Cracking The Terror Code

On the night before they went out on a suicide mission to kill someone, the Assassins, the 12th-century cult of holy-warrior hit men, were given a taste of the Paradise that awaited. They smoked hashish (the word assassin derives from hashashin, users of hashish) and read in the Quran about the sensual rewards of martyrdom:

Maybe that's what Majed Moqed was dreaming about late last summer when he wandered into the Adult Lingerie Center, a grim cinder-block building next to an auto-parts store in Beltsville, Md., sometime around midnight. In addition to red thongs and crotchless panties, the Adult Lingerie Center offers pornographic videos and books. But Moqed didn't seem to be having much fun. He flipped through some magazines, looked at the titles of some videos. Then, after about 10 minutes, he left. The night manager figured him for a cop.

It's hard to imagine that the dirty movie Moqed paid $3 to watch on another night inspired him to give his life for Allah. But investigators are having a hard time figuring out exactly what did. In a large room at FBI headquarters in Washington, about a hundred analysts known as the Links Unit are feeding raw data--phone bills, ATM receipts, fake IDs, odd bits of Islamic verse, the testimony of Vegas strippers, the investigative tidbits from a global manhunt--into banks of computers. They are looking for patterns, examining the ties that bound Moqed and the 18 other suicide hijackers to one another and to their shadowy masters. The G-men are not just trying to solve a crime but hoping to avert another, bigger catastrophe. Yet despite an impressive sense of urgency and an unusual degree of cooperation between the historically wary CIA and FBI, the investigators are making slow progress. In part they are hav-ing difficulty following a well-concealed trail that weaves all over the world and far back in time. And they are just plain stumped by the hellish nature of their adversary.

Consider the puzzle nagging at Charles Prouty, the chief of the FBI's Boston office. Why, he wonders, did Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the attack, and Abdulaziz Alomari make a quick side trip to Portland, Maine, on the eve of the attack? Were they meeting with someone? Were they trying to duck security at Logan airport? The two hijackers nearly missed the connecting flight from Portland to Boston on the morning of Sept. 11. (Their bags did miss the plane, giving investigators some early clues.) They could have thrown off a plan that had been so carefully plotted. An ex-Navy SEAL, Prouty told colleagues that it didn't make sense for the hijackers to violate the standard rules of "op sec," military lingo for "operational security."

But then again, Al Qaeda isn't the Navy SEALs. Americans were chilled last week by the publication of a set of instructions, written by hand in Arabic, found in Atta's luggage: "The Last Night," the document reads. "1) Make an oath to die and renew your intentions. Shave excess hair from the body and wear cologne. Shower..." On goes the assassins' manual, a weird mix of hygiene for homicide and exhortation to stay prayerful and focused, because the coming day will be "the day, God willing, you spend with the women of Paradise."

Suicide squads are as old as the medieval Assassins and as modern as the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. What makes Al Qaeda killers seem especially menacing is their apparent normalcy and independence. Most of the Black Tuesday hijackers were not like the Palestinian suicide bombers, poor losers brainwashed and bribed to strap on a bomb and take a one-way bus ride to Allah. The half-dozen leaders were educated and middle class. As pilots, several never did get the hang of takeoffs and landings, but their navigation skills were perfect. They depended more on the anonymity of American life than on their social skills. Still, an examination of the plotters' path, as it has emerged over the past month, reveals a mix of professionalism and fanaticism that will make the next attack hard to stop.

The top plotters met last August in an odd location: Las Vegas. They stayed in cheap hotels on a dreary stretch of the Strip frequented by dope dealers and $10 street hookers. Perhaps they wished to be fortified for their mission by visiting a shrine to American decadence. Or maybe they just wanted a city that was easy to reach by air from their various cells in Florida, New Jersey and San Diego. In the past, Al Qaeda has sent a top lieutenant to trigger an attack and then slip away. FBI agents are searching records for any Middle Eastern-looking man who visited Vegas in August. The bureau is sure that six of the hijackers were present: the four presumed pilots and two others, Nawaf Alhazmi, 25, and Khalid Almihdhar, 26. These last two appear to have been an advance guard, arriving in San Diego in the fall of 1999.

The duo was remarkable for being unremarkable. They bought a car, worked at odd jobs, obtained credit cards and insurance. "They were nice," recalled their landlord, Abdussattar Shaikh, though he did observe that his tenants "went out to make their phone calls." The two men visited strip clubs (Dancers and Cheetah's). Alhazmi apparently advertised, unsuccessfully, for a Mexican bride. Shaikh remembers that Alhazmi was "very caring" and even confiding: "He told me once that his father had tried to kill him when he was a child. He never told me why, but he had a long knife scar on his forearm." Almihdhar seems to have been a bit dimmer and more standoffish. According to a flight instructor, Rick Garza, Almihdhar drew the airplane wings backward in class. Garza, who described the two as "Dumb and Dumber," said that Almihdhar and Alhazmi were impatient students: "They wanted to bypass primary training and go right to flying Boeings."

