The Cell

Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It


By John C. Miller

By Michael Stone

By Chris Mitchell

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September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a new era in history, but the forces that triggered those attacks have been in place for years and continue to operate within the United States and abroad. Experts estimate that as many as 500 terrorist cells exist in America today. ABC News journalist John Miller has been tracking this story since his coverage of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He was the first American journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden, and he has a sophisticated knowledge of the structure and workings of extremist organizations. The Cell contains information gleaned from sources within the FBI, CIA, and the local law enforcement communities currently conducting the investigation into the September 11 attacks.



A decision was made to publish the first edition of The Cell on schedule rather than delay its release for the weeks that would have been necessary to complete endnotes. With the paperback edition, we are able now to give due credit to all the primary and secondary sources from which the book drew, including those journalists whose work had contributed to the available public knowledge about the September 11 attacks.

We wish to apologize to Terry McDermott, the author of a superb Los Angeles Times profile of Mohamed Atta. McDermott’s reporting and observations about Atta’s formative years provided essential material for our Chapter 16, yet in the first edition there was only a single attribution to the Los Angeles Times in that chapter and none to Mr. McDermott. Our true debt to his work is reflected in both the new endnotes and in attributions we’ve added to the chapter.


September 11, 2001, started out as such a nice day—no, a beautiful day. Then it all turned.

ABC News/Good Morning America, 9:05 A.M.


Well, we see—it appears that there is more and more fire and smoke enveloping the very top of the building, and as fire crews are descending on this area, it—it does not appear that there’s any kind of an effort up there yet. Now remember—Oh, my God!


Oh my God! Oh my God!


That looks like a second plane has just hit…

How many times have you heard someone say, “Well, things will never be the same.” It is rarely true. Things always go back to being the same. But not this time. Before the day was out many of my friends were dead. Many had just barely escaped. Many of them were badly hurt. Many who got out without even a scrape will be emotionally scarred for years if not forever. Many of them don’t even know it yet, or just won’t admit it.

Things will never be the same.

I have been a crime reporter since I was a teenager.* I have seen or heard everything that a crime reporter could. Or so I thought, until September 11, 2001. I was listening to the citywide radio frequency of the NYPD when I heard Joe Esposito, the NYPD chief, yell into his radio: “Car 3 to Central, advise the Pentagon New York City is under attack!” Been around a long time. Hadn’t heard that one before.

I sat with Peter Jennings at the anchor desk in New York watching the flames when a plume of white smoke appeared where the South Tower had stood.


The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. The entire building has just collapsed…it folded down on itself and it’s not there anymore.


We are talking about massive casualties here at the moment and we have—whoo—that is extraordinary.


There is panic on the streets. There are people screaming and running from the site. The gigantic plume of smoke has reached me and I’m probably a quarter of a mile north of there.

By the time the Towers collapsed in a cloud of metal and dust and humanity, I knew this was the work of bin Laden. No one told me. No one had to. It had been a long time coming. I was part of the small club, regarded by many as alarmists, who had been predicting a major attack on U.S. soil since just before the millennium. Even so, I never imagined this result. Nor, do I think, did anyone else.

Things will never be the same.

Those of us who had studied terrorism in general or bin Laden in particular knew that the most reliable way to predict future behavior was to examine past behavior. Truck-bombs, murders, yes—even airplane hijackings. But no one had ever used a huge jetliner as a projectile—a missile—against a skyscraper before. No one had ever committed mass murder on this scale in a set of coordinated acts of terrorism in a single day. Not until September 11, 2001. That was the day my crime story turned into a war. Or had it been one all along?

We all asked, how could this have happened, how could we not have known, why were we not prepared? This book will answer many of those questions. No doubt years will be spent parsing every memo and intelligence report to see what little clues might have been missed. We will deal with that in this story too. But if there is any true value to this narrative, it is not the little picture of the single clue passed over; it is the big picture, the one you have to stand back from, to appreciate its shape and detail.

How did this happen to us? To find the answers we had to go back more than a decade and follow the thread forward to September 11, 2001. As we did, a recurring pattern emerged. It raises questions: Was the FBI fully up to the job of countering terrorists? What about the CIA? Was terrorism a priority in the Bush White House or in Ashcroft’s Justice Department prior to September 11, 2001?

