What Really Happened: The 9/11 Fact File
Conspiracy theories such as those popularized in the Internet documentary Loose Change are all the rage. Yet they are easy to refute, using new evidence from video and audiotape recordings, statements of captured al Qaeda members and the reports of commissions investigating the events.
First, there were warnings: In July 2001, an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, fired off a memo to two of the bureau's anti-terror experts, one based in New York, the other at headquarters in Washington. The agent expressed concern that Osama bin Laden was sending students from the Middle East to take aviation lessons in the United States. He recommended that a list of flight schools be compiled and their attendance records examined to determine which foreign students had signed up for courses.
UA 175 bound for the South Tower
At the end of June 2001, the CIA warned that a "major strike," a "spectacular attack" could be in the works. There were hints, scraps of information and an assortment of clues, but no one who could piece together this deadly mosaic.
Intelligence and communications failures, particularly between the FBI and the CIA, are detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report, which runs to nearly 600 pages.
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has issued its own report about rescue operations at the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology published an analysis in 2005 that explains the causes of the towers' collapse.
Many of the questions posed by 9/11 can be answered more thoroughly and precisely today, allowing quite a few of the conspiracy theories to be debunked.
For example, information made public in the spring of 2006 clearly shows that the fourth hijacked airliner, United's flight 93, was not shot down by U.S. fighter jets, notwithstanding the numerous Internet rumors. At the trial of the suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, the prosecution played the audiotape from flight UA 93's black box. It is a dramatic recording, but there is no evidence that the plane was shot down.
In this sense, 9/11 is no different from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the fatal car crash of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed or - for Germans - the suicide of politician Uwe Barschel. Conspiracy theories abound. Not everyone is willing to swallow the official version of events. Some are convinced that information is being suppressed - they allege cover-ups, secret plots. They seek to implicate the government. They chat away in the blogosphere. And every attempt to refute a theory by analyzing fresh information spawns a new generation of suspicions.
Still, U.S. officials have done their part to abet the conspiracy theorists. Until recently, when they released the entire film, only five still surveillance photographs of the plane hitting the Pentagon were in circulation. At first, the torrents of debris unleashed by the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center were described as harmless. Today, New York doctors are treating patients with pulmonary ailments accompanied by a serious, hitherto unknown type of cough.
The substantial amount of new information available now, five years after the attacks, is inviting a re-examination of the events of the day. Some findings merely confirm what we already knew, but add layers of fresh detail. Others shift the focus, including the exact role played by Osama bin Laden. And much is new, including the dramatic final minutes of UA 93.
How did the hijackers get past airport security?
Nine of the 19 hijackers aroused suspicions during airport screening. In the end, they were waved through. And even if their knives and box cutters had been discovered, passengers were permitted to carry blades measuring four inches or less at the time.
On September 11, 2001, airports were using a computer system called Capps. Its job was to automatically identify potentially dangerous passengers. But the system wasn't equipped to deal with the likes of the 9/11 hijackers. At the time, security officials assumed that the main threat came from terrorists who would plant a bomb on a plane but not board themselves. Capps was programmed to detect people who survived the attack - and subsequently needed to cover their tracks. One of Capps' methods was to identify passengers who had paid for their tickets in cash, rather than by credit card.
Two of the five hijackers on American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, were flagged by Capps. An airline employee at the check-in counter logged a question about two others into the computer: one of the al-Hamsi brothers had an ID with an error, and both were exhibiting suspicious behavior. But none of the suspects underwent further security checks; that's not how the system worked. Instead, airport personnel had to ensure that the luggage was only loaded onto the plane after its owners had boarded. Once a passenger had taken his or her seat, officials assumed the individual was not a terrorist.
The metal detector did sound on three of the five hijackers on AA 77. Two of them were sent to another detector and then subjected to a personal security check with a handheld device. One security employee even performed a wipe test on Nawaf al-Hamsi's shoulder bag, looking for traces of explosives. None were found, and he was waved through.
Were the 19 hijackers on the passenger manifests?
One of the most abiding 9/11 myths centers on the fact that the passenger manifests for the four airliners (first broadcast by CNN) didn't contain a single Arab name, implying that the 19 suspected hijackers weren't on board. As a result, they couldn't have carried out the attacks.
In fact, though, CNN had only broadcast the names of the victims - the passengers and flight crew, not the names of the terrorists.
On September 13, 2001, the Boston Globe obtained a complete list of passengers for flight AA 11, which rammed the North Tower. Mohammed Atta was in seat 8D - in business class. Sitting across the aisle were Hollywood producer David Angell and his wife, Lynn, in seats 8A and 8B. The hijacker Abd al-Asis al-Umari sat in seat 8G, next to Atta. As the Globe's investigative report showed, the seats occupied by the other hijackers on the three other planes have been long known. Additionally, ground staff were able to identify most of the men.
Who was the missing 20th hijacker?
For a long time, the U.S. government had suspected the Frenchman Zacarias Moussaoui, who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for his alleged role in planning the attacks. This June, a website with ties to al Qaeda floated its own version, claiming that a Saudi named Turki al-Muteiri was to have taken part in the kamikaze mission. He wasn't on board any of the planes because the date for the attack was brought forward. Muteiri died during a 2004 gunfight in Riyadh.
Is Mohammed Atta's will authentic?
Yes. Abdelghani Mzoudi, one of the Muslims who witnessed the will, confirmed its authenticity to SPIEGEL. Suspected of aiding the terrorists, he was tried by a Hamburg court but acquitted. He then left Germany for Morocco.
Have the hijackers been positively identified?
Three of the hijackers on board the two planes that hit the World Trade Center have been positively identified. The FBI collected enough evidence from their rental cars and hotel rooms to create DNA profiles of all 10. Because the FBI coded these DNA profiles simply as "K" ("knowns"), medical examiners were able to positively identify the hijackers, but unable to attach names to the remains.
The FBI has not disclosed which of the 10 hijackers have been identified. Robert Shaler, the head of the medical examiner's team, believes that the three must have been in the rear of their plane when it hit the tower. "I still doubt the pilots have anything remaining to collect or analyze. Likely they were vaporized along with many of the innocent victims," he has written.
The nine hijackers on the other two planes have been identified as well - not by DNA analyses, but by a process of elimination: DNA was obtained for the crew members, Pentagon employees and other passengers (using toothbrushes etc. provided by relatives). Anything that couldn't be matched with these samples was assumed to be from the hijackers.
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