(EDITOR NOTE: - THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 9-11 ATTACKS (2011)
By Eric Longabardi
As the ten year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9-11 arrive this Sunday, our nation will stop to reflect on a day in our history that will forever be seared into the minds and hearts of all those who went through it. Whether you were directly or indirectly touched by the events that fateful day, Americans will stop and take time to remember and look back, as well as look ahead, to try and make some kind of sense out of one of the most violent days in American history.
Since that fateful day September 11, 2001 a lot has changed in the world, wars have been fought on two continents and other battles continue to rage at home and abroad over the fallout of 9-11. Even today men and women in the U.S. armed forces continue to fight and die based on the what happened ten years ago.
Most of the story of what happened that day, September 11, 2001 is well known.
The story of how and why it happened is still being told.
On September 11, 2001 I was living in Los Angeles, CA, in a comfortable suburban home deep in the heart of the sprawling Southern California metropolis. I had returned to my native Southern California less than 6 year previous after spending a few years in New York City in the mid-90's. I knew the 'Twin-Towers' fairly well. I remember their epic size even to this day. I once stood directly at their base and gazed straight upward as the mass of steel and glass disappeared into the sky. I remember thinking how strange and unique it must be to actually go to work every day so high in the sky.
On the morning of September 11, I was at home, early to rise as I normally did because of the three hour time difference between Los Angeles and New York. My work day always started earlier than most. That meant I was usually on my computer in the early morning hours at my home office. I would be checking the news, just as I did every day.
I first heard on TV that morning that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Like most others, I was glued to watching the live news coverage coming out of New York and later the Pentagon as it happened As a reporter I then began incessantly flipping from channel to channel as fast my fingers and the remote could handle so I could search for any new details on what was happening and why.
My first thought was very simple. I remember it vividly to this day just like it happened yesterday. The thought that entered my mind was that Islamic terrorists had come back to finish a job they had tried but failed to complete 8 years before in 1993. I never once thought what I was seeing was an accident
I was living in New York City in 1993 when Islamic extremists had tried to topple the buildings with a massive truck bomb. They had failed but they had clearly showed that they were here and they had the ability to bring jihad to the streets of America. It really didn’t seem all that complicated to me.
Ramsey Yousef, the terrorist who built the bomb and organized the plot to bring the buildings down in 1993 subsequently told the FBI and anybody else who has listened to him that this was just the first attempt to strike a blow in the heart of America. Nobody at the time seemed to listen.
When the FBI had finally captured Yousef in Pakistan and returned him to the U.S. to face charges, according to the FBI itself Yousef's single minded purpose was very simple. According to the FBI “We later learned from Yousef that his Trade Center plot was far more sinister. He wanted the bomb to topple one tower, with the collapsing debris knocking down the second. The attack turned out to be something of a deadly dress rehearsal for 9/11; with the help of Yousef’s uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al Qaeda would later return to realize Yousef’s nightmarish vision.”
What Yousef had failed to accomplish in 1993, terrorists associates of his uncle, 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would accomplish on that fateful September morning in 2001 eight years later.
As the events of that day unfolded before my eyes and pieces of information about what had and was happening poured in from everywhere on the planet, I quickly came to the conclusion in my own mind that there was no way an airliner had flown purposefully into the World Trade Center under the control of its pilot. I knew a lot of pilots and no pilot even under the threat of death would do such a thing under any circumstances. Someone other than the actual pilot’s assigned to fly those jets that day had taken over controls of the airliners and had turned them into modified jet fueled cruise missiles.
My assumptions were not based on sheer folly. In my career as a journalist I have long specialized in various areas. One of those specialties is aviation. My expertise told me something had gone very wrong and the airline pilots flying those airplanes were no longer in control when they crashed. It would have been impossible for a non-skilled pilot to fly and navigate a 757 airliner into a precise target like what happened that day. What it meant clearly to me was that what I was seeing was no accident.
No sane pilot would ever fly his aircraft into a building. I would later be proven correct.
I also had a lot experience and knowledge in the processes by which people become skilled enough to fly a jet aircraft like a 757. As they say in layman’s terms “it ain’t easy”. But as the media pundits and media talking heads with little aviation knowledge yakked away about what “might” have happened, I went to work to find out if the suspects, many of whom before the end of the day on September 11 had been identified by name had learned to fly an airplane well enough to do what the world had just seen happen before their very eyes.
I would soon find out that my reporter’s hunch was right. My instinct was based on experience in reporting and learning just how the system of obtaining pilot’s licenses works in the U.S. I had exposed flaws in the system years before in a lengthy investigative report.
