A destroyer: even the brave fear its might.
It inspires horror in the harbor and in the open sea.
She sails into the waves
Flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and false power.
To her doom she moves slowly
A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.
In June 2001, Hamdan and Nashiri were sitting together in a guesthouse in Kandahar, and their conversation turned to the Cole. Nashiri, laughing, told Hamdan that while transporting the boat to be used for the operation, he had been stopped by a Yemeni policeman, who had asked to see the requisite papers for the craft. He didn’t have any papers, so instead he had convinced the officer to turn a blind eye to the incident with “qat money.” How easy it was to bribe a policeman in Yemen, Nashiri thought to himself, flushed with this success.
Hamdan was struck by how Nashiri gloried in his own role in the operation, failing to credit even Khamiri and Nibras, who were heavily involved in the planning and, of course, had lost their lives. This especially upset Hamdan, as the men had been friends of his. He and Khamiri had fought together in the front lines against the Northern Alliance. Nibras had been a witness at his wedding in Yemen. It was the last time Hamdan had seen him.
After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, an office used by al-Qaeda’s military committee was raided. One of the documents found, in a plastic sleeve, was Hasan al-Khamiri’s martyrdom letter. It was his farewell to his brothers. In the letter he spoke about jihad and al-Qaeda, and said his good-byes. On the side of the letter were doodles, with flowers on them.
September 9, 2001. After a long day working in Sanaa, George, Bob, and I were preparing to head to sleep in the room we were sharing in the Sheraton Hotel when the news came through that Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, had been assassinated.
Two men claiming to be Belgian journalists of Moroccan origin had met with him for an interview and had blown up their camera’s battery pack, which was filled with explosives, killing him. We later learned that their letter of introduction had been forged by Zawahiri and that they were Tunisian members of al-Qaeda.
Massoud was a committed Muslim and had been endorsed by many Islamic leaders, including Abdullah Azzam, who declared, after meeting him, “I have seen the true Islamic jihad, and it is Massoud.” But he opposed the Taliban and al-Qaeda, seeking a moderate alternative.
Massoud was a national hero, and his death meant the splintering of the Northern Alliance. His reputation and charisma were instrumental in keeping his group united, and he was one of the few unifying figures who could command the respect of most of the country.
I confided to George and Bob my fear that the assassination was not strictly about Massoud and the Taliban; that it was an action with wider meaning and resonance. “This is bigger. Al-Qaeda is trying to do something huge, and needs the Taliban’s support—so they killed Massoud, something the Taliban would be forever grateful for.”
“Dude, you scare me when you say this stuff,” George said. He brought up the memos I had written before the East African embassy bombings and before the Cole attack. “And look what happened. I hope you’re wrong.”
“I hope I’m wrong, too.”
The next day, September 10, the Taliban began a major offensive against the shaken Northern Alliance—one that had been clearly prepared for months in advance.
THE ATTACK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
14. The Binalshibh Riddle
August 29, 2001. Ramzi Binalshibh was awakened at 3:00 AM in his Hamburg apartment by the sound of the phone ringing. “Hello?” he answered groggily.
“Hello,” a voice replied. He instantly recognized it as that of his friend and former roommate Mohammed Atta.
“What’s going on?” Binalshibh asked.
“One of my friends related a riddle to me and I cannot solve it, and I called you so that you can solve it for me,” Atta told him.
“Two sticks, a dash, and a cake with a stick down,” Atta continued, and then he stopped speaking. Binalshibh was silent, waiting for Atta to say something else.
“Is this the riddle?” Binalshibh asked. He was confused, and half asleep. “You wake me from a deep sleep to tell me this riddle? Two sticks and I don’t know what else?”
There was still silence from Atta on the other end. He was waiting for his friend to understand the code the two had regularly used in the past. Binalshibh finally comprehended. “Okay,” he said to Atta. “Tell your friend that he has nothing to worry about. It’s such a sweet riddle.”
There was more Binalshibh wanted to say to his friend, as he knew he might never speak to him again, but it was too risky to do so on the open line. KSM had explicitly warned them to be careful, and there was too much at stake to take any risks. So Binalshibh kept his emotions to himself and put the receiver down.
He tied up loose ends in Hamburg, and on September 5, he went to Pakistan. From there he sent a trusted messenger to bin Laden and KSM, who were in Afghanistan, with the message: “The big attack on America will be on Tuesday, 11 September.”
That was the meaning of Atta’s riddle: the two sticks represented the number 11; the dash was a space; and the cake with a stick upside down was a nine. Together that made 11-9: 11 September. It meant that Atta had all his hijackers in place and had picked the date for al-Qaeda’s planes operation.
Ramzi Binalshibh was born in 1972 in Ghayl Bawazir, Yemen, and first tried getting to the United States in 1995, but his visa application was rejected. The United States at the time was suspicious of Yemeni visa seekers, believing they’d attempt to become illegal immigrants. Binalshibh tried moving to Germany—pretending to be a Sudanese citizen and applying for asylum under the name Ramzi Omar. He lived in Hamburg while this request was being investigated, and he attended mosques there, but eventually the request was denied. After returning to Yemen he then went back to Germany, this time under his real name and as a student. He was permitted to stay.
He continued attending mosques in Hamburg, now more regularly, and soon met an Egyptian student named Mohammed Atta. Born in Kafr el-Sheikh in 1968, Atta had moved to Hamburg to further his education in architecture. While they had different personalities—Atta was serious, dogmatic, and a focused student, and Binalshibh was outgoing, carefree, and a poor student—they shared an extremist outlook and became fast friends.
They eventually got an apartment together, which they shared with a student from the United Arab Emirates, Marwan al-Shehhi. Younger than Mohammed Atta and Binalshibh (he was born in 1978), like them Shehhi had become more religious in Germany, and frequented the same mosques.
Binalshibh became close friends with a Lebanese student named Ziad Jarrah, whom he also met at a Hamburg mosque. In Beirut, Jarrah had been known to regularly attend parties and discos, and initially in Germany he kept up that lifestyle. At some point he began dating a young woman named Aysel Senguen, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, and regularly slept over at her apartment. While he gradually appeared to become increasingly dogmatic in his faith, he never gave up his relationship with Senguen.