9/11 Hijackers Visited Strip Clubs, Smoked Hashish

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A letter allegedly written by suspected ring leader, Mohammed Atta, may provide clues about the Sept. 11 attack


Cracking the Terror Code


From go-go clubs to Vegas, the plotters brought modern twists to an ancient mission. Now the Feds are following the money, wondering about Iraq—and worrying about what's next


By Evan Thomas


Oct. 15 issue — On the night before they went out on a suicide mission to kill someone, the Assassins, the 12th-century cult of holy-warrior hit men, were given a taste of the Paradise that awaited. They smoked hashish (the word assassin derives from hashashin, users of hashish) and read in the Quran about the sensual rewards of martyrdom:


              Spend eternity in gardens of tranquillity.

              Youths of never-ending bloom will pass around to them decanters,

                   beakers full of sparkling wine ...

              And suck fruits as they fancy.

              Bird meats as they relish.

              And companions with big beautiful eyes

              Like pearls within their shells ...


               Maybe that's what Majed Moqed was dreaming about late last summer

      when he wandered into the Adult Lingerie Center, a grim cinder-block

      building next to an auto-parts store in Beltsville, Md., sometime around

      midnight. In addition to red thongs and crotchless panties, the Adult

      Lingerie Center offers pornographic videos and books. But Moqed didn't

      seem to be having much fun. He flipped through some magazines, looked at

      the titles of some videos. Then, after about 10 minutes, he left. The

      night manager figured him for a cop.



             It's hard to imagine that the dirty movie Moqed paid $3 to watch on

      another night inspired him to give his life for Allah. But investigators

      are having a hard time figuring out exactly what did. In a large room at

      FBI headquarters in Washington, about a hundred analysts known as the

      Links Unit are feeding raw data—phone bills, ATM receipts, fake IDs, odd

      bits of Islamic verse, the testimony of Vegas strippers, the investigative

      tidbits from a global manhunt—into banks of computers. They are looking

      for patterns, examining the ties that bound Moqed and the 18 other suicide

      hijackers to one another and to their shadowy masters. The G-men are not

      just trying to solve a crime but hoping to avert another, bigger

      catastrophe. Yet despite an impressive sense of urgency and an unusual

      degree of cooperation between the historically wary CIA and FBI, the

      investigators are making slow progress. In part they are having difficulty

      following a well-concealed trail that weaves all over the world and far

      back in time. And they are just plain stumped by the hellish nature of

      their adversary.


              Consider the puzzle nagging at Charles Prouty, the chief of the

      FBI's Boston office. Why, he wonders, did Mohamed Atta, the suspected

      ringleader of the attack, and Abdulaziz Alomari make a quick side trip to

      Portland, Maine, on the eve of the attack? Were they meeting with someone?

      Were they trying to duck security at Logan airport? The two hijackers

      nearly missed the connecting flight from Portland to Boston on the morning

      of Sept. 11. (Their bags did miss the plane, giving investigators some

      early clues.) They could have thrown off a plan that had been so carefully

      plotted. An ex-Navy SEAL, Prouty told colleagues that it didn't make sense

      for the hijackers to violate the standard rules of "op sec," military

      lingo for "operational security."


             But then again, Al Qaeda isn't the Navy SEALs. Americans were

      chilled last week by the publication of a set of instructions, written by

      hand in Arabic, found in Atta's luggage: "The Last Night," the document

      reads. "1) Make an oath to die and renew your intentions. Shave excess

      hair from the body and wear cologne. Shower..." On goes the assassins'

      manual, a weird mix of hygiene for homicide and exhortation to stay

      prayerful and focused, because the coming day will be "the day, God

      willing, you spend with the women of Paradise."



             Suicide squads are as old as the medieval Assassins and as modern

      as the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. What makes Al Qaeda

      killers seem especially menacing is their apparent normalcy and

      independence. Most of the Black Tuesday hijackers were not like the

      Palestinian suicide bombers, poor losers brainwashed and bribed to strap

      on a bomb and take a one-way bus ride to Allah. The half-dozen leaders

      were educated and middle class. As pilots, several never did get the hang

      of takeoffs and landings, but their navigation skills were perfect. They

      depended more on the anonymity of American life than on their social

      skills. Still, an examination of the plotters' path, as it has emerged

      over the past month, reveals a mix of professionalism and fanaticism that

      will make the next attack hard to stop.


