Chapter 1 Prelude to Disaster
The summer in Manhattan in 2001 had displayed its customary warm, sultry temperament. July proved to be balmy, but not unusually humid and August was warmer still, but it was not the scorcher that most had expected, as the average temperature hovered around 84 degrees. September was emerging as a gift with the days dawning clear and dry featuring cobalt blue skies that were followed with balmy evenings and nights. The beloved Yankees were on a tear with more than 83 wins by Sept 10th that presented the definite possibility of yet another American League East Division title and perhaps another World Series Championship. The team’s shortstop, Derek Jeter was maintaining his usual blistering offensive pace with 135 hits and 90 RBIs by mid-August and he was not showing signs of letting up any time soon. Mariano Rivera was on track to have a 50-save season pitching in his well-established “lights out” closer role. The Mets on the other hand were staring at a 54-66 record by August 15th and the Atlanta Braves were, once again, the “big dog” in the National League.
At the beaches, bathers were concerned about being bitten by a shark as the “summer of the shark” media frenzy continued unabated. It began on Jul 6th when an 8-year old Mississippi boy named Jessie Arbogast, lost his arm to a 7-foot bull shark while standing in shallow water on the beach at Santa Rosa Island in Florida. The attack was brutal, but the boy’s uncle caught and killed the beast with his bare hands and recovered the boy’s arm from the creature, which was later surgically reattached to the unfortunate adolescent. This incident ignited a media uproar that filled and dominated the news cycle typically tranquil during the summer months. Not a week passed without more shark attacks being reported in screaming headlines in newspapers or by breathless “talking heads” on the 24-hour cable network news channels. A few days after the attack on the ill-fated Mississippi lad, a New York man was attacked by yet another shark in the Bahamas and forfeited a leg to the animal. Then, on July 15, a surfer was struck by a shark not more than five miles from where the unlucky Arbogast boy had been bitten. In mid-August, to further incite fear and milk the public angst for all it was worth, TV networks played video footage obtained from news helicopters flying over Florida beaches of hundreds of sharks congregating just offshore. None of the reporters mentioned that this was most likely the result of the normal annual migration of sharks before the change of the season. It was good theatre and drew the masses to their TVs, which boosted Nielsen ratings. As a result of the shark hysteria in the U.S., much of the world news was pushed to the back pages of newspapers and relegated to short clips in television coverage. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, two-legged land sharks known as the Taliban performed their evil deeds on their countryman in the name of their god.
Earlier that June most of the American news media focused on domestic events by obsessively providing their audiences with the last images of Timothy James McVeigh. The infamous domestic terrorist was put to death at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute Indiana for his atrocious mass murder of innocents in Oklahoma City in 1995. McVeigh and a few coconspirators used their bombing of the Murrah Federal Building as a demented form of revenge for the killings by the FBI of the Branch Dividians at Waco, Texas and the perceived homicides of survivalists during an armed standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The incredibly perverted perceptions of McVeigh and Terry Nichols motivated them to load fifty, five-gallon plastic barrels containing a total of 5000 lbs. of ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) into a Ryder rental truck to execute their menacing, demented act. McVeigh drove the truck to Oklahoma City and parked it outside of the Alfred P. Murrah building near the center of town.
Fancying himself a revolutionary in the style of John Wilkes Booth, McVeigh believed that his act would incite a revolution against what he believed to be a tyrannical federal government. The detonation of the bomb killed hundreds of innocent people and was heard or felt 55 miles from the epicenter. It was the work of a madman, but he was eventually tracked down, imprisoned, tried by a jury of his peers and found guilty. McVeigh was the first prisoner to be executed at a federal prison since 1963 and most people believed that he rightfully deserved his punishment. His death provided peace of mind to many people who felt that mass murder by a terrorist would be dealt with swiftly and severely. McVeigh’s horrific deed had, in some ways, eclipsed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. For most New Yorkers, the later incident hit closer to home, but McVeigh’s crime was far worse, resulting in the deaths of innocent babies and bystanders in an insane, mindless attack on the federal government. For many that year, McVeigh’s death seemed to ensure that appalling incidents such as the bombing in Oklahoma City would never occur again, the bogeyman was dead, a false perception of safety and complacency took hold in many places in America and especially in New York.
