What target did the hijackers have in their sites when they took over United Airlines Flight 93? While we will never know with 100% certainty, information available at this time indicates that the US Capitol was the most likely target for hijacked Flight 93. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were in session on September 11. Thousands were at work on Capitol Hill that Tuesday morning, taking up the work of the nation. Visitors were lining up for guided tours of the Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol was preparing for an evening unveiling of plans for the new Capitol Visitor Center. First Lady Laura Bush was at the Russell Senate Office Building, adjacent to the Capitol, preparing to speak to the Senate Education Committee. When the plane crashed in Western Pennsylvania, Flight 93 was only 20 minutes flying time from the nation's capital.
What evidence points to Washington, DC and the Capitol as the target? The Flight Data Recorder (FDR), one of the black boxes recovered from the crater where Flight 93 crashed, recorded thousands of bits of data about how this plane was being flown. This data allowed authorities to construct a flight path map that clearly shows Flight 93 on a heading for Washington, DC from the time it made a U-turn near Cleveland. More specifically, the 9/11 Commission, in reviewing FDR data, learned that at 9:55:11 am, eight minutes before the crash, the hijacker pilot Ziad Jarrah "dialed in the VHF Omni-directional Range (VOR) frequency for the VOR navigational aid at Washington Reagan National Airport, further indicating that the attack was planned for the nation's capital."
Prior to the attacks, both the White House and the US Capitol were discussed as possible targets by the terrorists. We know this through the words of two terrorists now in custody at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: Ramzi Binalshibh, the communications liaison, moneyman, and general facilitator for the plot, and the man known as KSM – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, frequently referred to as the mastermind of the plot.
Information about the KSM and Binalshibh connections to the plot comes from two main sources. First, the pair was interviewed, at their request, by Al Jazeera television in June, 2002, three months before they were taken into custody for their role in the 9/11 attacks. According to published sources, the pair claimed in this interview that the US Capitol was the target of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93. Binalshibh said that he and Mohamed Atta, the eventual pilot of Flight 11, communicated in code about the targets, referring to the World Trade Center as "The Faculty of Town Planning," the Pentagon as "The Faculty of Fine Arts," and Capitol Hill as "The Faculty of Law." The pair also stated that after a July meeting in Spain, Atta was given full authority to select the targets.
More information about the choice of 9/11 targets comes from statements made by KSM and Binalshibh since they have been in US custody. A compilation of their statements was submitted by the defense in the sentencing trial of their fellow terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, in 2006.
Recounting the evolution of "the planes operation," KSM and Binalshibh described earlier planning sessions at which dozens of targets were discussed. In these sessions, they stated that bin Laden's desire was to simultaneously hit the Pentagon, White House, and US Capitol building and his plan to hit a military, political and economic target.
Still later, KSM said that bin Laden presented Atta with a list of targets from which he could make a preliminary selection. Quoting from the summary statement, "Bin Laden told Atta that Atta must hit both towers of the WTC, the Pentagon, and the US Capitol, but that additional targets from which Atta could choose included the White House, the Sears Tower, and a foreign embassy in Washington." Following this conversation, Atta also suggested adding to the list a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, and bin Laden agreed. The targets that were not included in the 9/11 attacks were to be carried forward to the next operation.
KSM said, under interrogation, that "the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania was targeted at the Capitol building." KSM said that the final decision on targets "was entirely in the hands of the pilots."
The 9/11 Commission Report describes the July meeting in Spain as an opportunity for Binalshibh to convey final instructions from Osama bin Laden to the hijackers. Binalshibh said that Atta understood bin Laden's interest in striking the White House, but Atta said he thought this target too difficult.
Atta explained his plan for matching pilots to targets, telling Binalshibh that "Hanjour was assigned to attack the Pentagon, Jarrah the Capitol, and that both Atta and al Shehhi would hit the World Trade Center. If any pilot could not reach his intended target, he was to crash the plane. If Atta could not strike the World Trade Center, he planned to crash his aircraft directly into the streets of New York."
According to the 9/11 Commission, Binalshibh communicated with Atta again in August about targets: "Binalshibh reminded Atta that Bin Laden wanted to target the White House. Atta again cautioned that this would be difficult. When Binalshibh persisted, Atta agreed to include the White House but suggested they keep the Capitol as an alternate target in case the White House proved too difficult. Atta also suggested that the attacks would not happen until after the first week in September, when Congress reconvened. In another exchange between Atta and Binalshibh which reportedly occurred on September 9, two days before the attacks, it appears as though the White House was the primary target for the fourth plane and the US Capitol the alternate."
These sources, and perhaps other documents not yet made public, led the 9/11 Commission to state:
"Jarrah's objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93." (9/11 Commission Report, p. 14)
"The nation owes an eternal debt of gratitude to those who took action to ensure that Flight 93 never reached its target." (9/11 Commission staff statement #4)