This is not a book about how the FBI agents or the CIA’s officers on the front lines screwed up. Quite the contrary. Successful cases and captures were made. A number of horrific terrorist plots were disrupted. We found in almost every case that the cops, agents and spies who followed their instincts were usually in the right place and on the right trail. But we found a recurring pattern. Over and over again the investigators were waved off the right trail. The reasons ranged from risk-averse bosses to bureaucratic structures that seemed designed to ensure that the left hand would never know what the right hand was doing.

What struck us was the remarkable stories of those investigators. What we learned is that for more than a decade, the very system they worked for seemed to conspire against them as often as it supported them.

In many ways it seems like America was the sleeping giant. Every time the terrorism alarm went off, the giant stirred to consciousness, hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Each time it sounded the alarm was a little louder. The Kahane murder, the World Trade Center bombing, the plot to blow up bridges and tunnels, the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole attack.

In 1998, I sat with Osama bin Laden in a hut in Afghanistan as he told me he was declaring war on America. His words at the time may have sounded hyperbolic, but read them now.

“We are sure of our victory. Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians. We predict a black day for America and the end of the United States.”

From the moment bin Laden declared war on America, one of his frustrations seemed to be that he couldn’t get America to declare war back. Not until the loudest and bloodiest alarm sounded on September 11 did the giant finally awake.


On the morning of September 11, 2001, Michael Wright, a 30-year-old sales executive, woke at 6:30. Stocky, with a broad Irish face and an easy manner, he rolled over to hug his wife, then remembered she’d gone with their four-month-old son to visit Michael’s parents in Boston. With the place to himself, Wright thought about sleeping in, but heard his grandfather’s voice barking at him from the grave: “Get your lazy butt to work.”

Outside his apartment—a brownstone floor-through facing Prospect Park in Brooklyn—it was a brilliant end-of-summer day, bell-clear with a hint of coolness in the air. Wright was looking forward to work. He had two deals pending and with plans to buy his apartment, he was eager for the commissions. Showered and dressed, he made the subway commute into Lower Manhattan in 20 minutes and exited on Broadway and Dey Street, two blocks due east of his office, a telecommunications equipment company headquartered in the World Trade Center.

Looking up, he marveled at the familiar Twin Towers massed against the sky. Sunlight glanced off the steel rails running up the buildings’ sides, making them shine. But what really impressed Wright was their size, their head-snapping height, the sheer, unholy dimensions of their heavenly reach. They embodied, as no other buildings did, the economic muscle he wanted his company to project each time he handed out his business card or told someone where he worked. He walked briskly across the plaza and took the elevator to the 81st floor of the North Tower, getting to his desk by 7:45.

While Wright got started on paperwork, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was bullying midtown traffic in his official car, a white SUV familiarly known as the ice-cream van. He was headed for a breakfast meeting at the Peninsula Hotel on West 55th Street with his counsel, Dennison Young, then back uptown to the Richard R. Green School in Harlem to vote in the elections that would determine his successor. It was Primary Day in New York and the city’s political nerves were twitching.

As Giuliani entered the Peninsula’s starched dining room shortly after 8:00 A. M., American Airlines Flight 11 was making its ascent over Boston’s Logan Airport. En route to Los Angeles, the wide-bodied jet carried 81 passengers and a crew of 11. About 10 minutes later, a second Boeing 767 took off for LA. This flight, United Airlines 175, carried 56 passengers and a crew of nine. Both flights departed without incident, and control tower workers were settling into their early-morning routines when at 8:14, the American plane failed to respond to an air-traffic controller’s instruction to increase its altitude. The controller tried to raise the pilot on the radio, without success. Then at 8:24, he overheard a strange communication originating from the plane’s cockpit. “We have some planes,” an accented male voice announced. “Just stay quiet and you will be okay. We are returning to the airport. Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”

Moments before, an American Airlines reservations supervisor had received a call from Betty Ong, a flight attendant on Flight 11, describing a hijacking in progress. According to the Wall Street Journal, the supervisor had patched the call through to Craig Marquis, the veteran manager-on-duty at American’s operations center in Fort Worth, Texas. Nearly hysterical, Ong told him that two flight attendants had been stabbed and that one was on oxygen. The hijackers, she said, had also slit one passenger’s throat and stormed the cockpit.