              The top plotters met last August in an odd location: Las Vegas.

      They stayed in cheap hotels on a dreary stretch of the Strip frequented by

      dope dealers and $10 street hookers. Perhaps they wished to be fortified

      for their mission by visiting a shrine to American decadence. Or maybe

      they just wanted a city that was easy to reach by air from their various

      cells in Florida, New Jersey and San Diego. In the past, Al Qaeda has sent

      a top lieutenant to trigger an attack and then slip away. FBI agents are

      searching records for any Middle Eastern-looking man who visited Vegas in

      August. The bureau is sure that six of the hijackers were present: the

      four presumed pilots and two others, Nawaf Alhazmi, 25, and Khalid

      Almihdhar, 26. These last two appear to have been an advance guard,

      arriving in San Diego in the fall of 1999.

      "They were nice." recalled their

      — LANDLORD

              The duo was remarkable for being unremarkable. They bought a car,

      worked at odd jobs, obtained credit cards and insurance. "They were nice,"

      recalled their landlord, Abdussattar Shaikh, though he did observe that

      his tenants "went out to make their phone calls." The two men visited

      strip clubs (Dancers and Cheetah's). Alhazmi apparently advertised,

      unsuccessfully, for a Mexican bride. Shaikh remembers that Alhazmi was

      "very caring" and even confiding: "He told me once that his father had

      tried to kill him when he was a child. He never told me why, but he had a

      long knife scar on his forearm." Almihdhar seems to have been a bit dimmer

      and more standoffish. According to a flight instructor, Rick Garza,

      Almihdhar drew the airplane wings backward in class. Garza, who described

      the two as "Dumb and Dumber," said that Almihdhar and Alhazmi were

      impatient students: "They wanted to bypass primary training and go right

      to flying Boeings."



             The two terrorists may have been poor pilots, but they were well

      connected: in January 2000 they were videotaped by Malaysian secret police

      in Kuala Lumpur, meeting with a Qaeda operative who later emerged as a key

      suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole. And to make up for their deficient

      flying skills, Al Qaeda was able to provide reinforcements. In San Diego

      the two were joined by Hani Hanjour, the man who, investigators believe,

      eventually steered American Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The shy, devout

      son of a well-to-do Saudi, Hanjour appears to have been the one true

      "sleeper," living in the United States on and off for a decade and

      starting flight school in the mid-'90s. He, too, was a poor flight

      student, but he may have had a helping hand from his Qaeda bosses. It

      appears that, in June, an Algerian pilot, Lotfi Raissi, came to the United

      States to help train Hanjour on a jet simulator. (Raissi, now being held

      in England, denies that he was in on the plot.)


              No plotter moved around the world with more ease or frequency than

      Mohamed Atta. In the months before the hijacking, he traveled to Zurich

      (where he bought a couple of Swiss knives in the duty-free shop), Madrid

      and Prague. In Spain last July he seems to have touched base with a ring

      of Algerian terrorists. His meetings in Prague are more intriguing.

      NEWSWEEK has learned that Atta met not once but twice with Iraqi

      intelligence operatives, in June 2000 and again last April. The second

      meeting was with Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, who was

      called back to Baghdad before Sept. 11. One intelligence source called the

      two meetings interesting but still far from proof of Iraqi involvement in

      the plot.


              While polite when necessary, Atta had a seething temper and an

      almost pathological aversion to women. "I don't want any women to go to my

      grave at all during the funeral or any occasion thereafter," Atta wrote in

      a 1996 will. "I don't want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean

      to come and say goodbye to me," Atta wrote, adding, "the person who will

      wash my body near the genitals must wear gloves on his hand so he won't

      touch my genitals."



             This summer a second wave of hijackers slipped into the United

      States. These men were the muscle: their job would be to slit the throats

      of passengers and stab flight attendants (shouting "Allahu Akbar"—God is

      great!—as they "slaughtered the animals," as their instructions put it).

