Framework For Analysis

The 9-11 Commission, and the Congressional Joint Inquiry before it, determined that 19 terrorists in four groups hijacked four commercial aircraft to use them as guided missiles to attack four buildings on September 11, 2001. Three attacks were successful; the fourth thwarted by passengers aware of their probable fate. The Inquiry and Commission reports were published in the spring 2003 and summer 2004, respectively, and are generally accepted as an accurate accounting of what happened that day and in events leading up to that day.

The Commission and the Joint Inquiry gathered and considered a large body of evidence that considered the terrorist attack and the events leading up to the attack. In addition to pre-attack evidence and primary source evidence about the attacks, the Commission also examined post-attack information.

The dates and times in the following chart provide one way of defining the  pre-attack, attack and post-attack phases.

Phase Begins Ends
Pre-Attack Feb 26, 1993 5:45am Sep 11, 2001
Attack 5:45am 10:03am
Post-Attack 8:46am Present

The starting date for the Pre-Attack is the date of the first terrorist strike on the World Trade Center. Depending on one’s interest, different starting points can be taken—the bin Laden Fatwah, for example. The Pre-Attack ends as soon as Atta and one accomplice enter the National Airspace System (NAS) in Portland, Maine; the attack has begun. The attack ends when United Airlines Flight 93 (UA 93) plummets to ground near Shanksville, PA.

The commencement of the attack can be described in military terms. The Commission established the scheduled takeoff times of the four hijacked aircraft to be:

7:45 AA 11

8:00 UA 175

8:10 AA 77

8:00 UA 93

That establishes a line of departure (LD) at Boston Logan Airport between 7:45 and 8:00 a. m. for the attack against the World Trade Center and an LD at two locations, Newark Airport and Dulles Airport between 8:00 and 8:10 for the attack against Washington D. C. It is speculative but the timing suggests that the overall attack plan was synchronized with the four impacts to occur in a short span of time, but with the northern attack to precede the southern attack.

This description in military terms now allows us to place Atta’s departure from Portland Airport in perspective. Colgan Air flight 5930 departed at 6:00 a. m., on time. That became, then, an initial or preliminary line of departure. Actually, Atta entered into the National Airspace System at 5:45 a.m. when he passed through security and was free to board.

We can further speculate that Atta established that tactical procedure as a backup plan;  he only needed one plane to hit one target for the day to be a success. Anything else was simply value added. So, he, together with one accomplice, traveled as a team to enter the system at a remote location, with a backup plan to attempt to hijack AA 11 with just a two-man team. There is one piece of evidence that supports this speculation. Atta was, according to a Commission Staff Report of August 24, 2004 visibly upset when he learned he would have to pass through screening a second time at Logan Airport.

As it turned out, a backup plan was not needed. According to the same Staff Report. Atta received a phone call at 6:52 a.m. from Terminal C, the departure terminal for United Airlines Flight 175 (UA 175). By the time that three minute call ended all 10 hijackers for the attack against the World Trade Center had passed through security and were in the NAS. In military terms, they achieved tactical superiority; they were inside the decision cycle of their enemy. They were well on their way to demonstrating mastery of a key principle of war; surprise.

Surprise was achieved between 8:46 and 8:47 a.m.; the Post-Attack phase began with the impact of AA 11. It overlapped the Attack phase and it continues to this day. From that moment personal recall started and the reporting and telling of events were shaped by what people thought they saw, what they recalled doing, and what the media reported.