While Marquis verified Ong’s employee number and gleaned details about the hijackers’ seat assignments, air-traffic controllers tried to track the hijacked plane’s flight path. It had turned south over Albany in the direction of New York City and begun flying erratically—apparently while the hijackers were overcoming the pilots—but the hijackers had then turned off the flight transponder, a device that allows controllers to distinguish a plane’s radar image from among the hundreds of other blips on a screen. The controllers had no idea where the plane was heading.

As the controllers made last-ditch efforts to communicate with AAL 11, Madeline Amy Sweeney, a 35-year-old attendant on the flight, called Michael Woodward, an American flight services manager at Logan, and went on to calmly describe the hijackers as four Middle Eastern men, some wearing red bandanas and wielding box cutters. “This plane,” she said, “has been hijacked.”

Suddenly, she reported, the plane swerved and began descending. “What’s your location?” Woodward asked her. Sweeney looked out a window and told him she saw water and buildings.

“Oh my God,” she said then. “Oh my God.”

About 8:45 Michael Wright visited the men’s room, located near the elevator bank at the center of the 81st floor of the North Tower. On his way out he ran into a coworker, Arturo Gonzalez, and stopped briefly to chat with him. Suddenly the building shuddered and Wright heard a crash—a screeching, metal-on-metal jolt—and was thrown back against the wall.

The lights blinked and for a moment, the whole building seemed to teeter. Wright waited for the room to settle and adjusted his vision. Everything had changed. The marble facade on the opposite wall was shattered and a huge crack had opened up in the drywall behind. The floor had buckled and Gonzalez was propped up against the broken vanity. The sinks themselves had moved out from the wall. “What the fuck was that?” Wright asked.

“Holy shit,” Gonzalez intoned.

Smoke threaded through the air between them.

They headed out to the hallway, where the devastation was horrendous. Chunks of roof were falling, the facing wall was ripped open and the elevator doors to their right had blown out. The whole building, Wright realized, had shifted on its foundation. Every joining surface was awry; every hinge was twisted or bent. A crater had opened in the floor ahead of him exposing wires, pipes, girders and beams at least ten floors below. Acrid smoke poured out of the elevator shafts.

Wright’s instinct was to get the hell out of there, but instead he turned back toward his office to check on his coworkers. As he ran past the elevators, he heard screaming from the ladies’ room. The jamb above the door had caved, trapping whoever was inside. Gonzalez and another colleague began kicking down the door.

Wright’s 30 or so officemates were pouring out into the hall. Some were calm, others terrified or in tears. He directed them to the stairwell. Flaming chunks of material were falling around them and Wright could smell burning fuel, though he had no idea where it was coming from.

John O’Neill, the World Trade Center’s 49-year-old chief of security, dashed out of his South Tower office to assess the situation. A brusque, larger-thanlife New York character, O’Neill had spent all but a few days of his professional life at the FBI, the last eight years as one of its top counterterrorism officials. Ironically, he’d retired from the Bureau two weeks before in order to take what friends called a cushy private-sector job, and former colleagues still regarded him as the nation’s most knowledgeable counterterrorist. Only the night before, over dinner with friends, he’d expressed a fear that New York was ripe for an attack like the one he now found himself in the midst of. He made a quick damage inspection, placed a call on his cell phone, and then sprinted back inside to help coordinate the rescue effort.

Joe Lhota, Rudy Giuliani’s chief of staff, felt the explosion in his office at City Hall almost a half mile from the World Trade Center. He dashed out onto the steps, saw the flames engulfing the tower and called Giuliani at the Peninsula. An aide answered the phone. “Tell the mayor a plane has hit the Trade Center,” Lhota said.

Back downtown at One Police Plaza, anxious aides pounded on Bernie Kerik’s bathroom door. The 46-year-old bullet-shaped police commissioner had worked out earlier in the vest-pocket gym attached to his office and was taking advantage of a break in his busy schedule to shower and change. He answered the door wearing nothing but a towel, a beardful of shaving cream, and a “this better be good” expression.

“A plane just hit the World Trade towers,” several staffers said at once.

“All right, relax. Calm down,” Kerik said, noting the worry in their faces. He was thinking small aircraft, an accident.

“You don’t understand, Boss,” John Picciano, his chief aide, said. “You can see it from the window. It’s enormous.”

Kerik realized that every phone on the floor was ringing.

Still wrapped in a towel, he followed Picciano through the outer office to a conference room at the southwest corner of the building and looked out at the Trade Center. Then he ran back to his office to call the mayor, who was already headed downtown, and got dressed.

