Terror Plot How Al-Qaida Planned to Bomb Heathrow

Minutes of the secret interrogations of Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks, show the men continued to energetically forge new attack plans even after they struck New York and Washington. Guantanamo documents obtained through WikiLeaks outline a plot to strike London's Heathrow Airport.

By Britta Sandberg and

Police at Heathrow Airport in a 2008 archive photo: A terrorist plot in London
DPA

Police at Heathrow Airport in a 2008 archive photo: A terrorist plot in London


When two airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York and a third into the Pentagon in Washington on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh were traveling in Karachi. When Binalshibh and the sheikh reached an al-Qaida safe house a short time later, they switched on the television set. It was an hour of triumph for the two chief planners of the attacks on America.

The sheikh later told an al-Qaida confidant that attacks using aircraft had been a dream of his -- his life's work, in fact. One day, he said, he would repeat the attack on the White House, which may have been the target of the fourth plane on 9/11, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania. As Binalshibh later related when he was in US detention, when Sheikh Mohammed, Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the financier of the attacks, and a nephew of the sheikh watched the images from America on their television screen, they toasted each other and thanked Allah for the success of their operation.

The detailed accounts are part of the secret US government files on Guantanamo to which SPIEGEL has gained access and that are now being published by WikiLeaks. The documents also include reports on high-level al-Qaida officials, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, whom the CIA interrogated for years in secret prisons before they were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.

The summaries of the interrogations reveal the level of enthusiasm with which al-Qaida's chief planner, Sheikh Mohammed, continued to pursue similar plans after 9/11, most notably an attack on Britain's Heathrow Airport. Nine months after the attacks, in early June 2002, Sheikh Mohammed told Binalshibh about the Heathrow scenario, which was apparently well developed at that point. The idea, the sheikh explained, was to hijack an airliner as it was taking off from Heathrow, turn it around and crash it into the airport.

The sheikh wanted to know what Binalshibh thought of the idea.

The operation would be easier, Binalshibh replied, if al-Qaida operatives could infiltrate the airport personnel, which would allow them to obtain internal information. In addition, he said, they would also need at least one team to hijack the aircraft.

Imprisoned and Drugged, Suspected Torture

The sheikh later told his interrogators that two cells had already been formed to carry out the plan. The members of one group, he said, resided in Great Britain and had been given orders to complete pilot training in Kenya, so that they could fly the aircraft once it was hijacked. A second group was stationed in Saudi Arabia and, as was also the case with the 9/11 attacks, its mission was to search for potential martyrs to participate in the strikes. According to Binalshibh, Sheikh Mohammed was eager to execute the plan.

The statements made by the Guantanamo prisoners should be taken with a grain of salt, because they were obtained through torture, at least in part. For example, the CIA overcame Sheikh Mohammed's resistance by repeatedly using the method known as "waterboarding," in which the prisoner is strapped to a board and water is continually poured onto his face until the person thinks he is going to drown.

There are many indications that Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was held and tortured in a location near Szymany Airport in Poland. For several months, the 9/11 coordinator was given psychotropic drugs. Other previously published Guantanamo documents relating to Binalshibh contain page after page of blacked-out text, evidence of the US's determination not to reveal which drugs Binalshibh was given.

Nevertheless, the Heathrow plans must apparently be taken seriously. Statements by other detainees, including Walid Muhammad bin Attash, confirm that the Heathrow scenario was the subject of intense discussion within al-Qaida. Bin Attash told the CIA that not only was he in the loop when it came to preparing the plan, but that he had in fact proposed it in the first place. Sheikh Mohammed was seen as a proud but extremely cooperative prisoner, even dictating actions and plans to his interrogators that they had been unaware of until then. The prisoner, to whom the Americans referred simply as KSM, repeatedly emphasized that he had no greater desire than to be sentenced by the Americans and die a martyr's death as soon as possible.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had installed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 46, as the terrorist organization's chief of operations. Sheikh Mohammed was the man who chose al-Qaida's targets, and who distributed the money and his blessing, which, from the Americans' perspective, made him just as dangerous as bin Laden himself. His arrest in March 2003 by Pakistan's ISI intelligence service is considered one of the greatest successes in the fight against Islamist terrorism. The Pakistanis promptly turned the prisoner over to the CIA.

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