Sitting on the floor of his Karachi apartment, Ramzi bin al-Shieb laid out in stunning detail the anatomy of the 9/11 attacks. As one of the masterminds of September 11, he had a lot to share. Talking this June with a reporter from al-Jazeera--the Arab-language network of choice for Qaeda terrorists--bin al-Shieb discussed everything from the “conquests and heroism of Islam” to America’s support for Israel, in addition, of course, to the particulars of 9/11.
With close ties to both Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be the new operational leader of al-Qaeda and ultimate mastermind of 9/11, bin al-Shieb has emerged as a central figure in the September 11 attacks. But because he couldn’t get a visa in any of his four attempts--two in Germany, two in his native Yemen, but none in Saudi Arabia--he reverted to the role of primary coordinator and paymaster. Acting as the middle-man between Atta in America and Mohammed in Afghanistan, bin al-Shieb--who was in Germany until September 5, 2001--was in a unique position with full knowledge of al-Qaeda’s activities in the United States, Afghanistan, and around the world.
In the interview, there's a lot of what one might expect--religious fervor, hatred of America and Israel, and vague threats of future attacks--but bin al-Shieb’s statement, on the whole, provides insight into the inner workings of the planning and execution of a terrorist attack. Bouncing around from topic to topic without any distinct thought process, he nonetheless spells out the preparations for the attacks, including how the date was selected and how the hijackers selected their seats on the doomed flights, and the manner in which the hijackings were carried out.
According to bin al-Shieb, communications were "constant and continuous until a few hours before the night of the execution." One rather bizarre exchange that bin al-Shieb discusses is how Atta transmitted his selection of September 11 as the date for the attacks, roughly two weeks before the hijackings.
Atta called him with a "puzzle" to solve. "Two sticks and between them a dash, a cake from which a stick is dangling.” Bin al-Shieb explains, "The puzzle meant the date, in other words the time of the operation; the two sticks represent the number 11 then the dash and then the cake from which a stick dangles represents the number 9; thus the picture becomes complete: 11-9."
Although most of what he says is in line with the publicly-available record, bin al-Shieb does make some claims that contradict previous reports. He says, "All those brothers were aware of the fact that they were going to carry out martyrdom operations, ...and they were not too bothered about the details."
Bin al-Shieb also claims that Marwan al-Shehhi (pilot of the flight that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center) and Zyad Jarrah (pilot of Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field) were tailed by "American intelligence officers" when they were making dry runs on flights from New York to California. If true, that would mean that two other 9/11 terrorists--besides Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar--were under the FBI's watchful eye before September. But it is clear that most of the terrorists' activities were not.
The 9/11 coordinator was alive to tell the tale to the Jazeera reporter because he couldn’t get a visa to join his comrades in the United States--although he is no position to speak with reporters today, because he was arrested by Pakistani police in his Karachi apartment on the anniversary of 9/11. Likely based in large part on bin al-Shieb’s difficulties obtaining a visa in Germany and Yemen, al-Qaeda decided to recruit all but one of the non-pilots from a country that did not “hassle” visa applicants. It was hardly coincidental that the 14 September 11 terrorists who came to the United States between April 2001 and July 2001 arrived from the country where the State Department provided an open door: Saudi Arabia.
Ramzi bin al-Shibh acknowledged the importance of easy visas: “The remaining 14 brothers [from Saudi Arabia] entered without any hindrances or problems, thank Allah.”
Editor's note: Adapted from the December 23 issue of National Review.