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 waited until now to air the audiotaped interview — it is scheduled to run Thursday on al-Jazeera — because he wanted to include it in a documentary marking the first anniversary of the attacks.
A videotape of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden released by U.S. officials in December for many established al Qaeda's responsibility for Sept. 11. According to Fouda's account, Mohammed and Binalshibh spell out the link even more clearly.
U.S. officials regard Mohammed as one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda leaders at large and believe he is still planning attacks against U.S. interests. U.S. officials say Binalshibh was a member of a Hamburg-based cell led by Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian-born suspected lead hijacker on Sept. 11.
"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 began two and a half 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, 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 they promise, sent him only the audiotape, he said.
Fouda said at one point, while he was being led blindfolded to the meeting, he thought he was going to meet with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Fouda said during the two days he spent talking to the two, Mohammed once referred to bin Laden in the past tense and that a sense of disarray led him to believe bin Laden could be dead.
Fouda, an Egyptian reporter and host of al-Jazeera's investigative program Top Secret, said he flew to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and then 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 he recognized as Mohammed and Binalshibh.
Al-Jazeera had announced last week it will broadcast the interviews as part of its coverage marking the anniversary of the attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Fouda wrote about the interview for London's Sunday Times in a story that appeared this week. He told the AP he approached the Times to publicize the documentary.
He wrote in the newspaper that during the interviews, he learned that the U.S. Congress had been the fourth target. Hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while another airplane crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers apparently stormed the hijackers.
Fouda also learned Atta had been a sleeper operative in Germany since 1992 and started detailed planning with a 1999 meeting in Afghanistan with other sleepers.
Once in the United States, 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.
The Qatar-based satellite station Al-Jazeera has drawn world attention with its broadcast of interviews with and statements by Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.