by John Crewdson and Cam Simpson
Tribune staff reporters
September 5, 2002
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An elderly pensioner hobbles past, followed by a scruffy teenager riding a bicycle and drinking a bottle of beer, and a young girl skipping down the sidewalk on a glorious late summer's afternoon.
None pays the least attention to the utterly nondescript apartment house at 54 Marienstrasse in Hamburg's lower-middle-class southern district.
Perhaps they, and most of the other passersby who do not pause or even glance, are unaware that this is where Sept. 11 began. But then, there is no plaque on the dingy stucco wall recalling that Mohamed Atta lived here.
For most of the past year, the FBI, CIA and police agencies across the globe have devoted millions of hours to what has incontestably become the largest investigation in history, meticulously tracking even the smallest steps of Atta and the other Sept. 11 hijackers from this historic port city to Florida, California, New Jersey and beyond.
Despite the immensity of that effort, Americans know little more today about the Sept. 11 conspiracy, or the conspirators, than they did within a few weeks of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The same is not true of Al Qaeda, the ephemeral terrorist brotherhood that conceived, choreographed and financed the deadliest attack on American soil.
Considerably more has been learned about Al Qaeda's methods, its personnel and its organization than was known a year ago. There has been measured progress in freezing Al Qaeda assets around the world. Its most senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are either dead, in jail or on the run.
The Justice Department's continuing assertions that it is closely watching a half-dozen Al Qaeda "sleeper cells" in the U.S. were partly borne out last week when a federal grand jury in Detroit indicted five men it says belonged to such a cell, formed to provide support for Al Qaeda activities.
The strength of the Detroit case is not yet apparent. Nor is that of a separate indictment, brought in Seattle, accusing an American-born Muslim, Earnest James Ujaama, of having conspired with others (including a man who reportedly knew accused Swedish hijacker Kerim Chatty in jail) to build a training camp for Al Qaeda in rural Oregon. None, however, is accused of any involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.
Not a rigid organization
As investigators have come to appreciate, Al Qaeda is more a concept than a rigid organization, an endeavor by bin Laden to provide the theological inspiration, ideological charisma, and all-important financing needed to gather under his personal umbrella the home-grown and sometimes fractious Islamic terrorist organizations in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia and North Africa.
If the FBI is correct, the core of Al Qaeda has been whittled down to some 200 hard-core loyalists who have formally sworn their allegiance to bin Laden. But even 200 supremely dedicated terrorists is a very large number in view of how drastically 19 altered the future course of the U.S. and Europe.
To those add 1,000 to 5,000 young men believed to have received some sort of training in bin Laden's Afghan camps, and uncounted thousands of others who have signed up to join jihad, the Islamic holy war, as some of the younger Sept. 11 hijackers did.
Police in Italy and elsewhere talk of an influx of Al Qaeda-trained operatives from Pakistan and Afghanistan back to the European cities and suburbs from whence they came, and where they are believed to be regrouping to fight again.
Sources said some of the dozen men arrested last week in the Netherlands were believed to be part of the recent influx. And with the decimation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, the returnees would appear to have a stronger motive than before Sept. 11 to strike at targets in the West.
Since Sept. 11, only one attack has been definitively linked to Al Qaeda, the April 11 suicide truck bombing in Djerba, Tunisia, that killed 21 people at a synagogue.
But some European investigators believe that, with bin Laden either dead or in hiding, Al Qaeda is potentially more dangerous today than before Sept. 11. They worry about Al Qaeda cells going off on their own in a fiendish competition to see who can create the most martyrs and produce the blackest headlines.
With so many urgent reasons to look ahead, it has been difficult for investigators in the U.S. or abroad to find enough time to look back to Sept. 11.
The rough details of the Sept. 11 attack, code-named "Big Wedding" by the terrorists, that was first laid out in the Marienstrasse apartment have been largely sketched in. So have the life stories of the 19 hijackers who carried it out.
But only a handful of suspected accomplices have been identified. And only two alleged co-conspirators are charged--one in Germany and one in the U.S.
One of bin Laden's most senior aides, Mohammed Atef, a former Egyptian policeman, was reported killed by an American bomb near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November.
Another, Abu Zubaydah, was captured by allied forces in March after a gunfight in Faisalabad, Pakistan, leaving Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri as the only surviving member of Al Qaeda's executive triumvirate.
But the fate of bin Laden himself remains a mystery, as the Bush administration's promises that Al Qaeda's leader and his minions would be hunted down and brought to account fade from the nightly news.
