David C. Henley: 9/11 hijackers visits to Nevada remain a mystery
Five days ago, when America commemorated the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 airplane hijackings that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and heavily damaged the Pentagon, I recalled Nevada’s startling connection to the terrorists, a connection that remains a mystery today.
Despite investigations by the FBI and Nevada law enforcement officials, there is still no explanation as to why at least five of the terrorists, who commandeered the four commercial airliners that crashed into the two World Trade towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania, visited Las Vegas on several occasions before their suicidal missions on the morning of Monday, Sept. 11, 2011, that killed an estimated 2,700 people in the twin towers and 300 in the Pentagon and Pennsylvania attacks.
Some investigators have theorized that the Saudi Arabian attackers had traveled to Las Vegas to scout and plot further airborne assaults by their colleagues in the Middle East on Hoover Dam, iconic Las Vegas hotel-casinos, the gaudy replica of the Statue of Liberty on the Vegas “Strip” or Nevada’s highest building, the 109-story Stratosphere Casino Tower near the downtown area.
But in its 2004 final report on the hijackings titled “The National Commission Report on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” the commission determined, “We have seen no credible evidence explaining why the operatives flew to or met in Las Vegas.”
According to investigations conducted by the FBI and the Clark County sheriff’s office, 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 seedy, nondescript motels and frequented an Internet café near the UNLV campus from where they sent and received an undetermined number of e-mails. As well, they rented cars in Las Vegas and visited several striptease clubs where they received lap dances, smoked hashish, drank alcohol and also visited a topless bar and an adult video rental shop.
Las Vegas, with its laid-back, 24-hour lifestyle and vast number 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. The Cyberzone Internet Café across from UNLV stayed open until midnight and FBI agents revealed that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the attackers, and the other pilots spent long hours there sending non-traceable messages via anonymous e-mail accounts and studied 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 on 9/11.
My son, Dave, who has frequently taken photos for this newspaper, traveled to Las Vegas and took photos of the Cyberzone Café and some of the motels where the attackers stayed. We used Dave’s pictures in future stories describing the attackers’ activities in Southern Nevada. This newspaper has published many 9/11 stories during the past 19 years, and will continue to do so.
Immediately following the attacks, stringent security measures were put into place throughout Nevada. Fallon’s Naval Air Station was locked down and later opened only for military personnel and their families. Security also was heightened at Hawthorne’s Army Ammunition Depot, Nevada National Guard Headquarters in Carson City, the Nevada Air Guard complex at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, Nellis Air Force Base in North Las Vegas and closed to all flights were the three commercial airports in Nevada at Las Vegas, Reno and Elko. The Reno Air Races were canceled and Gov. Kenny Guinn activated Nevada Army and Air National Guard personnel to guard power installations, dams and other sensitive and vulnerable potential enemy targets.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, this newspaper was a daily, and on Tuesday, Sept. 12, the day after 9/11, our staff had put out wonderful paper, highlighting in stories and photos the security precautions here and the rest of Northern and Western Nevada as well as across America. The main page one headline read “Terrorist Attacks Stun America.” I was tremendously proud of our staff that worked hard all day on 9/11 in order to publish this outstanding journalistic enterprise the next day.
On 9/11, I was not in Fallon. I had driven one or two days earlier to Southern California to attend the fourth birthday celebration on Sept. 11 for Amy, the youngest of our three grandchildren. I was hearing the radio in bed about 6:30 a.m. when news of the attack jolted me from bed. I dressed and drove from Orange County to San Diego where I managed to enter the headquarters of the Naval Air Station on North Island. Two heavily-armed Navy sentries refused my entry to the office of the admiral commanding NAS Fallon and other Pacific and Western U.S. Navy air commands. My purpose was to interview him on 9/11’s affect on ships, planes and stations under his command. The guards ignored my presentation of my press pass and military I.D. card (I was an Army Reserve officer at the time), stating the base was closed to the media and I was an interloper. They summoned a Military Police van which unceremoniously dumped me outside the main gate.
I returned to Orange County where I sent off a story to the LVN-FES about my adventure with the Navy guards and attended Amy’s party complete with balloons, ice cream and cake. The headline of my story was, “Attending a 4-year-old’s birthday party on the Second Day of Infamy.” Amy, who turned 23 this past 9/11, is a graduate of the Moody School of Communications at the University of Texas-Austin and holds a responsible position at a major American communications and computer company. She will never forget that her birthday falls on the annual commemoration of the day that shook the world, Sept. 11, 2001.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.