Al-Qaeda planned Eilat plane attack

23 July 2004: In the summer of 2001, shortly before the September 11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the terrorist plot against the US, suggested to Osama bin Laden that al-Qaida recruit a Saudi pilot “to commandeer a Saudi fighter jet and attack the Israeli city of Eilat,” the final report of the national commission investigating the attacks says.

Bin Laden, the 567-page report released in Washington on Thursday says, reportedly “liked this proposal” but urged Mohammed to focus on the 9/11 operation first.

Earlier in 2001, at Bin Laden’s direction, Mohammed had also dispatched an al-Qaida operative “to case potential economic and ‘Jewish targets’ in New York City.” Scattered through the report are references to al-Qaida’s desire to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets as well as American ones. Bin Laden, as has been reported, had urged Mohammed to advance the date of the attacks so they could coincide with the controversy over Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

Bin Laden, so eager to get the plot going, told Mohammed it would be “enough for the hijackers simply to down planes rather than crash them into specific targets.” Mohammed, who was captured in 2003, says he “resisted the pressure.”

Bin Laden was keeping a close eye on the intifada. “One senior al-Qaida operative claims to recall Bin Laden arguing that attacks against the United States needed to be carried out immediately to support insurgency in the Israeli-occupied territories and protest the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia,” the report says.

The report also says that Mullah Omar, the ousted and now fugitive Taliban leader, pressed al-Qaida to attack Jews, “not necessarily the United States,” perhaps out of fear of retaliation.

The report speculates that Daniel Lewin, a former IDF officer who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the first to be hijacked and subsequently piloted into the World Trade Center, may have been the first to try to rebel against the hijackers.

As Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker, and Abdul Aziz al Omari moved toward the cockpit, “passenger Daniel Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari, was stabbed by one of the hijackers - probably Satam al Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin,” the report says. “Lewin had served four years as an officer in the Israeli military. He may have made an attempt to stop the hijackers in front of him, not realizing that another was sitting behind him,” it adds. Lewin, 31, had served in the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and was a hi-tech entrepreneur.

Dov Shefi of Or Yehuda, whose son, Hagay, 34, was among the victims of the September 11 attack, said he was not comforted by the report’s release. “I lost my son and nothing will return him, no report whatsoever will bring him back,” he said. Shefi watched its release on television Thursday, but said he did not want to comment on it.

Hagai Shefi had moved to New Jersey in 1992 along with his wife Sigal. He was director-general of the GoldTier Technologies Inc, which he set up along with another colleague.

“I do not want to enter into accusations,” said Shefi. “The murder of these 3,000 people is not reversible. Even if [the report] establishes facts that there were failures, our genius son will not be returned. Future recommendations are not going to help me.”

He said that while he thinks of his son every day, events regarding
September 11 “raise all the thoughts and emotions that come with it. Losing a son is like losing part of your body, you never live as you used to live.”

The three other Israeli victims who died in the crash were Leon Lebor, 51, Alona Abraham, 30, and Shay Levinhar, 29.

The Bush administration had early on resisted publication of the commission’s findings before the November election. But, while commission chairman Thomas Kean, in presenting the report said “the government failed to protect the American people,” the commission blamed institutional failures and “a failure of imagination” rather than individuals.

“[On] that September day, we were unprepared. We did not grasp the magnitude of a threat that had been gathering over a considerable period of time. As we detail in our report, this was a failure of policy, management, capability, and above all, a failure of imagination,” Kean, told reporters. “[Since] the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them.

What we can say with a good deal of confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the United States government before 9/11 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al-Qaida plot. There were several unexploited opportunities,” he added. Among them, Kean said, was the government’s failure to watch-list some of the future hijackers before they arrived in the US, “or take adequate steps to find them once they were here.” It did not link the arrest of Zacarias Moussaui, “described as interested in flight training for the purpose of using an airplane as a terrorist act, to the heightened indications of attack.”

“No-fly lists did not include names from terrorist watch lists, and airline passenger screening was lax. And, more broadly, the United States government was simply not active enough in combatting the terrorist threat before 9/11,” Kean said.

Later in the day Kean noted that September 11 was a “massive failure at all sorts of levels,” but that the commission did not think it was right for particular individuals to be blamed, or to “walk the plank.”

The report noted, in its indictment of the lack of bureaucratic imagination, that because al-Qaida previously used vehicles to deliver explosives, “the leap to the use of other vehicles such as boats… or planes is not far-fetched.”

And it said that neither President George W. Bush nor former president Bill Clinton fully understood “just how many people al-Qaida might kill, and how soon it might do it.”

Bush said Thursday that he looks forward “to working with responsible parties within my administration to move forward on those recommendations. As well, we look forward to working with the Congress on the implementation of ways to do our duty. And the most important duty we have is the security of our fellow countrymen.”

Among the report’s key recommendations is a call for the creation of a national intelligence chief to coordinate all intelligence gathering, and that a joint congressional committee be created to oversee homeland security. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, said reform of US intelligence gathering was “long overdue,” and suggested that internal disputes in the Bush administration had left Americans less safe than they could be.

In New York, the state’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, told NY1 that the report’s recommendations may be difficult to implement.

“Washington is a turf-conscious town, and to make all of this intelligence gathering work, people are going to have to give up turf, both in the executive branch and in Congress,” he said. A former counter-terrorism chief who has been critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror, Richard Clarke, criticized the report on ABC’s Good Morning America.

“To get unanimity they didn’t talk about a number of things, like what effect is the war in Iraq having on our battle against terrorism,” he said.

“What they didn’t do is say that the country is actually not safer now than it was then because of the rise in terrorism after our invasion in Iraq.” The report, meanwhile, became an instant bestseller, landing at the top of Barnes and Noble’s on-line bestseller list and in the top 10 at Amazon. A paperback edition of the 567-page report retails for $10.