Terror in Training

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Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges in April, in a Dec. 19, 2001, photo

Oklahoma Gazette | May 18, 2005
“Mr. Director, there’s a serious problem.”

It was Sept. 11, 2001. The pre-fall sun bathed Washington, D.C., in balmy temperatures and light breezes the morning that University of Oklahoma President David Boren and his former spy protégé, CIA Director George Tenet, learned that thousands were dying.

According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bob Woodward, in his book “Bush At War,” the two tucked into breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel, three blocks away from the White House. They were longtime friends since Boren’s days as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“What is it?” Tenet asked the security guards who’d just run to their table.

“The World Trade tower has been attacked,” said one.

After confirming the attack with CIA headquarters via cell phone, Tenet left Boren.

“I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Meanwhile, at a detention facility in Minnesota, a bald, pudgy, dark-bearded man who was very familiar with Boren’s home turf at OU, stood and cheered as the facility’s TV blared the sounds and pictures of planes hitting the World Trade Center buildings, according to reports.

In late April, Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty to charges he was a part of the 9/11 conspiracy that brought down the World Trade Center towers, destroyed a section of the Pentagon and smashed an airliner full of people into a Pennsylvania field. Moussaoui, who received pilot training in Norman, Okla., is the only person put on trial in America for the worst terror attack in history and could receive the death penalty. The 36-year-old French citizen will face a sentencing hearing in January. Explaining his role in al-Qaida, Moussaoui claims he was personally chosen by Osama bin Laden to use a plane to strike the White House in a plot separate from the 9/11 attacks.

Oklahoma is again on the world terror radar.

‘Mr. Zacarias’

From: zuluman tangotango

To: airman@telepath.com

Date: Thursday, February 22, 2001 11:39 AM

Subject: “URGENT” flying to you tomorrow


Hi Brenda, finally I am coming to fly hopefully with you.

My plan is for tomorrow Friday the 23 via Chicago Flight no UA 5723 from Chicago (coming from London heathrow) Arriving at 17:35 local time. So I know that I give you short notice but it will be nice if somebody will be receiving me .Mr ZACARIAS (that my first name because E is not secure). Otherwise I will be staying in one of the hotel you kindly mention to me, and I will phone you on Saturday may be Monday if I am very tired.

So take care and I hope to see you soon.

Bye Bye

It was the first time Brenda Keene, the admissions director of Norman’s Airman Flight School, had ever known the man’s name. Previously, she knew “Mr. ZACARIAS” as “zuluman tangotango.” He had been writing her since October 2000 asking picky questions about enrolling. He wanted to know if the advertised price was really the price. “You fear small print,” was one of the reasons he gave for his bickering.

Finally, Moussaoui was sitting right in front of her. The man was 5-foot-8-inches and 200 pounds, of Moroccan descent. He paid cash. Keene said cash-paying customers were never unusual in those days before 9/11. She said a lot of Airman’s students, traveling to the United States from Third World countries, often had no other way of paying.

Then they filled out the man’s enrollment forms. He was being very picky again. Keene said he argued over points in the contract like he was haggling for something at a bazaar.

“Normally it takes me about 15 minutes to enroll a student,” Keene said. “But he spent two hours in my office, I mean two hours. It was absolutely driving me up the wall.”

Keene, an outgoing, vivacious woman given to amiable conversation with those whom she meets, turned on the charm as she invoked her patience. (“You learn to go with the flow,” she said of dealing with international students.) Eventually she calmed the man and began wrapping up the enrollment process.

“I got him joking and laughing,” Keene said. “His attitude changed. So I went around my desk and put my hands around his throat and pretended like I was going to choke him. I shook him and said ‘Moussaoui, you are driving me crazy!’”

It’s one of those moments, she said, that seem portentous, like maybe her intuition had a better handle on the situation than her waking thoughts.

“Maybe I should have done it harder,” she joked uncomfortably. “But now, to think I had my hands around that evil man’s throat just gives me the creeps, you know? I’m just glad he’s pleading guilty and I don’t go have to testify and see this man again. To think I had my hands around this guy’s throat and his intent was to destroy the American people. … You never know who you are dealing with.”

After all, FBI agents reportedly had visited Airman years earlier asking about Ihab Ali Nawawi, a bin Laden associate who trained at the school in 1993 and was later linked to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings. Two 9/11 hijackers, ringleader Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, toured Airman in July 2000 and stayed overnight at the Sooner Hotel, according to MSNBC.

Indeed, Keene didn’t know who she was dealing with this day. Moussaoui gave no outward appearances of having ulterior motives while at the school, Keene said. When the instruction began, he was a lot like the other students.

“I’ve been at this school for a long time,” Keene said. “People are just different. You gotta learn to go with the flow. There was nothing he did to make me think I needed to be careful with his guy. He never gave me that feeling.”