For a few well-informed New Yorkers, this contentment was tested by the events that unfolded over the past few years in Afghanistan, where the omnipotent, brutal, but seemingly incompetent, Taliban held most of the country in an iron fist of control. Knowledgeable New Yorkers, who read the New York Times and other publications, knew that Afghanistan was in the throes of a national calamity. Religious zealots had finally seized control of the central government after a lengthy civil war following the exodus of the Soviets who had invaded the country in 1987. A civil war was still underway, but the Taliban were in charge in Kabul and they had welcomed a guy named Usama bin Laden (UBL later became his sobriquet to the US military and intelligence services) and his crew of Islamic extremist mercenaries into their fold. The Afghan Taliban had allowed bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization to establish training camps in the country. For the record, UBL was no stranger to the Taliban. He and some of his followers had fought alongside the Afghan Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Like the Taliban, UBL was a Muslim extremist and he encouraged the brutal treatment of the Afghans by the Taliban in the name of Mohammad and the Quran.
Most of the brutality of the Taliban over the previous two years had been lost on the average New Yorker. However, it was showcased in early August of 2001 when Heather Mercer, a Christian missionary, and several of her colleagues were arrested by the Taliban and imprisoned for proselytizing Christianity. This proved to be a miscalculation as the imprisonment of these innocent Evangelists became an international cause celebré that exposed their captors as the brutal, merciless, authoritarian regime that it was. In the process, this incident also exposed the association of the Taliban with al Qaeda. Although the Clinton Administration had conducted some pinprick raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, most Americans were unaware of the existence of bin Laden and his organization. The notoriety of the Mercer situation shined a light on al Qaeda and now more Americans were becoming aware of its existence. Some average New Yorkers were also beginning to take notice.
In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda’s Islamic extremist financiers were eager for yet another display of power by the Muslim world against the infidels of the West; particularly America. The nearly simultaneous bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 had been spectacular, but only 12 Americans had been killed, and most of the victims were local citizens; many of them had been Muslims. The bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 was a more potent show of force by al Qaeda, since it was a direct attack on a U.S. Navy warship. But once again, the goal wasn’t met, out of a crew of 300, only 17 sailors had been killed, and the ship remained afloat. The area of the hull where the improvised bomb was detonated was designed to withstand a pressure of 51,000 psi. The blast blew a 20 x 40 ft. hole in the port side of the ship’s hull, but she remained afloat; which was a testament to the shipbuilding skills of the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
A bigger prize needed to be bagged, something that would shake evil America to her core and force her once and for all to leave the Middle East, whereupon Mohammed’s children would be free to deal a death blow to the other devil, Israel. As the wealthy, hypocritical, Wahhabist sheiks counted their money and jetted around the playgrounds of Europe breaking Islamic taboos, their perceived avenger, UBL, was busy hatching another attack on the West. Together with his close associate Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) a scheme was being prepared to attack the World Trade Center in Manhattan to finish the job that the Muslim Brotherhood had initiated in the first attack on those buildings in 1993. The so-called “Towers Project” was well underway, but to be successful it would require preparation, nerve and cunning, and most important of all, it would require money and dedicated, fanatical men.
Bin Ladin was an heir to the fortune of the Saudi Arabian bin Laden Construction Co., so he was quite independently wealthy. He could well afford to fund the Towers Project out of his own pocket. However, he fully realized that the notoriety that would inevitably result from the success of the Towers Project would swamp his small organization with recruits, hell-bent on Jihad, and the destruction of the West. He would need far more capital than he currently controlled to train, equip and house the hundreds of thousands of new jihadists who he believed would surely flock to his side and he would require Arab money to accomplish this. A strategy was needed to help his wealthy Arab backers to exploit the financial chaos that would inevitably result from the anticipated WTC attack and the destruction of the financial nerve center of America. His friends’ financial gain would also be his personal gain when they rewarded UBL for the profits they would reap from the collapse of Wall Street. Shorting key American stocks would be the way to make quick, phenomenal gains after the Towers had collapsed and the American Stock market had crashed. UBL was convinced that America would be brought to her knees economically by the planned attack. He persuaded his backers to discretely remove as much capital as possible from the US before the attack to safeguard their current wealth and, at the right time, short as many American company stocks as possible without raising too much suspicion.
The Towers Project was not conceived in a vacuum, bin Laden had long considered America to be a paper tiger. The U.S. Army had taken a licking in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, losing two helicopters and 19 servicemen. After being bloodied, the Clinton Administration chose to completely pull the military from Somalia. The Army Rangers protested bitterly, they wanted to go back into the city and kick-ass, which is probably what they would have done had they been given the tanks and other armored vehicles that they had requested and a chance to use them. Although vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the 160 Americans that took part in Operation Gothic Serpent, which was initially supposed to be a snatch and grab mission, killed or wounded 1500-3000 Somalis at the cost of 18 American lives. If allowed to attack with strength and armor, the U.S. military would have undoubtedly subdued the city and killed or captured Mohamed Farrah Aidid, which would have been pivotal to the establishment of order in that anarchic country.
