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Detainees reveal bin Laden's reaction to attacks

Osama Bin Laden meets with followers in a videotape believed to have been made in November 2001
Osama Bin Laden meets with followers in a videotape believed to have been made in November 2001  

From Mike Boettcher

(CNN) -- On September 11, 2001, as his followers carried out a series of attacks on the United States, Osama bin Laden knew the attacks were coming, how many there were supposed to be, and when they were supposed to happen.

And, in between each attack -- according to accounts gleaned from men who were with him -- bin Laden indicated to his followers in chilling fashion that another one was about to take place.

The new information, intelligence sources said, came from two men who were with bin Laden that day who were later interrogated by a coalition intelligence agency. The agency provided the information to CNN.

According to the accounts provided by these men, the al Qaeda leader spent much of September 11 in prayer and meditation, pausing only to praise Allah after news of each new horror carried out by his followers came over the radio.

CNN's Mike Boettcher retraces the activities of Osama bin Laden on the day of the September 11 attacks based on accounts detainees gave to intelligence officials. (September 11)

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When combined with remarks about September 11 that bin Laden made in a previously released videotape made in November 2001, the new information provides a new glimpse into the mood and attitude of the terrorist leader on that day.

On the tape, which was found and later released by U.S. intelligence, bin Laden meets with a Saudi religious leader and talks about the attacks. The new information fills in some gaps on what he was up to that day.

It is September 11th, 2001, in Afghanistan. According to the accounts of men -- later interrogated by coalition intelligence officials - who were present through the night before and much of that day, bin Laden is observed in deep prayer and meditation.

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As the hijackers board their planes in the United States, those sources said, only three people in Afghanistan have exact knowledge of the attack: bin Laden, his trusted military commander, Mohammed Atef, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was wanted by the U.S. since 1995 for his alleged role in a plan to blow up U.S. airliners flying from Southeast Asia.

They are the only ones of a group gathered in a safe house in Afghanistan who know precisely what is about to happen, according to coalition intelligence sources.

By the time American Airlines flight 11 slams into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, those intelligence officials said, bin Laden is sitting beside a short-wave radio and waiting for news. He says nothing. As people gather around, there is a bulletin about the first plane.

This seems to agree with bin Laden's version of events in the tape of the November meeting that was obtained by the U.S. government in Afghanistan and released last December.

On that tape, bin Laden is heard to say, "We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day. We had finished our work that day and had the radio on. It was 5:30 p.m. our time. I was sitting with Dr. Ahmad Abu-al-Khair. Immediately we heard the news that the plane had hit the World Trade Center, we turned the radio station to the news from Washington. The news continued and no mention of the attack until the end. At the end of the newscast, they reported that a plane just hit the World Trade Center."

Citing accounts of the men who were with him, intelligence sources said bin Laden begins weeping and praying, then shouts "Allah Akbar" (God is great). Then, in a chilling sign he knows what is still to come, the sources said, bin Laden raises his arm and lifts 2 fingers.

This is perhaps what bin Laden's spokesman, Sulamein Abu Gheith, is talking about on the tape in his account of what happened.

"So I went back to the Shaykh (Bin Laden) who was sitting in a room with 50 to 60 people. I tried to tell him about what I saw, but he made gestures with his hands, meaning 'I know, I know.'"

After first plane hit, 'be patient'

On the tape, bin Laden himself also offered a clue to his behavior.

"They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building so I said to them: 'Be patient.'"

Bin Laden then moves to an adjacent room equipped with satellite TV. More people gather to watch with him -- and they begin to record coverage of the events. One of the videotapes among those in the archive of al Qaeda tapes recently obtained by CNN in Afghanistan also included recorded television news coverage of the attacks.

At this point, the sources said, bin Laden is silent. Then cameras catch United Airlines Flight 175 as it crashes into the South Tower.

"After a little while, they announced that another plane had hit the World Trade Center. The brothers who heard the news were overjoyed by it," bin Laden would later say at the November meeting.

When the second tower was (is) hit, according to the intelligence sources, Bin Laden again prays and weeps, shouting "Allah Akhbar." Then he lifts three fingers and it becomes clear to the people in the room that he is signaling that a third attack is still to come, the sources said.

It does: American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.

Bin Laden recounted what happened next on the November tape. "The difference between the first and second plane hitting the towers was 20 minutes. And the difference between the first plane and the plane that hit the Pentagon was one hour."

Again bin Laden prays, weeps and shouts "Allah Akhbar." This time he lifts four fingers.

Those beside him wait for the fourth attack. Only the select few know this hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 is aimed, as US investigators now believe, at the White House.

"They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building so I said to them: 'Be patient.'"
— Osama bin Laden

But passengers on United Flight 93 rush the cockpit to prevent the hijackers from achieving their aim and the plane crashes in a Pennsylvania field.

Even as the fourth attack fails, the World Trade Center towers collapse -- something that bin Laden, who once worked in his family's construction business, anticipated in part, according to the meeting tape.

"Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all we had hoped for," bin Laden said on the tape.

As night fell on Afghanistan on September 11, bin Laden's followers again watched as he prayed and wept. They waited for him to raise his hand to indicate a fifth attack. He never did.




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