Point H-1: Mohamed Atta’s Mysterious Trip to Portland
Editor’s Note: A graphic is offered here to illustrate this complex Point.
- Mohamed Atta, accompanied by fellow al-Qaeda operative Abdul Aziz al Omari, “boarded a 6:00 AM flight from Portland [Maine] to Boston’s Logan International Airport,” stated The 9/11 Commission Report.1 After arriving in Boston at 6:45 AM, they boarded American Airlines Flight 11, which was scheduled to depart at 7:45 AM.2
- Atta and al-Omari needed to take that early morning commuter flight because, although they had already been in Boston on September 10, they then “drove to Portland, Maine, for reasons that remain unknown,”3 and stayed overnight in a Comfort Inn in South Portland.4
- No theory as to why Atta and al-Omari did this seems “entirely satisfactory,” wrote the New York Times in 2002, “given the risk . . . that, had the commuter flight been at all late, they would have missed the very flight they intended to hijack.”5 In 2004, the 9/11 Commission still considered this trip a mystery.6
- Nevertheless, that Atta and al-Omari made this trip was proved by an FBI chronology of their movements in Portland on September 10, complete with stops where they were videotaped,7 plus an affidavit, signed by a judge as well as an FBI agent, stating that the blue Nissan Altima found at the Portland Jetport had been rented by Mohamed Atta, and that “American Airlines personnel at Logan discovered two bags [checked to passenger Atta] that had been bound for transfer to AA11 but had not been loaded onto the flight.”8
- Atta’s trip turned out to be helpful to the investigation, according to FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said: “Following the crash of Flight 11, authorities recovered two pieces of luggage in the name of Mohamed Atta that had not been loaded onto that flight.”9 This luggage contained Atta’s will10 and other materials that incriminated al-Qaeda.11
To summarize the story’s main facts: (1) Atta and al-Omari drove a blue rented Nissan from Boston to Portland on September 10, then stayed overnight. (2) The next morning, they took a commuter flight back to Boston in time to board AA Flight 11. (3) After Atta had flown American 11 into the World Trade Center, authorities at Boston’s Logan Airport found incriminating materials in Atta’s luggage that had not been loaded onto American 11.
The official story about Atta’s Portland trip contains three mysteries:
(1) Why were Atta’s bags not loaded onto AA 11? In the affidavit, pointed out a Newsday story in 2006, “there was no explanation of why they had not been loaded.”12
- The loading failure could not be attributed to a late flight: The commuter flight back to Boston was on time, so there was an hour until AA 11 was to depart.13
- This failure also could not be explained in terms of a careless ground crew, because “Atta was the only passenger among the 81 aboard American Flight 11 whose luggage didn’t make the flight, American sources confirm[ed].”14
(2) Why would Atta have put his will in a bag that was to be loaded onto a flight he intended to crash into the World Trade Center?
(3) Why would Atta have taken the risky trip to Portland?
The reasons why these three mysteries exist become understandable in light of news reports in the first days after 9/11:
- According to CNN reports of September 12 and the morning of the 13th, two al-Qaeda operatives, Adnan Bukhari and Ameer Bukhari, drove a rented Nissan to Portland, stayed overnight, and then flew back to Boston the next morning in time to board AA 11.15
- Materials that incriminated al-Qaeda were found by authorities in a Mitsubishi sedan, which had been rented by Mohamed Atta and then left in the parking lot of Boston’s Logan Airport.16
- Up to that point, this had been the official story, but later in the afternoon of September 13, CNN apologetically reported that neither of the Bukharis could have died on 9/11: Adnan Bukhari was still alive and Ameer Bukhari had died the previous year.17
- On September 14, although CNN continued to state that Mohamed Atta had left a rented Mitsubishi at Boston’s Logan Airport,18 the Associated Press stated that the rented Nissan had been driven to Portland by Mohamed Atta, who with his companion “spent the night at the Comfort Inn in South Portland before boarding the plane the next morning.”19
- This story still said that authorities had found the incriminating materials left by Atta in a rental car at Boston’s Logan Airport, although this part of the story was incoherent, because the new story entailed that Atta must have left his rented Nissan at the Portland Jetport.
