Inquiry Eyes Possible 5th Pilot
By DAVID JOHNSTON and
DON VAN NATTA Jr.
October 10, 2002
WASHINGTON - The
authorities interviewing a member of Al Qaeda in
military custody overseas are investigating a new
theory of the Sept. 11 plot: that the suspect, Ramzi
Muhammad Abdullah bin al-Shibh, was planning to
pilot a fifth hijacked plane to strike the White
The plan was disrupted when Mr. bin al-Shibh, who
was captured last month in Pakistan, failed to
obtain permission to enter the United States, where
he had planned to attend flight school in Florida,
senior government officials said.
Evidence that there were plans for a fifth hijacking
team has also come from the debriefing of John
Walker Lindh, but the possibility that Mr. bin
al-Shibh was to be the leader of the fifth group has
not been previously disclosed.
This theory has gained momentum in recent weeks as
investigators have assembled new details about Mr.
bin al-Shibh's movements around Europe in the months
before the attacks. Investigators have also compiled
a fuller picture of his relationship with Mohamed
Atta, whom officials call the ringleader of the
plot, and uncovered fresh information about the
breadth of Al Qaeda's original plan for the attacks.
More specific information about Mr. bin al-Shibh's
role in the plot could emerge as a result of the
arrest today in Germany of a Moroccan, Abdelghani
Mzoudi, who the local authorities say shared an
apartment in Hamburg with Mr. bin al-Shibh, Mr. Atta
and at least one other hijacker, Marwan al-Shehhi.
The officials said Mr. bin al-Shibh's role in the
plot was a main topic of his interrogation at a
secret military base abroad. Military officials have
asked Mr. bin al-Shibh about organizational changes
in Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks and about
plans for further attacks.
Those questions have grown more urgent with the
recent assaults against American marines in Kuwait
and the release of audio tapes attributed to Osama
bin Laden and one of his chief lieutenants, Ayman
al-Zawahiri. Mr. Zawahiri's tape, which officials
said was more likely to be genuine and recently made
than the bin Laden tape, threatens new attacks
against the United States and couches its
anti-American message around the possibility of an
American-led war against Iraq.
The officials said Mr. bin al-Shibh has provided
only fragmentary information about the hijackings
and Al Qaeda's activities since the war in
Afghanistan. The officials said Mr. bin al-Shibh had
not said he planned to lead another hijacking group.
But investigators said suspicions were growing that
Mr. bin al-Shibh may have intended to lead a fifth
hijacking group. Their belief is based on other
information, including interviews of other Qaeda
detainees and Mr. Lindh, the American who was
sentenced on Friday to 20 years in prison for
fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and whose
credibility is still being weighed. Mr. Lindh told
the authorities that he had heard that five attacks
Moreover, officials have concluded that a few
secretive, face-to-face meetings were crucial to the
evolution of the plot. They said their discovery
that Mr. bin al-Shibh met with Mr. Atta several
times in 2000 and again in Spain in July 2001
contributed to their belief that Mr. bin al-Shibh
was an important participant.
In addition, investigators have examined more
closely Mr. bin al-Shibh's unsuccessful efforts to
obtain a visa to enter the United States, where he
had signed up for flying lessons at a Florida
aviation academy. In August 2000, he paid $2,200 as
a deposit for flight training, an amount officials
said was enough to convince them that Mr. al-Shibh
seriously intended to learn to fly.
Each of the four times he applied, Mr. bin
al-Shibh's visa applications were denied, on grounds
the authorities have not explained. Those denials
appear to be the only official actions taken by the
government that interfered with the hijackers'
plans. Mr. bin al-Shibh remained in Germany,
officials said, where he became a paymaster, wiring
money to hijackers. He left Europe for Pakistan
shortly before the attacks.
A slightly built Yemeni known for his virulently
anti-American extremism, Mr. bin al-Shibh was
initially thought by investigators to be a midlevel
organizer and financial conduit, but he has emerged
as a far more central figure in the Sept. 11 plot.
