What was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s role in organizing the 9/11 attacks?

(CNN Spanish) — On September 11, 2001, more than 20 years ago, al Qaeda terrorists kidnapped four planes commercial aircraft on the East Coast of the United States and caused them to crash at different points in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, an al Qaeda leader killed in a US drone attack on Sunday, was one of the main masterminds behind the group’s actions.

What do we know, two decades later, about these attacks, the deadliest in US history, and the role of al Zawahiri, at that time Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man?

Four commercial aircraft and four targets

Terrorists hijacked and forced American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, both operated by Boeing 767 aircraft, to crash into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, killing 2,753 people. . the towers collapsed 102 minutes after the attack.

Flight 11, which covered the route from Boston to Los Angeles, carried 87 passengers and crew, and crashed into the WTC North Tower at 8:46 am US Eastern Time. Five hijackers took control of this flight.

New York City firefighters work at the World Trade Center after two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Credit: Ron Agam/Getty Images

Flight 175, which covered the same route, carried 60 passengers and crew and crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. It was taken by five hijackers.

At 9:37 AM, a third plane (Boeing 757), American Airlines Flight 77 that covered the route between Dulles (Washington) and Los Angeles, crashed into the Pentagon building, headquarters of the Department of Defense in Virginia. It was carrying 59 passengers and crew. In the Pentagon building they also died 125 people on the ground, bringing the total number of victims to 184. It was also taken over by five hijackers.

The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93 (Boeing 757), crashed to the ground at 10:03 am in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 40 passengers and crew. This flight had four hijackers on board.

The tribute to Flight 93 at the crash site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001. (Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

It is believed that the plane, which covered the route between Newark (New York) and San Francisco and was piloted by Ziad Jarrah after the hijacking, possibly had as objective the Capitol or the White House, but that the passengers on board tried to retake control and the terrorists decided to crash.

In total, 2,977 people died and thousands were injured.

The 19 terrorists involved

The group that carried out the attacks was made up of 19 terrorists led by Mohamed Atta, according to data from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks in the United States, created by the US Congress in 2002 and who presented his findings in 2004.

They all belonged to the al Qaeda terrorist organization and had arrived in the United States months earlier.

American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked by the Egyptian Mohamed Atta, who acted as pilot, and the Saudis Abdulaziz al-Omari, Wail al Shehri, Waleed al Shehri and Satam al Suqami.

The hijackers of United Flight 175 were the Saudis Ahmed al Ghamdi, Hamza al Ghamdi, Mohand al Shehri and, from the United Arab Emirates, Fayez Banihammad and Marwan al Shehhi, as pilot.

Images of some of the hijackers who participated in the attacks, in the National Museum of September 11 in New York. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On American Airlines Flight 77, the hijackers were the Saudis Hani Hanjour -also the pilot- Nawaf al Hazmi, Salem al Hazmi, Khalid al Mihdhar and Majed Moqed.

United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked by Saudis Saeed al Ghamdi, Ahmad al Haznawi, Ahmed al Nami and Lebanese pilot Ziad Jarrah.

How the attacks were organized

The core group of kidnappers consisted of Atta, Jarrah, al Shehhi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh Billed as the 20th member who failed to obtain a visa to travel to the United States in time for the attacks and was later arrested in Pakistan (he remains in Guantánamo prison).

The four known as the “Hamburg Cell”made up of university students of Arab origin living in Germany, and were the main planners of the attack.

Before 1999 they were not known to have any links to al Qaeda but an affiliation with jihadism, according to the 585-page report by the National comission. By the end of that year, however, they began receiving money transfers from the group and are believed to have been recruited.

The terrorist Zia Samir Jarrah took flight lessons at the municipal airport in Venice, Florida, and later participated in the hijacking of Flight 93. The FBI had warned about these activities. (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Along with the Emirati Fayez Banihammad, the members of the “Hamburg Cell” were the only ones not from Saudi Arabia. They were then joined by 15 Saudis with ties to al Qaeda, albeit less educated: only one of them, Hanjour, would take the piloting classes needed to carry out the attack.

In addition to the 19 terrorists who ultimately carried out the attack, there were numerous al Qaeda members who assisted in the operation, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” behind the attacks who maintained contact with the hijackers in the US and would have raised this attack with bin Laden in 1996, the French Zacarias Moussaoui (arrested in early 2001) and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, implicated in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole.