He was out of the building within four minutes, at the scene in eight. Pulling up in his black four-door Chrysler at the corner of Vesey and West Broadway, he saw people jumping out of windows 90, 100 stories up, one after another. For the first time in his 25-year law enforcement career, he felt totally helpless.

More than a thousand miles away, at American’s operations center in Fort Worth, top executives were experiencing similar feelings. With the assistance of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the center’s technicians had finally managed to isolate Flight 11’s radar image on Aircraft Situation Display—a big-screen tracking device used for just such emergencies—and stunned officials watched as the blips approached New York, froze and then vanished. Still no one knew what had happened. Even when a ramp supervisor called from Kennedy Airport several minutes later to report that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, they couldn’t believe that it was Flight 11.

Meanwhile, air-traffic controllers back east were scrambling to make contact with two more rogue planes, according to a New York Times report. Even before the first World Trade Center crash, United’s Flight 175 seemed to be in trouble. At 8:41, one of its pilots had radioed them that he’d heard a suspicious transmission emanating earlier from Flight 11. “Someone keyed the mike and said, ‘Everyone stay in their seats,’” the pilot told the controllers. Minutes later, Flight 175 swerved off course and shut down communication.

Almost simultaneously, air-traffic controllers lost contact with a second American flight, AAL 77, a Boeing 757 en route from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles with 58 passengers and 6 crew on board. At 8:56, just moments after the first World Trade Center crash, that plane doubled back toward Washington, shut off its transponder, and didn’t answer repeated calls from a controller out of Indianapolis.

Airline executives were finding it impossible to keep abreast of developments in the air. Officials at United’s operations center outside Chicago had just gotten news of the first Trade Center crash, when Doc Miles, the center’s shift manager, received an alarming communication from United’s maintenance department in San Francisco. Moments before, a mechanic had fielded a call from an attendant on Flight 175 saying the pilots had been killed, a flight attendant stabbed and the plane hijacked.

Miles questioned the report; it was an American Airlines jet that had been hijacked, he pointed out, not a United plane. But the mechanic confirmed that the call had come from United Flight 175 from Boston to LA and frantic efforts by a dispatcher to raise the cockpit were met with silence. Meanwhile, executives watching CNN on an overhead screen in United’s crisis room saw a large, still unidentified aircraft crash into the Trade Center’s South Tower.

I had just walked out of Good Morning America’s Times Square studios and when I’d got to my car all hell had broken loose. My pager went off. My cell phone rang, and so did the car phone. I know from experience, this is never good news.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” Kris Sebastian, the ABC News’s national assignment manager, told me.

“I’m on my way,” I said. I calculated the routes to the scene. I could get there in 12 to 15 minutes if I drove a smart, back-road route and ran some lights. But a network crew starting out from the office would take longer, and a satellite truck, which is what I would need to “go live,” would take an hour to be ready for broadcast. I really wanted to go to the scene. That’s what I had done my whole life. I was a “street guy.” But I also realized that the news choppers would already be broadcasting live pictures from the scene.

I could hear information pouring out of the police radio in my car. When I finally got to the corner of 44th Street and Eighth Avenue, I called the news desk and told them: Change of plans. I’m coming in and will help with live coverage from the set of the ABC News Desk.

Not much more than a minute later, police radio still in hand, I was sitting down next to Peter Jennings. We watched with astonishment as the second plane crashed into the other tower. Peter, never one to rush to conclusions—especially on the air—looked at me. “Whatever we thought this was, we now know what it is,” I said. “This is a terrorist attack.”

Back at the site, Kerik was patrolling the plaza’s uptown boundary, making calls on his cell phone and shouting instructions at chief aide John Picciano to set up a command post a few blocks north, when he heard the explosion of the second crash. He looked up and saw a massive fireball shooting out of the South Tower straight at him. But he didn’t see the plane itself, which had banked low across the harbor and slammed into the south side of the building. “How the hell did the fire leap from one tower to the other?” he wondered.

There was no time to figure out what happened. The crash was sending debris flying toward Kerik and his men. For a moment they stood transfixed, watching the deadly shrapnel make its descent. It looked like confetti, it was so high. Then someone yelled at them to get out of there and they took off up West Broadway.

As Kerik ducked around the corner into a garage on Barclay Street, someone told him that a United Airlines plane had hit the building. Instantly he realized they were being attacked by terrorists. He thought, “How many more planes are up there? What are the other targets?” He began calling for a mobilization and ordered his chief deputy commissioner to evacuate police headquarters, City Hall, the UN, and the Empire State Building.