The two terrorists may have been poor pilots, but they were well connected: in January 2000 they were videotaped by Malaysian secret police in Kuala Lumpur, meeting with a Qaeda operative who later emerged as a key suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole. And to make up for their deficient flying skills, Al Qaeda was able to provide reinforcements. In San Diego the two were joined by Hani Hanjour, the man who, investigators believe, eventually steered American Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The shy, devout son of a well-to-do Saudi, Hanjour appears to have been the one true "sleeper," living in the United States on and off for a decade and starting flight school in the mid-'90s. He, too, was a poor flight student, but he may have had a helping hand from his Qaeda bosses. It appears that, in June, an Algerian pilot, Lotfi Raissi, came to the United States to help train Hanjour on a jet simulator. (Raissi, now being held in England, denies that he was in on the plot.)

No plotter moved around the world with more ease or frequency than Mohamed Atta. In the months before the hijacking, he traveled to Zurich (where he bought a couple of Swiss knives in the duty-free shop), Madrid and Prague. In Spain last July he seems to have touched base with a ring of Algerian terrorists. His meetings in Prague are more intriguing. NEWSWEEK has learned that Atta met not once but twice with Iraqi intelligence operatives, in June 2000 and again last April. The second meeting was with Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, who was called back to Baghdad before Sept. 11. One intelligence source called the two meetings interesting but still far from proof of Iraqi involvement in the plot.

While polite when necessary, Atta had a seething temper and an almost pathological aversion to women. "I don't want any women to go to my grave at all during the funeral or any occasion thereafter," Atta wrote in a 1996 will. "I don't want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say goodbye to me," Atta wrote, adding, "the person who will wash my body near the genitals must wear gloves on his hand so he won't touch my genitals."

This summer a second wave of hijackers slipped into the United States. These men were the muscle: their job would be to slit the throats of passengers and stab flight attendants (shouting "Allahu Akbar"--God is great!--as they "slaughtered the animals," as their instructions put it). Most stayed aloof. "You never heard them say a word," said Jamie Diaz, a neighbor of some of the men in Paterson, N.J. The apartment shared by hijacker brain as well as brawn in Paterson had no TV, no stereo, no furniture, except for three smallish mattresses on the floor for as many as six men. "Nobody ever saw them at mosques," said the city's mayor, Marty Barnes. "But they liked the go-go clubs."

The Qaeda men living in New Jersey apparently did not use electricity at times. A cost saver? Or Islamic asceticism? Investigators following the money believe there was plenty of it--at least $500,000 to finance the operation. But the money trail is well concealed. It leads from well-known commercial banks to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a financial fog bank. Investigators are looking for a paymaster named Mustafa Ahmed, who appears to have at least 10 aliases, three dates of birth, three Social Security numbers and four addresses in the United States. He was last seen boarding a plane from Dubai to Kara-chi, Pakistan, on Sept. 11. NEWSWEEK has learned that U.S. intelligence is especially interested in bin Laden's possible dealings with a company once known as Al Taqwa Management ("Al Taqwa" is Arabic for "the wrath of God"). But the Swiss authorities have cleared Al Taqwa, which recently changed its name to Nada Management. Already privacy-minded European governments and banks are grousing about a "fishing expedition" and balking at checking bank records against a list of more than 350 names supplied by U.S. investigators.

The Sept. 11 plot was apparently planned abroad--but where? And by whom? Investigators have ransacked the "terror apartment" in Hamburg, Germany, that Atta shared with Ziad Samir Jarrah, one of the presumed Sept. 11 suicide pilots, along with at least two other possible conspirators now on the lam. One roommate, Said Bahaji, is believed to be the hijackers' logistics man, providing passports, IDs, apartments. The other, Ramzi bin al-Shib, tried and failed to get a visa for pilot training in the United States; significantly, he received a phone call sometime last summer from Zacarias Moussaoui, who was turned in to the Feds by a suspicious flight instructor in Minnesota last August. Had the FBI moved a little faster on Moussaoui, it's possible the Sept. 11 attack might have been averted. FBI officials are still sorting out why a request from the FBI's field office for permission to examine Moussaoui's computer hard drive--just two weeks before the attack--was turned down by headquarters, as reported by NEWSWEEK last week. The FBI knew from French intelligence that Moussaoui was an Islamic extremist, but he wasn't connected to any terror group--a prerequisite to getting a national-security warrant. The FBI agents in Minneapolis then sought a criminal warrant to search Moussaoui's computer. But they were again turned down because current federal law prohibits the bureau from sharing information in criminal probes with intelligence investigators. This bureaucratic stumbling block is being cited by federal law-enforcement officials as justification for easing the rules. After Sept. 11, gumshoes found incriminating evidence on the hard drive, including instructions on flying crop- dusters. Was Moussaoui planning some kind of chemical-weapon attack? Now in jail, the French Moroccan isn't talking. His mother, Aicha, interviewed over the phone by NEWSWEEK from her home in Narbonne, France, lamented that her son had been "brainwashed" into becoming an Islamic extremist. As a child, "he never cried or made a fuss," she said. "He didn't wake me up at night, and he was always laughing." But when teachers at his school told Moussaoui that he would be better off going to trade school, "he began to rebel." He started smoking hash and watching porn movies. "I'm glad that he didn't participate in the attacks," she said. "Maybe I'll write him a letter." She paused. "I don't know where to send it. I don't know anything now," she said. The FBI and CIA are going to have to know a whole lot more to stop the next attack.