If you look at the hijackers' operation, when you look at their tradecraft,
what are the secrets of their success from their standpoint? What was it they
did that enabled them to pull off this simultaneous coordinated
I think there were several things that the terrorists were able to do. One is
they were able to sustain themselves in the United States for a period of time.
They were able to blend into the community without drawing excessive attention
to themselves. They were able to provide the logistic support necessary to keep
them here for the year or so that it took to get that kind of training, and
they were able to do it under the veil of law enforcement for a period of time
and they went undetected.
I think if there's any surprise to me, it's their ability to communicate that
we did not pick up on, because it did require a fair amount of communication
and coordination to be able to do that. So it is my belief -- and I'm
speculating, to some extent -- that if there was a failure, it was a failure to
intercept the communications that perhaps could have been a warning to this
But they obviously were very successful in their ability to hide for almost a
year while they were here, and to, again, develop the logistical support that
led to the events of Sept. 11.
I wonder if you see them as experts of finding our weaknesses and exploiting
them. We run into them going to car rental agencies that don't have software
that keep records of traffic violations. We find them going to flight schools
that don't seem to check into their background. We find them slipping through
the INS with explanations that seemed to satisfy people on the spot. ... They
seem to know a great deal about our vulnerabilities and where they can exploit
them, and we have a great deal of difficulty finding their
Certainly we are, as a nation, vulnerable. But that vulnerability is really
born of the freedoms that we enjoy here. We do not live in a society that
closes its borders. We have relatively open borders. We allow people into the
United States on relatively easy access, both legally and illegally. We keep
our institutions open in terms of information and freedom of information. We
allow people to basically come into the United States and travel freely about
without any national identification card, without the ability to track people
as they move about. ...
What kind of training do Al Qaeda terrorists get, for example, that would be
relevant to the operation that we saw here on Sept. 11? ...
Certainly the type of training that they would receive, again in Afghanistan
and in other places, would be compartmentalized. Somebody would be responsible
for logistics. Others would be responsible for the tactical deployment. Others
would be responsible for flying the plane, and they would be done for a
For example, those that were responsible for gaining access to the plane by
overpowering the passengers would have received training in that regard. If
explosives were to be used in additional attacks, they would have received
training in that regard. Those that were to be responsible for the financial
support of the group and their ability to blend in would be directed in that
regard. So it is a very, very unique and complex system. But unfortunately, it
has been successful in several attacks that we've had to deal with.
Afghanistan looks like a fairly primitive place; this looks like a fairly
sophisticated operation. Does this training that they get in Afghanistan
include handling finances, the international banking system, how to get along
in a Western country, the whole business of shaving your beard and going local
and looking modern? ...
I think [it would be] a terrible mistake on our part to underestimate their
ability and their resolve. We're talking about a group of people that were
really born in the conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a group of
people that really get their history from fighting with the mujahedeen and
expelling from their country the largest standing army in the world. To me that
represents, I think, a tremendous amount of resolve, a tremendous amount of
imagination and a tremendous fortitude. So when you look at training, when you
look at their ability to assimilate into the United States and their commitment
to the extremist movement, I think it's important to understand the history of
Afghanistan and the history of the people that came out of that. ...
Their ability to assimilate into the United States and into societies around
the flight schools and around the logistics of that were also done in a way
that avoided detection. And the other thing that they do is they understand our
techniques. Every time we have a trial -- and we've had several terrorist
trials -- the government, through discovery and through the nature of our court
system, educates them in very minute detail as the techniques we employ to
overcome their efforts and to gain detection of the events that are surrounding
them. So I would not underestimate them for one minute.
If you could quickly, for a general audience, tick off what you see are the
trademarks and the connections of Al Qaeda and bin Laden with this bombing
attack on Sept. 11, what were the key elements? ...
One is their ability to operate in compartmentalized cells; their ability to
travel back into Germany, back into London, in order to receive both
instructions and training. ... Their ability to operate in secrecy, and their
ability to establish communications amongst one another in a rather
surreptitious way to avoid detection. So a number of factors came together.
Certainly their ability to coordinate their efforts on Sept. 11 to cause
the kind of casualties that they did, very similar to the coordinated attacks
that occurred in East Africa against the two U.S. embassies. I think that there
are many similarities in terms of the types of tradecraft and the logistics
employed both on Sept. 11 and in the East Africa and USS Cole disaster.