- On September 16, a full transition to what would become the official story appeared in the Washington Post: Besides stating that “Atta and Alomari rented a car in Boston, drove to Portland, Maine, and took a room Monday night at the Comfort Inn,” it also said that Atta’s incriminating materials were “left in his luggage at Boston’s Logan Airport.”20
- By October 5, the FBI had created a chronology of the claimed movements of Atta and al-Omari in Portland on September 10, complete with videos and photographs.21 Internal evidence, however, shows this chronology to be a fabrication.22
- Internal evidence also shows that the aforementioned affidavit – which indicated that the FBI had from the outset claimed that (a) Atta had driven the Nissan to Portland and (b) the incriminating materials were found in his luggage inside Boston’s Logan Airport – could not have been written and dated on September 12.23
Summary and Conclusion
As shown by the evolution of the story about two al-Qaeda operatives flying from Portland to Boston, this story originally had no inexplicable mysteries.
But after it was realized that the Bukhari brothers could not have died on AA 11, the three mysteries – (1) why Mohamed Atta’s luggage was not loaded onto AA Flight 11, (2) why he put his will in a bag that was supposed to be loaded onto that doomed flight, and (3) why he would have taken the risky trip to Portland – came about as by-products in the course of creating, over the course of several days, a revised version of the original story (according to which Atta and al-Omari replaced the Bukhari brothers as the al-Qaeda operatives who drove a rented Nissan to Portland).
Although this story is complex, it suggests that what became the official story was most likely based on creative imagination, not fact.
3. Ibid., 253. FBI Director Robert Mueller likewise said that the reason for Atta and al-Omari’s trip to Portland “remains unclear.” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, “Statement for the Record,” Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry, September 26, 2002.
5. Richard Bernstein, Douglas Frantz, Don Van Natta, Jr., and David Johnston, “The Hijackers’ Long Road to Infamy,” New York Times, 11 September, 2002.
6. “No physical, documentary, or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of September 11” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 451 n. 1).
7. See “The Night Before Terror; THE FBI DESCRIBES HIJACKING SUSPECTS’ OVERNIGHT STAY IN GREATER PORTLAND,” Portland Press Herald, October 5, 2001,which said: “After checking in at the motel, Atta and Alomari were seen several times between 8 PM and 9:30 PM. Between 8 and 9 PM, they were seen at Pizza Hut; at 8:31 PM, they were videotaped by a KeyBank automatic teller machine, and videotaped again at 8:41 PM at a Fast Green ATM next to Pizzeria Uno. . . . At 9:15 PM, the two stopped at Jetport Gas on Western Avenue, where they asked for directions.“
8. “Affidavit and Application for Search Warrant,” signed by FBI special agent James K. Lechner and US Magistrate Judge David M. Cohen, dated September 12, 2001, Four Corners: Investigative TV Journalism.
11. 9/11 Commission Staff Statement No. 16, June 16, 2004. Stating that Atta’s luggage “contained far more than what the
commission report cited,” a 2006 news story added: “Former federal terrorism investigators say [that this luggage] provided the Rosetta stone enabling FBI agents to swiftly unravel the mystery of who carried out the suicide attacks and what motivated them. . . . [T]he government was able to identify all 19 hijackers almost immediately after the attacks . . . through those papers in the luggage;” see Michael Dorman, “Unraveling 9-11 Was in the Bags,” Newsday, 16 April 16 2006.
13. Evidently, the 9/11 Commission had originally planned to explain that Atta’s bags were not loaded because he had just barely caught the plane. According to the 9/11 Commission Staff Statement No. 16 (dated 2004): “The Portland detour almost prevented Atta and Omari from making Flight 11 out of Boston. In fact, the luggage they checked in Portland failed to make it onto the plane.” But the 9/11 Commission, having evidently realized later that this claim could not be credibly made, wrote in its final Report: “Atta and Omari arrived in Boston at 6:45 [A.M.] . . . . Between 6:45 and 7:40, Atta and Omari . . . checked in and boarded American Airlines Flight 11 . . . scheduled to depart at 7:45 [AM]” (The 9/11 Commission Report, 1-2). The 9/11 Commission ended up offering no explanation as to why the luggage was not loaded, simply letting the mystery stand.
