9/11 terrorists plotted attacks in Las Vegas
Special to the Nevada Appeal
When Americans commemorate the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 airplane hijackings and destruction of the World Trade Center, many Nevadans will recall this state’s startling connection to the terrorism that killed nearly 3,000, including the 19 suicide bombers, in the nation’s worst-ever attack on U.S. soil.
According to investigations conducted by the FBI and Nevada law enforcement officials, credit card receipts and reports from eyewitnesses, all four 9/11 pilots and several of their co-conspirators visited Las Vegas at least six times immediately before the attacks, plotted their suicide missions at a $35 per-night motel and frequented an Internet cafe near the UNLV campus from where they sent and received an undetermined number of e-mails.
As well, they rented cars while in Las Vegas, visited several striptease clubs where they received lap dances, smoked hashish and drank alcohol.
Although some of the terrorists stayed at two other low-budget Las Vegas motels, the headquarters for 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, the three other pilots and most of their fellow plotters was the 120-room Econo Lodge, a two-story motel on Las
Vegas Boulevard that is located on the same block as a nightclub, tattoo parlor, adult video rental shop and topless bar.
Atta, a 38 year-old Egyptian who piloted the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, conducted much of the group’s “most important planning” at the Econo Lodge, according to newspaper reports that quoted senior U.S. government investigators.
Las Vegas, with its laid-back, 24-hour lifestyle and vast numbers of tourists, provided the hijackers, who had taken flying lessons in Phoenix and San Diego, a central and convenient location to confer without drawing attention. And the Econo Lodge, like a score of anonymous, nondescript motels that line the seedy northern fringes of the Strip, was considered by Atta to be a safe refuge to coordinate the attacks without drawing notice from its clients, most of whom were transients and working people.
Ironically, however, the motel was located just a block away from the Las Vegas FBI office.
The Cyber Zone Cafe, the Internet store often visited by the terrorists, is located in a strip mall on Maryland Parkway across the street from the UNLV campus.
Sandwiched between the Hair Time beauty salon and a Smoothies take-out cafe, the Cyber Zone, like the motel, also was an ideal spot for the plotters to blend in, investigators said. Most of its customers were university students, and several of these were Middle Easterners like the attackers. The Cyber Zone also stayed open until midnight, affording Atta and his cohorts late-hour access to its computers.
FBI agents assigned to the Las Vegas investigation revealed that Atta and the other pilots spent long hours at the Cyber Zone, reportedly sending non-traceable messages via anonymous e-mail accounts and studying flight simulator programs on the Internet that helped familiarize them with the instrument panels and other technical aspects of the four aircraft they commandeered and crashed.
Stringent security measures were put into force throughout the state following the hijackings. Nevada’s three commercial airports in Reno, Elko and Las Vegas were immediately closed to all air traffic and, when ultimately reopened, were guarded by heavily-armed Nevada National Guard personnel ordered to active duty by Gov. Kenny Guinn. Access to Boulder Dam was closed to all visitors. The Reno Air Races were canceled. Nellis Air Force Base, the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot and Fallon Naval Air Station were locked down.
The pilot of the American Airlines jet that crashed into the Pentagon was a Naval Reserve captain who had trained at NAS Fallon’s elite Top Gun school. One of the passengers aboard the plane was a retired Navy admiral who also had been assigned to the Fallon air base on several occasions.
And the admiral’s wife was with him on the airplane that fateful day nine years ago that killed 2,996 and injured approximately 6,000.
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.