The plan was to take the flight out of Boston to Chicago, breach the cockpit when it reached cruising altitude, divert it south to Washington, and hit either the White House or the Capitol. And if both were still standing – as it turns out they both were – to go for the one offering the least flak, which is what we fully expected, at least from our two possible targets and from the Pentagon. But as it turns out even the Pentagon offered no such resistance.
The two on our team with the ‘hardware’ went through security first. Both made it through. Next was my turn. No problem. But the two bringing up the rear seemed to be taking their time. Had one or both of them chickened out?
As we learned shortly, it was nothing of the sort. The flight was overbooked, and the check-in desk was offering vouchers to incentivize any three passengers willing to take the next flight. Neither of our two stepped up. But neither did anyone else. And so as luck would have it, they were among the three to get involuntarily bumped.
The irony is we’d rehearsed this possibility, and to avoid it we made a point of getting there early enough that we’d all already have boarding passes. But what some of the other passengers knew, but we didn’t, was that that particular flight is often overbooked. So check-in simply assumes that any stragglers are trying to get bumped, so they can make a fuss and demand maximum compensation. And so rather than bump the stragglers, they bumped three unsuspecting pass-holders.
Our two comrades could have tried to insist on making the flight, but they were worried that making too much of a fuss would attract attention. And attention, any attention, is precisely what we were trained to avoid.
Now the trick was to get the three of us who’d passed security to either find a way to go ahead with the operation with two men short, or else find the least damaging way to abort. We had walkie-talkies, so we knew what had happened. But as the waiting room filled up, we realized we couldn’t control that many passengers without our two backups. So we made our way out of the secure area, through the terminal to the curb, and disappeared via separate taxis back to the coffee shop we’d had breakfast at an hour earlier, at two separate tables of course.
You can imagine how we felt. Or maybe you can’t. Through no fault of our own, we had failed. In less than an hour our friends were going to be engaged in the greatest military operation in human history, and we were not going to be part of it. Worse yet, our exit strategy was going to be compromised by the three of us not making a flight for which we already had boarding passes and had already been taped passing though security. At some point someone would wonder why three very Arab-looking men had bolted only minutes before boarding, and two others hadn’t approached the desk to be rebooked.
All five of our faces would be broadcast across the country. We’d be arrested, interrogated, and then very likely ‘disappeared’. We had to get away before the other four planes completed their missions. Assuming, that is, that none of the others had to abort as we did. If even one team managed to succeed, the other three would be in the same position as we were.
In case the entire operation had been cancelled or postponed, we’d been instructed not burn any bridges. So we could have gone back to the two apartments we’d been renting for months and tried to resume our respective covers. But while we were still in the coffee shop the first plane hit the first tower. And minutes later the second hit the second one.
Surrounded as we were by loyal Americans, we couldn’t express our elation if we wanted to. Not that there was anything to be elated about, because at that time we had no reason to hope the towers would collapse. And besides, we had our own predicament to deal with. Continuing as a sleeper cell was now out of the question. Our only chance of continuing the fight was to get back home. We could have decided to go down in a blaze of glory, but we’d been told that what was needed was a kill ratio high enough to set the enemy on is heels. After all, that was the whole point of the operation. Besides, our arsenal now consisted of five not very intimidating handguns and a useless bolt cutter. Hardly much of a war chest.
To our credit, none of us panicked that morning. We drank our coffee, feigned shock when the cook cranked up the radio, nodded casually to the other table, and spoke in coded English. We were soldiers under fire, and we conducted ourselves as such. I think I was as proud of my comrades in our failure that morning than I would have been had we succeeded. We had no time for fear. We all knew what job we had to do, and that was to live to fight another day.
