As horrifying and deadly as it was, Sept. 11 apparently just might have been even worse. That was only one of the revelations about both the plot and the U.S. response to it that the independent commission investigating the attacks made public last week. Some of the information released by the commission had already been reported--or at least hinted at--in books and memoirs published since the attacks, but its extensive review of classified materials--including unprecedented access to interrogations of high-level al-Qaeda detainees--gives its findings greater sweep and credibility. So what new details have we learned? The most eye-opening nuggets can be divided into three main categories:
THE ORIGINAL PLOT WAS BIGGER AND BOLDER
When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first floated the plan to Osama bin Laden in 1996, it proposed the hijacking of 10, not four, planes, on both the East and West coasts. In addition to the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Capitol or White House, possible targets included CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear-power plants and the tallest buildings in California and Washington State. Mohammed hoped to pilot the 10th plane himself and land it after killing all the adult male passengers. He then planned to make a fiery, anti-American speech on the tarmac and release all the women and children.
Mohammed and a second captured al-Qaeda leader, Ramzi Binalshibh, told interrogators different stories about the role of Zacarias Moussaoui, a possible 20th hijacker, according to the commission. Mohammed said Moussaoui was supposed to participate in a second wave of attacks, on the West Coast, after Sept. 11, while Binalshibh believed that Moussaoui was to be part of the primary plot. There are also indications that Moussaoui was viewed as a possible replacement for Ziad Jarrah, the eventual pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, whom al-Qaeda officials feared might drop out. The operation ultimately cost only $400,000 to $500,000.
BIN LADEN WAS MORE INVOLVED
Bin Laden, it turns out, was more of a micromanager than he has often been portrayed as. The commission says bin Laden personally gave Mohammed the go-ahead to begin laying the groundwork for the attack at a meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 1999. Over the following 12 to 18 months, bin Laden chose or accepted oaths from all 19 of the eventual hijackers and tapped Mohammed Atta to be the mission's leader. Throughout the planning stage, bin Laden was the one who scaled back the more ambitious proposals. The key sources of the new information are Mohammed and Binalshibh. Both were in a position to have extensive knowledge of the plot, but some details they gave U.S. interrogators remain largely uncorroborated.
Bin Laden, the detainees claimed, did not always get his way. As early as mid-2000, he was so incensed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he told Mohammed to go ahead with the mission right away. Twice more in 2001, bin Laden pushed in vain for the operation to start. In the end, he did assert ultimate authority in ordering the attacks, over the opposition of senior al-Qaeda officials and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who were worried that a direct attack on the U.S. would provoke a war with the U.S. or trouble with Pakistan.