Suicide Scenario Was Nothing New

U.S. officials had heard of possible attacks similar to 9/11

May 17, 2002


Before Sept. 11, the White House says, scant thought was given to the notion terrorists would use hijacked planes as missiles. But the possibility that al-Qaida might try such a strategy was raised numerous times after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.

U.S. intelligence reports last August raised the possibility that Osama bin Laden and his associates might consider hijacking airplanes. The White House acknowledged this week that the information had been included in Bush’s presidential daily briefing, provided by the CIA.

Even as she acknowledged a heightened sense of concern among top officials that al-Qaida might plan an attack, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice insisted Thursday the focus was not on a suicide mission.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” she said. “All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking.”

Though it is classified as top-secret, the presidential daily briefing is circulated to several senior officials in the executive branch.

And though the August reports were apparently vague on the details of any possible hijacking, a 1999 report from Library of Congress researchers speculated on the likelihood of terrorist attacks using new and unconventional methods. They suggested that al-Qaida might try and “crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives ... into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the White House.”

Those chosen for the task, the report said, would likely come from al-Qaida’s “martyrdom battalions,” which it said were “composed of human bombs being trained to carry out spectacular terrorist operations.”

It did not give details on the size of the battalions but quoted terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky that bin Laden’s Afghanistan-trained forces numbered about 10,000.

The report — “Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why” — was written by Rex Hudson for the National Intelligence Council, a CIA-affiliated government panel that ties together numerous government and private-sector intelligence efforts.

Other possible report scenarios attributed to al-Qaida included the use of a “building-buster bomb at a federal building” similar to those used by rebels in Chechnya.

The report urged the government to consider potential new forms of terror strikes, and cited the first World Trade Center blast, which killed six, as an example.

“The WTC bombing illustrated how terrorists with technological sophistication are increasingly being recruited to carry out lethal terrorist bombing attacks,” the authors wrote. “The WTC bombing may also have been a harbinger of more destructive attacks of international terrorism in the United States.”

The report quotes a broad range of possibilities, going so far as to suggest bin Laden might have purchased a suitcase-sized nuclear device from Chechen rebels. Much of the al-Qaida material in the report was cited from Bodansky’s 1999 book, “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America.”

At a White House news briefing Friday, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed the report’s salience: “It is not a piece of intelligence information suggesting that we had information about a specific plan.”


It was not the only report by the intelligence community to suggest such a possibility. FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to a Senate panel last week about a memo from the bureau’s Minneapolis field office on terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, who currently faces trial for allegedly conspiring with the 19 hijackers who carried out the three Sept. 11 attacks. According to Mueller’s testimony, one field agent described Moussaoui, who had hoped to pay a Minnesota flight school to train on a 747 simulator, as “being that type of person that could fly something into the World Trade Center.”

Similarly, though less specifically, Arizona field agents wrote a memo last July, detailing suspicions about Middle Eastern students at the Prescott, Ariz., branch of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The FBI has released just one paragraph of the Phoenix memo, which suggested that FBI headquarters alert all field offices to the flight-school suspicions, circulate the suspicions throughout the intelligence community and try to obtain visa information from the State Department on foreign nationals attending U.S. flight schools.

“Did we discern from that that there was a plot that would have led us to September 11? No. Could we have? I rather doubt it,” Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8. “But should we have done more in terms of the Phoenix EC [electronic communication]? Yes.”

In another case, terror suspect Abdul Hakim Murad told Philippine police in 1995 of a possible plot to hijack and crash a commercial jetliner. Murad was later arrested as part of a plot to blow up 11 commercial jets over the Pacific Ocean. He once roomed in Manila with Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing as well as the Pacific airplane plot.

According to the Philippine officials’ debriefing, which was obtained by NBC News, Murad, who was trained as a commercial pilot, said he would “board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger. Then, he will hijack said aircraft, control its cockpit and dive it at the CIA headquarters. There will be no bomb or explosive that he will use in its execution. It is simply a suicide mission that he is very much willing to execute.”

Filipino officials quickly told U.S. officials, including the CIA and FBI, of Murad’s alleged plans. CIA agents investigated Murad and even searched the Philippines apartment he shared with Yousef. Murad was trained as a pilot in Dubai, but also attended flight schools in Texas, New York and North Carolina. He received a commercial license in 1992.

Former CIA Deputy Director John Gannon, who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the report was written, told The Associated Press that the plane-as-weapon scenario had long been considered in U.S. intelligence circles: “If you ask anybody — could terrorists convert a plane into a missile? — nobody would have ruled that out.”

But he also questioned any criticism that the administration should have foreseen an attack of the magnitude of Sept. 11. The alerts last summer may have been of concern, but “the president wasn’t given actionable intelligence,” he said.

Written by MSNBC’s Jon Bonné. NBC’s Robert Windrem and Tammy Kupperman, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


2002 MSNBC

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of criminal justice, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.