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NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) held a training exercise just over a month before September 11, 2001, which had some uncanny similarities to the 9/11 attacks. The exercise, called Fertile Rice, was based around the scenario of Osama bin Laden–the man who supposedly ordered the 9/11 attacks–organizing an aerial attack on a high-profile government building in Washington, DC–one of the cities attacked on September 11.

NEADS personnel were scheduled to take part in an exercise on September 11. We therefore need to consider whether the similarities between the scenario for the Fertile Rice exercise and some of the incidents they had to deal with on the morning of September 11 caused them to mistake real-world events for part of the day’s exercise and thereby impaired their ability to respond to the 9/11 attacks.

NEADS, based in Rome, New York, was responsible for monitoring and defending the airspace in which the hijackings occurred on September 11, and was consequently responsible for coordinating the U.S. military’s response to the 9/11 attacks. [1] It ran an exercise called Fertile Rice each week. [2] On August 4, 2001–five and a half weeks before 9/11–Fertile Rice was based around the scenario of Osama bin Laden’s operatives attacking a target in Washington. [3]

An information sheet on the exercise outlined the details. It stated that the scenario for the exercise involved an “Osama bin Laden threat to [the] U.S.” Bin Laden had “reportedly acquired at least one and possibly two” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The UAV he’d obtained was believed to be the Russian-developed “Colibri,” which had been modified to be launched off a ship.

Bin Laden’s operatives intended to carry out an attack in the next 24 to 36 hours. Although their exact target was unknown, it was believed that they intended to strike a “highly visible U.S. government target” that was probably in the Washington area.

The Colibri they would use to carry out the attack was a propeller-driven drone aircraft designed to perform various military and civilian missions. It was 4.25 meters long, had a wingspan of 5.9 meters, and its maximum speed was 155 miles per hour. It was fitted with sophisticated electronic jamming equipment, as well as equipment for monitoring electronic communications and radar.

The ship transporting the Colibri to the Washington area had left a port in the Middle East and was set to rendezvous with one of the terrorists off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on August 4. This person would provide the final targeting information that would be programmed into the Colibri. The ship was believed to be carrying additional military equipment, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and plastic explosives.

The Colibri’s “weapon payload” was “reportedly some type of fuel-air explosive” that would be “activated with an altimeter device.” [4] Fuel-air explosives are highly destructive weapons. They spray an explosive mist and then ignite the vapor, thereby creating a blast far larger than a conventional weapon produces. [5]

The exact form that the Colibri’s “weapon payload” would take in the scenario is unstated in the information sheet. It could perhaps have been a fuel-air bomb that the UAV would drop onto its target. Alternatively, the mock terrorists’ intention may have been to fly the Colibri into its target such that the fuel-air explosive it carried would detonate on impact.

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