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Investigation

September 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And for that we’re joined once again by Evan Thomas, the assistant managing editor of Newsweek. Welcome back, Evan. Bring us up to date. What are the most important new developments you think in the last couple of days?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, the most important thing that came out today was that Mohammed Atta, who is one of the 19 hijackers and seems to be a big fish amongst them, apparently met in Europe with one of Saddam Hussein’s agents. Now, that is very… potentially very significant because if we can establish that Saddam was part of this plot or somehow enabling this plot, all of a sudden we’re in a new ballgame here, the potential of a wider war, the ramifications are endless. Now the intelligence officials who told us about this cautioned that this is not a lay-down case, they don’t have final hard evidence, but it’s nonetheless very intriguing and I think significant.

MARGARET WARNER: Another interesting development that has been reported today has to do with suspicious stock trading shortly before the….

EVAN THOMAS: Yeah, this is almost too awful to imagine, but the authorities are looking into the possibility that the terrorists bought some insurance stocks and sold them short, knowing that they would plummet. In other words, they were so comfortable in our capitalist world that they can manipulate our stock market to profit off their coming terrorism. That’s something that they’re investigating. It’s not confirmed.

MARGARET WARNER: But how good is the… if that were true, how good is the… I don’t know if it’s an Internet trail or a paper trail. I mean I suppose the significance would be that they could start to follow the money.

EVAN THOMAS: That’s surely what they’re trying to do in every possible way. They picked up somebody in San Diego recently who has some kind of money connection to two of the hijackers. You can be sure they’re banging on the door of every Swiss bank trying to follow the money here, but it’s pretty hard because these cells are quite sophisticated about moving their money.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we talked about this when you were here on Saturday, but just refresh our memory here about how much investigators have learned about how this network operated in this country.

EVAN THOMAS: Well, there are various horrifying aspects one of which is I think seven of the nineteen had flight training, which goes to their sophistication. It looks like this plot has been in the work for two to three years, so they’re patient. There are aspects that are just coming to light that are disturbing. It seems like they took the identities of several Saudis. Now, that could mean any number of things. It could mean that they had some help not at the top of the Saudi government obviously but somewhere in the Saudi government. It speaks of a kind of sophistication which is very worrisome.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are you saying that they might not have really been Saudis but they established essentially Saudi identities?

EVAN THOMAS: Right. They’re checking back to the resumes of some of these pilots, and it appears that the actual Saudis exist; they’re real people. Only they stole their ID’s. This is confusing and troubling to investigators because the initial assumption was these people were actually traveling under their own names. That appears not to be the case now. And it just adds another layer of uncertainty, and again of deviousness to this whole plot.

MARGARET WARNER: And, also, of course, I could imagine from their perspective, let’s say they were Afghans or Iraqis or whatever, to establish Saudi identities, Saudi Arabia known as a big ally of the United States and they’re taking flight training; that would be less suspicious.

EVAN THOMAS: Yeah. I mean people at the flight training school said, well, these Saudi pilots, they’re our buddies; we don’t worry about their backgrounds.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a Grand Jury has also been convened, and the net it seems of people they’ve got just under detention, the Justice Department or actually, what — the Immigration Service has under detention has tripled just since the weekend.

EVAN THOMAS: It’s a wide net. I mean they’re obviously sweating every girlfriend, wife, friend, casting a wide net just as you would imagine. They do have a few people in particular they’re paying attention to. The scariest ones are these guys with box cutters and hair dye who seem to have been targeting a potential airliner for a hijack. The other thing that investigators are very worried about is that one of the people in detention had a fake pilot’s license. Now, they think that’s not obviously for an airliner. That’s for a private plane. That’s to take a small private plane some place. Where? Full of what? To what end? That’s a very frightening prospect.

MARGARET WARNER: And then John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, and Dick Cheney, the Vice President, said Sunday that they were looking hard at the possibility that there were more than four planes targeted. What leads them to think that?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, just the guys they picked up on a plane from, I think, it was Newark to San Antonio who had the box cutters. So that plane itself may have been a target. They were diverted to St. Louis and nothing ever happened. Did they flinch? Were they moving on to another plane? I mean, we’re guessing here. But the fact that they had those weapons, those homemade weapons, tells you something. They weren’t… They were probably up to no good. And, again, there is a sense of a second wave. Not only was there going to be possibly another plane that day, but there’s this fear that another wave is still to come. Various dates are floating around. I don’t know how real any of them are — September 20, September 22. But this idea of a second wave has got investigators worried.

MARGARET WARNER: And investigators do think that there are other cells, as they call them, of these associates still out there.

EVAN THOMAS: Intelligence officials told “Newsweek” that one of them used 50, which seems like a huge number, another said dozens. That’s a lot of cells.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Evan, thanks very much. Thanks for joining us.