Monday, May 20, 2002

Waleed (or Walid) Alshehri is alleged to be one of the September 11 hijackers, in fact on Flight 11 (which is one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center). There is a good article in the Boston Globe delving into the early life of Waleed and his brother Wail (another of the hijackers) in Saudi Arabia. They had relatively normal middle class childhoods in Saudi Arabia. Although they were brought up in a strict Wahabi household, they showed no early trace of the fundamentalism that would end in tragedy. The article tries to answer the same question we have about all the hijackers: What caused them to turn to such evil? To try to explain it, the writer of the article even has the brothers taking an oath to commit to jihad. There is only one small problem. Waleed is currently still alive, and works as a pilot for Royal Air Maroc. There was no conversion to evil fundamentalism. All that happened is that Waleed was sent by his employer to the United States for further aviation training (he studied at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, a school which originally feared that Waleed was involved as a hijacker in the terrorist operation that killed another graduate of the school, an officer on Flight 77, but later were relieved to find that their fears were unfounded). While in the United States, he had his identity stolen. This identity was then assumed by one of the hijackers, and used to confuse the American public. In fact, many if not all of the hijackers appear to be operating under assumed identities, identities which were individually crafted with great care. The creation of all 19 or 20 hijacker identities is a work of art, and whoever is responsible for it deserves to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The identities all started with Arab males from the Middle East who were at some time living outside of the Middle East. Sometimes the original identity had aspects of pious Islamic belief, or even involvement in fundamentalism. Sometimes the identity was entirely secular, but the original person had a background as a pilot. The goal was to lead to a composite false identity which included the Arab background, a connection to Islamic fundamentalism, and either pilot training or the capability to pass as someone who could hijack a plane using a boxcutter. Whatever was missing from the original stolen identity was added by documented behaviour in the United States. The beauty of the plan is that once the general framework of the faked identity was created, American journalists actually helped to complete the illusion by writing background articles like that one written in the Boston Globe. Here are three examples:

  1. Mohamed Atta was a pious fundamentalist architecture student from the Middle East living in Hamburg, Germany. He was afraid to fly, but his religious affiliation allowed him to serve as the connection to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Therefore, when his identity was stolen, his identity as a pilot was added to the composite fake identity by clearly tying the actor who assumed his identity to officer's training school in Montgomery, Alabama, and ostentatiously taking pilot training (the actor almost certainly was already a highly trained pilot). Due to the strong connection to fundamentalism that could be obtained through the stolen Atta identity, Atta was used as the ringleader of the group, so that all the hijackers could be connected to fundamentalist Islam (and ultimately binLaden/al-Qaeda) through him. The identity was further built up by having the fake Atta use a credit card in Atta's name in the United States, make an obvious spectacle of himself, and clearly be seen with many of the other hijackers.

  2. Ziad Samir Jarrah was interested in aircraft, and studied aeronautical engineering in Germany. It is unclear if he was a pilot, but the vague connection to aircraft was enough. He was completely secular, but knew the real Atta in Hamburg, which further made his identity valuable. The man who assumed his identity was again a trained pilot, and became associated with fundamentalist Islam throught his connection with Atta. In order to 'beef up' his reputation, the actor took a course in street-fighting techniques while in the United States.

  3. Waleed Alshehri had absolutely no connection with the real Atta or fundamentalist Islam, but was a trained pilot. He also had an easily obtainable identity, due to his having taken pilot training in the United States. His stolen identity was improved, as with all the hijackers, by having him ostentatiously take flight training. He went through the motions of attending a gym, presumably in order to make him seem to have been able to take over a plane using just a boxcutter, but was just there for show and simply stood around and didn't actually lift any weights. His fundamentalist credibility comes from his association with the fake Atta in the United States, and of course by having American journalists wonder just what could have happened to turn him into an evil fundamentalist. Although the confusion with the pilot who studied at Embry-Riddle was eventually discovered, the general composite identity of Waleed still seems to survive in the general comprehension of the public, and this continued confusion shows just how powerful this composite identity method is.

We can see in each case how a composite identity was carefully built up to contain both Middle Eastern and American components, with the final faked personal identity filled out to incorporate whatever was needed for the particular actor playing a particular hijacking role. I conclude with a quote from the head of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III, who, at a speech given to the Commonwealth Club of California on April 19, 2002, said: "The hijackers also left no paper trail. In our investigation, we have not uncovered a single piece of paper – either here in the U.S. or in the treasure trove of information that has turned up in Afghanistan and elsewhere – that mentioned any aspect of the September 11th plot." We can conclude from this that the FBI has found no information linking any personal identity to any of the hijackers, and we therefore know absolutely nothing about the real identity of any of them. I have to ask the same boring question: Who was capable of creating this kind of confusion? Was al-Qaeda? Was bin Laden?