English-Language Al-Qaeda Magazine Shares 9/11 Backstory: Plan Solidified In 1998, Stock Exchanges, White House, Congress, Military Sites Were On Target Shortlist

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September 16, 2020

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On September 11, 2020, Al-Qaeda's central media wing, Al-Sahab, released the third issue of its One Ummah magazine in an English translation of the original Arabic-language issue released on December 31, 2019. An article titled "The Road to 9/11: The Origins and Evolution of the Idea" by one Khalid al Messri [1] recounts recounts the behind-the-scenes discussions and planning of what later became the 9/11 attacks. The article explains the development and maturation of the Al-Qaeda organization from its humble beginnings in Afghanistan, where members would delineate the theoretical practice of jihad to its period in Sudan and back to Afghanistan where a physical waging of jihad was plotted. The article dismisses rumors, such as Egyptian pilot Jameel Al-Batooti, whose plane crashed on the American Coast in 1999, was behind the idea for the attacks. Al Messri writes that a host of economic and political targets were discussed, such as the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, and various military sites and stock exchanges throughout the U.S. The author also says that the organization ruled out attacking iconic targets in the capital cities of multiple countries simultaneously since Al-Qaeda wanted to avoid opening too many fronts at once.

The article notes that perhaps the most significant personality who contributed to the movement was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. The author writes that the nascent jihadi theatre in Afghanistan was egalitarian in that it was open to all, not just the elite of the Islamic movement. Many young and enthusiastic youth traveled to Afghanistan to defend the native Afghans. The original idea behind the 9/11 attacks, the article says, was born from this atmosphere.

The author says that an Egyptian pilot who had flown for several international airlines, had extensive flying experience, and stayed in the guest houses of the mujahideen in Peshawar first came up with the idea of using airplanes to carry out an attack. However, this idea was put on the backburner since the organization's priorities did not allow for such an attack at that time. Special operations were still a thing of the future for Al-Qaeda; its focus at the time was on training camps and supporting the fronts in different parts of Afghanistan.

After relocating to Sudan, the organization finally had a chance to plan for special operations targeting American interests. The proximity of the Somali theatre provided opportunities for testing and developing new ideas to target American interests. Mukhtar Al-Balouchi, also known as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, fleshed out a plan that involved hijacking several American aircraft and destroying them mid-air if the American government refused to fulfill the demands of the mujahideen, the foremost being the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman.

Al-Qaeda believed that Sudan was not the right place for the planning and execution of such an ambitious plan. When the group moved back to Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad resumed planning and often consulted with Osama bin Laden. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was eager to replicate his success in the Philippine, where he and others had smuggled liquid explosives onto American aircraft as part of the Manila operations, which were intended as a rehearsal for a much bigger attack. In mid-1998, the idea was finetuned and it was decided that a team of pilots would hijack planes inside the U.S. and redirected to pre-selected targets.

[1] Telegram, One Ummah, September 11, 2020

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