The members of the September 11 plot arrived in the United States at different times. Mohamed Atta and the other designated pilots arrived earliest for their pilot training and served as mentors of the later arrivals. Those later arrivals entered the United States from Dubai between March and June 2001, traveling in small groups and landing at four different airports to allay suspicion. Although they arrived in the United States knowing they were part of a martyrdom mission, for reasons of operational security they were not given the details of their mission. The plan called for more than 20 hijackers, but at least 6 of the men selected for the mission were unable to obtain visas to enter the United States. In all, the 19 terrorists entered and reentered the United States 33 times—most of that activity on the part of the 4 pilots. They flew back to Europe to consult with Al Qaeda leaders on the progress of the mission, as well as on personal business.
The leader of the 19 was Atta, who was assisted by Marwan al-Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah. These individuals were also the pilots of the four hijacked aircraft: Atta of American Airlines Flight 11, al-Shehhi of United Airlines Flight 175, Hanjour of American Airlines Flight 77, and Jarrah of United Airlines Flight 93. The pilots bought tickets for flights on Boeing 757s and 767s, because learning to fly these more modern models was much easier than learning to fly older aircraft. The pilots trained on simulators. Takeoffs and landings were difficult, but actually flying was relatively easy. The flight control systems made the aircraft responsive and made normal flight easy. The leadership of the plot took at least 12 intercontinental flights to check on security and plan for takeovers.
The secondary leaders of the plot were Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. They had originally been selected to be pilots, but their lack of English and limited education made them poor choices. Their responsibilities then became providing logistical support. The remainder of the hijackers were muscle men sent over to the United States later, most of them from Saudi Arabia.
The 13 muscle men had been trained to hijack aircraft and provide physical support for the pilots. At Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, they were trained in hand-to-hand combat and taught how to assault a commercial airliner's cockpit area, giving no quarter to crew or passengers.
Each of the muscle men was assigned to a team. American Airlines Flight 11 carried Abdul Aziz al-Omari, Wail al-Shehri, Waleed al-Shehri, and Satam al-Suqami. The team on United Airlines Flight 175 was assigned Fayez Rashid Banihammad, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, Hamza al-Ghamdi, and Mohammad al-Shehri. American Airlines Flight 77 carried Salem al-Hazmi and Majed Moqued. The United Airlines Flight 93 team received Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Haznawi and Ahmed al-Na'ami.
In the week before September 11, the hijackers moved around the eastern coast trying to avoid suspicion. They enrolled at local gyms to stay physically fit. In the meantime, Atta and the other leaders were traveling the country on commercial airliners noting weaknesses in security. Atta's choice of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was based on their research that led them to consider that date the best for a successful hijacking.
Because the 19 knew their mission to be one of martyrdom, each selected a name that honored an important person or event from the Golden Age of Islam, the decades that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Each name was recognizable in the Muslim world and chosen for maximum mass appeal. Several made videotapes of their confessions of faith before leaving the Middle East. After their deaths, these videotapes were broadcast over the Internet. The mission and the publicity surrounding the 19 martyrs themselves made them popular figures throughout much of the Muslim world.
On the morning of September 11, each team proceeded to its assigned airport, passing through security with only minimal interference. Each team member carried box cutters, utility knives, and chemical sprays. Both box cutters and chemical sprays were prohibited items. Teams had been divided into two groups: cockpit assault and passenger security. Two members of each team, including the designated pilot, were assigned to the cockpit assault unit and had seats near the cockpit door in the first-class section. The others were seated at the rear of the first-class section to provide security from the crew and the passengers, keeping them from interfering in the hijacking. Anyone who stood in their way was to be either killed or incapacitated.
The goal of the hijackers was to seize control of the aircraft within 15 minutes after takeoff. This goal was accomplished on American Airlines Flight 11, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 175 but not on United Airlines Flight 93. Delay in seizing the aircraft, exacerbated by the time it took to reverse the aircraft's course, allowed the passengers and crew to organize resistance against the terrorists. This aircraft crashed rather than completing its mission. In the eyes of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's leadership, the mission was still a success. Some in the Muslim world perceived the events of September 11 as a just response to what they considered the many transgressions of the United States against the Muslim world. Many others, however, denounced the hijackings.
Stephen E. Atkins
McDermott, Terry. Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers; Who They Were, Why They Did It. New York: HarperCollins, 2005; Strasser, Steven ed. The 9/11 Investigations: Staff Reports of the 9/11 Commission; Excerpts from the House-Senate Joint Inquiry Report on 9/11; Testimony from 14 Key Witnesses, including Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.