Also missing, a year later, are most of the captains and lieutenants of Al Qaeda who helped bring Sept. 11 to its lethal fruition. Senior U.S. Justice Department officials say privately they believe "a fairly small number of people" occupied the interval between the hijackers and bin Laden.
But those officials also leave open the possibility that Americans may never see any other Al Qaeda operatives charged with complicity in the attacks.
"If it turns out that others responsible never get to court because we don't find them or because they wind up buried in Afghanistan, so be it," said one top official who is directing the Sept. 11 probe. "Even more important is preventing future acts."
Terrorism hard to grasp
For Americans and much of the world, understanding Sept. 11 is also important. But in the weeks and months that followed, it seemed the more the world learned about the hijackers, the more difficult their acts were to comprehend.
Early on, authorities identified Atta, at 33 the oldest of the 19, as the ringleader, both of the five-man contingent aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, and of those aboard the three other hijacked planes.
Described as a loner, distant and humorless, Atta is remembered here in Hamburg, where he lived and studied before moving to Coral Springs, Fla., as a student of urban planning who had a promising future.
For reasons that may be lost to history, he chose instead to become a religious zealot and a murderous terrorist.
It is more difficult to imagine Atta's friend and fellow Hamburg student, 23-year-old Marwan Al-Shehhi, as a coldblooded mass killer. Al-Shehhi, who probably flew the second plane, United Flight 175, into the south tower of the World Trade Center, is recalled by acquaintances as friendly, relaxed and outgoing, a pleasant young man given to joking around.
Even more improbable is the description of "jovial" applied to Ziad Jarrah, who also lived and studied in Hamburg, and who commandeered United Airlines Flight 93, the Boeing 757 that crashed in a rural Pennsylvania field.
In a letter to his girlfriend in Germany, mailed the day before the hijackings, Jarrah said: "I have done what I had to do. You should be very proud. It is an honor, and you will see the result, and everyone will be happy."
To comprehend Sept. 11, one must first understand who or what convinced a handsome young man from a well-to-do Lebanese family, once considered a playboy, with a girlfriend, a red sports car and a reputed taste for fine wines, that it was an "honor" to end his life at age 26 by killing as many Americans as possible.
Those answers remain elusive, in large part because the Sept. 11 plotters were so smart and careful after arriving in the U.S., and hid their plot so exquisitely well.
Although they rented apartments and cars and made plane reservations in their own names, no doubt hoping to be remembered by posterity, they made no videotapes for posthumous viewing. They apparently kept no diaries. Of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of e-mails sent and received by the hijackers from public Internet terminals, none is known to have been recovered.
With one glaring exception--Al-Shehhi's alleged remark to a Hamburg librarian that he planned to attack the World Trade Center and that "there will be thousands of dead"--they are not known to have taken any outsiders into their confidence.
Spanish police--despite the most intensive investigation in that country's history--still do not know why Atta visited Spain for 11 days in July 2001, just two months before the hijackings.
Although German authorities were sporadically watching the Marienstrasse apartment and wiretapping at least one of the hijackers' associates, they still cannot say who conceived the attacks, chose the targets or selected the hijackers.
Atta's erstwhile Marienstrasse roommates, Ramzi Binalshibh and Said Bahaji, undoubtedly could answer many of those questions. Except for his failure to obtain a U.S. visa, Binalshibh likely would have been aboard one of the Sept. 11 planes; Bahaji has been described by German authorities as the "logistical mastermind" of the plot.
But both fled Germany in the days before the hijackings, and their whereabouts remain unknown. They are now the subjects of international arrest warrants and high on the list of the world's most wanted men.
Joining them on that list is Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the suspected Al Qaeda "paymaster" for the operation, last seen boarding a plane from Dubai to Karachi, Pakistan, on the morning of Sept. 11 with thousands of dollars in leftover funds returned by Atta and Al-Shehhi a few days before they died.
Al-Hawsawi surely has answers as well. But unless one of the three is captured alive--and talks--Sept. 11 seems destined to join the Kennedy assassination as a moment in history forever shrouded by mystery, the future subject of endless speculation and conspiracy theories.
It had been hoped that the military incursion into Afghanistan would shed light on who else was behind Sept. 11, and what else Al Qaeda has in store for the West.
But the recovery of volumes of evidence from abandoned Al Qaeda "safe houses" across Central Asia has so far done little to enhance understanding of the Sept. 11 attacks, though it has illuminated various aspects of Al Qaeda's organization.
Ironically, the absence of more information may be the most frightening lesson about Al Qaeda. The operational discipline surrounding Sept. 11 was so professional, and impenetrable, that intercepted telephone conversations, or even well-placed spies, might not have made a difference.
