It was so ordinary at the time, so ominous in hindsight. An American Airlines agent at Dulles Airport in Virginia looked up as two polite young men of Arab origin handed over their tickets. Odd: they were waiting in the coach-class line, dressed in inexpensive clothes, but their tickets were first class, one way. Prepaid at $2,400 each. "Oil money," thought the agent. Such passengers are common at Dulles, but these two looked a bit young: one, around 20, spoke a little English; his brother, even younger, spoke none. And they seemed awfully thin, almost underfed. The agent saw they had ordered special Muslim meals, but so had some others on the flight. The brothers gave the right answers to standard security questions and had valid IDs, one of them a proper-looking Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver's license. The agent wasn't in a rush and laughed to himself that the two brothers were such infrequent flyers they didn't know they could check in at the empty first-class counter. But the two were patient, pleasant, low key. There was really nothing to trigger alarms as the brothers and three other passengers of Arab ethnicity boarded American Airlines Flight 77 for Los Angeles.
The two brothers were Nawaq Alhamzi and Salem Alhamzi, who knew they were going to die that morning. They were two of the 19 men who hijacked four planes and turned them into deadly missiles last Tuesday, shocking the world with their new technique for terror. But they were only the visible agents of the conspiracy. As investigators and intelligence services worldwide raced to trace their movements and feverishly searched for other plots, it became increasingly apparent that the 19 were merely soldiers, part of a terrible new army that owes its allegiance to a cause, not a country. There were other hands on the control sticks of those planes: the masterminds who dreamed up the plot and who saw it through to catastrophic conclusion. The goal of the new war on terrorism is not only to arrest perps and break up plots but also to trace those lines of responsibility as far as they go, to prove moral responsibility for terrorist acts on the part of any world leaders who encourage them.
President Bush sounded the battle call last week for a war to be waged on a thousand fronts. The sprawling investigation now under way will help the White House shape a response: not only an attack of retribution against those who plotted this massacre but also a long line of moves designed to forestall future attacks. "This is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads, a conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible. Yet they are mistaken. They will be exposed," the President said last Saturday. "We will smoke them out of their holes." Secretary of State Colin Powell spread the word worldwide: You are with us or you are against us.