- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has told U.S. interrogators that he first discussed the plot with Osama bin Laden in 1996 and that the original plan called for hijacking five commercial jets on each U.S. coast, according to interrogation reports reviewed by the Associated Press.

Mohammed also divulged that in its final stages, the hijacking plan called for as many as 22 terrorists and four planes in a first wave followed by a second wave of suicide hijackings, possibly with aid from al Qaeda allies in southeast Asia, according to the reports.

Over time, bin Laden scrapped various parts of the September 11 plan, including attacks on both coasts and hijacking or bombing some planes in East Asia, the reports quote Mohammed as saying.

Mohammed told his interrogators the hijacking teams originally comprised members from different countries where al Qaeda had recruited, but that in the final stages bin Laden chose instead to use a large group of young Saudi men on the hijacking teams. Fifteen of the eventual 19 hijackers were Saudis.

As the plot came closer to fruition, Mohammed learned “there was a large group of Saudi operatives that would be available to participate as the muscle in the plot to hijack planes in the United States,” one report says Mohammed told his captors.

Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, though the kingdom revoked his citizenship in the 1990s and he reviled its alliance with the United States in the 1991 Gulf war and beyond. Saudis have suggested for months that bin Laden has been trying to drive a wedge between the United States and their kingdom, hoping to fracture the alliance.

U.S. intelligence has suggested that Saudis were chosen in the end because there were large numbers willing to follow bin Laden and they could more easily get into the United States because of the countries’ friendly relations.

Mohammed’s interrogation reports state he told Americans that some of the original operatives assigned to the plot did not make it because they had trouble getting into the United States.

Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in a March 1 raid by Pakistani forces and CIA operatives. He is being interrogated by the CIA at an undisclosed location.

Addressing one of the questions raised by congressional investigators in their September 11 review, Mohammed said he never heard of a Saudi man named Omar al-Bayoumi, who provided some rent money and assistance to two hijackers when they arrived in California.

Congressional investigators have suggested al-Bayoumi could have aided the hijackers or been a Saudi intelligence agent, charges the Saudi government vehemently denies. The FBI has also cast doubt on the theory after extensive investigation and several interviews with al-Bayoumi.

In fact, Mohammed claims he did not arrange for anyone on U.S. soil to assist hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi when they arrived in California. Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were on the plane that flew into the Pentagon.

Mohammed said al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were among the four original operatives bin Laden assigned to him for the plot, a revelation because those were the only two hijackers whom U.S. authorities were seeking for terrorist ties in the final days before September 11.

U.S. authorities continue to investigate many statements Mohammed has made in interrogations, seeking to eliminate deliberate misinformation. But they have been able to corroborate with other captives and evidence much of his account of the planning.

The sources who allowed AP to review the reports insisted that specific details not be divulged, because U.S. intelligence continues to investigate some of the methods and search for some al Qaeda operatives.

In 1996, Mohammed met bin Laden to persuade the al Qaeda leader “to give him money and operatives so he could hijack 10 planes in the United States and fly them into targets,” one of the interrogation reports states.

Mohammed told interrogators his initial thought was to pick five targets on each coast, but bin Laden was not convinced such a plan was practical, the reports stated.

The first major change to the plans occurred in 1999 when two Yemeni operatives could not get U.S. visas. Bin Laden then offered Mohammed additional operatives including a member of his personal security detail.

A key event in the plot, Mohammed told his interrogators, was a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 that included al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi and other al Qaeda operatives. The CIA learned of the meeting beforehand and had it monitored by Malaysian security, but it did not realize the significance of the two eventual hijackers until just before the attacks.

The interrogation reports state bin Laden further trimmed Mohammed’s plans in spring 2000 when he canceled the idea for hijackings in East Asia, thus narrowing the plan to the United States. Bin Laden thought “it would be too difficult to synchronize” attacks in the United States and Asia, one interrogation report quotes Mohammed as saying.

One of those who received training in Malaysia before coming to the United States was Zacarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman accused of conspiring with the September 11 attacks. Moussaoui has denied being part of the September 11 plot, and U.S. and foreign intelligence officials have said he could have been set for hijacking a plane in a later wave of attacks.

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