Evidence Flight 93 was headed to the Capitol

AP Photo/Mark Tenally

There’s been an ongoing debate over where Flight 93 was headed on 9/11 before the passengers fought back and led to the plane going down in Shanksville, PA. The 9/11 Commission report wasn’t conclusive, saying the target could have been either the Capitol or the White House. There have been various reports over the years saying the target was the White House:

A CBS News article carrying the headline “White House Was Flight 93 Target” quoted government sources as saying a high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee, Abu Zubaida, had told investigators that the jetliner was bound for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Five years after the attack, the movie “United 93,” written and directed by Paul Greengrass, showed the Jarrah character clipping a photo of the Capitol to the aircraft’s yoke, leaving little to viewers’ imagination. But an NBC News article that same year said that Tyler Drumhiller, head of CIA operations in Europe at the time of the attack, “suspects the target was the White House.”…

A 2013 article in Roll Call, headlined “Were They Aiming for the Dome on Sept. 11? A Capitol Myth That’s Hard to Shake,” concluded that “the limited available evidence” suggested that the White House was the prime target.

However, despite all that the author of the Post piece on the question concludes the most likely target was the Capitol for two reasons. For one, KSM said both before and after he was captured that the Capitol was the target.

Under interrogation after he was captured in 2003, “Sheikh Mohammed said that the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania was targeted at the Capitol building,” according to a defense exhibit at the 2006 trial of al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui.

The temptation might be to dismiss anything KSM told investigators after his capture. He was, after all, held in a series of secret CIA prisons where he was waterboarded 183 times, kept nude and deprived of sleep. His account, however, is consistent with what he said before he was tortured.

In 2002, when they were still fugitives, KSM and Binalshibh were interviewed in Pakistan by Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda. Both told Fouda that the target of Flight 93 was the Capitol.

There’s also a more practical reason to think the target was the US Capitol. Ziad Jarrah was one of the four terrorists who took over Flight 93. He was the only one of the four with flight training. However, Jarrah only had a pilot’s license for single engine planes. The other terrorist pilots all had commercial certifications. The result was that he was inexperienced flying such a large plane. The author of the Post piece decided to experience what that was like himself with some help from an aviation lawyer named Jonathan M. Stern and a flight simulator:

We picked up where Flight 93 left off, over the Laurel Highlands of southern Pennsylvania, under CAVU conditions. At 10:05 a.m., we were about 100 miles from Washington, going 525 miles per hour. We passed over the peaceful Pennsylvania countryside, then the piece of northeastern West Virginia that juts into Maryland…

Everything seemed to speed up. Stern spotted the West Front of the Capitol, with its iconic dome, at the far end of the Mall. “That’s such an easy shot,” he said. “It’s like a bowling alley lane to your target, which is very distinct.”

And the White House? “I can tell already: It is hard. At high speed, it would have been very hard to find. The White House is buried among those other office buildings. From above, there’s nothing all that distinctive about it, and it’s surrounded by buildings of similar size.”

Stern’s bottom line: Striking the White House in a fast-moving 757 would be a difficult maneuver for any pilot, much less a nervous novice like Jarrah. “It would,” he said, “be very hard to target the White House and very easy to target the Capitol.”

So there’s reason to think the Capitol was the target (based on KSM) and reason to think it’s the only target Jarrah had a realistic chance of striking in a plane moving at more than 500 miles per hour.

It’s hard to imagine but 9/11 really could have been far more traumatic for the country than it already was if not for the bravery of Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick and the other passengers who decided to fight back.