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Context of 'Before September 11, 2001: US Government Prepares for Hijackings, Some of Them Involving Multiple Planes'

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At some point between 1991 and 2001, a regional NORAD sector holds an exercise simulating a foreign hijacked airliner crashing into a prominent building in the United States, the identity of which is classified. According to military officials, the building is not the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The exercise involves some flying of military aircraft, plus a “command post exercise” where communication procedures are rehearsed in an office environment. [CNN, 4/19/2004]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to USA Today, “In the two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command conduct[s] exercises simulating what the White House [later] says was unimaginable at the time: hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and cause mass casualties.” One of the imagined targets is the World Trade Center. According to NORAD, these scenarios are regional drills, rather than regularly scheduled continent-wide exercises. They utilize “[n]umerous types of civilian and military aircraft” as mock hijacked aircraft, and test “track detection and identification; scramble and interception; hijack procedures; internal and external agency coordination; and operational security and communications security procedures.” The main difference between these drills and the 9/11 attacks is that the planes in the drills are coming from another country, rather than from within the US. Before 9/11, NORAD reportedly conducts four major exercises at headquarters level per year. Most of them are said to include a hijack scenario (see Before September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 4/18/2004; CNN, 4/19/2004]

Entity Tags: World Trade Center, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Osama bin Laden is pictured on the cover of the Amalgam Virgo exercise.
Osama bin Laden is pictured on the cover of the Amalgam Virgo exercise. [Source: NORAD]The US military conducts Amalgam Virgo 01, a multi-agency live-fly homeland security exercise sponsored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and involving the hypothetical scenario of a cruise missile being launched by “a rogue [government] or somebody” from a barge off the East Coast. Osama bin Laden is pictured on the cover of the proposal for the exercise. [American Forces Press Service, 6/4/2002; Arkin, 2005, pp. 253; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/27/2005] The exercise takes place at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Drones simulating cruise missiles are launched from Tyndall, head out to sea, circle a ship as if they are being launched from there, and then head back to land. Air Force F-16s, Navy gunners, and Army missile defense units attempt to find and track the drones. The Coast Guard attempts to catch the ship serving as the dummy launch site. [Tampa Tribune, 6/3/2001] Another scenario in the exercise involves a suicide mission in which a Haitian man with AIDS attempts to deliberately crash a small private plane into NORAD’s Southeast Air Defense Sector (SEADS) at Tyndall AFB. [US Air Force, 2001] The next Amalgam Virgo exercise, scheduled to take place in 2002, will involve two simultaneous commercial aircraft hijackings. Planning for that exercise will begin in July 2001 (see July 2001). [American Forces Press Service, 6/4/2002; USA Today, 4/18/2004]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Amalgam Virgo, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

NORAD is already planning for the Amalgam Virgo 02 exercise. This exercise, scheduled for June 2002, will involve the simulation of two simultaneous commercial aircraft hijackings. One plane, a Delta 757, flown by Delta pilots, will fly from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. It will be “hijacked” by FBI agents posing as terrorists. The other plane will be a Navy C-9 bound from Oak Harbor, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and will be “hijacked” by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. On both planes, military personnel will act as civilian passengers. US and Canadian fighters are to respond, and either force the planes to land or simulate shooting them down. Describing Amalgam Virgo 02 to the 9/11 Commission, NORAD’s Major General Craig McKinley later says, “Threats of killing hostages or crashing were left to the script writers to invoke creativity and broaden the required response for players.” About 1,500 people will participate in the exercise. USA Today will note that this is an exception to NORAD’s claim that, prior to 9/11, it focused only on external threats to the US and did not consider the possibility of threats arising from within the US. 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste will similarly comment that this planned exercise shows that, despite frequent comments to the contrary, the military considered simultaneous hijackings before 9/11. [CNN, 6/4/2002; American Forces Press Service, 6/4/2002; Associated Press, 6/5/2002; 9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; USA Today, 4/18/2004]

Entity Tags: Craig McKinley, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Richard Ben-Veniste, Amalgam Virgo

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Staff members at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) are apparently briefed on the possibility of terrorists deliberately crashing a plane into the World Trade Center. According to author Lynn Spencer, when Trey Murphy—a former US Marine who is now a weapons controller at NEADS—first sees the television footage on September 11 showing that a plane has hit the WTC, the news will bring to mind one of his briefings: “What if a terrorist flies an airplane with a weapon of mass destruction into the World Trade Center? It had always been one of the military’s big fears.… [T]he image on the [television] screen certainly reminded him of his briefing.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 179] It is also later reported that, in the two years prior to 9/11, NORAD conducts exercises simulating terrorists crashing hijacked aircraft into targets that include the WTC (see Between September 1999 and September 10, 2001). [USA Today, 4/18/2004] Yet, in May 2002, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center… that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile” (see May 16, 2002). [White House, 5/16/2002] And in 2004, NORAD commander General Ralph Eberhart will say, “Regrettably, the tragic events of 9/11 were never anticipated or exercised.” [USA Today, 4/18/2004]

Entity Tags: Trey Murphy, World Trade Center, Northeast Air Defense Sector

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Based on interviews with FBI officials, the New Yorker will report that, for several years prior to 9/11, the US government plans for “simulated terrorist attacks, including scenarios [involving] multiple-plane hijackings.” This presumably refers to more than just the Amalgam Virgo 02 exercise (see July 2001), which is based on the scenario of two planes being simultaneously hijacked. [New Yorker, 9/24/2001] Similarly, NORAD will state that before 9/11, it normally conducts four major exercises each year at headquarters level. Most of them include a hijack scenario, and some of them are apparently quite similar to the 9/11 attacks (see Between 1991 and 2001 and Between September 1999 and September 10, 2001). [USA Today, 4/18/2004; CNN, 4/19/2004] According to author Lynn Spencer, before September 11, “To prepare for their missions in support of NORAD, the Air National Guard pilots—some of the finest pilots in the world—often use hijacking scenarios to train for intercept tactics.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 84-85] John Arquilla, an associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, later says that while “No one knew specifically that 20 people would hijack four airliners and use them for suicide attacks against major buildings… the idea of such an attack was well known, [and] had been war gamed as a possibility in exercises before Sept. 11.” [Monterey County Herald, 7/18/2002]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, United States, Air National Guard, John Arquilla

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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