The new and disturbing reality is that the FBI, like its counterparts across Europe and in some parts of Asia and the Middle East, is at war with an enemy it cannot see--an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform or carry a gun. This is a war in which a hostile act might involve a seemingly innocuous activity like renting a car or sending an e-mail.
It is not only a new kind of war, but a new kind of terrorism. Before Sept. 11, the death toll from most terrorist incidents often was relatively small, as with the 19 U.S. military personnel killed in the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or the 17 sailors who died in the motorboat bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden two years ago. A major exception was the bombings in 1998 of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa in which 224 people were killed.
The principal motive behind those incidents, like others before them, was to attract the attention of the West by attacking combatants, not to risk its revulsion by massacring thousands of civilians.
But as Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has observed, the Sept. 11 attacks "ushered in a new era, in which the most devastating terrorism is not a way to convey a message--it is the message."
Confronted with the realization that the key hijackers had lived in California and Florida for more than a year without attracting the FBI's attention, the Justice Department responded to Sept. 11 by arresting nearly 1,200 individuals who appeared to fit the hijackers' profile, mostly recent arrivals age 18 to 35 with passports issued by countries where Al Qaeda is known to operate.
A year later, none of those arrested in what amounted to a mass roundup of young Muslim men has been accused of participation in the hijackings. And, outside of the hijacking conspiracy, last week's indictments in Detroit and Seattle were the first since the attacks in which the government alleged suspects living in the U.S. were conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda.
Citing national security concerns, the Bush administration is resisting efforts by legal, human-rights and news organizations to force it to make public all 1,200 names. The government has stretched the constitutional envelope further by holding at least two American-born suspects, Yasser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member arrested as he walked off a flight from Pakistan at O'Hare International Airport in June, as "enemy combatants."
Hamdi and Padilla--there may be others like them, but the government isn't saying--are imprisoned in military brigs with no access to their court-appointed lawyers. Such treatment became a particular concern in the case of Padilla after Bush administration officials privately challenged Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's description of the Muslim convert as having returned home with orders to build and detonate a conventional bomb filled with radioactive material.
Subsequent revelations suggested that the "dirty bomb" plot may have amounted to nothing more than speculative conversation. Padilla's fate is anybody's guess, and the evidence against him may never become public. Nor, after nearly a year, does the FBI know who mailed the anthrax-containing letters that killed five people last fall and sickened 13 others.
U.S. efforts to extradite Al Qaeda suspects from Europe have been equally unsuccessful. Most embarrassing was the case of Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian airline pilot living in London, whom the U.S. accused of helping train the Sept. 11 hijackers to fly jets.
The FBI claimed it had a videotape of Raissi with one of the hijackers, Hani Hanjour, believed to have piloted the plane that hit the Pentagon. But when the evidence was laid out in a London courtroom, the case against Raissi fell apart, and he went home.
To some, the government's aggressive post-Sept. 11 tactics suggest an effort to make up for lost time by an agency that may have missed a few chances to get close to the Sept. 11 plotters.
Months before Sept. 11, an agent in Phoenix advised FBI headquarters of his suspicions that Al Qaeda might be using American flight schools to train pilots for aircraft-related terrorism--never imagining that three of the Sept. 11 pilots had recently graduated from such schools in Florida.
No action was taken as a result of the agent's memo. Meanwhile, FBI agents in Minneapolis who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan, in the weeks before Sept. 11 suspected that he, too, had been learning to fly for the wrong reasons--suspicions enhanced when French intelligence confirmed that Moussaoui was linked to Al Qaeda.
But until Sept. 11, the Minneapolis agents couldn't persuade FBI headquarters to ask a court for permission to search some of Moussaoui's belongings, including a computer.
For months, U.S. officials were quoted anonymously calling Moussaoui, known to have consorted with Islamic militants in London, the "20th hijacker," suggesting that he had intended to join Jarrah aboard United Flight 93, the only doomed plane to have carried four hijackers instead of five.
Although Moussaoui paid for his flying lessons with $14,000 wired from a Hamburg bank by Atta's former roommate, the fugitive Binalshibh, it never seemed likely that he was intended to fill the 20th seat. There was already a pilot--Jarrah--aboard Flight 93, none of the hijacked planes was a 747, the aircraft for which he sought training, and Minneapolis is a long way from South Florida, where the hijackers congregated and conspired over the summer of 2001.
Only after Moussaoui's recent abortive effort to plead guilty did the same anonymous sources acknowledge that the links between the defendant and the hijackings might be more tenuous than previously believed, although Justice Department officials are promising to produce new evidence at Moussaoui's trial.