15. See “Two Brothers among Hijackers,” CNN, 13 September 2001, which said: “Investigators have leads on four hijackers. . . . Two of the men were brothers, . . . Adnan Bukhari and Ameer Abbas Bukhari. . . . The two rented a car, a silver-blue Nissan Altima, from an Alamo car rental at Boston’s Logan Airport and drove to an airport in Portland, Maine, where they got on US Airways Flight 5930 at 6 AM Tuesday headed back to Boston, the sources said. . . . Portland Police Chief Mike Chitwood said, ‘I can tell you those two individuals did get on a plane and fly to Boston early yesterday morning.’” (This story later disappeared from the CNN website.)
16. The previously quoted CNN story – “Two Brothers among Hijackers” – said: “A Mitsubishi sedan impounded at Logan Airport was rented by Atta, sources said. The car contained materials, including flight manuals, written in Arabic that law enforcement sources called ‘helpful’ to the investigation.” Another story, “Hijack Suspect Detained, Cooperating with FBI,” said: “Federal law enforcement in the United States was led to the Hamburg connection by way of information linked to a car seized at Logan Airport. It was a Mitsubishi. It was rented by Mohammed Atta, who lived in an apartment in Hamburg. . . . Inside was a flight manual in Arabic language material that law enforcement investigators say was very helpful,” CNN, September 13, 2001.
17. See “Feds Think They’ve Identified Some Hijackers,” which said: “We would like to correct a report that appeared on CNN. Based on information from multiple law enforcement sources, CNN reported that Adnan Bukhari and Ameer Bukhari of Vero Beach Florida, were suspected to be two of the pilots who crashed planes into the World Trade Center. CNN later learned that Adnan Bukhari is still in Florida, where he was questioned by the FBI. We are sorry for the misinformation. . . . Ameer Bukhari died in a small plane crash last year,” CNN, September 13, 2001.
18. “According to law enforcement sources, . . . [a] Mitsubishi sedan [Atta] rented was found at Boston’s Logan Airport. Arabic language materials were found in the car. . . . [Adnan] Bukhari and Ameer Bukhari . . . had been tied to a car found at an airport in Portland, Maine,” Mike Fish, “Fla. Flight Schools May Have Trained Hijackers,” CNN, 14 September, 2001.
21. “The Night Before Terror: The FBI Describes Hijacking Suspects’ Overnight Stay in Greater Portland,” Portland Press Herald, October 5, 2001.
22. For example, one of the images circulated by the FBI showed Atta and al-Omari at the Jetport gas station at 8:28:29 PM. But this photo had been cropped to hide the date, and the uncropped version reveals the date to have been 11-10-01, rather than 9-10-01. Also, although the video was stamped “8:28 PM,” the FBI timeline reported that Atta and al-Omari were at the Jetport station on September 10 at 9:15 PM. Another example: A photo showing Atta and al-Omari passing through the security checkpoint is marked both 05:45 and 05:53. See Point Video-1, “The Alleged Security Videos of Mohamed Atta.”
23. If the affidavit had been signed on September 12, CNN’s reports on the 12th (according to which the Bukharis had driven the Nissan to Portland) and the 13th (according to which the materials incriminating al-Qaeda were found in a Mitsubishi that Atta had left in the airport at Boston) would be inexplicable. CNN and other media outlets were getting their information from law enforcement officials (as we saw, CNN said on September 13 that the misinformation it had received about the Bukharis had been “[b]ased on information from multiple law enforcement sources”). If the FBI affidavit in its present form had been signed on the morning of September 12, CNN and other outlets would not have been reporting things to the contrary for several days. It is especially impossible to believe that, if the FBI affidavit had been signed on the morning of September 12, no one in the media would have reported before September 16 that the incriminating materials had been found in Atta’s luggage inside the airport. We could hardly imagine stronger evidence that the affidavit was back dated.
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