The Binalshibh Riddle
August 29, 2001. Ramzi Binalshibh was awakened at 3:00 AM in his Hamburg apartment by the sound of the phone ringing. “Hello?” he answered groggily.
“Hello,” a voice replied. He instantly recognized it as that of his friend and former roommate Mohammed Atta.
“What’s going on?” Binalshibh asked.
“One of my friends related a riddle to me and I cannot solve it, and I called you so that you can solve it for me,” Atta told him.
“Two sticks, a dash, and a cake with a stick down,” Atta continued, and then he stopped speaking. Binalshibh was silent, waiting for Atta to say something else.
“Is this the riddle?” Binalshibh asked. He was confused, and half asleep. “You wake me from a deep sleep to tell me this riddle? Two sticks and I don’t know what else?”
There was still silence from Atta on the other end. He was waiting for his friend to understand the code the two had regularly used in the past. Binalshibh finally comprehended. “Okay,” he said to Atta. “Tell your friend that he has nothing to worry about. It’s such a sweet riddle.”
There was more Binalshibh wanted to say to his friend, as he knew he might never speak to him again, but it was too risky to do so on the open line. KSM had explicitly warned them to be careful, and there was too much at stake to take any risks. So Binalshibh kept his emotions to himself and put the receiver down.
He tied up loose ends in Hamburg, and on September 5, he went to Pakistan. From there he sent a trusted messenger to bin Laden and KSM, who were in Afghanistan, with the message: “The big attack on America will be on Tuesday, 11 September.”
That was the meaning of Atta’s riddle: the two sticks represented the number 11; the dash was a space; and the cake with a stick upside down was a nine. Together that made 11-9: 11 September. It meant that Atta had all his hijackers in place and had picked the date for al-Qaeda’s planes operation.
Ramzi Binalshibh was born in 1972 in Ghayl Bawazir, Yemen, and first tried getting to the United States in 1995, but his visa application was rejected. The United States at the time was suspicious of Yemeni visa seekers, believing they’d attempt to become illegal immigrants. Binalshibh tried moving to Germany—pretending to be a Sudanese citizen and applying for asylum under the name Ramzi Omar. He lived in Hamburg while this request was being investigated, and he attended mosques there, but eventually the request was denied. After returning to Yemen he then went back to Germany, this time under his real name and as a student. He was permitted to stay.
He continued attending mosques in Hamburg, now more regularly, and soon met an Egyptian student named Mohammed Atta. Born in Kafr el-Sheikh in 1968, Atta had moved to Hamburg to further his education in architecture. While they had different personalities—Atta was serious, dogmatic, and a focused student, and Binalshibh was outgoing, carefree, and a poor student—they shared an extremist outlook and became fast friends.
They eventually got an apartment together, which they shared with a student from the United Arab Emirates, Marwan al-Shehhi. Younger than Mohammed Atta and Binalshibh (he was born in 1978), like them Shehhi had become more religious in Germany, and frequented the same mosques.
Binalshibh became close friends with a Lebanese student named Ziad Jarrah, whom he also met at a Hamburg mosque. In Beirut, Jarrah had been known to regularly attend parties and discos, and initially in Germany he kept up that lifestyle. At some point he began dating a young woman named Aysel Senguen, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, and regularly slept over at her apartment. While he gradually appeared to become increasingly dogmatic in his faith, he never gave up his relationship with Senguen.
The four men regularly got together in the apartment shared by Atta, Binalshibh, and Shehhi to discuss jihad and Islamic theology. They propelled each other to become ever more observant Muslims. Increasingly, they viewed themselves as devoted religious messengers. They took themselves very seriously. Atta even wrote on his rent checks that he resided at Dar el Ansar (“house of the followers”).
The group was influenced by a preacher named Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who often spoke at Hamburg’s al-Quds Mosque. Zammar had fought in Afghanistan in the first Soviet jihad, and he told his listeners that they, too, had a responsibility to wage jihad.
The four men initially resolved to travel to Chechnya to wage jihad but were advised to go to Afghanistan instead because of the difficulties of moving around Chechnya. To effect this plan, they met with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a relative of Abu Hafs al-Mauritani’s. Slahi, a member of the al-Qaeda shura council, headed the religious committee. He told the four men to get visas for Pakistan and how best to proceed to Karachi. From Pakistan they were taken by al-Qaeda operatives to Afghanistan, where they met bin Laden. After some indoctrination, they pledged bayat to him.
