In the eyes of Islamists, Las Vegas is the Sodom and Gomorrah of modern times: a city where women not only bare their bodies but also sell them in the all-engulfing pursuit of the god they call Dollar, while men drown their soulless bodies in alcohol and gamble away their own god, Money. Yet this is where a number of strict-living Islamist terrorists, including the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, and four other 9/11 hijackers spent part of their summer shortly before they committed their evil deed.
Strangely, in a city where surveillance cameras record the blinking eyes and sweaty brows of gamblers in every casino, no video footage exists, according to law enforcement, of the tourists-turned-terrorists who planned to murder 50,000 people. However, using airline reservation, motel and car rental records, along with eyewitness reports, the FBI has managed to piece together a threadbare account of the visit of the five 9/11 hijackers and other Islamists just weeks before 9/11.
According to the records, the hijackers’ movements don’t appear to be those of would-be terrorists planning to strike a deathblow to America. They reportedly were seen by witnesses in Strip resorts, a public-access computer store near the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a Starbucks across the street from a public library (within walking distance of the computer store), a pizza joint, car rental agencies and a Las Vegas Boulevard sandwich shop.
A stripper at a local gentlemen’s club also remembers Marwan al-Shehhi, who reportedly steered United Airlines flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center, in her establishment and how tightfisted the terrorist was. His friend Mohamed Atta, 33, an Egyptian who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, arrived June 28 in Las Vegas from Washington and rented a Chevrolet Malibu from an Alamo rental office. He set up an account at an Internet cafe and checked into a $55-a-night room at the Econolodge Motel at 1150 South Las Vegas Blvd. in the shadow of the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Casino Hotel Tower and a stone’s throw from FBI headquarters. Some reports place him and hijacker Ziad Jarrah in a cyber cafe together, though there is no record of Jarrah being in Las Vegas during Atta’s stay.
The reason for the hijackers’ presence in Las Vegas may have come to light six days after 9/11. On September 17, 2001, federal agents recovered a “surveillance” videotape of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas during a raid on a Detroit apartment. And in an August 8, 2004, Associated Press article titled “Superiors Hindered Terror Prosecutors” there is further mention of surveillance tapes of Las Vegas casinos.
Without mentioning sources, MSNBC.com reported that Las Vegas was an al-Qaeda target because it is one of the U.S.’s most popular vacation spots and holds tremendous economic value from its numerous large conventions and trade shows. The repercussions of an attack on Las Vegas to the travel industry and other commerce would surely affect the economy of the entire country. With the city home to 18 of the world’s largest hotels, not to mention casinos, the destruction of just one large hotel-casino complex, using a conventional explosive device, would destroy the city economically and send a message to the world that the “Crusaders and Jews” had been severely injured.
As further proof that Islamists may have had the city in their sights, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on April 12, 2003 that Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino said one of the defendants in an anti-terrorism trial of three Moroccans and an Algerian in a Michigan court told Youssef Hmimssa, a government witness, that “Las Vegas would make an excellent target.” Hmimssa went on to tell jurors that one of the accused, Ahmed Hannan, “referred to Las Vegas as the City of Satan and predicted extremists would destroy the city because they were angry that Arabs spent money on sinful behavior in Las Vegas.” Hmimssa further stated that another of the defendants, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, had said that Las Vegas was a good place for Arabs to disappear easily.
There may have been other reasons for the presence of the 9/11 terrorists in Las Vegas besides checking out the city as an al-Qaeda target. In his book Masterminds of Terror, al-Jazeera reporter Yousri Fouda says that in a 2002 summer meeting in Karachi, Pakistan, Ramzi bin al-Shib told him the summer 2001 meeting of the 9/11 hijackers in Las Vegas was a majlis al-shura, a meeting to consult with decision makers. Al-Shib said the four 9/11 pilots present at the meeting were Atta, al-Shehhi, Jarrah and Hani Hanjour, as were Atta’s deputy Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. Yet according to the known chronology of their visits, the four pilots were never in Las Vegas at the same time.
Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Atta’s supposed right-hand man, who allegedly has been quite talkative since his September 2002 arrest in Pakistan, either lied about the terrorists meeting in Las Vegas for a majlis al-shura, since they were not known to be in Las Vegas at the same time, or he spoke the truth and the terrorists did meet with the decision makers, and the authorities had no idea what was going on in their own backyard.
Even though Atta hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his hotel room door, an old ruse used to make snooping eyes believe the occupant is present, it is doubtful whether, as The New York Times reported in November 2001, “the most important planning occurred in that dingy hotel room.” It is unlikely that Atta spent much time in his room during his visit. A $55 room in a seedy part of town frequented by pimps, prostitutes, crack dealers and crack heads is not the type of place a devout Muslim would stay and plan his martyrdom, so the room might have been a ruse.
Fouda also reports that the supposed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also was present at the 2002 meeting in Karachi and informed him that the original plan, an attack on nuclear reactors, was canceled for fear of things getting out of control.
Another reason for the 9/11 hijackers’ Las Vegas visit may be contained in reports from India alleging that former Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, later removed from command, ordered an aide to wire $100,000 to Mohamed Atta in Las Vegas during the summer of 2001. American intelligence reports, on the other hand, suggest that it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who sent Atta $100,000. In the AP article referred to earlier, “Superiors Hindered Terror Prosecutors,” one of the operatives is heard saying, “Let’s go to the hotel, since we finished filming the casinos and we made $100,000 tonight.”
There seems to be no record of the alleged transfer of $100,000 to Atta in Las Vegas. But if there was a transfer of money to the 9/11 hijacker, it could have been laundered through one of the casinos or a local “hawala.” The hawala system is similar to the “black peso” system used by narco-traffickers and involves transferring money across borders without using electronic or physical means. Currency changers (hawaldars) receive cash in one country and fellow “hawaldars” in another country -- usually family or members of an ethnic group or clan -- dispense the identical amount, minus fees, to the recipients, who are provided with code words, serial numbers of bills, encrypted digital messages or signals such as handshakes or innocuous stroking of facial hair.
Though MSNBC.com, Fox News, The Washington Post and other news agencies have reported the likelihood of terrorists continuing to target Las Vegas, politicians and law enforcement agencies appear to be steadfast in their belief that the city is not a prime target. But in a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal of December 24, 2003, one high-ranking local law enforcement official said, “I have never seen so many nervous people in federal law enforcement.” Another source said the FBI had a planeload of agents going to Las Vegas, which the FBI would neither confirm nor deny. And on May 31, 2004, U.S. News and World Report said that information gleaned from Echelon, a super secret U.S. surveillance network that intercepted messages from suspected terrorists, “pointed to two, perhaps three” targets: New York, Washington and Las Vegas.