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The Flight Instructor Was Struck by the Hijacker's Odd Meaning of 'Joy Ride'

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

On August 15, after being contacted by a flight instructor at the Pan Am International Flight Academy—and told by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that his visa had expired on May 22—the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis decided to detain Zacarias Moussaoui.

The flight instructor told the FBI that Moussaoui not only didn't fit the profile of a normal commercial airline student, but he wasn't interested in actually learning how to fly. He showed a particular interest in the "mode control panel" of the flight simulator, the instructor said, which is the machinery that enables computerized flying. Moussaoui had demonstrated that he already knew how to use the mode control panel during the one simulator session that he had completed. The instructor found this information ominous because of Moussaoui's statement that he was attending flight school to go on a "joy ride." Based on his own experience as a pilot, the instructor knew that a joy ride consists of actually flying the plane, not allowing the computer to do the flying.

The flight instructor also reported that although he himself had initially raised the subject, Moussaoui had seemed extremely interested in the aircraft doors and their operation and that Moussaoui seemed surprised to learn that the doors could not be opened during flight because of the air pressurization in the cabin.

As the FBI was interviewing Moussaoui's roommate—a 21-year-old Yemeni citizen whose family was living in Saudi Arabia—agents asked for and received his permission to search some bags that were within his reach in their hotel room. To check for weapons, the agents opened several bags that the roommate told them belonged to Moussaoui. The agents noticed in the bags a laptop computer, spiral notebooks, numerous aviation study materials, a cellular telephone, and a small "walkie-talkie" radio. The agents did not search these items further.

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Would-be pilots who didn't really want to fly. FlightSafety Flying School formally denied having trained the terrorists implicated in the attack of September 11. Patrick Durand/Sygma via Getty Images

The roommate gave the agents permission to search the room and his belongings. From the search of the roommate's belongings, the agents obtained telephone numbers, personal address books, credit card and bank records, and numerous personal documents. The agents found several sheets of paper written in Arabic, which the roommate identified as his will, and a pamphlet advising how to prepare a will. In addition, the agents found a partially completed application for a Pakistani visa, padded gloves, shin guards, binoculars, hiking boots, Power Point 2002 computer software, and a document indicating that Moussaoui intended to purchase a handheld Global Positioning System receiver and rent a camcorder.

The FBI also discovered that Moussaoui was also supposedly working for Yazid Sufaat and a Malaysian company that was owned by Sufaat.

Unknown to the FBI, Sufaat was known to the CIA as a member of Jemaah Islamiyah and the host of the January 2000 meeting attended by Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, the planes operatives who went on to Los Angeles. Another piece of paper in Moussaoui's possession had the name and telephone numbers in Germany of one Ahad Sabet. U.S. intelligence later learned that Sabet was an alias for Ramzi Bin al-Shibh of Hamburg fame and Moussaoui's financial handler.

The Minneapolis agents determined that Moussaoui had traveled to Pakistan, as well as to Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Europe. They also obtained the first and last names of one associate of Moussaoui's in Oklahoma, and the first name of another. When the roommate was asked to explain why he and Moussaoui had padded gloves and shin guards, he responded that Moussaoui had purchased a set of each for them so that they could train to protect themselves against crime in the United States. He also told the FBI that Moussaoui advocated that "true Muslims must prepare themselves to fight."

Though FBI agents dealing with Moussaoui believed that he might have been intending to carry out a terrorist act involving his flight training, there was internal debate as to what was the next step, given that Moussaoui refused to cooperate. The Bureau discussed a criminal search warrant, a search warrant of his laptop and other electronics under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and deporting him to France to let their secret police do the dirty work.

Follow the live tweet of September 11, 2001 (based upon the new book On That Day) starting at 4:45 a.m. EST @Roadto911.

Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.