The studies at Airman are kind of an immersion school for aviation. Students come to the facility and learn ground school first, Keene said. They often form study groups, both at the Airman facility and off campus. But not Moussaoui, she said.

“He just didn’t interact with the other students. He didn’t take any part of that. When he was done with his ground school and done with his flying, he wasn’t one who would hang around and study here. He would go back to the apartment,” Keene said.

That apartment was on Monnett Avenue near campus. The Monnett area is well-known to campus-area residents as a street just off Boyd Street, filled with rent houses catering to the transient student population. Students come, students go, and may never be known to their neighbors.

Moussaoui opened a bank account at Arvest bank in Norman and deposited $32,000, then began flight training Feb. 26, 2001, according to reports.

Airman’s planes are single-engine Cessna and twin-engine Beechcraft ubiquitous to civilian aviation.

Usually, in around 10-15 hours of flight time, the pilot is deemed by the instructor to be good enough to “solo,” or fly the airplane alone. That time never came to Moussaoui.

According to instructors, he did not seem to understand or respond to the basic instructions of flying. He was either hardheaded or unable to comprehend his instructions, according to various accounts. In the cockpit, he was ham-handed with the controls.

“I swore I’d never fly with him again,” said flight instructor Azim Sumar, recalling one episode to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He was stubborn. He wouldn’t listen.” Sumar said Moussaoui pressed the controls too hard in what he termed “a death grip.”

While students are allowed to take a little extra time to get their flying time done right — the school allows for a student to go overtime in instruction by about 25 percent — Moussaoui seemed to be stuck.

“He had about 57 hours with us. He wasn’t getting it,” Keene said. “At that point, we looked at it and said, ‘Hey, you are way over time and you haven’t even soloed. You need to make the decision whether you want to continue on with your course and pay more money or drop the course altogether.’ He said, ‘Let me think about it a couple days and I’ll get back with you.’ We never heard from him again.”

That was May 2001. The next time Keene heard about him was from an FBI agent.

‘Waiting for a Positive Fly’

Moussaoui made different plans. According to the indictment, he e-mailed the Pan Am International Flight Academy. His e-mail to them gushed. The note was littered with misspellings and misused language, despite Moussaoui’s advanced degree in international business from a London university. The text was later published in the UK’s Guardian.

“I am Mrs Zacariasl,” he wrote May 23, 2001. “Basically I need to know if you can help me achieve my Goal my dream.

“I would like to fly in a professional like manners one of the big airliners. I have to made my mind which of the followwing: Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and or Airbus A300 (it will depend on the cost and which one is easiest to learn).

“The level I would like to achieve is to be able to takeoff and land, to handle communication with ATC, to be able to successfully navigate from A to B (JFK to Heathrow for example).

“In a sense to be able to pilot one of these Big Bird, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

According to the account, he ended the message by saying: “I know it could be better but I am sire that you can do something.

“After all we are in AMERICA and everything is possible. Have a nice day, waiting for a positive fly.”

The 9/11 Commission Report estimated the costs associated with funding Moussaoui were $50,000. When Moussaoui was outside, he dressed in sporty American clothes. Inside his Monnett Avenue apartment, neighbors saw him in Muslim dress praying on his staircase. Worshippers at the Norman mosque called him a self-righteous fundamentalist alienated by strong opinions, according to The Washington Post.

Moussaoui also signed up at the Huston Huffman Center on OU’s campus. Witnesses there reported seeing him work out on the cardio and weight machines. He inquired about crop dusting in June 2001 and bought two knives Aug. 3, 2001, in Oklahoma City, according to the indictment. Since he had trained in knife fighting in Afghanistan, this behavior would later end up in the charges against him. The 9/11 hijackers would use razor-sharp box knives, carried on in their luggage, to keep crew and passengers at bay when they took over the airliners.

Meanwhile, Moussaoui had an odd encounter that would later raise more questions. While riding a Norman bus he met Nick Berg, a sometimes-student at OU, sometimes-dropout, who briefly loaned Moussaoui his laptop, Berg’s father told CBS and the Associated Press. Moussaoui somehow acquired Berg’s e-mail password as well. Berg would later become notorious worldwide when he turned up on video in Iraq, captured by insurgents, his head being cut off by masked men chanting, “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

By August, Moussaoui’s plans to go to Minnesota solidified. He moved out of his apartment and had been living in Kraettli Apartments on OU’s campus with two others, Hussein Al-Attas and Mukkaram Ali. According to various accounts, he allegedly talked Al-Attas into joining the Muslim rebels in Chechnya against Russia. Al-Attas drove Moussaoui to the Minnesota flight school on Aug. 9, 2001, according to The Washington Post. Moussaoui’s Monnett apartment, vacant since May, was burglarized two days later and “the furniture was overturned as if someone was looking for something,” OU’s Oklahoma Daily newspaper reported.

