Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization may have moved up the Sept.11 attacks on New York and Washington because law enforcement agencies were closing in on al-Qaida operatives in America, according to documents uncovered by MSNBC.com and NBC News.
MORE THAN FOUR months into the Sept. 11 investigation, al-Qaida’s original attack plans are drawing intense focus from U.S. intelligence officials, who have long believed that the terror network wanted the plane hijackings to be part of a larger assault on even more targets.
The documents — notebooks written by al-Qaida students during lessons from the terror organization’s senior members — were uncovered at a training camp in southern Afghanistan. They were written in Arabic and translated by MSNBC.com and NBC News.
Among the most intriguing revelations in these documents are references to the Sept. 11 attacks being staged earlier than planned. In one notebook, a student quotes an official as saying that “we accomplished the work before the date which was fixed,” suggesting that the day of the attack was moved forward.
“We very quickly targeted Washington (and) the trade place,” the al-Qaida official is quoted as saying in the student’s notebook.
The training camp, called Meivand by U.S. intelligence officials because of its proximity to a village of the same name, was one of the terror organization’s largest. Up to 700 al-Qaida fighters and officials lived at the complex, which had its own electricity and water supply.
The information gathered by MSNBC.com and NBC News interests investigators trying to piece together al-Qaida’s planning before Sept. 11, senior U.S. government officials say.
PLAN MOVED UP?
U.S. officials say there are several possible reasons al-Qaida could have moved to initiate the Sept. 11 attack ahead of other terror acts:
On Aug. 17, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-born Moroccan, was arrested after drawing the attention of instructors at a flight school in Minnesota. Moussaoui is believed to have been training as a hijacker for one of the flights commandeered on Sept. 11, and he has since been charged with a role in the attacks. Moussaoui’s arrest, U.S. officials say, may have put pressure on al-Qaida to move forward with a scaled-back assault. The other hijackers bought their airline tickets soon after Moussaoui’s detention.
On Oct. 14, the day the air war began, al-Qaida’s spokesman, Abu Ghaith, was seen with bin Laden in a videotape released to the Arabic news network al-Jazeera. In the video, he suggested that the Sept. 11. attacks were part of a larger conspiracy that involved dozens of airliners. Gaith warned Muslims to stay away from tall buildings and flying. “The storms of planes will not stop,” he said.
In a December video that shows bin Laden speaking about the terror attacks, the al-Qaida chief says that on “the previous Thursday” — Sept. 6 — he ordered the attack to take place the following Tuesday. That decision came just weeks after Moussaoui’s arrest.
U.S. officials also speculate that the pressure on al-Qaida to launch the attack early could have links to Richard Reid, the alleged shoe-bomber, arrested after passengers on his flight caught him trying to set off explosives contained in his shoe in December. Reid and Moussaoui, U.S. officials now believe, knew each other from a mosque in a London suburb and may have trained together in Afghanistan.
There has been speculation in U.S. government circles that the type of attack allegedly planned by Reid — destroying an airliner in flight — was originally meant to coincide with the attacks on New York and Washington.
Reid has also been linked to al-Qaida’s plans to use jetliners to attack tall buildings. The Wall Street Journal, citing information deciphered from a hard drive on an al-Qaida computer, reported that in June 2001 Reid traveled to Israel to survey tall buildings in Tel Aviv.
In the Meivand camp in Afghanistan, there were other clues to the terror organization’s plans. The remote facility — part of al-Qaida’s al-Farooq training complex — was bombed by U.S. warplanes on Jan. 1. Four days later, U.S. special forces and intelligence experts converged on the camp and carted away “boxes of documents,” according to Afghans who scavenge the site daily. Investigators also continue to sift through the remains of the camp, they said.
WINDOW ON AL-QAIDA
The student notebooks were among many documents apparently left behind by U.S. investigators on the scene. The students’ notes detail the lectures of their instructors, whose teachings offer a window onto the training of terrorists and the al-Qaida organization itself. There is a suggestion, for example, that al-Qaida considered attacking a Muslim target on Sept. 11 in order to throw off investigators, who the organization assumed would not suspect al-Qaida for striking an Islamic country.
The Meivand camp’s school system was extensive. Two large caves served as a classroom and library. Copies of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, were stacked next to manuals for operating shoulder-filed missiles.
Well-fortified and surrounded by mines, the camp security guards kept a close eye out for intruders. Afghans in a nearby village said they watched as “Arabs” built the camp two years ago.
“We weren’t allowed to come near the place,” said Mohammed Gul, a herder. “Once, my brother let his sheep graze too close to the camp, and they shot at him.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Afghanistan. NBC’s Robert Windrem contributed to this report.