In the past, investigators had said only that Mr.
bin al-Shibh was seen as an important player who was
possibly meant to have been the 20th hijacker on one
of the four jets seized on Sept. 11 - a theory some
officials still regard as a viable explanation of
But other officials said their view of the plot was
A newly released memorandum on his interrogation
says Mr. Lindh, who described to investigators his
training at Qaeda camps, told his interrogators that
Sept. 11 was just the "first phase" of a
three-part series of attacks, totaling 20 attacks.
The memorandum says the first phase "consisted
of five attacks," but it cites only four: two
on the World Trade Center, one on the Pentagon and
one that Mr. Lindh said was aimed at the White
House. It is not clear what the target of the fourth
plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was, but
investigators have suggested that the target was in
In another session with interrogators last December
in Kabul, Mr. Lindh said that a "close
associate" of Mr. bin Laden named Hakeen
At-Taizzi had told him that "there should have
been five planes used" on Sept. 11, "the
fifth targeting the White House." Mr. Lindh
said that he had heard that 50 people, Al Qaeda
operatives, were sent to commit 20 suicide
operations, and that "15 more operations were
pending." Investigators said Mr. Lindh's
information corroborated the theory that Mr. bin
al-Shibh was planning to be part of a fifth
hijacking team on Sept. 11.
"I think that's a very viable theory," a
senior government official said. "They were all
going to be part of the plot." When pressed to
say whether he believed Mr. bin al-Shibh had planned
to lead a fifth team, the official said, "I
personally believe that."
If five teams were planned, that may mean that more
intended hijackers are at large, perhaps in this
country, or that some of the people arrested in
Pakistan with Mr. bin al-Shibh were somehow
involved. Investigators have focused on Mr. bin
al-Shibh's movements in the last five years. In
1998, he moved into a cramped three-room apartment
at Marienstrasse 54 in Hamburg. In what the
authorities said was a decisive moment in the early
stages of the plot, Mr. bin al-Shibh traveled to
Afghanistan in November 1999 to meet with leaders of
Al Qaeda about the hijackings. While there, he and
his companions also met Mr. bin Laden, officials
His companions were three men who later became
pilots in the Sept. 11 attacks. They were Mr. Atta;
Mr. Shehhi, believed to be the pilot of United
Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the south
tower of the World Trade Center; and Ziad al-Jarrah,
believed to be the pilot of United Airlines Flight
93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Atta, Mr. Shehhi and Mr. Jarrah were all
hijacking team leaders, the authorities say. Because
Mr. bin al-Shibh joined those men in Afghanistan,
senior government officials said, they believe that
Mr. bin al-Shibh had also been intended to lead a
hijacking team on Sept. 11. But that alone does not
show that the plotters wanted to take over five
Mr. bin al-Shibh is also believed by some
investigators to have attended a meeting in January
2000 in Malaysia, as did two other Qaeda operatives,
Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, who joined the
hijacking team that struck the Pentagon, officials
If Mr. bin al-Shibh planned to lead a fifth
hijacking team, he was thwarted on May 17, 2000,
when his application for a United States visa was
rejected. He reapplied on June 15, 2000, and was
denied again. On Sept. 15, 2000, and on Oct. 25,
2000, he applied for visas while in Yemen. Those
requests were also denied.
Mr. bin al-Shibh applied to the Florida Flight
Training Center in Venice, Fla., in August 2000.
That month, he also wired the Florida Flight
Training Center $2,200 as a deposit for his
Mr. Jarrah began training at the same school on June
28, 2000, and continued until December 2000. Unable
to obtain a visa, Mr. bin al-Shibh instead focused
on serving as a coordinator of the plot and as a
paymaster, the authorities have said.
The officials said he may have recruited Zacarias
Moussaoui, who has been charged with complicity in
the attacks. They said the fact that four hijackings
were carried out even after Mr. Moussaoui was
arrested could also suggest that as many as five
were initially planned.
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