Their arrival was celebrated by bin Laden, KSM, and other al-Qaeda leaders working on developing the planes operation. Here were four men who were perfect for the plot. As they were based in Germany, they would have an easier time getting U.S. visas than operatives based in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And their education levels meant that they were probably intelligent enough to qualify for pilot training.
The mission was presented to them, and they accepted it. It was the perfect opportunity to wage the ultimate jihad and have their names heralded as the greatest of mujahideen. Al-Qaeda leaders encouraged this thinking, reinforcing the idea that the martyrs would receive seventy-two virgins in heaven and would be celebrated as heroes across the Muslim world. They were put into al-Qaeda’s special operations branch, the organization’s name for its terrorism branch. Led by the head of the military committee, Abu Hafs al-Masri (whose given name was Mohammed Atef), and the head of the security committee, Saif al-Adel, the branch itself has individual cells and operations, each functioning separately from the others for security reasons.
Mohammed Atef—the former Egyptian police officer whose services Zawahiri had offered bin Laden back in the late 1980s, and who had risen to prominence in al-Qaeda—briefed them on the details of what they were to do, and they were also trained in communicating with each other through code.
While they were in Afghanistan, bin Laden kept them segregated from most other al-Qaeda operatives, as the plot was kept highly confidential. Only trusted al-Qaeda members, among them bin Laden chauffeur Salim Hamdan and Ali al-Bahlul, bin Laden’s propagandist, were allowed to interact with them. Bahlul roomed with Jarrah when he was in Afghanistan. The group filmed individual martyrdom videos, directed by Bahlul. As the four had only minimal knowledge of classical Arabic and the Quran, they had to go through several takes before their pronunciation seemed genuine. It was a source of amusement to the four and to Bahlul, and after each mispronunciation they would burst into laughter.
After their training was complete, the four returned to Germany, and, following instructions, they began to assume a less radical appearance. They shaved their beards, wore Western clothes, and stopping visiting extremist mosques. They also started looking into flight training. An al-Qaeda facilitator named Ammar al-Baluchi (Ali Abdul Aziz Ali), KSM’s nephew, sent them flight simulator programs. Ultimately, the four decided that the German flight schools they had seen weren’t good enough, and that it was best to learn to fly in the United States. They requested approval from bin Laden, and he gave this new plan his blessing.
Before applying for U.S. visas, the four applied for new passports, claiming that they had lost their originals. They worried that the Pakistani visas on their passports might harm their prospects of being given U.S. visas. When the new passports arrived, they applied for the visas. On January 18, 2000, Shehhi’s came through. There was nothing for a few months, and then on May 18 Atta’s came through, and on May 25 Jarrah’s application was approved. Binalshibh’s, however, was rejected. He attempted three more times to get a visa, but each time, his application was rejected—not because of suspicions about terrorism but for the same reason his visa application had been rejected a few years earlier: he was a Yemeni, and U.S. authorities at the time were nervous that Yemenis would try to stay in the country illegally.
As he couldn’t get into the United States, bin Laden and KSM tasked Binalshibh with being KSM’s main assistant for the plot and the liaison between the German cell and the al-Qaeda leadership. Nawaf al-Hazmi, one of the thirty operatives who had been singled out two years before by the leadership for special training from Khallad at Loghar, was selected by bin Laden as Atta’s “deputy.”
Once Atta, Shehhi, and Jarrah were in the United States, Binalshibh arranged for money to be wired to them and exchanged coded phone calls with Atta, who by that time had been appointed by al-Qaeda to lead the operation in the United States. In their phone calls, Atta and Binalshibh pretended to be students discussing their course work, but in reality a word such as “architecture” referred to the World Trade Center, and “arts” referred to the Pentagon. The two men also met a few times in Europe, for instance in Berlin in January 2001 and in Madrid in July 2001.
Binalshibh’s inability to get a visa was problematic for al-Qaeda, as their plan was to hijack four planes and simultaneously crash them into four buildings: the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol. KSM would later claim to CIA interrogators that he originally planned to use ten planes for 9/11, the tenth to be flown himself. He said he had planned to land the plane at a U.S. airport, kill all male passengers on board, and then give a speech to the world attacking the United States for supporting Israel and repressive Arab governments.