Within minutes, Giuliani arrived at the corner of Barclay and West Broadway, and Kerik, joining him, reported that the city was under attack. “We’ve got to cut off the air space,” Giuliani said.

Kerik relayed the order to Picciano, adding, “Get us some air support. We need F16s.”

Picciano was looking at him like he was crazy. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he said.

Kerik realized how surreal the situation had become. He was a police commissioner, not a general in the army. Who the hell do you call to get an F16, anyway? Is there a number for that?

In fact, the FAA had already notified the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York, at 8:40, about ten minutes after controllers began to suspect that they had a hijacking in progress. At 8:46, Otis Air National Guard Base near Falmouth, Massachusetts, had gotten a call from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and scrambled two F15s, 1977-vintage fighters equipped with heat-seeking missiles. The planes were dispatched immediately, and were airborne by 8:52, but they were still some 70 miles—eight minutes—away when the second plane, UAL 175, crashed into the Trade Center at 9:03.

By then, Michael Wright had fallen in with his coworkers on the stairs and was being joined by people from the floors above and below. They descended the narrow stairs slowly, two abreast.

Twenty floors down, the mood lightened. Wright heard tones of relief, trails of nervous laughter. “I don’t care what time it is,” someone said. “I’m going to get a drink at John Street [bar and grill].”

Conversation turned from what people had seen to what might have actually happened. Wright initially thought that a gas main had exploded; now people around him speculated it was a bomb. Nobody knew for sure. They’d been frantically trying their cell phones, but service was down. At length, a stranger with a BlackBerry, a wireless email device, informed them that a plane had crashed into their building and that the tower next door had also been hit.

Wright knew at once that terrorists had attacked them. One crash might be an accident, two had to be intentional. But he assumed they’d used small planes, Cessnas maybe—the kind of light commuter craft he’d seen routinely winging past his office window.

Another 20 floors down, Wright’s sense of relief turned to dread. Firefighters, rescue workers and police shouldered past him on their way upstairs. Most of them were stern-faced, but some were clearly frightened. Many of them, he realized later, had been about to die.

Arriving at the fire department’s makeshift command post on West Street in the shadow of 1 World Trade Center, the mayor and the police commissioner witnessed a scene of almost unimaginable horror. Hundreds of office workers were streaming out of both towers under a rain of glass, steel and airplane and body parts; the air was choked with smoke and ash; the street awash in blood.

Surrounded by aides, Giuliani met briefly with the fire department’s top commanders—Thomas Von Essen, the commissioner; Bill Feehan, his first deputy; Pete Ganci, the chief of department; and Deputy Chief Ray Downey. Giuliani listened to their plans to evacuate the buildings, while Kerik consulted with police. One familiar face on the scene belonged to John Coughlin, an Emergency Services Unit (ESU) sergeant who had once saved Kerik’s daughter from choking.

About 9:40, Giuliani and Kerik, now joined by the fire commissioner and other top administration officials, trooped a few blocks north to set up a forward command post. “God bless you,” the mayor said to Ganci on leaving.

“Thank you,” Ganci said. “God bless you.”

“Pray for us,” Giuliani then said to Mychal Judge, the department chaplain, who was standing nearby.

“Don’t worry,” Judge told the mayor. “I always do.”

Informed that another one of their flights was lost after the first World Trade Center crash, officials at American’s operations center began to realize that the morning’s events were more than an ordinary hijacking. Gerard Arpey, American’s executive vice president of operations, immediately grounded every plane in the Northeast that wasn’t already airborne. Moments later, when he heard that United also had a plane hijacked, he ordered all American flights grounded nationwide.


On Sale
Sep 1, 2002
Page Count
348 pages
Hachette Books

John C. Miller

About the Author

John Miller is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, co-host of ABC’s 20/20 with Barbara Walters, and one of the few Western reporters ever to have interviewed Osama bin Laden. He lives in New York City. This is his first book. Michael Stone is a veteran journalist who has covered many of New York’s most notorious stories, including John Gotti, Robert Chambers and the Central Park jogger assault, and is the author of Gangbusters. He lives in New York City. Chris Mitchell is a senior editor at The Week. His previous collaboration, Jack Maple’s The Crime Fighter, inspired the television drama The District.

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