It doesn’t work how the media would have you believe.
You don’t take a few flying lessons and then jump into the cockpit of a large commercial jet and fly it into a target with any reasonable chance of success. It takes a lot more skill, experience and know how than that to fly a large commercial jetliner. Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen seemed to know more about U.S. aviation than nearly all the uninformed media talking heads I was being forced to listen too as the tragedy unfolded. Even today the same lack of understanding of how a skilled pilot is trained and needed to carry out such a terrorist attack is still the norm in the media. I would later learn hijacker pilot Hani Hanjour had been trained and licensed by some of the people I already knew in Phoenix Arizona. It was and still is one of key flight training centers in the U.S.
Since I had extensive sources at the FAA, the U.S. government agency that kept the records of pilot’s in the U.S. I sought out the best source with the most direct access to what I needed to know. That person, who shall forever remain unnamed accessed the records and databases concerning the terrorists who had carried out the attacks.
My source quickly identified four of the named individuals who had obtained commercial pilot’s licenses with instrument ratings -- all inside the U.S. That feat was no small matter. Those terrorists, Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Zaid Jarrah and Hani Hanjour all had one strikingly similar fact related to their flight training. They all had trained and achieved pilot skills sufficient enough to navigate and pilot the commercial jets they had hijacked.
At the time, it was clear to me whomever had done this, knew what they were doing and had the aviation expertise and skills to pull it off. Both the jets that slammed into the World Trade Center that had taken off from Boston (American 11 and United 175) were Boeing 757s. The jet hijacked out of Newark (United 93) and out Washington’s Dulles International (United 77) were 767’s. I deduced that the terror pilots had probably compared notes before that fateful day.
After I had uncovered the information I got on the phone to my bosses at CNN. I had been working with CNN out of it's Los Angeles bureau since leaving my previous home at CBS News earlier that year. To my amazement it took me what seemed like forever to get a “boss” on the phone to listen to and finally understand what I was trying to tell them.
What I told them was that I had confirmed that four of the hijackers were American pilots. Foreign nationals licensed and trained to fly right here in the USA. The response I got was not what I expected. The sound was nothing less than deafening silence. The problem was the people I was talking to had no idea what I was talking about.
That is not that uncommon in my business, but in this case I assumed they would understand that what I was telling them was absolutely accurate and was extremely important information that needed to be reported in a hurry to the American public.
At one point I remember becoming so frustrated that CNN’s bosses in LA and Atlanta had not been able to comprehend what I was explaining to them about the facts I had uncovered that I demanded to speak with the Executive Producer in charge handing all of CNN's investigative efforts. When I got him on the phone (he shall remain nameless) I remember nearly spitting out my words laced with expletives in order to get this person to listen to what I was trying to tell him. It really wasn't that complicated to me, four of the terrorists were skilled U.S. pilots and they were behind the yokes when the jets slammed into their intended targets.
I wasn’t pushing a theory, I was trying to report a corroborated fact that some of the terrorists had obtained the aviation pilot skills to do just that. This executive, to his credit finally got what I was trying to report to the world. Shortly thereafter CNN finally went to air publicly with my broadcast report and the world then knew what I knew. I did the same with CBS shortly thereafter.
What all this means in short is that although the 9-11 hijackings were not new in terms of aviation security—airplanes have been hijacked going back decades, what was new was the use of highly trained experienced pilots to fly the large commercial airplanes and turn them into weapons. The idea of taking control of an airplane and using it as a weapon itself wasn’t all that knew either. It just had not been successfully pulled off before. Back as early as 1993 terrorists had contemplated the idea and had even tried to carry it out.
The idea itself for 9-11 had been hatched back in the early 1990's. A plot was to explode nearly a dozen passenger jets over the Pacific and crash others into well known buildings in the U.S. had been uncovered before it could be carried out.
And the terrorist who hatched that plot?, you guessed it: Ramzi Yousef.
Yousef had been tracked down and arrested by the FBI in Pakistan in early 1995. He has been in U.S. custody ever since. His home the Federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
His Uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9-11 wasn’t captured until March of 2003 and continues to be held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba today.
Osama Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs at his hideout in Abbottabad Pakistan on May 2 this year.
The 10-year observance of the 9-11 attacks is a meaningful milestone in American history as it should be. As we pause to remember, we should never forget the "War on Terrorism" itself and the war against Al-Qaeda and their affiliates continues.
We should also never forget that finding out the full truth about what happened will help prevent it from ever happening again.