Profile of a 9/11 Planner: Muhammad Atef

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 5 February 2018

Al-Qaeda’s military leader Muhammad Atef at a press conference in Afghanistan, 26 May 1998 (image source: CNN)

Muhammad Atef, best-known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, but who also went by the names Taseer Abdullah or Taysir Abdullah and Subhi Abu Sitta, was al-Qaeda’s military leader between 1996 and 2001, and one of the three people most responsible for the terrorist attack in the United States on 11 September 2001.

Atef had been an agricultural engineer and a member of the Egyptian air force before he took to jihad against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1983. Atef became associated with Abdullah Azzam and later handled personal security for Usama bin Ladin. After moving to Sudan in the early 1990s, Atef was involved in al-Qaeda’s east African operations as deputy to al-Qaeda’s military leader, Ali Amin al-Rashidi (Abu Ubayda al-Panjshiri). Atef took over leadership of al-Qaeda’s military council after al-Rashidi died in May 1996 and worked closely with Bin Ladin after al-Qaeda relocated to Taliban Afghanistan.

“By early 1999”, says the 9/11 Commission Report (p. 145), “Bin Ladin and his chief of operations, Abu Hafs al Masri, also known as Mohammed Atef, occupied undisputed leadership positions atop al Qaeda’s organizational structure.” Below these men were a cadre of “field commanders who enjoyed considerable autonomy”, notably the architect of the 9/11 massacre Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM); the Jema’a Islamiyya (JI) leader Ridwan Isamudin (Hambali), al-Qaeda’s man in the Far East; and Abdurraheem al-Nashiri, referred to by some as the “mastermind” of the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. (This is disputed by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA counterterrorism director after 9/11, who wrote in his book—reviewed here—that “‘Mastermind’ was not an apt description of al-Nashiri. One of our interrogators described him to me as ‘the dumbest terrorist I have ever met’. He was also one of the vilest” (p. 83). Rodriguez documents al-Nashiri’s disgusting personal habits.)

The 9/11 Commission (pp. 148-9) describes KSM’s burgeoning relations with al-Qaeda in the 1990s. After KSM had failed to meet Bin Ladin several times in Sudan, Atef introduced KSM to Bin Ladin in mid-1996 after Bin Ladin returned to Afghanistan that May. It was the first meeting between Bin Ladin and KSM since 1989. KSM pointedly declined to give a bay’at (oath of allegiance) to Bin Ladin, and would never become a formal member of al-Qaeda. KSM remained close to Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an ally of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masud, and had a “cozy” relationship with the Iranian regime. KSM’s family were in Iran and the man himself travelled in and out of Iran until moving his family to Karachi in January 1997, the 9/11 Commission states. (After the Taliban theocracy was overthrown, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership would find shelter in Iran.)

Throughout this period, KSM travelled widely, networking with jihadists on the Indian Subcontinent, tried to join al-Qaeda’s Chechen representative Samir Abdullah (Ibn al-Khattab), and continually passed between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “visiting Bin Ladin and cultivating relationships with his lieutenants, Atef and [his deputy, Muhammad Saladin Zaydan, better known as] Sayf al Adl, by assisting them with computer and media projects”, according to the 9/11 Commission Report (p. 149). On 7 May 1998, Atef faxed (p. 69) a fatwa “issued by a group of sheikhs located in Afghanistan” to “Bin Ladin’s London office” and a week later it was published in Al-Quds al-Arabi. The themes—a license to kill Americans, without a distinction between military and civilian targets—were the same as Bin Ladin’s February fatwa. With al-Qaeda’s terrorist strikes against the East African Embassy, KSM was (p. 149) “convinced him that Bin Ladin was truly committed to attacking the United States” and it was “apparently at Atef’s urging [that Bin Ladin] finally decided to give KSM the green light for the 9/11 operation sometime in late 1998 or early 1999.”

Though never executed, as late as the summer of 2001 KSM was bringing proposals to Atef (p. 150) for terrorist attacks in places as far apart as Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the Maldives, and Indonesia through Hambali. This triangle of Atef, KSM, and Hambali had been solidifying since at least 2000 (p. 151), with al-Qaeda providing JI more funds for its increasingly-ambitious terrorist plans, which were gradually oriented fully into line with al-Qaeda’s anti-Western focus. Al-Qaeda also began tapping JI for expertise. At one point Atef requested—and received—a JI member, Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian citizen educated in the U.S., to take over the biological weapons program in Kandahar. When Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker” in the 9/11 conspiracy, was sent to Malaysia by Atef and KSM, it was Hambali who gave him accommodations, as well as bomb-making instructions (p. 151).

Atef’s role in the 9/11 atrocity is central. When the target list for the 9/11 attack was decided at meetings in the Matar complex in Kandahar in early 1999, it was drawn up by three people (p. 155): Bin Ladin, Atef, and KSM. The only other person brought in at this early stage was al-Zawahiri (p. 44).

