprised that the flow of passengers was so sluggish.
Two well-dressed Arabic men approached the ticket counter, and Jawahir greeted them. They were Hamza and Ahmed al-Ghamdi, men assigned by al-Qaeda to join in a murderous hijacking plot. They had just checked out of the Days Hotel after performing their ritual cleansing, including dousing themselves with cologne, in anticipation of their own deaths. The fragrance was still heavy, almost overwhelming. They had arrived at the airport by a Bay State Taxi, angering the driver with just a fifteen-cent tip. From there, they had entered into Terminal C and walked directly to Jawahir’s station.
“I wish purchase ticket,” Ahmed said.
Already, Jawahir knew this was going to be difficult—the man’s English was terrible.
“Checking in or buying a ticket?” she asked.
Jawahir noticed that the man was holding a United Airlines envelope with an itinerary. He had an e-ticket.
“Sir, you don’t need to buy a ticket. You already have a ticket. You can head right over to the check-in area.”
The two walked off to another line. They were sent back, apparently still confused.
“I need buy ticket,” Ahmed again said to Jawahir.
She decided to guide the two men through the check-in process and asked for their itinerary. They were booked for United 175. She saw they were both named al-Ghamdi and were seated next to each other in row nine.
Jawahir requested their identification; Ahmed handed her a Florida driver’s license, while Hamza gave her one from Virginia. She asked the usual security questions—Did you pack your own baggage? Has it been out of your sight?—but had to keep repeating them until the men could answer.
Each checked a bag and had a carry-on. Jawahir printed out their boarding passes.
“Would it be okay if I put both of these in one envelope?” she asked. The men seemed uncertain what she meant, but agreed anyway.
Jawahir circled the gate number to make sure that they could figure out where to go. Then she slid the boarding passes into the envelope and handed it to them.
“Now, you need to go through security,” she said, pointing them in the proper direction.
The two men took the envelope without a word. They walked calmly through security, then headed toward Gate 19 to board the awaiting plane.
• • •
The attacks were over in less than three hours. But it was the eighteen months after 9/11 that set America on the course that it pursued for more than a decade.
Decisions that only weeks before the hijackings would have been inconceivable tore through the White House in a desperate race to armor the United States against unseen enemies. Each perceived threat—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iraq, biological attacks, and other weapons of mass destruction—fueled revisions in the long-held philosophies of America’s leaders.
Secret relationships were established with foes like Syria and Libya; past disputes with any nation, any organization, and any individual were set aside in search of supporters for the new American cause. Suspected terrorists were delivered into the hands of foreign torturers, allies were threatened with devastation, wars were fought by unprecedented means. Detention, intelligence collection, the treatment of citizens—each piece of the national security puzzle was reexamined and revised, at times setting American against American in a furious debate about what was right, what was pragmatic, what was counterproductive, and what was wrong.
The struggle during that period of just over five hundred days played out on a global stage, from the White House to the Kremlin, from the grandeur of the British Parliament to the dusty caves of Afghanistan. Decisions emanating from every level of the American government rippled around the world, transforming the nature not only of allies and enemies, but of the United States itself.
This, then, is more than a recounting of events in an age of terror. Rather, it is the narrative of a wrenching transformation of international allies and enemies in a period of unprecedented tumult. It is a tale of triumph and fiasco, of choices born from necessity, fear, and misplaced conviction. In the end, it is a portrait of an America struggling to find its way, torn between the needs for security and the hopes for an uncertain future.
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