Portrait of Hijackers: An Elite, Isolated Group

Washington Post/November 6, 2001
By Peter Finn

Paris -- European investigators say they increasingly believe that the Sept. 11 hijackers and their support network in Europe made up a carefully chosen and tightly insulated group that had little if any contact with other Qaida terror cells in Europe and learned from past terrorist failures while planning the attacks. Better educated, less visible because of their comfort in the West, and firmly committed to a goal over years, the hijackers were a group apart from the young, poorly educated men who nurtured their anger in European slums but repeatedly failed to pull off plans for atrocities in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and Strasbourg.

Mohamed Atta, who is suspected of being a leader of the hijacking plot, was a city planner, fluent in German, English and Arabic, who held advanced degrees. During the years he lived in Hamburg, he supported himself with a variety of legitimate jobs. Members of a terrorist cell broken up in Milan typically supported themselves through such crimes as drug dealing, Italian authorities say.

For investigators, the hijackers' isolation, even within the world of Qaida, makes the Sept. 11 plot more difficult to deconstruct and potential attacks more difficult to avert. "It's like a ghost in front of you," a senior French official said.

While Western investigators say they believe the Sept. 11 plot was approved by Qaida, they continue to struggle to piece together its internal organization. Who specifically conceived the plot? How did the group of 19, coming from different parts of the world, with some already in the United States, coalesce? What was the internal command structure among the 19 members and between them and Afghanistan? How many people offered logistical support and in how many countries, including the United States? "Clearly, there was a very good analysis of the United States and what can be achieved" there, said Roland Jacquard, a French terrorism expert with close ties to his country's intelligence services. He said the sophistication of the attacks suggested an undiscovered Qaida logistical base in the United States and Europe.

One of the most telling details about the attacks on the United States, officials said, is the nationality of the hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis. None was North African, the group that makes up the backbone of other Islamic terrorist groups in Europe. North Africans were also the vanguard of one of the most recent failed attacks on the United States, the planned bombing of Los Angeles International Airport during millennium celebrations. But so far, there is no known evidence of links between the Sept. 11 group and the North African cells. To officials here, that suggests that Qaida has developed a multitiered hierarchy. Using its training camps in Afghanistan, Qaida has absorbed people of many nationalities. Many are North African extremists, particularly Algerians and Tunisians who returned to Europe to plan attacks. French intelligence officials say they believe that as many as 10,000 Islamic extremists from many continents have gone to camps in Afghanistan.

Because of this global reach, officials do not dispute the boast of a member of a Milan cell, secretly recorded by Italian police, that Qaida is "everywhere." But while Osama bin Laden and his Qaida lieutenants welcomed all comers to Afghanistan, and were happy to have them return to their homelands or move to Europe, primed for terror, they have entrusted only a select few with signature operations, such as the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole last year in Yemen, and the suicide mission against New York and Washington, European officials said.

Of the Sept. 11 hijackers, 15 were from Mr. bin Laden's homeland, Saudi Arabia, two hijackers were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon and one from Egypt, U.S. officials have concluded.

"Why Saudis?" asked a French official, who has interviewed dozens of veterans of the Afghan camps who were taken into custody in France. "It's more difficult for North Africans' to get visas," he said. "They can't move as easily in America. They don't have the language. And they don't control themselves as well. Bin Laden only trusts people from his own region." When Qaida sent an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, to bomb the Los Angeles airport in 1999, he drew attention to himself at a U.S.-Canada border crossing partly because he did not speak English.

And so, the official said, Mr. bin Laden turned to well-educated, English-speaking operatives from Egypt and the Gulf who were more likely to get U.S. visas and could be trusted to not draw attention during the long planning period leading up to Sept. 11. Meanwhile, the official said, the North Africans' plots were nothing more than a bonus to Qaida's primary goals. If they failed, as they did with plans to bomb a market in Strasbourg, the Los Angeles airport and U.S. Embassies in Paris and Rome, they at least generated fear.

But, the official warned, with the counterterrorism focus shifting to young radicals from the Gulf, the profile of Qaida operatives could change yet again. "There is no model," he said, noting that Qaida can draw on cells from more than 50 countries.

"You can't forecast the threat," the official said, noting that in the future it "may be from Malaysia but may be even from Australia or California." He noted that young Western adventurers have also traveled to Afghan terror camps.

Moreover, the plots have become more sophisticated with each failure. When Algerian terrorists planned to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994, none of the hijackers was a trained pilot; they hoped to force the Air France pilot to execute the plan by putting a gun to his head. They did not get their opportunity - the plane landed in Marseille to refuel and was stormed by anti-terrorist police. Within a year, a young Pakistani with a newly obtained commercial pilot's license was given the task of crashing a small plane filled with explosives into CIA headquarters in Virginia, according to testimony in New York during the trial of one of the World Trade Center bombers in 1993. But the plot was broken up by police in the Philippines, alerted by suspicious neighbors to an apartment used by the terrorists.

By 2001, however, a cadre of trained pilots was ready to strike with U.S. commercial planes as powerful weapons. According to Italian and French officials, those who have wanted to join Qaida have undergone rigorous screening. Selected by bin Laden emissaries, they traveled to Pakistan, where they handed over their passports, cash and other papers. They then waited in Pakistan while undergoing background checks. Once in Afghanistan, they moved through training facilities. All the while, officials said, Qaida was watching and selecting the best and the brightest, with those from the Gulf particularly prized. There is no firm evidence of how many of the Sept. 11 hijackers visited Afghanistan, although U.S. intelligence officials have said that Mr. Atta made the trip, probably in 1997 or 1998.

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