Mark Steyn, in a hole, digging

Some of the readers of this Mark Steyn column might have wondered why he seems oddly determined to dispute one date in the 9/11 Commission’s time line:

they seemed oddly determined to fix June 3, 2000, as the official date of Atta’s first landing on American soil

Of course, those people who heard how Steyn got busted by Media Watch for falling for Johnelle Bryant’s story (my posts are here and here) will know the real reason why he is determined to dispute that date—for Bryant’s story to be true, Atta would have had to have been in the US before June 2000.

Here’s Steyn’s argument:

But I do know it’s absurd to suggest he was never in the United States until June 3, 2000, simply because that’s what the INS says — especially when U.S. military intelligence says something quite different.

Well, yes it would be absurd. But then, that’s not what the 9/11 Commission did. As well as the
INS records, the Commission had multiple eye witnesses, flight records, phone records and so on.

Steyn claims:

I’ve no hard evidence of where [Atta] was in, say, April 2000. The period between late 1999 and May 2000 is, in many ways, a big blur.

Well a big blur to Steyn perhaps, but not to the 9/11 Commission:

Following Slahi’s advice,Atta and Jarrah left Hamburg during the last
week of November 1999, bound for Karachi. … [In Kandahar] Binalshibh
rejoined Atta and Jarrah, who said they already had pledged loyalty to
Bin Ladin and urged him to do the same.They also informed him that
Shehhi had pledged as well and had already left for the United Arab
Emirates to prepare for the mission. …

Atta, Jarrah, and Binalshibh then met with Atef, who told them they
were about to undertake a highly secret mission. As Binalshibh tells
it, Atef instructed the three to return to Germany and enroll in
flight training. Atta– whom Bin Ladin chose to lead the group–met
with Bin Ladin several times to receive additional instructions,
including a preliminary list of approved targets: the World Trade
Center, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol. …

Bin Ladin and Atef wasted no time in assigning the Hamburg group to
the most ambitious operation yet planned by al Qaeda. Bin Ladin and
Atef also plainly judged that Atta was best suited to be the tactical
commander of the operation. Such a quick and critical judgment invites
speculation about whether they had already taken Atta’s measure at
some ear- lier meeting. To be sure, some gaps do appear in the record
of Atta’s known whereabouts during the preceding years. One such gap
is February-March 1998, a period for which there is no evidence of his
presence in Germany and when he conceivably could have been in

Yet to date, neither KSM, Binalshibh, nor any other al Qaeda figure
interrogated about the 9/11 plot has claimed that Atta or any other
member of the Hamburg group traveled to Afghanistan before the trip
in late 1999. While the four core Hamburg cell members were in
Afghanistan, their associates back in Hamburg handled their affairs
so that their trip could be kept secret. Motassadeq appears to have
done the most. He terminated Shehhi’s apartment lease, telling the
landlord that Shehhi had returned to the UAE for family reasons, and
used a power of attorney to pay bills from Shehhi’s bank account.

In early 2000,Atta, Jarrah, and Binalshibh returned to Hamburg. …
According to Binalshibh, he and Atta left Kandahar together and
proceeded first to Karachi, where they met KSM and were instructed by
him on security and on living in the United States. … Atta returned
to Hamburg in late February …

After leaving Afghanistan, the hijackers made clear efforts to avoid
appearing radical. Once back in Hamburg, they distanced themselves
from conspicuous extremists like Zammar, whom they knew attracted
unwanted attention from the authorities.

They also changed their appearance and behavior. Atta wore Western
clothing, shaved his beard, and no longer attended extremist mosques.

After leaving Afghanistan, the four began researching flight schools
and aviation training. … In March 2000, Atta emailed 31 different
U.S. flight schools on behalf of a small group of men from various
Arab countries studying in Germany who, while lacking prior training,
were interested in learning to fly in the United States. Atta
requested information about the cost of the training, potential
financing, and accommodations.

Before seeking visas to enter the United States, Atta, Shehhi, and
Jarrah obtained new passports, each claiming that his old passport had
been lost. Presumably they were concerned that the Pakistani visas
in their old passports would raise suspicions about possible travel to
Afghanistan. Shehhi obtained his visa on January 18, 2000; Atta, on
May 18; and Jarrah, on May 25.

Just a big blur, right. Steyn makes a big deal about how it is possible to sneak into the US without a passport but there is no reason why Atta would do this. He had no trouble getting a US visa so there was no need for him to sneak into the country. Atta did his travelling under his real name in the trips we know about.

All in all, a rather weak effort from Steyn. All this because he is too stubborn to admit to making a mistake when he based a column on Johnelle Bryant’s crazy story.


  1. #1 z
    August 16, 2005

    “The period between late 1999 and May 2000 is, in many ways, a big blur.”
    Who among us hasn’t had years like that?

