OSAMA bin Laden considered striking nuclear power stations as he planned the 11 September assault on America, according to an Arab television station with links to his al-Qaeda network.
He eventually decided to fly hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon instead because he feared a nuclear strike could “go out of control”.
In a documentary to be broadcast on the al-Jazeera network this week, two of bin Laden’s closest aides are said to have given the first detailed account of how the 11 September attacks were planned and executed.
They reveal the US Congress on Capitol Hill, and not the White House, was the intended target of the fourth hijacked airliner, United Airlines flight 93, which crashed into the Pennsylvanian countryside after its passengers fought back against the terrorists.
The fugitive al-Qaeda leaders also speak of their pride in the attacks and admiration for the “martyrs” who carried them out on what they refer to as “Holy Tuesday” and talk of carrying out a “thousand more operations like these”.
Although they claim bin Laden is still alive, the terror suspects offer no evidence and at one point are said to have referred to him in the past tense. A journalist working for al-Jazeera, which broadcast bin Laden videos in the aftermath of the attacks, claims to have interviewed the two men at a secret hideout in Pakistan.
The al-Qaeda leaders, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, are regarded by the US as two of the most senior members of the terrorist network still at large and have $25 million bounties on their heads.
Al-Jazeera correspondent Yosri Fouda published an account of his interview with the two men in the Sunday Times yesterday, in advance of a documentary scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday.
He said the interview took place in June after he was contacted by al-Qaeda and taken through a series of meetings starting in the Pakistani city of Karachi, eventually being led blindfold to a hotel room.
There he was introduced to Khalid and Binalshibh and interviewed them over a period of two days.
Fouda said that on his tapes, Khalid, 38, claimed to be the head of the al-Qaeda military committee while Binalshibh, 30, was said to be the “co-ordinator” of the US attacks.
Binalshibh is known to have been a member of the Hamburg-based terrorist cell led by Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 11 September hijackers, while Khalid is one of the leading figures in al-Qaeda.
Khalid said the decision to launch a “martyrdom operation” in America was taken at an al-Qaeda meeting in early 1999 and the first targets considered were nuclear facilities.
“The attacks were designed to cause as many deaths as possible and to be a big slap for America on American soil”, he added. It was decided not to choose nuclear targets “for fear it would go out of control”, Khalid added.
Mohammed Atta, who had been learning how to blend into Western society while living in Hamburg since 1992, was summoned to a meeting in Afghanistan in 1999 to discuss how he would co-ordinate the terror attacks.
Most of the other hijackers were trained terrorists recruited from al-Qaeda’s so-called Department of Martyrs.
Binalshibh was to have been the 20th hijacker but he was refused entry to the United States. He communicated with Atta via the internet using codewords to refer to the targets.
Atta pretended to be a student and in his internet messages referred to the targets as “university departments”. The twin towers were the “faculty of town planning”, the Pentagon was the “faculty of fine arts” and Capitol Hill was the “faculty of law”. During the interviews, Khalid also said that before Atta and his fellow hijackers travelled to the US to train to be pilots, al-Qaeda sent four reconnaissance teams to plan the operation.
Fouda said Binalshibh also showed him a suitcase filled with “souvenirs” – documents which helped in the planning of the attacks.
The al-Jazeera journalist said he detected an element of “disruption” in the al-Qaeda leadership during his interviews and suspected that it might indicate bin Laden was dead.
“Khalid made a ‘slip of the tongue’ referring to bin Laden in the past tense. But I also began to see cracks opening up in the organisation,” Fouda wrote in the Sunday Times.
“I am driven to the interpretation that something is wrong within the upper reaches of al-Qaeda – some sort of disruption. I now believe it is more likely that bin Laden is dead.”