It’s clear, however, that this was never a real plan but rather an effort by KSM to boost his credentials—consistently, his motivation was always to make himself appear to be the ultimate terrorist mastermind, affording him greater notoriety than that enjoyed by his nephew Ramzi Yousef. His description of himself is also likely the product of his having watched too many of the terrorist movies that he screened for the 9/11 hijackers. The initial al-Qaeda plan was to launch attacks in the United States and Southeast Asia simultaneously, but the latter plan was abandoned as being overly complicated.
One person al-Qaeda was cultivating as another potential pilot was Zacarias Moussaoui, a Moroccan with French citizenship. His French passport would allow him to obtain a U.S. visa easily. The problem with Moussaoui, however, was that he was not very intelligent; the leadership wasn’t confident that he was up to the role. Moussaoui thought of himself as a tough guy, and he liked showing off his strength by wrestling with other al-Qaeda members. Abu Jandal enjoyed angering Moussaoui by telling him that he could beat him in a wrestling match, and then refusing to wrestle with him. His position as bin Laden’s bodyguard made him Moussaoui’s superior, and there was nothing Moussaoui could do but fume and complain.
In 2000 KSM sent Moussaoui to Malaysia for flight training, but he couldn’t find a school he liked, and instead he got involved in other terrorist operations there. KSM later instructed him to travel to London in October, and Binalshibh visited him in December. On February 23, 2001, Moussaoui went to the United States and attended flight school in Oklahoma and Minnesota, where he didn’t perform well. He was arrested on August 16, 2001, and charged with an immigration violation after a flight instructor became suspicious and reported him.
Given Moussaoui’s unimpressive track record, al-Qaeda’s leaders were happy when a better candidate for fourth pilot presented himself in Afghanistan in 2000. Among the new recruits at al-Farouq was a man who was already a trained pilot: Hani Hanjour. Born in Saudi Arabia, in 1991 Hanjour had studied English in Arizona. He returned to Saudi Arabia and in 1996 moved back to the United States to learn how to fly, obtaining a private pilot’s license in 1997 and then a commercial pilot’s certificate. After that he went back to Saudi Arabia to find work.
When bin Laden and KSM discovered that they had a trained pilot in one of their camps—on joining al-Qaeda, new recruits were asked if they had any specific skills—they enlisted him. He accepted the mission readily; it was considered an honor for a new recruit to be handpicked by bin Laden.
After teaching Hanjour the code words he needed to know, al-Qaeda’s leaders instructed him to procure a visa for travel to the United States. Khallad explained to him how to get in touch with Nawaf al-Hazmi once he was in the United States. On June 20, 2000, he returned to Saudi Arabia, and on September 25 he received a U.S. visa.
This group of would-be pilots joined the ranks of those already selected by bin Laden to be part of the operation—Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Khallad. Born in Mecca, Hazmi and Mihdhar were Saudis, and they had no problem getting U.S. visas. Khallad’s visa application, however, was rejected because he was a Yemeni.
Mihdhar and Hazmi were to be among the muscle hijackers—those whose task it would be to overwhelm the crew and any troublesome passengers. They were sent, with other hijackers, to al-Qaeda’s Mes Aynak camp, in Afghanistan, where they underwent physical fitness training and received instruction in combat and weapons. They were also given the best available food in order to keep them healthy and boost their spirits. KSM personally helped train both the pilot and the nonpilot hijackers, teaching them how to hide knives in their bags and how to slit passengers’ throats. He made them practice slitting the throats of goats, sheep, and camels.
KSM and others briefed them about the United States at a facility nicknamed by many involved “The House of Martyrs.” (KSM nicknamed it “The House of Ghamdis” because a few of the hijackers were from the Ghamdi tribe.) KSM taught them English phrases, showed them how to read phone books and make reservations, and had them read aviation magazines and watch movies with hijacking scenes. Among the phrases taught were “get down,” “don’t move,” “stay in your seat,” and “if anyone moves I’ll kill you.”