The arrival of the kidnappers in the United States

The first to arrive in the United States were the Saudis Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, who arrived in Los Angeles, California, in January 2000, according to the National Commission report. Soon after, they moved to San Diego, where they tried — unsuccessfully — to learn English and take flying lessons, and where they mixed with the Muslim community.

Between May and June 2000, the three members of the “Hamburg Cell” arrived in Newark, New Jersey, on flights from Brussels and Prague, according to the reconstruction of the National comission. Atta, Jarrah and al Shehhi moved to Venice, Florida to take flying lessons using funds they received through bank transfers from Dubai, arranged by Mohammed.

How a blind man escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 3:33

In this case, the three future hijackers did manage to learn to fly: Atta and al Shehhi managed to pass their first exams although they failed an instrument use test; while Jarrah got his pilot’s certificate in August.

Hanjour, the fourth pilot in the attack, had traveled to the United States between 1997 and 1999 to learn to fly in Arizona, and had obtained a commercial pilot certificate before traveling to Saudi Arabia. She returned to the United States to participate in the attacks on December 8, 2000, arriving in San Diego for training on large commercial aircraft.

The last steps

Once Atta, al Shehhi, Jarrah and Hanjour completed their pilot training, the remaining hijackers, who would be tasked with taking control of the planes by force, were recruited by al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and trained in Afghanistan, before to be shipped to the United States on a staggered basis beginning in April 2001.

Atta and al Shehhi were in charge of receiving the kidnappers at the airports and organizing their stays in the United States before the attack, according to the National Commission report.

At the same time, the four pilots made numerous trips as airline passengers to gather intelligence, while Atta flew to Madrid, Spain, in June to meet with Bin al Shibh and finalize details.

US warns of risk of violence around 9/11 0:47

In the first days of September, the four teams traveled to the cities from which they would board the flights: Boston, Dulles and Newark. They checked into hotels and for days they killed time going to the gym and eating pizzauntil the arrival of September 11.

Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda

Behind the 19 men who carried out the attacks and those who helped with the planning and logistics from outside the United States, was al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden, who came from an influential business family in Saudi Arabia and who was eventually dead in a US operation in 2011.

After participating in the jihadist resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan that began in 1979, bin Laden founded al Qaeda (“the base” in Arabic) in 1988 as an organization dedicated to global jihad.

Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia but quickly came into conflict with the presence of US troops there, who used the country as a base to attack Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War.

From that moment al Qaeda began to concentrate its actions against the United States.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in an old file photo. (Credit: Getty Images).

The role of al-Zawahiri

Leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, Ayman al Zawahiri met Osama bin Laden in 1987, and the relationship between the two grew: he was bin Laden’s personal doctor and later came to be considered his second-in-command, after the 1998 merger between Islamic Jihad Egyptian with al Qaeda.

According to the report of the National comission, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri published a 1998 fatwa or fatwa (Islamic law) in an Arab newspaper in London calling on Muslims around the world to kill Americans “wherever possible” because of the “war.” against God” declared by the United States.

Al Zawahiri was the highest-ranking Egyptian in al Qaeda and, as the leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, he played a central role in recruiting his countrymen into bin Laden’s organization. In fact, the tactical leader of the September 11 attacks, who also piloted American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, was also Egyptian: Mohammed Atta.

Ayman al-Zawahiri with Osama bin Laden.

In the hours after the September 11 attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush prepared an ultimatum for the Taliban in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda’s leadership was believed to be based: hand over Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

Since then the United States had been searching for al-Zawahiri, whom he finally killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan on Sunday.

A series of attacks against the US

In early 1993 al Qaeda became involved in the first attack on the twin towerswhich left a balance of six dead and hundreds injured by the explosion of a bomb.

That same year 18 United States soldiers they died in Somalia, ambushed by insurgents who would have been trained by al Qaeda. Because of this fact, the United States began to actively search for bin Laden, whom it formally accused of training the insurgents.

In 1997 the leader of al Qaeda gave his first interview with the Western media, in which said told CNN that the United States was “unjust, criminal and tyrannical.

“The United States, today, and as a result of an atmosphere of arrogance, has established a double standard, calling anyone who goes against its injustice a terrorist. It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to govern us,” he said. bin Laden, later confirming al Qaeda’s involvement in the 1993 ambush.

In 1998, al Qaeda launched attacks against US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people, and in 2000 he set off a bomb on the destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 people, as he began to prepare a full-scale attack on American soil.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2021 and updated in 2022.

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