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Rex Davis: A new kind of terrorist attack

Rex Davis was the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from 1970-1978. He joined the chat room from Washington, D.C.

CNN: What might have made these particular planes attractive to the hijackers?

REX DAVIS: When I heard of the source of the planes, which were airports near to the targets, and the fact that all four planes were headed for the west coast, it became obvious that what they were looking for were planes full of fuel. And the targets were nearby, so that they would be full of fuel when they contacted the targets. The maximum supply of fuel, which is volatile, was essential to their mission. The fuel tanks would rupture with the heavy impact and would scatter aviation fuel throughout the whole building.

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I might point out that, to my memory, this is the first time that a hijacked commercial aircraft was used as an airborne missile -- a very dangerous and destructive missile. This is a very novel and horrific way for terrorists to attack locations in the U.S. It creates problems such as, what if it is determined that one of these aircraft is headed for a vulnerable target such as the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol, the World Trade Center, etc. The question comes up, is there any way that the hijacked airplane can be prevented from reaching its target? The only way is to shoot it down since it is in the control of hijackers who are committing suicide. Would military aircraft be authorized to shoot it down, even though it has innocent people aboard? That is a sensitive question that has not yet been answered.

The next question that comes up with respect to using an aircraft as a missile, is whether there anything the U.S. can do to prevent hijacking of airliners within the U.S.? For those of you in the audience who are old enough to remember the '60s and '70s, there was a tremendous surge of skyjacking of commercial airliners for political purposes to get their friends released from prison or to obtain funds for terrorist activities. The government's response to this rash of skyjackings was to place sky marshals in each of the flights -- in that case international flights originating in the U.S. I'm familiar with this because I was the director of the ATF at that time. We had a number of agents assigned to act as sky marshals on international flights.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Davis, other than the fuel, do you believe that there were other explosives involved, and if so what kind?

DAVIS: That is one of the reasons they chose to hijack a airliner:there were no other explosives necessary. It enhanced their ability to go through airport security.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

DAVIS: Some people wonder why there were two separate attacks on the WTC. It is not unusual for terrorist bombers to use a bomb on one target and then, when the police respond to the first bomb, detonate a second larger bomb to kill as many rescue people as possible. This makes me believe that the intention of the attacks on the WTC -- one plane that hit the 1st tower, and then the second plane -- was to kill as many people as possible.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

DAVIS: It has been a pleasure talking to you I hope my answers will be of some help to you in understanding the situation a little better. Thank you.

Rex Davis joined the chat room by telephone from Washington, D.C. and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

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