After the training, Hazmi and Mihdhar traveled to Kuala Lumpur, where a 9/11 summit meeting took place. From there the two men departed for Bangkok with Khallad. Upon Nibras and Quso’s delivery, to Khallad, of the $36,000 in cash, Mihdhar and Hazmi purchased first-class tickets to Los Angeles, leaving Bangkok on January 15, 2000.
Their fellow muscle hijackers arrived in the United States in the summer of 2001. Most were Saudis (twelve of the thirteen), and most were unemployed, unmarried, and uneducated. They had applied for visas in Saudi Arabia, and, once those applications were approved, they had traveled to Afghanistan for training. Atta and Shehhi coordinated their arrival in the United States, found them places to stay, and settled them in.
KSM’s nephew Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, an al-Qaeda financial operative, helped coordinate their travel and money both before departure and once they were in the United States. Upon arrival the hijackers were given Baluchi’s or Hawsawi’s number. Also promptly on arrival, they opened bank accounts and deposited the money they had brought with them. Each hijacker had been given six to eight thousand dollars by KSM or Hawsawi and had been told to keep a few thousand for himself and to give the rest to Atta.
On August 4, 2001, an al-Qaeda member named Mohammed al-Qahtani landed in Orlando, Florida, on Virgin Atlantic Airlines Flight 15 but was refused entry by a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent and shipped out of the United States on a later flight. As he was departing, he vowed, “I will be back.” On August 28, 2001, Ammar al-Baluchi applied for a one-week travel visa to the United States, beginning September 4, 2001. The visa would expire on September 11. Baluchi’s request was denied.
Atta’s biggest challenge was finding four flights that would be in the air at the same time on one day—and on planes that Shehhi, Jarrah, Hanjour, and he himself knew how to fly. He ran a number of searches on Travelocity and found that everything matched up on September 11, 2001. Once that was established, he phoned Binalshibh to give him the message.
Once the date was set, the hijackers went out to enjoy their last days alive. Some attended strip joints; others went to bars and got drunk. Atta was spotted doing a series of shots. While it might seem surprising that these men who were later proclaimed by al-Qaeda to be religious martyrs were debasing themselves, the reality is that most weren’t truly religious. At best, they had only a superficial knowledge of Islam, and most were either simple people swayed by convincing recruiters or macho individuals looking for a way to look tough and impress friends. But even while on missions, they never fully left their old lifestyles behind. Jarrah even traveled back to Germany a few times to hook up with his girlfriend. This activity was common across al-Qaeda. Nashiri, the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, for example, at one point lived with a prostitute in Dubai.
In anticipation of the attack, and with the knowledge that the United States would likely strike back hard, bin Laden moved continuously from Kabul to Khost to Jalalabad with his most trusted aides. None of the bodyguards, and not even Salim Hamdan, the driver, ever knew the destination of the convoy. A minute or so before they were about to leave, bin Laden would tell them.
Sometimes bin Laden would order a change of direction mid-trip. At times he would just stop en route and order them to make camp. At times he himself had no idea where they would end up. He would camp in the middle of nowhere so he could not easily be found. They wouldn’t even know their exact coordinates. These procedures made bin Laden feel safer.
In Kabul bin Laden spent a lot of time in the homes of Abu al-Khair al-Masri and Mohammed Saleh. Former EIJ shura council members and close associates of Ayman al-Zawahiri, they were the two Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders who joined the al-Qaeda shura council following the March 2001 official merger of al-Qaeda and EIJ.
After the merger, bin Laden and Zawahiri went around visiting al-Qaeda training camps and facilities, accompanied by Abu Hafs al-Masri, who had become the number three in the group (Zawahiri had taken the number two spot), and a Kuwaiti named Salman Abu Ghaith, whose importance in the group had been steadily growing; he became the spokesman for the organization. Later, all four appeared in al-Qaeda’s propaganda videos. The name al-Qaeda was officially changed to Qaeda al-Jihad, a combining of the names al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The name change was purely a formality, and the organization is still commonly known as al-Qaeda.
On September 11, 2001, bin Laden seemed especially excitable to those who knew him. Only a few members of his entourage knew why. Late in the afternoon, bin Laden told Ali al-Bahlul to switch on the satellite in his media van so they could watch the news. Bahlul tried but couldn’t get any reception. Bin Laden told him instead to get the news on the radio. They alternated between channels, first the BBC, then Voice of America, till they got a consistent signal. For about forty-five minutes they listened to regular news reports. Finally a news flash came in: at 8:46 AM in the United States (EDT), a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The report said that it seemed to have been an accident.
