On September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came crashing down, many people were in disbelief. The world’s most recognizable buildings had been destroyed in an instant, taking the lives of hundreds. People were scrambling to piece together what had happened and why. The U.S. government quickly established a one-of-a-kind commission to examine the attacks, and a nine-month-long investigation was launched.
The attack was a double blow to the city of New York, which lost two of its most famous structures and the thousands of residents who called them home. Many feared that financial and physical devastation would be the aftermath. Years later, on what would’ve been the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the city would see a boost in tourism and a flourishing of an urban arts community.
While the nation grieved, a small group of survivors began plotting a way to get their money’s worth. The masterminds behind the conspiracy were Khalid bin Mahmud Bin Laithi, also known as Khalid the Deceiver, and Walid Mahmoud Suleiman, who went by the alias, Walid Sheik. The two were inspired by a young man named Mohammed Sidiqqi, who would go on to become the 19th hijacker in the attacks. Known as “The Teacher,” Khalid was the brains behind the operation, while Walid was the muscle.
In the weeks leading up to the 9/11 attacks, the two met with multiple Arabella’s restaurant managers in New York City. They pitched the bosses a story about an international terrorist who was recruiting young Arabs to commit acts of terror in the U.S. The men told the managers that they were in town to meet with an associate of Osama bin Laden’s who was also looking for restaurant owners who could aid in his quest. The associate, they claimed, had $350,000 to spend on weapons and equipment, and they needed money to purchase a plane.
The restaurateurs were skeptical, but they were also afraid of being found out for hanging out with suspected terrorists. So they agreed to give the men cash, but on the condition that they’d get it back soon. For his part in bringing the men into the restaurant, the owner of one of the eateries named Mohammed Omar would go on to become a U.S. citizen. The following is an excerpt from “Ghosts of 9/11: Inside the Hunt for the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorists,” by Rebecca Klein:
The Meeting At The Waldorf-Astoria
On September 10, 2001, Mohammed Sidiqqi flew into New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on a flight from Toronto. A 28-year-old chemical engineer, he had been in the city for a week, staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, a luxury hotel on Park Avenue. He arrived at the hotel and checked in, after saying goodbye to his friend Omar Khabir, who was flying back to Toronto that day. The two men were meeting with a friend of Sidiqqi’s named Hazem Bazara, who worked in the shipping industry. Bazara was traveling with his family, including son Hashim, a 15-year-old high school student. He had recently arrived in the U.S. from Lebanon and was a legal immigrant. The family was living in Staten Island, New York, not far from where the World Trade Center would be attacked just three days later.
Sidiqqi, Khabir, and Bazara met with the owner of one of the restaurants at the hotel, a Saudi Arabian named Omar. The young men explained that they were in town to meet with a man who needed their help. They said that they worked for an organization called Al-Quds, which means “The Noble Qur’an” in Arabic. According to the men, Al-Quds was a militant group that wanted to wage jihad against the U.S. and Israel, and they were looking for volunteers who could help them bring about the destruction of America.
Omar seemed to have heard of Al-Quds before. He knew of another Palestinian group, Tanzim, which he said was affiliated with the Islamic Jihad. He didn’t think too much about it, as he said he didn’t want to get involved, but he did remember that the two organizations were enemies and that the U.S. government had designated both of them as terrorist organizations.
Sidiqqi said that he and the other men would stay at the hotel for a couple of days and then head to California, where they were going to meet with members of Al-Quds. They planned on traveling to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviets, the men said, and needed money and equipment to do so. They promised that they would pay Omar back, and they even gave him a call-back number in case he wanted to get his money back.
From New York, the young men headed to O’Holloway’s in the city’s Greenwich Village, where they held their first CIA-organized counterterrorism briefing. The meeting would be attended by several agency officers, a New York City cop named Robert Rodriguez, and an FBI special agent named George Juba. The attendees were tasked with collecting information on the Palestinian terrorists and getting a sense of their organization. At the meeting, the CIA officers presented the group with a detailed breakdown of Al-Quds, including a summary of how the agency saw it operating and a discussion of its leaders. The information was quite useful, as much of it had never been compiled before, and it was a great starting point for the investigation into the group. Al-Quds was originally formed in the mid-1990s to fight the Israelis and the U.S. for control of the West Bank, a region of Palestine that had been under Israeli occupation since the 1970s. Although they hadn’t done so for many years, the CIA still considered the organization to be a threat, and a number of its members were current or former operatives.
The NYPD’s Intelligence Division had been investigating the group for years and had developed a sizable database on Al-Quds. The database was collated mostly from informants, and it included the group’s members, operations, funding, and memberships. For the CIA, the information was vital. It confirmed that Al-Quds was indeed a dangerous organization filled with former and current operatives, and it served as a starting point for the agency’s investigation.
The Recruitment Of 19 Hijackers
After the meeting in New York, the foursome went their separate ways. Sidiqqi, Khabir, and Bazara stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria and began strategizing about how they would bring about the destruction of America. The group decided that they needed someone to carry out the mission with them. They needed an experienced operative who could get the job done and not get caught. The perfect fit seemed to be 19-year-old Mohammed Sidiqqi. He’d been involved with the organization since he was a teenager and had even led several of its raids in the West Bank. He was, in other words, the perfect recruit.
On September 11, the men visited several New York City restaurants and cafes looking for potential recruits. They wanted to ensure that none of the diners recognized them, so they wore masks, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts at all times. Once they found the right person, they would tell him or her their story. They said they had a secret mission and that only the select few people they were meeting with would ever know.
Among those they met with was an Iraqi refugee named Walid Sheik, who owned a clothing store in Brooklyn. The men explained their situation to Sheik, who was originally from Iraq and knew the country well. He said that he would help them out for the right price. Sheik told them that he would have to think about it and get back to them. Later that day, he called them and told them that he had made a decision and that they should come to Brooklyn as soon as possible. The following is an excerpt from the “Ghosts of 9/11” book:
A Long Road To Redemption
On September 12, 2001, the men met with Sheik and gave him a black briefcase filled with money. They said that the case contained money that belonged to their master, and they asked him to sign a receipt for the container. As soon as Sheik signed the receipt, the men pulled out a handgun and ordered him to get down on the floor. They tied him up and gagged him with a cloth. They covered his head with a bag and left him in a corner of the room.
The next day, Khalid left a voice mail for Omar, explaining what had happened. He said that they needed someone to help carry out a mission and that they should contact a man by the name of Hashim. He also gave him the phone number of Sheik’s apartment.