DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The U.S. Congress was the fourth American landmark on Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 hit list and the terror group also considered striking U.S. nuclear facilities, according to a purported interview with two Al Qaeda fugitives wanted in the terrorist attack.
Yosri Fouda, correspondent for the satellite station Al-Jazeera, told The Associated Press that he was taken, blindfolded, to a secret location in Pakistan to meet Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh in a June interview arranged by Al Qaeda operatives.
Fouda said he has waited until now to air the audiotaped interview -- it is scheduled to be broadcast Thursday on the pan-Arab satellite station -- because he wanted to include it in a documentary marking the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an article in London's Sunday Times, Fouda wrote that he learned during the interviews that the U.S. Congress had been Al Qaeda's fourth Sept. 11 target. Two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth went down in a Pennsylvanian field after passengers stormed the hijackers.
U.S. counterterrorism officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said many of Mohammed's statements about the origins of the Sept. 11 plot are plausible, but they have no information that would verify those claims.
The officials could not corroborate Mohammed's statements that the U.S. Capitol was the intended target of the fourth plane or that nuclear power plants had also been considered as potential targets for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Abu Zubaydah, a top Al Qaeda leader in U.S. custody since March, told interrogators that the White House was the fourth plane's target, U.S. officials have said.
U.S. officials regard Mohammed as one of the highest-ranking Al Qaeda leaders still at large and believe he is still planning attacks against U.S. interests. U.S. officials say Binalshibh belonged to a Hamburg-based cell led by Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian suspected of leading the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"I am the head of the Al Qaeda military committee and Ramzi (Binalshibh) is the coordinator of the 'Holy Tuesday' operation," Fouda quoted Mohammed as saying. Sept. 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday.
Mohammed said planning for the attacks began 2 years before Sept. 11 and that the first targets considered were nuclear facilities.
We "decided against it for fear it would go out of control," Fouda quoted Mohammed as saying. "You do not need to know more than that at this stage, and anyway it was eventually decided to leave out nuclear targets -- for now."
Fouda, an Egyptian reporter and host of al-Jazeera's investigative program 'Top Secret,' said he flew to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and from there to Karachi on Al Qaeda instructions. In Karachi, he was taken blindfolded and via a complicated route to an apartment where he met the two men.
Fouda, speaking by telephone from London, said Al Qaeda operatives told him not to bring any electronic equipment -- including a camera or recorder -- to the interview. The Al Qaeda members videotaped the interview but instead of sending a copy of the video as promised, sent him only the audiotape, he said.
At one point while being led to the meeting, Fouda said he thought he was going to meet Usama bin Laden. Speculation has been rife that the Al Qaeda leader may be in Pakistan after fleeing U.S. attempts to kill or catch him in neighboring Afghanistan.
Fouda said during the two days he spent talking to the two, Mohammed once referred to bin Laden in the past tense, leading him to believe bin Laden could be dead.
The U.S. officials said they do not consider Mohammed's use of the past tense to refer to bin Laden as any sort of definitive evidence that he is dead.
Fouda said he also learned that Atta, the chief hijacker, had been a sleeper operative in Germany since 1992 and started detailed planning with a 1999 meeting in Afghanistan with other sleepers.
Once in America, Atta communicated with higher ranking Al Qaeda officials via e-mail, Fouda wrote. But when he had determined everything was ready, he telephoned Binalshibh in Germany to tell him the date, using a riddle that referred to the shapes of the numbers 9 and 11.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster, has drawn world attention with its broadcast of interviews with and statements by bin Laden and his top lieutenants.