When you see Mohamed Atta returning to Germany in the spring of 2001, or
going to Spain in July of 2001, what do you see him doing there?
I think when Atta traveled both to Germany and traveled to Spain -- again, I
rely on what has been historically the reasons for these types of trips --
they're receiving instructions; they're gaining intelligence information;
they're certainly understanding the logistical nature to receive support and
developing financial contacts for the rest of the people that are in their
cell. So I think that type of travel and the ability of law enforcement to go
back and understand who was contacted on these trips and what type of support
was gained is critical to an understanding of the network that Al Qaeda
So who, or what type of people is Atta meeting in Germany or Spain?
Again, I will speak in very general terms as far as what my belief on those
trips. More than likely, when he traveled, he probably met either directly or
indirectly members of Al Qaeda. He probably received instructions from the
hierarchy associated with Osama bin Laden from his emissaries. He probably
received instructions on who to contact for financial and logistical support.
Those trips were critical, in my mind, to the success that they unfortunately
had on Sept. 11.
You mentioned the communications several times. One of the things we noticed
is they're going to public libraries. ... They go to Kinko's. They go to all
kinds of anonymous places to hook themselves up to the Internet. What's going
on here? What's happening? ...
Assuming that they get on the Internet and have the ability to communicate
amongst one another, it's my belief that that's what they did -- establish
e-mail communication. And I speculate as to that. But they are providing
instructions. They're providing timing instructions. They're providing
instructions as far as financial support, and they're providing overall
direction to the nature of the operation that was to occur on Sept. 11.
Why can't we find that out? Why can't we spot that? Do they have codes? I've
heard they had software that actually erases their tracks when they finish.
What is it that makes that so hard to crack?
Again, I'm not a technical expert, but you have to understand the number of
e-mails and communications that are sent in this country every day. There is no
one in cyberspace that's monitoring each one of these things on a real-time or
on a minute-by-minute basis. And certainly they understand that. The ability to
change direction, and the ability to change the way they communicate, is
certainly different than it was even five years ago. When you look at cellular
technology and the ability to go into a store and get a digital phone, use it
for 30 days and get rid of it, certainly makes the ability of law enforcement
to intercept critical communications almost impossible.
You tie that in to the ability to walk into a Kinko's and get on a computer and
communicate via e-mail for a short period of time and walk away from it, and
perhaps have the ability to erase that communication from ever having occurred.
Those techniques or that tradecraft was critical, in my estimation, to the
events of Sept. 11.
You have a flight school in Minnesota. A guy by the name of Moussaoui shows
up. He wants to fly a plane but he doesn't care about landing and take off. He
wants to know how to get into a cockpit. An alert flight schools says, "Wait a
second, this is unusual," [and] gets in touch with the FBI. Does that ring
alarm bells that something unusual is going on?
It certainly should have. And as my understanding is, they did detain Moussaoui
as a result of that information. But again, to tie that into a broader
conspiracy, to tie that information into directly affecting the events of
Sept. 11 was not something that they were able -- again from what I've read
-- to complete. ...
I'm going to take you back to the days when you were an agent and very
involved in this, right back in fact to 1993 and the World Trade Center bombing
that time. From the work that you did in the wake of that in trying to solve
that, and the associated plots which came out of it, what would you say was the
significance of that particular target and their determination to get to grips
I think certainly when you look at the Trade Center, both in February 1993 and
as of Sept. 11 of this year, they stood as symbols of really the financial
[strength] and freedom that the U.S. enjoyed. They were hallmarks in New York
City. They were landmarks for people that saw them every day. The attempts that
they had in 1993, I think, were really an attempt to strike at the very heart
of the freedoms that we enjoy, and to topple what I think stood as really the
symbols of U.S. industry, and to really send that message back that terrorism
has reached our shores. ...
It was ironic ... that one of the individuals involved in the plot in February
of 1993 was an individual by the name of Ramzi Yousef. Unfortunately, he was
able to escape after the bombings occurred, and we located him in Manila in the
Philippines as he was in the middle of a plot to bomb 11 U.S. airliners over
the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, he was apprehended.
