Friday, Oct. 05, 2001
Hijack 'Ringleader' Placed in Bin Laden Orbit
TIME Exclusive: The CIA has evidence that Mohammed Atta and other hijackers visited Al Qaida camps and met with Bin Laden's top deputy
BY DOUGLAS WALLER
The U.S. appears to have had little trouble convincing its allies that the September 11 terror attacks are the handiwork of Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaida network. And it's becoming easier to see why: TIME has learned that the CIA is in possession of travel and financial records that can place the hijackers' suspected ringleader, Mohamed Atta, along with several others in his group, at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. This confirms the suggestion reported in last week's issue of TIME magazine that "at the end of 1999, Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah reported their passports stolen, possibly to clear any record of travel to Afghanistan."
Intelligence sources have also told TIME that other travel documents reveal that Atta and several others in the group met with senior Al Qaida leaders, most notably Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader is believed to be Bin Laden's deputy, and the top operational commander of Al Qaida's networks.
The revelations follow Britain's release on Thursday of a document setting out the basis for a case against Al Qaida for the September 11 attack, which indicates, among other things, that Bin Laden had warned in the days before the attack that he was about to launch a major attack on America. The British document, based on telephone intercepts and information gleaned from interrogations in Europe since the attacks in New York and Washington, also reveals that orders were sent to a number of the network's key operatives to return to Afghanistan by September 10.
Al Qaida's often diffuse structures are designed specifically to avoid leaving behind trails of command responsibility detectable to investigators probing specific attacks. Under the circumstances, the CIA's evidence on Atta and others spending time at Al Qaida camps in Afghanistan and meeting with al-Zawahiri may be the closest thing revealed by the investigation thus far to a smoking gun.