      Most stayed aloof. "You never heard them say a word," said Jamie Diaz, a

      neighbor of some of the men in Paterson, N.J. The apartment shared by

      hijacker brain as well as brawn in Paterson had no TV, no stereo, no

      furniture, except for three smallish mattresses on the floor for as many

      as six men. "Nobody ever saw them at mosques," said the city's mayor,

      Marty Barnes. "But they liked the go-go clubs."


             The Qaeda men living in New Jersey apparently did not use

      electricity at times. A cost saver? Or Islamic asceticism? Investigators

      following the money believe there was plenty of it—at least $500,000 to

      finance the operation. But the money trail is well concealed. It leads

      from well-known commercial banks to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a

      financial fog bank. Investigators are looking for a paymaster named

      Mustafa Ahmed, who appears to have at least 10 aliases, three dates of

      birth, three Social Security numbers and four addresses in the United

      States. He was last seen boarding a plane from Dubai to Kara-chi,

      Pakistan, on Sept. 11. NEWSWEEK has learned that U.S. intelligence is

      especially interested in bin Laden's possible dealings with a company once

      known as Al Taqwa Management ("Al Taqwa" is Arabic for "the wrath of

      God"). But the Swiss authorities have cleared Al Taqwa, which recently

      changed its name to Nada Management. Already privacy-minded European

      governments and banks are grousing about a "fishing expedition" and

      balking at checking bank records against a list of more than 350 names

      supplied by U.S. investigators.


              The Sept. 11 plot was apparently planned abroad—but where? And by

      whom? Investigators have ransacked the "terror apartment" in Hamburg,

      Germany, that Atta shared with Ziad Samir Jarrah, one of the presumed

      Sept. 11 suicide pilots, along with at least two other possible

      conspirators now on the lam. One roommate, Said Bahaji, is believed to be

      the hijackers' logistics man, providing passports, IDs, apartments. The

      other, Ramzi bin al-Shib, tried and failed to get a visa for pilot

      training in the United States; significantly, he received a phone call

      sometime last summer from Zacarias Moussaoui, who was turned in to the

      Feds by a suspicious flight instructor in Minnesota last August. Had the

      FBI moved a little faster on Moussaoui, it's possible the Sept. 11 attack

      might have been averted. FBI officials are still sorting out why a request

      from the FBI's field office for permission to examine Moussaoui's computer

      hard drive—just two weeks before the attack—was turned down by

      headquarters, as reported by NEWSWEEK last week. The FBI knew from French

      intelligence that Moussaoui was an Islamic extremist, but he wasn't

      connected to any terror group—a prerequisite to getting a

      national-security warrant. The FBI agents in Minneapolis then sought a

      criminal warrant to search Moussaoui's computer. But they were again

      turned down because current federal law prohibits the bureau from sharing

      information in criminal probes with intelligence investigators. This

      bureaucratic stumbling block is being cited by federal law-enforcement

      officials as justification for easing the rules. After Sept. 11, gumshoes

      found incriminating evidence on the hard drive, including instructions on

      flying crop- dusters. Was Moussaoui planning some kind of chemical-weapon

      attack? Now in jail, the French Moroccan isn't talking. His mother, Aicha,

      interviewed over the phone by NEWSWEEK from her home in Narbonne, France,

      lamented that her son had been "brainwashed" into becoming an Islamic

      extremist. As a child, "he never cried or made a fuss," she said. "He

      didn't wake me up at night, and he was always laughing." But when teachers

      at his school told Moussaoui that he would be better off going to trade

      school, "he began to rebel." He started smoking hash and watching porn

      movies. "I'm glad that he didn't participate in the attacks," she said.

      "Maybe I'll write him a letter." She paused. "I don't know where to send

      it. I don't know anything now," she said. The FBI and CIA are going to

      have to know a whole lot more to stop the next attack.



      With Pat Wingert, Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman in Washington,

      Andrew Murr in Los Angeles, Jamie Reno in San Diego, Ana Figueroa in Las

      Vegas, Sarah Downey in Minnesota, Kevin Peraino and Babak Dehghanpisheh in

      Paterson, Tara Pepper in London, Scott Johnson in Paris and Mark

      Hosenball, Christian Caryl and Stefan Theil in Germany



            Cracking the Terror Code

               1 of 2


                   1. Cracking the Terror Code

                   2. Next: The Battle Plan



             © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.



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