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Context of 'February 5, 1998: US Rejects Sudanese Al-Qaeda Files that Could Stop Embassy Bombings'

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Bin Laden’s house in Khartoum, Sudan.Bin Laden’s house in Khartoum, Sudan. [Source: PBS]It has not been revealed when US intelligence begins monitoring bin Laden exactly, though the CIA was tailing him in Sudan by the end of 1991 (see February 1991- July 1992). But in late 1995 the FBI is given forty thick files on bin Laden from the CIA and NSA, mostly communications intercepts (see October 1995). The sheer amount of material suggests the surveillance had been going on for several years. Dan Coleman, an FBI agent working with the CIA’s bin Laden unit, will begin examining these files and finds that many of them are transcripts from wiretapped phones tied to bin Laden’s businesses in Khartoum, Sudan, where bin Laden lives from 1991 to 1996. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 148-149; Wright, 2006, pp. 242-244] CIA Director George Tenet will later comment, “The then-obscure name ‘Osama bin Laden’ kept cropping up in the intelligence traffic.… [The CIA] spotted bin Laden’s tracts in the early 1990s in connection with funding other terrorist movements. They didn’t know exactly what this Saudi exile living in Sudan was up to, but they knew it was not good.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 100] The London Times will later report that in Sudan, “bin Laden used an $80,000 satellite phone and al-Qaeda members used radios to avoid being bugged…” [London Times, 10/7/2001] Bin Laden is mistaken in his belief that satellite phones cannot be monitored; a satellite phone he buys in 1996 will be monitored as well (see November 1996-Late August 1998).

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Osama bin Laden, Dan Coleman, Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mamoun Darkazanli several years after 9/11.Mamoun Darkazanli several years after 9/11. [Source: Reuters]According to CIA documents, US intelligence first becomes aware of Mamoun Darkazanli at this time, when a person arrested in Africa carrying false passports and counterfeit money is found with Darkazanli’s telephone number. Darkazanli is a Syrian businessman residing in Germany. The CIA carefully scrutinizes Darkazanli and his business dealings, but authorities are not able to make a case against him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 185 pdf file] Many will later claim that Darkazanli is a member of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell. He will associate with 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, and others (see October 9, 1999).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Mamoun Darkazanli

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Omar al-Bashir.Omar al-Bashir. [Source: PBS]In 1993, the US put Sudan on its list of nations sponsoring terrorism, which automatically leads to economic sanctions. Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi espoused radical militant views, and allowed bin Laden to live in Sudan. But, as the 9/11 Commission later will note, “The Sudanese regime began to change. Though al-Turabi had been its inspirational leader, General Omar al-Bashir, president since 1989, had never been entirely under his thumb. Thus as outside pressures mounted, al-Bashir’s supporters began to displace those of al-Turabi.” In 1995, the US begins putting serious pressure on Sudan to deal with bin Laden, who is still living there. [Observer, 9/30/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 61] On March 8, 1996, the US sends Sudan a memorandum listing the measures Sudan can take to get the sanctions revoked. The second of six points listed is, “Provide us with names, dates of arrival, departure and destination and passport data on mujaheddin that Osama Bin Laden has brought into Sudan.” [New York Times, 9/21/1998; Washington Post, 10/3/2001] Sudanese intelligence had been monitoring bin Laden since he’d moved there in 1991, collecting a “vast intelligence database on Osama bin Laden and more than 200 leading members of his al-Qaeda terrorist network.” The files include information on their backgrounds, families, and contacts, plus photographs. There also is extensive information on bin Laden’s world-wide financial network. “One US source who has seen the files on bin Laden’s men in Khartoum said some were ‘an inch and a half thick.’” [Observer, 9/30/2001] An Egyptian intelligence officer with extensive Sudanese intelligence contacts says, “They knew all about them: who they were, where they came from. They had copies of their passports, their tickets; they knew where they went. Of course that information could have helped enormously. It is the history of those people.” To the surprise of US officials making the demands, the Sudanese seem receptive to sharing the file. This leads to a battle within the US government between top FBI officials, who want to engage the Sudanese and get their files, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Susan Rice, her assistant secretary for Africa, who want to isolate them politically and economically. The National Security Council is also opposed. The US decides to increase its demands, and tells Sudan to turn over not just files on bin Laden, but bin Laden himself (see March-May 1996). Ultimately, the US will get Sudan to evict bin Laden in May 1996 (see May 18, 1996), but they will not press for the files and will not get them. [Washington Post, 10/3/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] An American involved in the secret negotiations later will says, “I’ve never seen a brick wall like that before. Somebody let this slip up.… We could have dismantled his operations and put a cage on top. It was not a matter of arresting bin Laden but of access to information. That’s the story, and that’s what could have prevented September 11. I knew it would come back to haunt us.” [Village Voice, 10/31/2001] Vanity Fair magazine later will opine, “How could this have happened? The simple answer is that the Clinton administration had accused Sudan of sponsoring terrorism, and refused to believe that anything it did to prove its bona fides could be genuine.” [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The US will continue to refuse Sudan’s offers to take the files (see April 5, 1997; February 5, 1998; May 2000).

