How did they slip under our radar screen?
A lot of these guys came here illegally on visas. They certainly were
very careful people; they blended into the community. Obviously, they knew
essentially how the U.S. works. They knew how to travel, they knew how to use
ATM machines, they knew how to find things. And they kept to themselves. They
were careful. They did things that normal 20- and 30-year-old people would do,
went to places that were very normal for that age group. They just blended in
very, very well. They had obviously been trained well. So unless they did
something that would come to the attention of law enforcement or unless there
was credible intelligence developed through information abroad or sources here,
they could operate pretty freely -- and they certainly did.
They seemed to be very cunning about their knowledge of our weaknesses and
how to exploit our society. Talk about that for a moment.
... I think it goes back to the time when, during the Afghan war, people from
many countries were recruited, trained, and fought in Afghanistan and then
returned to their countries. And certainly the United States was one of those
countries. And there were a number of places where people were recruited like
the Al Farooq Mosque up in the New York area, the Al Kifah Refugee Center,
another place up on the New York area where people were identified, recruited
and again sent over and came back.
So there have been people here in the United States for a long period of time
who clearly understand the country, are citizens of the country, are residents
of the country. So there is that kind of information flow available to Al
Qaeda, and has been available to them for some time.
You talk about cunning; yes, they're cunning because they understood it. They
understood (a) how to get in here, (b) how to blend in, (c) how to find flight
schools. I mean, all these things they understood. I think one of the leaders,
Mohamed Atta, spoke English. I'm sure others spoke English. So they just knew
how to work the system.
Are you saying that this group of 19 hijackers had a support network? ...
I think that's a strong possibility. But even if that support network wasn't
here, even if they didn't tell them where to go and how to do it, what I'm
saying to you is that there was enough intelligence gathered by Al Qaeda
through people who had lived here over many years that they could have figured
out how to do things pretty easily. ...
What do you make of the way the INS handled [Mohamed Atta], who is in and
out on a tourist visa, even one that has expired?
Well, you know what -- I'm not surprised. And I'm not trying to be critical of
the immigration service. But when you're an immigration officer and you're
sitting there and you've got two or three 747s that have just landed and you're
processing 1,200-1,500 passengers at a crack and a guy presents that looks
good, is dressed well, good personality, you look at his passport and he just
looks like a young businessman to you, and he comes in.
Did they goof?
I don't think they goofed. I just think it's an impossible situation.
This is an expired visa. And he says he's a tourist, but he's going to go
and be a student.
When a guy comes in on an expired visa, that is a goof. But you know, even
going back to Ramzi Yousef, I think he came in on no paper and they had so many
people in the holding facility that night that they let him go with a notice to
appear on a certain date. Of course, he never appeared. [Editor's Note: Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.]
So the kind of controls that we would like to see there, the kind of capability
just to hold people -- they're not in place. I'm hopeful that with this new
proposal to split INS into an enforcement branch and an immigration branch,
that it might get harder. But I'll tell you, it's not easy. And there hasn't
been a whole lot of attention, hard attention, placed on this over the last
many, many years, in my view. ...
You keep saying this is Al Qaeda. What are the two, three, four pieces of
key evidence that say to you without question [that] this is Al Qaeda?
... When I saw the attack, I instinctively felt it was bin Laden, but mainly
because I think I understand those guys a little bit. ... The twin towers, to
them, are the symbol of our economic society. It was always that way, and the
symbol of our support to Israel, which they hate. So for them that was always a
big thing, and that was why they wanted to hit it the first time in 1993. The
Pentagon, the White House, again the Capitol, the symbols of our government,
the symbols of our way of life, these were symbols of our government, the
government they wanted to bring down. They're very symbolic people, and have
been throughout my experience with them. ...
Was [there] something that surfaced that could have rung alarm bells, that
might have led to a chain of events that would have unraveled this, or at least
unearthed part of it? I'm thinking specifically of the arrest in Minnesota of
Zacarias Moussaoui. ... If a flight school had called you and said, "Here's a
guy who wants to fly modern jets and he's not even qualified as a pilot." ...
What does that say to you, and how do you read it?
