Wednesday, July 09, 2003


This story caught my eye instantly when it appeared today because it goes to one of the major, major remaining questions from September 11th: What did happen on those incredibly tantalizing trips to Prague by Mohamed Atta on June 2, 2000, and possibly April 8, 2001? If Atta was not meeting the Iraqi “diplomat” Al-Ani, then what was he doing in Prague? Why was it so important for him to get there that he took a plane from Germany and after being refused admission because of visa problems, he went back to Germany and then returned to Prague by bus the next day? There are Czech government officials who have confirmed the meeting and others who have debunked it. There were similar differences of opinion within the American intelligence community itself, to the point where the Atta/Al-Ani meeting was not used as a justification for the recent war. But to me this story is vitally important. Then again, so is everything else about 9/11.

Instantly I was obsessed. For the first six months after 9/11, I devoured every single thing I could find on the terrorist cell that pulled it off. I would read article after article because I wanted to know how everything fit together. And I read everything, I mean everything. If you ever meet me, do not get me started on this, as I have so much of it committed to memory it’s pathetic. So, based on my obsessive research--more than anything out of fury and disgust that there was no such thing available anywhere already--I wrote up a
detailed timeline of the terrorist attacks mostly for myself, though I posted it on FR. It was an extremely rushed job (that’s what obsession will do to you), and I was careless with the html so that none of the links work. But it didn’t help. I’m still obsessed. What I would really like to see is a really good, well-researched book on the subject.

There are hundreds of 9/11 books about firemen and grief and meaning, some more peripheral than others. But none of these are useful in understanding the thing. Because what happened wasn’t a “tragedy,” it was an atrocity. And because of that, the pain of the victims doesn’t explain anything; it doesn’t give us any insight into why the atrocity happened. I am trying not to sound callous, but how people react to persecution is not even remotely as interesting to me as the mindset that needs to persecute. That’s what I’m interested in, the pathology, not the victimology. And there still isn’t one book on the plot, though there desperately needs to be one.

Bill Gertz’s
Breakdown (2002) and The Cell (2002) by John Miller and Michael Stone are not books about the terrorists per se, but rather about the failures of the American intelligence community that allowed 9/11 to happen. They both tell the story of the 9/11 cell in some detail, but they simply rewrite existing published accounts with very little apparent research in that area (although both books are valuable for their insights into the CIA and FBI).

Then we had had Jane Corbin’s Al-Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network that Threatens the World (2002). Corbin is a BBC correspondent, and actually covered the story in detail in the fall of 2001, visiting all the places that the 9/11 terrorists lived at in America during the final year of their lives, and there is some new information, though minor. The book is actually a general history of the al Qaeda organization, but the 9/11 story takes up a third of it. Like the Miller/Stone book, Corbin’s Al-Qaeda is journalistic and is not indexed, making it less useful than it could be.

More recently we’ve seen Yosri Fouda’s Masterminds of Terror (2003). Fouda is an al-Jazeera journalist, and the book is really another al Qaeda report, though with the fullest account so far in book form of the 9/11 plot. What makes this book special is the apparently unique insights Fouda gained from having been the only reporter to have interviewed Ramzi Binalshibh (the Yemeni who was in Hamburg at the formation of the 9/11 cell and who was originally to have been the fourth 9/11 pilot) and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the most senior al Qaeda figure captured to date) in captivity. The book is full of new details about the hijackers. The story is limited by its reliance on Binalshibh and KSM, who were after all continents away from the hijackers, but nonetheless there is so much new information that I devoured it in a day. This book really gives you a sense of the horrible religious ecstasy that these creatures lived in in the days leading up to 9/11, a state best described as a cross between disembodied hallucinogenic spirituality and a horny longing for a place in the celestial whorehouse. It’s horribly written, but it’s the best one so far.

But I remain obsessed. It’s a combination of a historian’s quest for full accuracy, a fascination born of still-seething hatred, and the most elemental instinct of self-preservation, to know how the monsters think. And there is also persisting curiosity about unanswered questions. Like the Al-Ani one, and others:

Anthrax. There are so many tantalizing links that connect the 9/11 hijackers to at least the first fatal anthrax attacks in Florida that it seems obvious that the hijackers had to be involved with the case. But we have not heard a peep from the FBI. They seem vitally invested in pinning the later NBC-New York Post-Leahy-Daschle anthrax letters on a rogue American scientist, and for all I know they may be right. But they talk about the Florida anthrax not in the slightest, and I want to know why.

The question of local assistance, and how widespread the knowledge was in certain segments of the American Muslim community. We know that, for example, the actor James Woods identified two of the 9/11 hijackers among the four suspicious men he saw on a transcontinental flight on August 1, 2001. Who were the other two men? At the final meeting of the four pilots in Las Vegas on August 15, 2001, witnesses reported several unidentified people with the six known hijackers (Atta, Al-Shehhi, Jarrah, Hanjour, Almidhar, and Al-Hazmi), including a woman. Who were they? And then there are the maddening reports of people who clearly knew something—but how did they know it? Like the Brooklyn schoolboy who taunted his teacher on September 6 that the WTC towers would not be there the following week: How did they know about it?

The stock market question. Clearly, al Qaeda or someone close enough to them to know about the plot, was playing the market before the attacks. There were massive increases in put options on United Airlines, American Airlines, Morgan Stanley, and other companies affected by the attack. Who made these orders? Was it someone from AQ, or was there a leak? Why haven’t we ever been able to find out?

Zacharias Moussaoui. It seems certain now that he was not to be the twentieth hijacker. But there is some evidence that he did have contact with the 9/11 cell. We know now that if the FBI had been able to look in Moussaoui’s laptop, they would have seen details of his wire transfers from Ramzi Binalshibh. Ten minutes worth of checking on RB would have revealed his parallel wire transfers to Atta and al-Shehhi, and would have saved 3000 lives in one instant. The 1978 Foreign Agent Surveillance Act, which denied the FBI permission to search the laptop, is slated for repeal in the upcoming Patriot Act 2, and it won’t be a moment too soon.

So for me, the news of Al-Ani’s capture fills me with delight. It’s potentially a new window into our understanding of Atta and the 9/11 terrorists, to say nothing of the massive political fallout from a solid connection between Iraq and 9/11. If it is ever verifiable that Al-Ani (and therefore Saddam) was a co-conspirator in 9/11, then anyone who ever questioned going to war against Iraq will have to change the subject.

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