Hijack squads 'planned to seize eight aircraft'

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The Independent US

Two Delta airplanes that never took off in the confusion after the attacks on New York and Washington two weeks ago are now believed to have been additional targets for suicide hijacking teams – bringing the number of targeted planes to as many as eight.

Two delta airplanes that never took off in the confusion after the attacks on New York and Washington two weeks ago are now believed to have been additional targets for suicide hijacking teams – bringing the number of targeted planes to as many as eight.

Investigative sources tapped by various US media, said two Delta planes – one leaving Atlanta for Brussels and the other leaving from Boston – were found to have small knives and box-cutters on board in the passenger areas. That has raised suspicions that staff at US airports may have played an active role in the conspiracy and helped the hijackers to circumvent airport security.

Aside from the four planes that crashed US officials have said they suspect hijacking teams were on board at least two other flights already in the air when the alarm was sounded and all non-military aircraft were grounded across the US.

The Justice Department has made no official comment on the discovery, other than to say that box-cutters were found on an unspecified number of other aircraft. It is probably too early to say for certain that the box-cutters and knives were placed for malicious intent, but investigators are believed to be checking the passenger lists of the Delta flights in search of clues linking the names there with other suspected hijackers or their associates.

It is possible that at least some of the flights that have come under scrutiny were used as decoys, or as fallback targets. Two of the first people to be detained by federal investigators were taken off an Amtrak train in Texas after they were found to be carrying box-cutters and thousands of dollars. They have since been named as material witnesses and transferred to New York. They and three other suspected associates of the hijackers are believed to have been booked on a United airlines flight out of San Antonio last Saturday. The flight was cancelled.

As the investigation broadened – about 80 people were being held, most of them on immigration violations, and another 200 were put on a list of people wanted for questioning – the FBI seemed to be in little hurry to bring specific charges linking suspects to the attacks.

In part this is a question of time and in part it the nature of an investigation that is as much about military intelligence gathering as it is about criminal prosecutions.

Eric Holder, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, told the Chicago Tribune: "The aim is not to indict [Mr] bin Laden or al-Qa'ida, but to incapacitate them and fight them the way we fight a war."US authorities are now going back over intelligence reports received before 11 September that were either underestimated or too sketchy to understand fully at the time. A key lead that was never followed up involves Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan arrested by the immigration authorities in Minnesota in August after he was reported to be behaving suspiciously at a local flying school. French sources say he was on an international watch list as early as 1999.

A theory gaining credence is that Mr Moussaoui was supposed to be the fifth member of the hijacking team on board the flight which crashed in Pennsylvania. He has been named a material witness and is in FBI custody in New York.

* Five Afghan nationals were taken into police custody in Rome yesterday. The five men were stopped near the residence of the US Ambassador to the Vatican and taken to a nearby Carabinieri barracks for questioning. Police have said the men's behaviour was suspicious.

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