I-Team: What Brought the 9/11 Hijackers to Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Why did the 9/11 hijackers repeatedly visit Las Vegas during the summer of 2001? It's a question law enforcement has been asking for nearly 10 years, and they still don't have a solid answer.

Local police had no homeland security teams back in 2001, but Las Vegas was able to mobilize quickly because of planning done for the Y2K scare and for the annual New Year's Eve bash.

Former Clark County Sheriff Jerry Keller says there had been almost no discussion of Las Vegas as a possible target for attack by the likes of Al Qaeda prior to the events of 9/11, but in the hectic hours after the hijackings, Keller and the other agency heads who gathered at FBI headquarters started thinking the unthinkable.

"Who knew? There were still planes flying when we were making this decision -- they hadn't all landed yet," he said. "At the time, terrorism was thought to be a foreign state issue, not an issue in the homeland, in Las Vegas."

Read a detailed account of the 9/11 hijacker's activities in Las Vegas

Within days, local anxieties increased as the FBI shared classified information with Keller, including details still not widely known.

"These guys were here. There was another guy they tracked in Arizona who was planning to come across the dam. Nothing happened from that, but that was the early information," he said.

The ringleader of the September 11th attacks, Mohammed Atta, and at least four of the other 19 hijackers made six visits to Las Vegas between late-May and mid-August. Atta, who piloted the first plane into the World Trade Center, flew to Las Vegas on June 28, 2001, rented a car, and then spent 90 minutes online at an internet cafe across from UNLV. He then checked in at the Econo Lodge on Las Vegas Boulevard, within shouting distance of the FBI office, put a "do not disturb" sign on his door and stayed two nights in a room that faced the Stratosphere Tower.

When he returned his rental car on July 1st, it had 110 miles on it. Aside from the internet cafe, police don't know much about Atta's movements while in Las Vegas, and it raises the possibility whether there might be someone here who helped them.

"Without a doubt. But chances are, I'm guessing, whoever was here also came from somewhere else and they met up. We just never figured out who they were," said former Clark County Sheriff Bill Young.

At the time, Young was in charge of special ops teams for Metro. His detectives and FBI agents poured through mountains of hotel records, rental car receipts, and surveillance videos to document the terrorists movements.

Tipsters say at least one terrorist received lap dances at the Olympic Garden strip club. Others sipped coffee across from UNLV and partied and gambled at casinos. Many leads from the public could not be confirmed, and the biggest questions remain unanswered.

"What the heck they were doing here? Were they in pre-op planning for something here in Las Vegas, gathering intelligence? Were they here to plan ops for somewhere else? Were they here to have a last hurrah before they go get their 72 virgins, or whatever they get? I'm not sure, not sure anyone can say definitively," said Young.

Keller agrees that we may never know why they were here so many times, but thinks it is not clear Las Vegas was on a short list of targets.

"This was a place to fly into and mingle -- so many flights coming in, a busy airport. You could be relatively unknown, not observed, not a threat, test the system and fly back," he said.

The hijackers weren't the only visitors of note that summer. On 9/11 itself, more than 100 members of the Saudi royal family and their friends, the Bin Laden's, were staying in Las Vegas, mostly at Caesars Palace and the Four Seasons. Osama Bin Laden's sister was well known at the Bellagio.

The Saudi's were grounded, along with everyone else, but after being interviewed by the FBI, were cleared to leave aboard three special charter flights.

"They were here. They're always here. They've been here since. Bin Laden's relatives were in Las Vegas before and after 9/11. Some of them are gamblers, high rollers, good customers," said Young.

Although police received tips that the hijackers met with others inside casinos, including the Bellagio, no confirmable images were captured on security cameras. Sheriff Doug Gillespie told CBS news on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 the unfortunate bottom line, "We're not sure why they chose Las Vegas."

The five people who know for sure why they came to Las Vegas throughout that ill-fated summer all died in fiery crashes, and the truth may have died with them.


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