But that was not to be and bin Laden interpreted the resulting U.S. pullout as symptomatic of a “weak horse.” This weak horse concept was illuminated by Lee Smith in his book about the Arab world, where he describes UBL’s political beliefs as pragmatic rather than extreme reflecting the prevailing political philosophy of Arab countries. Smith explained that the traditional weak horse, strong horse principle as emblematic of the violence that is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Middle East. Long histories of cultural and religious strife, together with the privations of the desert climate have bred a people and a culture that is actually and metaphorically attracted to a strong horse over a weak horse. Bin Laden was simply reflecting his cultural predispositions in accessing the American response to what he perceived as an American “defeat” at the hands of the Somalis in Mogadishu. Whatever the case, bin Laden was convinced that he would prevail in his latest scheme to weaken America and that her response to his attack would be much the same as what occurred in the recent past; anemic. This would set the stage for his rise to power as the soft-spoken, wise Jihadi Imam who would eventually become the Saladin of the modern age and force the world to accept Islam and Mohammed as the true prophet of Allah; or so his delusion went.
Capital flowed easily throughout the globe in 2001, daily wire transfers of tens of billions of dollars streaked back and forth at the speed of light from one side of the planet to the other via the standard, accepted means of the modern, western digital age. However, as is still well known today, while the Muslim world utilizes the western financial system on a daily basis, it continues to maintain its own system, known as Hawala. The financial system Hawala was developed early in the 9th century originating from Sharia law. Historically, it has been well documented that Hawala helped to form the guiding principles for the agency of common and civil laws in the French avail and Italian avallo systems. These economic arrangements were a result of the extensive financial transactions that occurred between medieval French and Italian cities and their Muslim counterparts. The Hawala system arose as a means of financing long-distance trading between individuals during the medieval period. It blossomed as a full-fledged money marketing enterprise in the Muslim world until it was gradually replaced in the 20th century by modern, formal banking systems. The new system was all well and good for the prosperous, well-heeled Arabs; however, for many common Muslims, Hawala continues to this day to be a cash-based financial system that they trust and rely on. It is a means of transferring working capital between individuals and families in the Muslim world and since it is based almost entirely on faith, trust; and cash, it is nearly invisible to modern financial law enforcers.
As the “Towers Project” unfolded, KSM found that “volunteers” began to emerge from some of the affluent families in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. However, it was soon evident that the number required was not equivalent to the number of volunteers who were coming forward. Clearly, incentives beyond martyrdom and 72 virgins in heaven would be needed to recruit the number of men needed for the operation. Sheik Mohammed suggested to UBL that they offer cash rewards to the families of the soon to be martyrs as a means of attracting more willing accomplices. This was a reasonable suggestion and it was agreed that a figure of $20,000 would be paid in US currency to the volunteers’ family upon successful completion of the project. Most of the 20 recruited hijackers were from upper middle class or wealthy Middle Eastern families. Nearly all were from Saudi Arabia. However, there were a few who were inspired to join the cause but were from poorer families that would certainly welcome the financial tribute.
The martyrs were assured that their sacrifice for Allah would not be in vain, which was acceptable for most of the volunteers, but two or three of them needed the tribute and were comforted knowing that their families would benefit from their sacrifice. For these “honored” families, the cash would be paid once their martyred sons were in America and were in place for their mission. The tribute would be paid in cash through Hawala so that the transaction would be untraceable. However, money for the mission was running tight and as luck would have it, the tribute payments were delayed until other financial obligations had been satisfied.
Most of the money for the operation had been wire transferred from UAE banks to separate accounts that had been established for the hijackers in US banks. Mohammed Atta was the ring leader who was in direct contact with the project’s accountant, Binalshibh who was in Germany managing the financial aspects of the endeavor. Atta was constantly harassed by several of the junior members of the plot who wanted to be sure that their families would receive the tribute. In turn, he pressured Binalshibh to make the payments and provide proof that it had been done. One of Atta’s junior soldiers, Saeed Alghamdi a diminutive, swarthy, disagreeable fellow was becoming nervous as the summer waned and the date of the attack was approaching. He wanted assurance that his tribute was paid and he constantly pestered Atta to that end. Atta continually assured him that all would be well, but those assurances seemed only to further agitate Alghamdi, and Atta was becoming concerned about this little wretch. Atta wondered if Alghamdi could become a security risk to the entire operation. Atta would need to keep a close watch on this desolate little Alghamdi.