Each of the five teams had a car parked somewhere unknown to the other four and registered to a non-Muslim collaborator unlikely to be under suspicion. Our only instructions for the eventuality we were now facing, was, as it was put to us, “to find a way”. So we did. The plan was that two of us would retrieve the car, pick up the other three, and drive west across the state, all on tertiary highways, hunker down somewhere in upstate New York, and then contact Control in hopes it had some means of extraction. We had no collaboration in place to report on our status, but we figured Control would know soon enough and would be expected our call.
That at any rate was the plan, such as it was. But, of course, as I learned in my English class, “the best laid plans of mice and men …” Somehow we’d been given the wrong key to the ‘getaway’ car. My heart sank. It was going to all end in a blaze of gunfire after all. But my comrade was resourceful in precisely the way I’m not. He broke into the trunk, crawled through the back seat, hot-wired the ignition, and we were away.
An old man saw the whole thing, shrugged as if to say “Not my business!”, and carried on with his own life. I smile every time I remember that gesture. It was like a visual “inshalla”. If unbeknownst to me my faith had been waining, he renewed it. And I remember feeling glad that old man wasn’t anywhere near New York.
Now, as we headed west, the excitement did set in. All day long the car radio was reporting one delight after the other. We spent the night in a motel in a town called Alfred, New York. Fortunately the desk clerk was too riveted to the TV screen to take much notice of us. And it was the same at the restaurant down the street the next morning.
An hour to the west, in a town called Salamanca, we made our phone call. There were no recriminations. And yes, there was a plan. Entry into Canada at either Buffalo or Niagara Falls was out of the question, at least for now. Same with Detroit. But further to the west – North Dakota, Montana – the chance of being detected crossing the unmanned 49th Parallel was almost nil. Stay out of sight – motels, restaurants were now out – rendezvous with a contact in a town called Velva, North Dakota, and, well, “We’ll see what we can do from there.”
That night we found a haystack just west of Madison, Wisconsin, and Thursday night another one just east of Velva. I don’t understand homelessness in America. Haystacks are soft, they’re warm, and completely safe from any surveillance. In that same English class we read a poem by Pablo Neruda called “Ode to a Spoon”, though of course it was translated from the Spanish. Anyhow, if I were a poet I’d write one called “Ode to a Haystack”. But I’m not a poet. I’m a fugitive.
A fugitive and a soldier. This seems wrong to me. A soldier running from a fight is a third thing. He’s a coward. But I’m not a coward. The flight was full. Two of our team got bumped. My assignment would have been the first class cabin. I still imagine myself chatting with these well-heeled passengers, asking one of them if he’d mind if I had the coffee the stewardess had just poured for him, getting them to relax, reassuring them that everything was going to be alright, because, as I knew, it was going to be better than alright, it was going to be glorious beyond all visions of glory … And as it turns out it was, notwithstanding we had no part in it.
Friday morning we met our contact in Velva. He shepherded us across the border near a place called Plentywood, Montana, where we were met and driven to a city called Moose Jaw, billeted with a Pakistani family to whom I shall be forever grateful, and less than three months later we were welcomed in their village in Pakistan. From there the five of us went our separate ways, three back to the Kingdom, one to Lebanon, and me back home to Egypt.
I know nothing about my teammates, but I was never sent on another mission. If what happened at the airport was ever investigated and connected to what came to be called 9/ll, the media never reported it. My suspicion is that no one did connect the dots, though the dots were in plain sight to be connected. Apparently American intelligence just isn’t that intelligent. If it had been, 9/11 couldn’t have happened.
I have never been convinced that Allah rewards His martyrs in Heaven. But no matter. Nineteen years later, the nineteen martyrs of 9/11 are among the men most honoured in the Muslim world. And rightly so. And it is only proper that the five of us who were not martyred that morning should remain in obscurity.
My only disappointment – and it is mitigated by a dollop of relief – is that I lived but not to fight another day. I would have been willing to. And honoured to. But all is as God wills. My nineteen comrades had their work, I mine. Today I disinfect our mosque to protect the faithful from this virus. As John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I think my English teacher would be impressed with how much I have retained.