But bin Laden knew that American Airlines Flight 11, scheduled to fly from Logan International Airport in Boston to Los Angeles International Airport, had been successfully hijacked by Mohammed Atta, Abdulaziz al-Omari, Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, and Satam al-Suqami. Before the plane crashed, a flight attendant had reported that a passenger had been stabbed and that it was hard for him to breath, leading investigators to later suspect that Mace had been used. But this report didn’t get through till later.
Bin Laden smiled, and the al-Qaeda members with him started celebrating. “Allah Hu Akbar” (God is great), they shouted, firing their AK-47s into the air. Most were simply happy that the “Great Snake,” the United States, had been hit. But based on bin Laden’s smile and the lack of surprise on his face, they began to suspect that this had been an al-Qaeda plot.
“Calm down, calm down. Wait. There is more,” bin Laden said, raising his hand to silence the celebrants. Here was confirmation of their suspicions. They were silent, wondering what was next. Only a few senior al-Qaeda members knew what to expect.
Another news flash came: at 9:03 AM, a second plane had hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. This was no longer looking like an accident, the newscaster said. The two most visible skyscrapers in New York City were going up in smoke. People were trapped inside and jumping out of windows.
Bin Laden’s smile broadened. United Airlines Flight 175, scheduled to fly from Logan International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, had been successfully hijacked by Marwan al-Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, and Mohand al-Shehri. Bin Laden knew all the hijackers personally. He had approved their selection and helped guide their training. He was elated. Once again the al-Qaeda members present started shouting and firing into the air. “Calm down, wait, there is more,” bin Laden said again.
The next breaking news flash said that a plane had hit the western side of the Pentagon at 9:37 AM. It was beginning to look like a coordinated attack, the announcer said. “This can’t be a coincidence.”
“What’s going on?” someone asked. Bin Laden grinned.
American Airlines Flight 77, flying from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, manned by Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar, Majed Moqed, and Salem al-Hazmi, had succeeded in its mission. The celebrations started again, and once again bin Laden told them to hold off. “There is more,” he said.
As al-Qaeda operatives listened intently to the news, more updates on what was going on in the United States came in: reports were that President Bush was in hiding, and that both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. Smoke was billowing from the ground. “It’s horrific,” the announcer said. Fires raged through the Pentagon. Casualties were unknown but estimated initially to be at tens of thousands. The Great Snake had been brought to its knees by al-Qaeda.
Then news of a fourth plane came: at 10:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 93, traveling from Newark International Airport, in New Jersey, to San Francisco International Airport, crashed in a field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania. There had been a Mayday message at 9:28, and at 9:31 one of the hijackers had announced that he had a bomb. This later led investigators to suspect that the hijackers had used fake bombs. Some passengers who used their cell phones to make calls reported that the hijackers wore explosives on their belts.
Bin Laden was disappointed. He told his followers that the Americans must have shot the plane down. Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Nami, Ahmed al-Haznawi, and Saeed al-Ghamdi did not reach their target. But given the success of the first three planes, bin Laden’s disappointment didn’t last long.
The al-Qaeda leader announced that they would head to Mohammed Saleh’s house for a proper celebration. In one of the cars, a pickup truck that Hamdan was driving, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri sat together in the back and discussed the operation. “If the Americans hadn’t shot that plane it could have hit that big dome,” bin Laden told Zawahiri, referring to the Capitol.
At Saleh’s house, the celebration began. Many of al-Qaeda’s top leaders were present. KSM came to the house and briefed those present on the operation. He explained the background and training involved and announced the names of the martyrs. Many of those present who knew the hijackers well felt proud of their association with them.
“May God Bless Mokhtar for this great work,” said bin Laden, using a nickname for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Bin Laden then asked KSM to travel to Kandahar to brief Abu Hafs. Because of back problems, he hadn’t been able to leave Kandahar when everyone else had been evacuated; driving along the rugged roads would have been too painful.
Bin Laden then ended the celebration and told his convoy to head toward Khost.