Identifying the Hijackers

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We've often seen it argued that the authorities identified the hijackers "too quickly", that they must have known about them in advance, or that the identification relied only on suspect, perhaps planted items such as Atta's forgotten luggage.

Take a closer look, though, and these claims don't stand up to scrutiny. The government were able to pick out the hijackers in multiple ways, at speed, via several entirely legitimate routes, and Atta's luggage made no difference at all.

The process of identifying the 9/11 hijackers began very early, for instance. In fact, as the 9/11 Commission explains, before even the first crash had taken place:

Other accounts from the time gave more details:

We have four seat numbers. The manifest obtained by the Boston Globe helps us turn these into names:

Flight 11 Manifest.gif

Ong had pointed to Wail and Waleed al-Shehri, Edmund Glazer and Daniel Lewin, according to those numbers, with Satam al-Suqami being "wounded". That's quite different to what we know now, however as "Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney would have been working in coach" (Source) then it's possible she was relaying second-hand reports. Atta is unlikely to have got involved in any initial struggle (he was to be the pilot and it would be imperative to avoid injury), and Abdulaziz al-Omari may also have held back to protect him, in which case they would be easy to miss.

In any case, Nydia Gonzalez would later pass on further information from Ong to help clarify the situation:

Now we have Satam al-Suqami as a hijacker, and Lewin as the passenger who has been stabbed. This still isn't the complete list, however there was another source of information in a call from a fellow flight attendant, Amy Sweeney:

According to this account Sweeney effectively provided four hijacker names, including Atta, however another version names only three:

This particular report caused controversy in itself when it was mentioned that "some of the seat numbers were incorrect", and that's true: 9D and 9G were empty. However we're relying on a report of what Woodward said, based on his notes: they may not be accurate. And even if they are, Sweeney's seat numbers provided a useful initial hint. There was no-one in 9D and 9G, or 10D and 10G, however 8D and 8G were Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari. Given that, and the "Middle Eastern descent" description they would naturally be suspects.

These named quickly proved important. Some of Atta's luggage didn't make it onto Flight 11 (why? read Attas Luggage for a partial answer), the FBI got a warrant to examine it, and some reports say the contents alone were enough to identify everyone else:

This has been regarded as "too good to be true", in some quarters, that the FBI were simply following a trail that was left to be found.

However, if we look at an official FBI summary of the 9/11 case from early 2002, we find the luggage is given very little importance:

Only the letter rates a mention here, and even that was found elsewhere.

But at least it helped identify all the hijackers, right? Perhaps, but the reality is there was plenty of other evidence connecting the hijackers together that would eventually point in the same direction.

The FBI discovered on 9/11 that Atta and al-Omari paid for their tickets with a SunTrust Visa account, for instance. They were able to check other transactions, and look at charges for rental cars, airline tickets, and general expenses in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas. Run a check on passengers from the other flights and they would realise Marwan al-Shehhi paid for his seat with the same card number. We now have three people linked.

According to the Moussaoui indictment, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari listed a particular Florida telephone number as a contact number on their reservation. This was also used by Wail al-Shehri, Waleed al-Shehri, Fayez Banihammad and Mohand al-Shehri. The suspects rise to seven.

Satam al-Suqami's reservation for Flight 11 was purchased with a bank account that he shared with Wail al-Shehri, linking him to the group as suspect #8.

A further report tells us that Mohamed Atta used the same contact address on his reservation as Marwan al-Shehhi and Khalid al-Mihdhar (suspect #9). al-Mihdhar made reservations for himself and Majed Moqed (suspect #10) on American Airlines Flight 77.

Nawaf al-Hazmi had recently been added to a terrorist watch list (although unfortunately this wasn't used to check passengers on internal flights), and was linked to al-Mihdhar as they'd lived together, making him a natural suspect #11. In addition, Nawaf al-Hazmi booked seats on American Airlines Flight 77 for both himself and Salem al-Hazmi, now suspect #12.

Ahmed al-Ghamdi wasn't immediately linked to the first group, but his appearance on an INS watchlist for illegal or expired visas should have been noticed quickly, making him suspect #13. His reservation for United Airlines Flight 175 was purchased with the same credit card as Hamza al-Ghamdi's, giving us suspect #14.

That's fourteen people linked either through records of flight reservations or Government watch lists only, no need at all for Atta's luggage. And the other five may have been accessible through public records:

There were other routes to identifying and linking the hijackers, too. Ahmad al-Haznawi entered the US with Wail al-Shehri, for instance, while Hamza al-Ghamdi and Ahmed al-Nami arrived in the US with Mohand al-Shehri. And of course so far we're just talking about work that could just be carried out or initiated in the first few hours after the attacks. More detailed investigations, from looking at where they stayed on September 10th to using financial records to trace their activities elsewhere, would quickly turn initial suspicions into something far more concrete.

Is this just our speculation? No, not at all. Robert Bonner, head of Customs and Border Protection, explained that they had identified the likely hijackers by 11am on 9/11:

And the FBI also say that they identified the hijackers in a variety of ways: "Within a matter of days, the FBI identified the 19 hijackers using flight, credit card, banking, and other records." (Source.) The contents of Atta's suitcases provided useful confirmation, but they weren't crucial, and even if the bags had been loaded onto Flight 11, the hijackers would still have been identified very quickly.