Had that information come to me in either one of my old jobs, I would have been
terrified. I would have just very, very immediately seized on that and had
absolutely a full-court, extremely intensive investigation of that person and
certainly checked him with everybody that we knew at CIA and would have asked
CIA to run checks on him to see who the heck he is. I mean, that would have
been our worst nightmare. Certainly my worst nightmare is somebody hijacking a
plane, just even hijacking a plane and taking hostages. So that's probably the
first thing that would have entered my mind: this guy is trying to set up a
In terms of crashing a jet into a building, it might have been in the recesses
of my mind. But I would have immediately thought "hijack" and gone into the
prevent mode in terms of finding out who is he, who is he with? Does he work?
Does he have contacts here in the United States? I'd want to know everything
about him from the day he was born.
Then the French come in, 10 days later. ... They hand you a bundle of
information -- you the FBI -- which says this guy is connected with Islamic
militants and terrorists, if not Al Qaeda directly. What does that say to you?
How do you react to that?
... I think with the French providing more details in terms of the activities
of Moussaoui, that would have ratcheted me up even higher in terms of this guy.
Again, I would have wanted to know everybody he knows, particularly everybody
he knows in the United States right now. What has he been doing here? How long
has he been here? What are his movements? Who has he been in contact with? Does
he have a telephone at his residence? Are there toll records? These kinds of
things. ... Are there others taking flight training like him? If they
are, who are they, where are the schools? Those are all the things that would
just rattle right through your brain almost immediately. I'd certainly think
within an hour you'd be thinking about all these things. ... Now, whether that
was done or not, I don't know. ...
Tell me about what you knew about Murad and that interrogation. [Editor's Note: Abdul Hakim Murad was convicted of plotting in January 1995 to bomb 11 airliners from the U.S. over the Far East.]
I do know that back in 1995, one of the subjects in what the FBI calls Manila
Air -- the plot to blow up about a dozen airliners in the Philippines -- when
he was interviewed, he talked about himself crashing a plane into CIA
headquarters. But my recollection of this wasn't a major passenger airline.
This was an extemporaneous statement by this guy. It's something he wanted to
do. But I never had any information back at that time that anyone else was
thinking about doing it. I think we all thought it was just this one guy
What about Mohamed Atta as an operational commander? How much discretion do
you think that he had? ... How might he have related to others higher up and
perhaps had the overall strategic view? ...
He would have had limited discretion, in my view. He would have been charged by
the leadership to go and do this. They would
have talked about it extensively. They would have spent a lot of time thinking
about this, how to do it, how to get into the United States, how to live in the
United States. There would have been a lot of pre-operational discussion and
planning to pull off an operation like this and to be successful.
So while I think he probably had some operational discretion in terms of
logistics like apartments and selecting places to live and selecting rental car
companies and these kind of things, I think when it came down to the nuts and
bolts of actually doing the operation, he would have had to have gone
someplace, met, discussed, agreed. They had to agree on the timing of it. A lot
of these variables, I think, would have been pinned down. But he probably
would have had discretion to abort it, if something happened. Let's say that
they had gone to the airport that morning and they didn't make it through
security, there was a major problem with them. He probably would have given
someone the high sign to get in touch with everybody else and say, "Stand down.
Do it another day." ...
We know that Mohamed Atta made many trips back to Europe, even once he was
here in the United States learning how to be a pilot. What is the significance
do you think of those trips back to Europe, particularly in the weeks
immediately preceding this?
... I think he was getting direction. I think he was going back to report on
the status of where they were in the operation to make sure that they were
secure in terms of their operational security, and think he was getting
direction to move ahead, and probably authorization to move ahead.
From some key figure?
Yes, from somebody that was involved in this thing that he was reporting back
And this would have been done in person rather than ...
Definitely in person, rather than the telephone and risking discovery. It's,
again, good operational security face to face, probably in an area where they
couldn't be overheard. Some secure location that they were convinced were
secure and again this one-on-one exchange.
And what does that tell us about the importance of Europe in general to the
Al Qaeda network? ...
Well, what it tells me is that there certainly is an infrastructure in place, a
support infrastructure, maybe even somewhat of a command infrastructure. And Al
Qaeda and their associates have been able to establish an excellent network
in Europe, certainly in Germany, certainly in the U.K., probably Spain,
probably other countries. I think Italy is also another place where we've had
this kind of activity in the past. So there's a pretty well-established network
of support. ...
Ultimately a group of 19 were together here in the United States for this
operation. What are your views about the way that group broke down? ... How
would you describe them? Would you lump them roughly into two groups? ...
In terms of their structure here in the United States, I really see it as a
leadership element and then a soldier element. The leadership element
controlled the operation and the rest of the guys followed. ... Probably if you
look at the educational background and sophistication of the leaders versus the
others, you'll find a pretty sharp demarcation line. Some guys were well
educated, fluent in English, really were sharp; other guys weren't. ...
Without question, all of these guys were handpicked people for various reasons.
Obviously their leadership and intelligence, the ability to learn to fly these
multiengine aircraft. That's a pretty sophisticated individual. I think
everyone recognizes that. In terms of the rest of them, they had to be very
fervently committed to their religion and to the mission and they had to be
convinced that giving up their lives was the best thing for them in this
particular operation. Nineteen of them! I mean, 19 of them volunteered to kill
themselves! ... And no one cracked. Of these people, no one came in and
said to the law enforcement, "Hey, I'm part of this group, and I'm not going to
do this." They all did it, which really, to me, tells me that their selection
process was very good. ...
What was specific to the 19 who were chosen by and large was their
clean records. Reflect on that a bit, if you like. ...
The 19 hijackers were clean, they weren't criminals. They
had clean records; they had clean paper. There were no significant warning
signs in their backgrounds that would have focused law enforcement or the
immigration people on them specifically. ... Even if one or two of them had been
focused on significantly, again, in checking them out, you would have found
nothing, so you had really nothing to go on. So they're here and many of them
here legally, some here not legally. But I think the majority of them came in
on good paper. There's thousands and thousands of people that come in here
every single day from around the world, and how can you focus in laser like on
people that are here on clean paper? It's impossible. ...
We know that Mohamed Atta went to Prague on at least two occasions and met a
known member of the Iraqi intelligence services. What might that
You know, that's really interesting to me. First of all, because the
intelligence service representative ... wasn't an underling; he was the head
guy of Iraqi intelligence in Prague, probably for a wide operational area, and
that had to be important. I really believe my colleagues would see that as just
a very, very important meeting. What was it about? Why is this guy in contact?
Multiple times he's in contact with him, which says to me [a] relationship --
probably either he's trying to develop him as a source, a human source, or he
already is a human source for the Iraqi intelligence service.
The question is, what is he? Was he an Al Qaeda guy who had been recruited by
the Iraqis and providing intelligence to the Iraqis about Al Qaeda? Maybe. It's
not logical to me, because the guy ultimately killed himself for Al Qaeda. So
it's a real big issue, at least for me, to know what that relationship was. ...
We know that Mohamed Atta was interested in crop sprayers. He went to
Florida. He was very interested, very persistent, he wanted to get in and find
out what they could do, what their capabilities were. What does this suggest
about plans that he had and that the group had?
Well, certainly when Mohamed Atta was looking at crop-dusting planes, you have
to immediately figure that he's going to want to spray some kind of agent on
people and do a lot of damage. It had to be that. I mean, there's no other
logical conclusion you can reach now. ... His interest in a crop duster could
have been intelligence gathering for the future, rather than right now, because
he's obviously got his orders. He's obviously fully engaged in planning the
World Trade Center, the Pentagon and something else attacks. But for some
reason, he's out there looking at these other aircraft, so I think that's very
We know also at about that time he was looking possibly in Norfolk,
Va., at American warships; scouting again. Is there a sense that Mohamed
Atta was the man on the ground? ... That he was a real gatherer of
I'd have to conclude that, based upon the fact that he did look at crop
dusters, he did look at Norfolk; he was very active scoping things out. They
could have been planning another attack against a warship here, ... getting the
feel of the land and whether or not they could do it. There is tremendous
pre-operational planning that goes into any of these things, but particularly
these guys, they spend a lot of time scoping things out. So, yes, he may have
just been gathering intel to send back or to report on in response to a task.
home + introduction + should we have... + their personal stories + inside al qaeda + reporter's notebook
producer's chat + discussion + tapes & transcripts + press + credits + privacy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbs online
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation