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9/10: The Day Before
Comments () | Published September 7, 2011

On August 17, Bergen wrote to his friend John Burns, a fellow terrorism chronicler at the New York Times, urging him to write about the bin Laden videotape. Already that summer, there had been chatter coming out of Yemen about possible attacks. In June, two men arrested in New Delhi said they were planning to blow up the visa section at the US embassy. The next month, the State Department warned of “strong indications that individuals may be planning imminent terrorist actions” against American interests on the Arabian Peninsula.

“Clearly, al-Qaeda was and is planning something,” Bergen told his colleague.

Burns watched the tape and, after checking with his own sources, wrote an article for the Times. It ran September 9 on the newspaper’s Web site, under the headline on videotape, bin laden charts a violent future. Burns’s editors expected to put the story in the newspaper. But because space was tight in the September 10 edition, they spiked it. The article was later expunged from the Web site, because it was Times policy not to archive any Web story that didn’t run in print.

At lunchtime, Delaware senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, sat down at the head table in the ballroom of the National Press Club. Biden had ascended to the committee’s top slot when Democrats gained control of the Senate in the spring after Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and became an independent.

Richard Ryan, Washington correspondent for the Detroit News and president of the National Press Club, welcomed guests and noted that Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, would be the speaker on October 2.

“Can I come to that one?” Biden joked.

The senator spent much of his speech criticizing the Bush administration’s proposal to build a national ballistic-missile defense system. He said it was much more likely the United States would be attacked by terrorists than by a country with a missile.

By midafternoon, the temperature in Washington had reached 87 degrees, with the promise of cooler weather and clear blue skies the next day. Tourists had been scarcer on the Mall since Labor Day, but 4,800 people still shuffled through the Jefferson Memorial and 8,000 visited the Lincoln that day.

Across Washington, workers were taking a coffee break, getting ready to pick up their kids from school, or counting down the minutes to happy hour. Two blocks from the White House, DC protestors outside the newly reopened Wilson Building were angry over federal efforts to stop the city’s needle-exchange programs, its abortion services, a referendum to legalize medical marijuana, and the extension of benefits to the gay partners of city employees. DC police were searching for a three-year-old girl and her teenage babysitter who’d failed to bring the child home Sunday.

In Northern Virginia, citizens were reacting enthusiastically to a proposal to convert Lorton prison into a soccer complex, and the state House of Representatives voted to rename two post offices—in Annandale and Mount Vernon—after former representatives from the region, a Democrat and a Republican who’d once been political rivals.

***

Around 3 PM, Hani Hanjour checked in at a Marriott Inn in Herndon, about five miles from Dulles. He was joined by Nawaf al-Hazmi and al-Hazmi’s brother, Salem, as well as two other men.

Hanjour had come to the United States in 1991 from Ta’if, Saudi Arabia. He enrolled at the University of Arizona, where he studied English as a second language. He was a devout Muslim and had already been to Afghanistan once, as a teenager in the late 1980s, to take part in jihad.

While in Arizona, Hanjour had associated with several extremists who later would become the subject of counterterrorism investigations by US authorities. Some of them had trained with him to become pilots. Others had connections to al-Qaeda and had been trained at the group’s camps in Afghanistan. Hanjour was at one of those camps in the spring of 2000 when a senior member of al-Qaeda, possibly bin Laden himself, learned he was a trained pilot. He was told to report to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a member of bin Laden’s inner circle, who taught Hanjour how to communicate in code words.

In June 2000, Hanjour went home to Saudi Arabia, and three months later he obtained a US visa. On December 8, he touched down in San Diego, where he met up with al-Hazmi, whom the CIA had been tracking for a long time.

Hanjour and al-Hazmi left the San Diego airport and drove to Mesa, Arizona. They stayed there a few months while Hanjour took refresher classes at his old flight school and trained in a Boeing 737 simulator. In the spring, Hanjour and al-Hazmi headed out on a cross-country drive, arriving in Falls Church in April 2001.

The morning of September 10, Hanjour had checked out of a Budget Host motel in Laurel, not far from the headquarters of the National Security Agency. That day, the agency’s global eavesdropping system intercepted coded phone conversations, likely among al-Qaeda operatives overseas: “The match begins tomorrow” and “Tomorrow is Zero Hour.” Analysts didn’t translate the messages into English until September 12.

Next: President Bush touches down in Sarasota, Florida

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Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 09/07/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles