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And though everyone wanted to be prudent, there weren't a lot of suspects to round up. Palestinian terror groups are experienced at suicide missions, but have never attempted an operation this large. Groups with links to the Iranian government took down the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19, but that target was a long way from the U.S. Libya has lost its taste for terror, most experts believe, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein has always favored loud, brutish force over quiet finesse. Besides, no group other than Osama bin Laden's loose knit network of operatives in dozens of countries worldwide has ever shown the will, wallet or gall to attack the U.S. before. Bin Laden is responsible for the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Three weeks ago when he told an Arab journalist he would mount an unprecedented attack on the U.S. "This was well funded and well planned," said Senator Pat Roberts, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It took a lot of planning. The weather had to be just so on the East Coast. They used sophisticated tactics where they hijacked planes, killed the crew, and they had to have aviators or navigators who knew what they were doing."
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gathered his senior aides in the State Department's seventh-floor secure facility shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday for a videoconference with the Administration's top national security aides. National Security Adviser Rice and her top counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clark were on one screen, with FBI Director Mueller and his senior aides, the CIA's counterterrorism director, and FAA officials on others. Vice President Cheney was supposed to be in on the teleconference, but the Secret Service had already spirited him off to a safehouse. "We knew we were in trouble," says one official who was present. "We've got suicide attacks here."
Rice stayed silent as the meeting progressed; Clark did most of the talking. Finally at around 9:45 a.m., aides behind Mueller started murmuring and whispering into his ear. Mueller interrupted everyone. "The Pentagon has been hit by an airplane," the FBI chief announced. All the State Department officials turned their heads to Armitage, who was running the building in Powell's absence. "Let's increase security outside the building," Armitage said calmly, seeming unperturbed. Another aide piped up. "We probably need to think about getting the hell out of here," he said. Armitage decided to evacuate, and an alternate command center was set up at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va. Senior State Department aides jumped in staff cars to race to Arlington but immediately ran into clogged traffic in Washington.