The “Planes Operation.”
The East African embassy bombings had persuaded Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) that OBL was serious about attacking the United States. He renewed his proposal for al Qaeda support for the “planes operation.” In March or April 1999, OBL agreed to support the plan. (pp. 216, 223.)
KSM turned to the preparation phase of the attack. KSM, OBL, and Mohammed Attef worked up a target list. The early list of targets for the “planes operation” included the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center. KSM spent the first months (Spring-Summer 1999) collecting materials: “Western aviation magazines; telephone directories for American cities such as San Diego and Long Beach, California; brochures for school; and airlines timetables, and he conducted Internet searches on U.S. flight schools. He also purchased flight simulator software and a few movies depicting hijackings.” (p. 227.) NB: KSM found a San Diego phone book in a Karachi flea market. (p. 312.)
Initially, the target date of the attacks was set for May 2001, ideally 12 May 2001—seven months to the day after the attack on the USS Cole. (p. 360.)
OBL also provided KSM with four candidates as suicide bombers. In Fall 1999 these men were passed through an advanced commando and terrorism course at an al Qaeda camp. By December 1999 they were Karachi, Pakistan, for further training from KSM. Here they may have crossed paths with four young Muslims coming to Afghanistan from Germany.
In late 1999 OBL seems to have begun recruiting several dozen “muscle hijackers.” I conjecture this because the eventual “muscle hijackers” all began breaking contact with their families in late 1999 and early 2000. (p. 337.) Alternatively, these hijackers may have ended up in Afghanistan for training when they could not get to Chechnya, and been recruited there in Summer 2000. (pp. 337-338.) In any event, there were about 20 of them recruited. About ten of them fell by the way-side during the next year: failing to obtain visas to the United States, backing out of the plan, or failing some al Qaeda test. (pp. 340-341.)
The four men initially chosen as pilots were experienced mujahideen and devout Muslims, but they were clueless about America. When it became apparent that not all of the men would be able to gain entry into the United States, the planners added a second component of the plan. This would involve destroying airliners in flight leaving from places in Asia where access could be gained easily. In December 1999 three of them traveled on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
A group of Muslim students living in Hamburg, Germany, became radicalized by some means that still is not clear. In late 1999, fired by a desire to join in “jihad,” four of the group left Germany for Afghanistan. Here they were recruited by al Qaeda. The intent was to use them for the “planes operation,” but they were not told exactly what their mission would be at this time. By late January 2000 they were back in Hamburg trying to get visas for the United States; in March 2000 Mohammed Atta, the alpha dog in the group, began contacting US flight schools. (pp. 231-245.)
In May 2001 the “planes operation” had to be postponed until July 2001 because the teams were not yet ready. (p. 360.)
In Spring 2000 UBL cancelled the Asian component of the “planes operation” on the grounds that it would be too difficult to coordinate with the American component. (pp. 221-231.)
In July 2001 the “planes operation” had to be postponed until September 2001 because of another glitch (probably the uncertainty over the commitment of one of the pilots, Jarrah). (p. 360.)