Possibly hoping to spread responsibility for missing key clues, unnamed U.S. intelligence officers have been quoted as accusing their German counterparts of failing to assign a high enough priority to the on-again, off-again surveillance of the Marienstrasse apartment.
The Germans acknowledge having checked on the apartment periodically. But they say they never saw any indication that Atta and his cronies were anything other than students, despite a February 1999 visit to the apartment by suspected Al Qaeda operative Mohammed Haydar Zammar.
Zammar, a native of Syria and a naturalized German citizen, is in jail in Damascus, where the U.S. arranged for him to be rerouted after he flew from Germany to Morocco a month after the hijackings--much to the annoyance of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which considered Zammar its target.
Sources in Hamburg say Zammar is providing his interrogators with information, although it may be unusable in an American criminal prosecution because the Syrians are not known for their scrupulous protection of human rights during questioning.
Some suspects helping
Most of the other suspected Al Qaeda operatives captured in Afghanistan, Pakistan and across Europe aren't talking at all. A few, however, are said to be providing insights that have enhanced the American and European understanding of Al Qaeda, both what it is and what it is not.
One is Ahmed Ressam, arrested at the Canadian border in December 1999 on his way to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day in 2000. Indeed, so eager is Ressam to be helpful that he recently gave a deposition to Italian terrorism investigators who traveled to New York from Milan.
Perhaps a key revelation about Al Qaeda from the construction of the jigsaw pieces provided by Ressam and others is that bin Laden and his followers, devoted and dangerous as they may be, are not all 10 feet tall.
Some Al Qaeda cells, which can be thought of more as franchise operations than wholly owned subsidiaries, have functioned with deadly efficiency, as in the 1998 truck bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole.
But judging from hundreds of hours of transcribed conversations between suspected operatives in Italy, Al Qaeda is sometimes hampered by many of the same tribulations that beset any organization--political infighting, careerism, jealousy, over-promotion, and its own share of shirkers, slackers and poseurs.
The Europeans and the Americans also share a huge advantage over the enemy in their access to surveillance and eavesdropping equipment and other technology. Unfortunately, the Western intelligence agencies also suffer from a dire shortage of agents who can understand Arabic, let alone Pashtu, Farsi and Urdu, in which their targets often communicate.
Tape recordings of overheard conversations in Italy, made in 2000 and 2001, were so backlogged that they were not properly translated until April 2002. Only then did Italian investigators learn of cryptic comments about an impending attack that would wreak "great havoc" and "leave them all dumbfounded," interpreted by some as presaging the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The Bush administration was profoundly embarrassed by the disclosure that other Arabic-language conversations, overheard on Sept. 10 by the National Security Agency, charged with electronic intelligence, contain such statements as "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." But those tapes weren't translated until Sept. 12--and then only because of what transpired on Sept. 11.
The Europeans, aware of Al Qaeda before Sept. 11 but admittedly not that interested in an organization not perceived as a threat to their own homelands, seem to have awakened with a vengeance. More than 150 suspected Al Qaeda operatives have been arrested, and many more questioned, in nearly a dozen European countries from Spain to Norway.
Some of those arrested are accused of plotting to bomb targets in Europe, including the Strasbourg cathedral, the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and NATO warships in Spain. Whether those alleged plots were deadly serious or the product of too many late-night brainstorming sessions may never be known.
A year later, however, only one person in custody in Europe has been formally accused of complicity in the events of Sept. 11. He is Mounir El Motassadeq, 28, a Moroccan engineering student at the same Hamburg university from which Atta graduated, who was given power of attorney over Al-Shehhi's Hamburg bank account after Al-Shehhi and Atta left for the U.S.
German prosecutors say money from that account continued to flow to the hijackers in America, and they describe Motassadeq as "just as involved in preparing the attacks" as Atta and Al-Shehhi. Motassadeq has denied any advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
But if some of the others under arrest in Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands were as important to Al Qaeda as the Europeans believe they were, those arrests have indeed dealt a crippling blow to the organization's pre-existing structure there.
What's next for Al Qaeda?
The question is whether post-Sept. 11 Al Qaeda still has the financing and the logistical capacity to pull off something on the scale of the World Trade Center attack. Or, as some suspect, will it instead begin to "think small," resorting to Mideast-style suicide bombings in shopping malls and movie theaters?
The answer largely depends on whether the loss of a friendly state--Afghanistan--spells Al Qaeda's end as a purveyor of terrorism. Can the organization find a new sanctuary in its former base in Sudan, or in Somalia, Indonesia, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon or Kosovo? Or can it continue to function as an essentially stateless network of urban cells ranging across Europe, South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East--even without bin Laden's charismatic leadership?