While the devastating images of the 9/11 attacks are seared into our national collective memory, most of the events that led up to that day took place out of public view. Over eight episodes, Blindspot: The Road to 9/11, brings to light the decade-long “shadow struggle” that preceded the attacks. New episodes drop every Wednesday.
Hosted by WNYC reporter Jim O’Grady and based on HISTORY’s television documentary Road to 9/11 (produced by Left/Right), this 8-episode podcast series draws on interviews with more than 60 people — including FBI agents, high-level bureaucrats, journalists, experts, and people who knew the terrorists personally — and weaves them together with original reporting to create a gripping, serialized narrative audio experience.
Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios.
“The Ghost” is the nickname that Port Authority Detective Matthew Besheer and FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino give to the man they’ve been hunting for years but can’t quite catch: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- also known as KSM. He’s the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, and he picks up his plot to hijack planes and fly them into buildings. Without knowing his specific plans, Pellegrino and Besheer are acutely aware of the scope of KSM’s ambition, and the danger he presents to both military and civilian targets. But once again, a carefully considered plan to diffuse the threat goes awry and he melts into the ether. Soon he’ll take a meeting with Osama bin Laden and lay out the framework for what will become known as the attacks on 9/11/2001. In this final episode of the series, we trace the final steps to that fateful day.
The Falcon Hunt
It’s the late 1990s and the question tying policy makers at the highest levels of the U.S. government into knots: How should we respond to a relatively scattered group that is pulling off bloody attacks on our foreign installations and soldiers? In other words, how to deal with Al Qaeda? This is the group responsible for terror attacks such as the deadly bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And its leader, Osama bin Laden, has promised more attacks. In this episode, we hear from officials at the center of the debate about what to do. We tell the story of a time when the CIA was sure it had bin Laden in their sights, but couldn’t get the go-ahead from the White House to pull the trigger. It’s a tale of bureaucratic hesitation and excruciating near misses … as the clock winds down toward the biggest attack of all.
Osama bin Laden began his life as the son of a contractor made fabulously wealthy by the Saudi Arabian oil boom. From an early age, bin Laden shows himself to be different from his Western-leaning family. He forges a close relationship with the radical preacher Abdullah Azzam, who he joins as a mujahideen fighter in the Afghan War. Bin Laden will eventually be lionized by some in the Muslim world as the man who gave up the comforts of his upbringing to risk his life in battle -- and steered a share of his family wealth toward the cause. Once the invading Soviets leave Afghanistan in defeat, bin Laden decides to fight a holy war against the West. But how? His longtime mentor, Abdullah Azzam, advises caution. But a new advisor named Ayman al-Zawahiri pushes bin Laden to pursue a more far-reaching strategy. Bin Laden’s choice between the two men will determine the path of the newly formed Al Qaeda, and of worldwide militant jihad.
The World Trade Center was built with soaring expectations. Completed in 1973, its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, hoped the towers would stand as “a representation of man’s belief in humanity” and “world peace.” He even took inspiration from the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca with its tall minarets looking down on a sprawling plaza. What he did not expect was that the buildings would become a symbol to some of American imperialism and the strangling grip of global capitalism.
Our story picks up in Manila -- January 6th, 1995 -- where police respond to an apartment fire and uncover a plot to assassinate the Pope. A suspect gives up his boss in the scheme: Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef has been on the run for two years and has disappeared again. Port Authority Detective Matthew Besheer and FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino fly to Manila to follow his trail. They learn that Yousef has a horrifying attack in the works involving bombs on a dozen airplanes, rigged to explode simultaneously. President Bill Clinton grounds all U.S. flights from the Pacific as the era of enhanced airline security begins. Yousef’s plot is foiled. But what it reveals about his intentions is chilling.
The Double Life
Emad Salem has been called one of the most successful undercover agents in the history of the FBI. In a rare interview, Salem opens up about the personal price he paid for foiling the Landmarks Plot and bringing down a dangerous terrorist cell.
It’s been more than 20 years since Salem testified against terrorists linked to Al Qaeda in open court; he’s been in hiding ever since. He tells WNYC’s Jim O’Grady what it was like to win the confidence of terrorists who, if they’d found him out, might have killed him on the spot. He recounts wild, heart-stopping episodes in which he’s an inch away from disaster but then saves himself through a combination of bravado and fast-thinking. Salem also talks about the strains borne by his wife and two children since he agreed to become a mole. All of which begs the question, “Was it worth it?”
FBI informant Emad Salem is close to not only the Blind Sheikh but his trusted lieutenant, an ambitious terrorist named Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali. Salem soon finds himself at the Statue of Liberty with Siddig Ali; their goal is not to enjoy their visit but figure out how to destroy it with a bomb. It is one of five targets in what will come to be known as The Landmarks Plot -- a plan to cause mass casualties by attacking not only tourist sites but heavily trafficked crossings such as the Holland Tunnel and George Washington Bridge. Salem convinces Siddig Ali and his accomplices to make their bombs in an abandoned Queens warehouse that has secretly been wired with FBI cameras and other recording devices. As the plans near completion, the plotters are arrested. They will eventually be convicted and sent to prison. Law enforcement now better understands that the threat of terror against America is ongoing and international … which makes it even more difficult to fight.