The 9/11 plot was initially supposed to be carried out by long-time al-Qaeda operatives and have an East Asian counterpart, the 9/11 Commission explains (pp. 155-160). In late 1999, four arrivals from Germany—Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah—changed this calculation: here were men naturally at ease with a Western environment, unlike the difficulties KSM was having teaching English and other things to the original four death pilots Bin Ladin had selected (Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khallad, and Abu Bara al-Yemeni). In early 2000, the East Asian end of the plan was abandoned when it proved too difficult to coordinate with the American plot.

Atef notice and he and Bin Ladin selected (p. 226) Hani Hanjour, who smashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Bin Ladin and Atef sent Hanjour from the Faruq camp to KSM for specialist training after finding out he was a trained pilot. Hanjour was trained in code words and other operational security aspects by KSM. It was Atef who sent (p. 166) the Atta cell back to Hamburg with their instructions to join flight schools. Though KSM had conceived the “planes operation”, it “is clear … that Bin Ladin and Atef were very much in charge of the operation”, the 9/11 Commission Report says, noting that Atta and co. had been selected, briefed, and dispatched without a by-your-leave to KSM.

Atef dealt (p. 234) with those that identified themselves as willing to carry out suicide operations, helping the process of selecting the 9/11 operatives. It was Bin Ladin and Atef alone who picked (p. 235) all the “muscle hijackers” between the summer of 2000 and April 2001. Atef also helped facilitate (p. 169) the 9/11 attack as part of his duties running the passport office in Kandahar.

Atef’s closeness to Bin Ladin can be seen in the 10 January 2001 marriage of one of Bin Ladin’s sons, Mohamed, to one of Atef’s daughters, Khadija.

By the summer of 2001, the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were aware that something big was in the works, says the 9/11 Commission (p. 251), and it split not only the Taliban from al-Qaeda but created a schism within al-Qaeda’s leadership. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar was opposed to a terrorist attack that “might draw the Americans into the war against them, just when final victory seemed within their grasp”, the 9/11 Commission Report says. Atef, Sulayman Abu Ghayth, and KSM sided with Bin Ladin, but those opposed included Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), essentially al-Qaeda’s chief cleric; Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (Saeed al-Masri), the financial emir; and Sayf al-Adel, Atef’s deputy on the military committee.

The new book by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (reviewed here), describes the scene when al-Qaeda decided on the 9/11 attack in June 2001 in some detail. Bin Ladin had orchestrated a merger with al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad:

The Mauritanian[al-Walid] could also see that Osama was so determined to get Mokhtar’s [KSM’s] Planes Operation approved by the Al Qaeda leadership committee that he intended to stack it with new members from Egyptian Islamic Jihad who were blindly loyal to him. …

A few days later, Osama announced that Al Qaeda’s formal merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad had gone ahead, giving Dr. al-Zawahiri’s group six of the nine seats on the shura. Its next meeting would take place on the last Wednesday of June [the 27th] and cover all future operations, he said.

When they gathered, Osama was in a bullish mood, looking expectantly at the new supportive faces on the council. After clearing his throat to silence the room, he revealed what everyone suspected, that Al Qaeda was preparing to strike the United States— again.

The room filled with muttering. Osama was asked to give more details. He shook his head. For security reasons he could not reveal precise plans. Several shura members said they could not back what they did not know. The Syrian [Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri)], who had returned from London, where he had been helping Abu Qatada [al-Filistini, whose real name is Umar Othman,] run his magazine and publicize the Algerian jihad front, was one of them. …

The Mauritanian asked to speak. “You are following a path that contradicts sharia, reason, and logic.” … The room hushed. … Osama eyed him furiously as Mahfouz continued. The sharia committee had met and debated the idea of an attack on America and unanimously opposed it. Not only would it be illegal without Mullah Omar’s blessing, but also thousands of innocent people might die. Heads nodded in agreement, even among the new Egyptian inductees. …

“It is not the prerogative of Mullah Omar to prevent me from embarking on jihad,” [Osama] snapped. … Several shura members, including those who had backed the embassy bombings of 1998, weighed in and, to Osama’s amazement, sided with the Mauritanian. “Put it to the vote,” they urged.

Osama held up his hand. There would be no more debating, he said. He could see he was losing the room by raising a plan that he would not explain but that could trigger mass casualties and alienate the Taliban. There would be no vote, he said, as the matter had already been decided. He called the meeting to a close.

One means by which al-Qaeda sought to blunt the Taliban’s opposition to the 9/11 attack was by agreeing (p. 252) to assassinate Ahmad Shah Masud, which they did on 9 September 2001 and a Taliban offensive, backed by crucial al-Qaeda support, began the next day. The killing of Masud denied the U.S. a critical ally as it moved into Afghanistan, and it bound the Taliban to al-Qaeda by placing the former in the latter’s debt, as Adrian Levy and Scott-Clark note. Underlining this bond, it was reported on 9 November 2001 that the Taliban had granted citizenship to Bin Ladin and four Egyptians—al-Zawahiri, Atef, Sayf al-Adel, and Asim Abdurrahman (the son of the “Blind Shaykh”, Umar Abdurrahman, the leader of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.)

Atef was 57-years-old when he was killed by an American airstrike near Kabul, either late on 14 November 2001 or early on 15 November 2001, the first major scalp of the War on Terror.

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