Tuesday, March 30, 2004

LONDON — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al Qaeda’s purported operations chief, has told U.S. interrogators that the group had been planning attacks on the Library Tower in Los Angeles and the Sears Tower in Chicago on the heels of the September 11, 2001, terror strikes.

Those plans were aborted mainly because of the decisive U.S. response to the New York and Washington attacks, which disrupted the terrorist organization’s plans so thoroughly that it could not proceed, according to transcripts of his conversations with interrogators.

Mohammed told interrogators that he and Ramzi Yousuf, his nephew who was behind an earlier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had leafed through almanacs of American skyscrapers when planning the first operation.

“We were looking for symbols of economic might,” he told his captors.

He specifically mentioned as potential targets the Library Tower in Los Angeles, which was “blown up” in the film “Independence Day,” and the Sears Tower in Chicago.

A British newspaper over the weekend published a detailed account that it said was taken from transcripts of the interrogation of Mohammed, who was captured last year in Pakistan.

The transcripts are prefaced with a warning that Mohammed, the most senior al Qaeda member yet to be caught, “has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.”

According to the transcript, Mohammed has maintained that Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-Moroccan facing trial in the United States as the “20th hijacker,” had been sent to a flight school in Minnesota to train for a West Coast attack.

That would buttress Moussaoui’s contention that he is improperly charged with participation in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, because he was preparing for a different al Qaeda operation.

The new transcripts confirm an earlier report by the Associated Press that al Qaeda originally had planned to crash hijacked airliners into targets on both coasts.

The London Sunday Times said the transcripts covered interrogations conducted during a period of four months after a bleary-eyed Mohammed was captured in a pre-dawn raid a little more than a year ago.

The confessions reveal that planning for the September 11 attacks started much earlier and was more elaborate than previously thought.

“The original plan was for a two-pronged attack with five targets on the East Coast of America and five on the West Coast,” he told interrogators, according to the transcript.

“We talked about hitting California as it was America’s richest state, and [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden had talked about economic targets.”

He is reported to have said that bin Laden, who like Mohammed had studied engineering, vetoed simultaneous coast-to-coast attacks, arguing that “it would be too difficult to synchronize.”

Mohammed then decided to conduct two waves of attacks, hitting the East Coast first and following up with a second series of attacks.

“Osama had said the second wave should focus on the West Coast,” he reportedly said.

But the terrorists seem to have been surprised by the strength of the American reaction to the September 11 attacks.

“Afterwards, we never got time to catch our breath, we were immediately on the run,” Mohammed is quoted as saying.

Al Qaeda’s communications network was severely disrupted, he said. Operatives could no longer use satellite phones and had to rely on couriers, although they continued to use Internet chat rooms.

“Before September 11, we could dispatch operatives with the expectation of follow-up contact, but after October 7 [when U.S. bombing started in Afghanistan], that changed 180 degrees. There was no longer a war room … and operatives had more autonomy.”

Mohammed told interrogators that he remained in Pakistan for 10 days after September 11, 2001, then went to Afghanistan to find bin Laden.

When he was captured in March last year in the home of a microbiologist in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the 37-year-old was unshaven and wearing a baggy vest.

The interrogation reports also indicate that Mohammed had introduced bin Laden to Hambali, the Indonesian militant accused in the terror attack that killed more than 200 people in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002.

Mohammed was running a hostel filtering al Qaeda recruits in Peshawar, Pakistan, when he scouted Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Ismuddin and who ran the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah in Asia.

Later, Mohammed moved to Karachi, Pakistan. There, posing as a businessman importing holy water from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he acted as a fund-raiser and intermediary between militants and sponsors in the Gulf.

His first planned anti-American attack was Operation Bojinka (Serbo-Croatian for “big bang”) — a plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific.

Yousuf and Hambali were involved in the scheme, which failed when the conspirators’ Manila bomb factory caught fire. The men fled to Pakistan, where Yousuf was arrested.

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