Washington Post Online
Were All Hijackers in on Suicide Pact?
By Dan Eggen and Peter Finn
Wednesday, October 17, 2001; Page A16
Shortly after hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. officials quickly concluded that the terrorists involved were, to a man, murderous zealots bent on suicide.
But nearly five weeks later, FBI investigators and their European counterparts are considering another scenario: that many of the hijackers did not know they were going to die.
Some evidence, combined with knowledge of how Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network has operated in the past, has led some investigators to suggest that as many as 13 members of the four terrorist teams may have believed they were part of a traditional hijacking operation aimed at landing and issuing demands.
"The reality is that we may never know for sure, but we are viewing that as a real possibility at this point," said one U.S. government official. "It could explain many things. Getting six or seven people who want to kill themselves is a lot easier than 19."
Officials stress that they have reached no conclusions. Many terrorism experts unconnected with the investigation still believe it is likely that all the hijackers had agreed to die.
But emerging clues have led some investigators to believe that it is just as likely that many did not willingly roar into the twin towers or the Pentagon. The scenario provides an alternate view of a terrorist plot that was so chilling, in part, because of what appeared to be the unwavering dedication of its conspirators.
Unlike the leaders of the plot -- the pilots of the four hijacked aircraft and at least two others -- the remaining hijackers arrived in the United States later and served primarily, in the words of one top U.S. official, as "the muscle."
None of these men, most from middle-class backgrounds in Saudi Arabia, appears to have left his family with a cryptic farewell, as some of the lead hijackers did, officials said. One source said that items found among the possessions of some hijackers suggest preparation for jail rather than death. Several of the footsoldiers seemed jovial within days of the hijackings, witnesses have said, partying and shopping for adult videos.
Investigators also have been puzzled to find only three full or partial copies of a set of final instructions apparently penned by Mohamed Atta, who is believed to be the ringleader of the plot, urging hijackers to crave death and bring along their wills. Investigators also have found no wills other than the one drafted by Atta and left in his luggage, which was found at Boston's Logan International Airport.
"It's all soft evidence," one U.S. official said. "But there are too many inconsistencies to ignore."
Yet many experts on al Qaeda said it is wishful thinking to believe that bin Laden's network, which may have trained hundreds or even thousands of would-be terrorists, would have trouble finding fewer than two dozen men willing to kill themselves for their cause. Hamas and other groups participating in terrorist attacks in Israel, they noted, have had little problem over the years finding young, dispossessed men willing to die for what is perceived as martyrdom in some parts of the Middle East.
"I think they took great pains to select these guys and indoctrinate them for a long period of time," said Robert Blitzer, a former FBI counterterrorism official. " . . . They were all convinced they were going to nirvana."
Indeed, investigators themselves say there are strong arguments to be made in favor of the idea that all 19 hijackers were on a suicide quest. One example is the various accounts of cell phone calls Sept. 11 between passengers on the hijacked flights and family and friends on the ground.
Many of these accounts indicate that three or more terrorists on each plane participated in stabbings, which might not be the case in a conventional hijacking where passengers are viewed as valuable to securing demands.
Eric Davis, a terrorism expert at Rutgers University, said that uninformed hijackers might mutiny once they discovered that they were on a suicidal mission, possibly imperiling the entire operation.
"I think they all knew from the get-go," Davis said. "Some of them might have thought they were going to the Middle East. That's certainly possible. But I personally find that hard to believe."
Some officials contend, however, that there would be several benefits for the terrorist leaders to compartmentalize the plot by hiding the suicide mission: Participants might have gone along more willingly, fewer conspirators would have full knowledge of the plans, and the chance of last-minute defections might be lessened.
In the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, some note, al Qaeda operative Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali was supposed to die in the attack but fled after throwing stun grenades at the guards. He is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in New York.
One European intelligence official said that keeping some of the hijackers in the dark fits with classic terrorist cell behavior. The official said there is strong suspicion among investigators there that some did not realize their fate.
While the pilots and leaders appear to have known about one another and acted in concert when, for example, they obtained fake Virginia identification cards, officials said that many of the members on each team may not have known about one another or about the overall mission.
Finn reported from Berlin.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company