  2. #2 Ender
    August 16, 2005

    A little off topic but interesting nonetheless is the Greek Airforce’s ability to intercept an airliner after one missed radio call in a timely fashion – quick enough to see into the cockpit. It is a pity that at 10 minutes after 8:13:31am (the first missed radio call) on that fateful morning there was not an American fighter on the wingtip of American Airlines Flight 11 that flew into the WTC at 8:46:26 am.


  3. #3 Ben
    August 19, 2005

    Give Steyn a break. The man’s a genius, nay a psychic.

    For example, he was right predicting that Iraq may not be any more dangerous than Stockwell…

    “I spent a pleasant evening prowling round Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, where I detected a frisson of menace in the air, but marginally less than in, say, Stockwell, south London”

    (Daily Telegraph, 01/06/2003)

  4. #4 Wilbur
    August 28, 2005

    Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer’s claims about Atta are still worth reading up on.

    Shaffer has stated that the 9/11 commission ignored most of the documented evidence from Able Danger offered to them;

    And that when he tried to speak to the commission, they where interested at first, but then avoided speaking to him;

    Stating that the commission knew what it was doing assumes that they looked at all of the evidence, which they clearly didn’t. Tim quoted the commission in an earlier post;

    “a military official who made the claim had no documentation to back it up. ‘He could not describe what information had led to this supposed Atta identification,” the statement said of the military official.”

    Shaffer appears to have had the documents, offered them, and been fobbed off.

    In any case, the debunking of Bryant’s story seems to hinge on her getting the date wrong by a few days or weeks. If she said, about 24 months after the event, she thought she met him in May 2000 (possibly as late as the 3rd week of may), but immigration records show he landed in the U.S. early in June, it hardly disproves what she has said about her meeting with him. She could simply have gotten dates mixed up. Could any of us recall, with accuracy, an accurate date for a brief business meeting held two years ago from memory alone?

    Tim mentioned, in regard to Atta’s travelling, that “He had no trouble getting a US visa so there was no need for him to sneak into the country. Atta did his travelling under his real name in the trips we know about.”

    There where actually many reasons for him to sneak in and out of the country, and to use a normal visa on some occasions but sneak in and out on others. The whole rationale behind building a ‘legend’ as it is called in intel circles is to create a trail that is hard for authorities to follow, or that puts them on the wrong track.

    To add to the confusion, it seems that Atta travelled under multiple names. At one stage he used Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta (this was on his May 2000 U.S. visa application). Sometimes he was Mohamed el-Amir, at others just plain Mohamed Atta. As far as I know, the 9/11 commission didn’t consider his multiple names at all (I’d be interested to see if anyone has confirmation one way or the other on this).

    I also don’t consider it unlikely that Atta mentioned to Bryant what terrorist group he had ties with. Atta demonstrated some very strange ideas near women, including a complete contempt for them, believing them to be stupid. His will stated he didn’t want any at his funeral (it also said “He who washes my body around my genitals should wear gloves so that I am not touched there.”) This was not a guy playing with a full deck. That he could show good operational security on the one hand, but then talk so openly to an American woman, doesn’t surprise me.

    The 9/11 commission states that Atta got his U.S. visa on May 18th 2005, this being a new one. They seem to think this was an attempt to hide prior trips to Pakistan. Or was it an attempt to start a cleaner slate under a variation of his name? Fiddling ID documents was no strange idea to the 9/11 terrorists.

  5. #5 Tim Lambert
    August 28, 2005

    Bryant was certain about the date [because](
    >She said that the meeting had occurred in 2000, between “the third week of April to the third week of May of 2000.” She was able to fix the date because the Far Service subsequently moved their office to Florida City.

    Possibly somebody did apply for a loan to buy a crop duster and after 9/11 she convinced herself that it was Atta and invented all the details that make her story completely implausible.

  6. #6 Wilbur
    August 28, 2005

    There may be some other witnesses who place Atta as being in the US earlier than the 9/11 commission believes him to have arrived.

    One florida journalist has pointed out that there are at least three witnesses who place him in Florida before June 2000;
    I haven’t seen any other confirmation of this yet. However, it does seem that the 9/11 commission relied on FBI testimony about the Atta timeline as though it was written in stone. Most interesting is the assertion that Atta’s rental location in Florida is mentioned in this story as being near Venice airport. He learned to fly there.

    Importantly, though, the whole Able Danger program appears to have been smart enough to identify Atta by his multiple names;

    In contrast, the 9/11 commission seems to have worked with the concept of Atta using just one name. He may have entered the US in June 2000 as “Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta” but this offers us no proof he hadn’t travelled under his other names. The 9/11 commission mentions that Atta may have sought a new passport to hide his previous trips to Pakistan- but it could easily be an attempt to mask his travelling just about anywhere else, including in and out of the U.S.

    As for Bryant’s story being implausible, there are many aspects of Atta’s life that seem implausible but have turned out to be true. As I said, he doesn’t seem to have been playing with a full deck. If you’re crazy enough to do what he did on 9/11, I think the sky is the limit elsewhere.

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