We brought him back into New York and had the responsibility of transporting
him down to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan on the day
he was brought back. And I'll never forget this. He came off the plane. He was
blindfolded and in handcuffs, and we put him on a helicopter to fly him down
the Hudson River towards the jail. We took the blindfold off to allow him to
focus his eyes, and it was ironic, because he finally focused as the helicopter
flew in front of the Trade Center.
One of the agents on board that night said to him, "Do you see? It still
stands." And he said, in very chilling terms, "It would not have been had we
had more money." And I took that in a very, very significant way to mean that
they were very dedicated to the extremist cause that they represented, almost
to the extent that it became something that I don't think we, in the culture
that I grew up in, could really understand.
Do you think it was a sense of unfinished business, the World Trade
Very much so. ...
So do you think, for Al Qaeda, bringing down the World Trade Center was
something that festered, as it were? Something they felt they had to achieve
long term, and that was the ultimate goal?
I'm not certainly a cultural expert on Al Qaeda. But from what I would gather,
the purpose of this really was to unite the Muslim community in a so-called
jihad or holy war against the United States. ... I'm convinced that the purpose
in the attack on the Trade Center was to galvanize the so-called extremist
movement in the Middle East against the United States. And if that should
happen, then they may have succeeded. ...
Obviously we know that they came here to America but that they, if you like,
had their ideological spark, their training, in Germany. Do you have any views
at all on the way that Europe factored into this?
... I think it's important as the case unfolds and for a better understanding
of how it actually did develop, to understand what contacts [Atta] did make
when he made his trips into Germany and into Spain. And that would be critical
to understand what role those countries played. More than likely -- and I'll
speculate for a minute -- his visits to Germany probably involved some
direction from the hierarchy in Afghanistan and their ability to communicate
with him while he was in Germany.
What overall role would the hierarchy in Afghanistan have played? I'm
talking here about perhaps choosing the ultimate targets, giving the ultimate
military planning and direction.
I think we saw it in Somalia -- and again I'll speculate for a minute -- that
we probably would see the same thing as far as the choosing of the target, the
choosing of the Trade Center for a symbolic value. The overall support of the
operation, the ability to approve the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, I
think in a very real sense was the responsibility of the hierarchy of Al Qaeda
At the end of the day, do you think that the events of Sept. 11, the
attacks, represented somewhat of a failure of imagination on the part of law
enforcement and the intelligence community? Because parts of the puzzle were
there; there were clues, but somehow nobody could put them together.
That's a very, very difficult question. I think it's also important to
understand that, as far as Osama bin Laden is concerned, he made no secret
about his hatred of the United States and his ability to promote a jihad that
called for the killing of Christians and Jews associated with supporting the
United States and its role in the Middle East.
So I don't think it should come as any surprise that there was a war that he
had declared on the United States. He avowed to destroy U.S. institutions. That
was a very public proclamation on his part. We saw it after East Africa. We saw
it after the USS Cole. So I think as you understand his teachings and his
so-called extremist views, the fact that they came back for a second time and
attacked the Trade Center, successfully in bringing it down, was probably more
a failure of our ability to react proactively to that than it was as a failure
of intelligence. To the extent that any law enforcement agency had specific and
credible information on an attack of that nature, it would have been prevented.
It's now easy to sit back five weeks later and say, "There were clues." Sure,
there were clues. But those clues occurred over years. There wasn't a week that
went by [that there wasn't] some threat that would come out of either
bin Laden or associated people with him, and we took those very seriously.
But you could really only react when it came together in terms of specific
targets and a time frame that would allow law enforcement the ability to
neutralize that threat, and that did occur. It occurred in Manila. Those
airlines were prevented from the kinds of attacks that occurred. It occurred
during the millennium celebration and the role in Seattle. So we did have some
successes in preventing the kinds of acts that were designed to kill and maim
people. It did not occur on Sept. 11 for a lot of different reasons.
So where were the weaknesses in the system?
... There are a lot of things that, as we look at putting additional resources
in this, probably will happen from this point forward. And there very well may
have been an inability to assimilate information in a timely fashion,
disseminate it and use it. But again, understanding the amount of intelligence
that's developed out there on a daily basis, this was something that just
probably went through the cracks.
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