At the Pan Am school in Eagan, Minn., things went very differently for Moussaoui. According to recent reports, flight instructors became suspicious almost immediately when he paid for his lessons in $100 bills. After initial hesitation, school managers called the FBI. Moussaoui was arrested after flying his first and only 747 simulation, held on charges he overstayed his visa.

If things had turned out differently, this incident might have been remembered as the one that saved the U.S. from a deadly attack. Instead, the investigation into Moussaoui is remembered for the opposite reason.

‘A Missed Opportunity’

In hindsight, says retired FBI agent Coleen Rowley, the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented.

Rowley became famous as the whistle-blower who penned a letter of complaint about the mishandling of the Moussaoui investigation. Her actions following the botched investigation garnered her status as Time’s Person of the Year, as well as other accolades. In her memo, she proclaimed that FBI upper management, for bureaucratic reasons, stalled the Moussaoui investigation. The investigation started well, however.

“It fell on the right people,” she said. “The agent following it up was beyond belief in astuteness. One of the reasons this agent, with very few years in, was so astute in following up was because he had a background in military intelligence. He did know more than the people at headquarters about Islamic extremism. Second, he was a pilot himself. All of this stuff the flight instructor was telling him immediately clicked.”

Among the actions taken was a complete background check on Moussaoui. Three weeks before 9/11, FBI agents interviewed Airman officials about Moussaoui after his arrest Aug. 17, 2001, according to The Boston Globe. Oklahoma City FBI officials declined comment for this story.

“When (the FBI) came in before Sept. 11 and were pulling the records on Moussaoui, I asked them, ‘What’s this guy done?’ They wouldn’t tell me, they just said, ‘He did something bad. That’s all we can tell you,’” Keene remembered.

The Minnesota agent contacted the FBI’s Paris office. French intelligence forwarded information that Moussaoui had ties with Islamic rebels, according to Rowley’s letter and other reports. The CIA was contacted — which Tenet would later recount to Boren at that fateful 9/11 breakfast — and then the investigation was shut down. Boren declined comment for this story.

Rowley told Oklahoma Gazette the issue occurred over a provision called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Intelligence could not easily be shared between — or even within — agencies because the act allowed methods of surveillance in cases where the primary purpose was intelligence gathering. The complicated procedures were designed to prevent abuses of the court but became dangerously burdensome in the Moussaoui case. A previous FBI administrator once fell afoul of its complicated provisions and damaged his career when things didn’t go right, Rowley said. Now, upper-level FBI management was loath to pursue it.

“Generally, the FISA wall is one of the huge pieces in the reason why headquarters (didn’t pursue it). Not only the legalities of it, but the practical aspects of it,” Rowley said. “There was also a supervisor who had his career put on hold because of the FISA court. All in all, it made these guys at headquarters basically reluctant to do their job.”

The Minnesota agent was chewed out over contacting the CIA and going around the FBI hierarchy, according to Rowley’s letter. The matter did not die quietly, but the investigation was unfortunately thwarted. Before a backup plan could be implemented, the attacks occurred.

Rowley said other agents were also shut down in a similar way. She said she’d talked with one of them. An Arizona FBI agent’s July 2001 message — the so-called “Phoenix memo” — mentioning al-Qaida training at flight schools was never allowed to reach Minneapolis.

While watching the 9/11 attacks on television, Moussaoui’s former Norman neighbors said an FBI agent visited their Monnett apartment asking about the onetime Airman student, according to MSNBC. Ten days later, they received a piece of Moussaoui’s mail — a mail-order catalog catering to pilots.

Rowley said the issues surrounding what went wrong in the Moussaoui case are similar to the ones that went wrong in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

“The 1,000-document debacle, that turned up two weeks before the (Tim) McVeigh execution. You know why that happened, why that mistake occurred?” she asked. “It was because … whenever you have all of a sudden someone who says, ‘You know, this case is so different that from all past experience that we are going to make up new rules.’”

Rowley said the rule change that led to documents being lost was called “open-file discovery.”

“Whenever you make up a new rule, you magnify the potential for errors.” Rowley said. “When the FBI follows a tried-and-true rule — people are trained in what they can and can’t do. Those 1,000 documents can be traced to a brand new rule created only for that case.”

“That’s exactly what happened in the war on terrorism,” she said.

The 9/11 Commission Report is equally damning. High-ranking al-Qaida operatives might have canceled the World Trade Center attacks if they knew Moussaoui had been detained, according to Ramzi Binalshibh, an arrested bin Laden deputy.

“Moussaoui can be seen as an al-Qaida mistake and a missed opportunity,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report. “An apparently unreliable operative, he had fallen into the hands of the FBI. … If Moussaoui had been connected to al-Qaida, questions should instantly have arisen about a possible al-Qaida plot that involved piloting airliners, a possibility that had never been seriously analyzed by the intelligence community.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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