Entity Tags: Susan Rice, National Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hassan al-Turabi, Omar Al-Bashir, Madeleine Albright

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden.An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden. [Source: Inmarsat]During this period, Osama bin Laden uses a satellite phone to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The phone—a Compact M satellite phone, about the size of a laptop computer—was purchased by a student in Virginia named Ziyad Khaleel for $7,500 using the credit card of a British man named Saad al-Fagih. After purchasing the phone, Khaleel sent it to Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s unofficial press secretary in London (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998). Al-Fawwaz then shipped it to bin Laden in Afghanistan. [CNN, 4/16/2001] It appears US intelligence actually tracks the purchase as it occurs (see November 1996-Late December 1999), probably because an older model satellite phone bin Laden has is already being monitored (see Early 1990s). Bin Laden’s phone (873682505331) is believed to be used by other top al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Atef. Al-Fawwaz also buys satellite phones for other top al-Qaeda leaders around the same time. Though the calls made on these phones are encrypted, the NSA is able to intercept and decrypt them. As one US official will put it in early 2001, “codes were broken.” [United Press International, 2/13/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The Los Angeles Times will report that the monitoring of these phones “produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts over two years.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] Bin Laden’s satellite phone replaces an older model he used in Sudan that apparently was also monitored by the NSA (see Early 1990s). Billing records for his new phone are eventually released to the media in early 2002. Newsweek will note, “A country-by-country analysis of the bills provided US authorities with a virtual road map to important al-Qaeda cells around the world.” [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] The countries called are:
bullet Britain (238 or 260). Twenty-seven different phone numbers are called in Britain. Accounts differ on the exact number of calls. Khalid al-Fawwaz, who helps publish statements by bin Laden, receives 143 of the calls, including the very first one bin Laden makes with this phone. Apparently most of the remaining calls are made to pay phones near him or to his associates. He also frequently calls Ibrahim Eidarous, who works with al-Fawwaz and lives near him. [CNN, 4/16/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 111]
bullet Yemen (221). Dozens of calls go to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is run by the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see Late August 1998). [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002; Bamford, 2008, pp. 8]
bullet Sudan (131). Bin Laden lived in Sudan until 1996 (see May 18, 1996), and some important al-Qaeda operatives remained there after he left (see February 5, 1998). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Iran (106). Newsweek will later report: “US officials had little explanation for the calls to Iran. A Bush administration official said that US intelligence has believed for years that hard-line anti-American factions inside Iran helped bin Laden’s organization operate an ‘underground railroad’ smuggling Islamic militants to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.” [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Azerbaijan (67). An important al-Qaeda operative appears to be based in Baku, Azerbaijan. [Washington Post, 5/2/2001] This is most likely Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who is very close to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda cell there. He kidnapped by the CIA in Baku in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998).
bullet Kenya (at least 56). In the embassy bombings trial, prosecutors introduce evidence showing 16 calls are made on this phone to some of the embassy bombers in Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), apparently all before a raid in August 1997 (see August 21, 1997). The defense introduces evidence showing at least 40 more calls are made after that time (see Late 1996-August 1998). [CNN, 4/16/2001]
bullet Pakistan (59).
bullet Saudi Arabia (57).
bullet A ship in the Indian Ocean (13).
bullet The US (6).
bullet Italy (6).
bullet Malaysia (4).
bullet Senegal (2). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Egypt (unknown). Newsweek reports that calls are made to Egypt but doesn’t say how many. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002]
bullet Iraq (0). Press reports note that the records indicate zero calls were made to Iraq. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] 1,100 total calls are made on this phone. Adding up the above numbers means that the destination of over 100 calls is still unaccounted for. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The use of this phone stops two months after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. However, it appears bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to use other satellite phones occasionally after this time. Shortly after 9/11, James Bamford, an expert authority on the agency, says “About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him.… He may still use [satellite phones] occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing.” [CNN, 9/21/2001] According to a different account, bin Laden will attempt to use a different phone communication method, but US intelligence will soon discover it and continue monitoring his calls (see Late 1998 and After).

Entity Tags: Ziyad Khaleel, Saad al-Fagih, Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim Eidarous, Khalid al-Fawwaz, Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmad Salama Mabruk

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Beginning in early 1996, the Sudanese government started offering the US its extensive files on bin Laden and al-Qaeda (see March 8, 1996-April 1996). The US will repeatedly reject the files as part of its policy of isolating the Sudanese government (see April 5, 1997; February 5, 1998; May 2000). Around this time, MI6, the British intelligence agency, is also offered access to the files. Sudan reportedly makes a standing offer: “If someone from MI6 comes to us and declares himself, the next day he can be in [the capital city] Khartoum.” A Sudanese government source later adds, “We have been saying this for years.” However, the offer is not taken. Even weeks after 9/11, it will be reported that while the US has finally accepted the offer of the files, Britain has not. [Observer, 9/30/2001]

Entity Tags: Sudan, UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mansoor Ijaz.
Mansoor Ijaz. [Source: Crescent Hydropolis Resorts publicity photo]The Sudanese government, frustrated in previous efforts to be removed from a US list of terrorism sponsors, tries a back channel approach using Mansoor Ijaz, a multimillionaire Pakistani-American businessman. Ijaz is personally acquainted with President Clinton, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and other high-level US officials. With help from Ijaz (who is also hoping to invest in Sudan), on April 5, 1997, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir writes a letter to Lee Hamilton (D-NH), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It states, “We extend an offer to the FBI’s Counterterrorism units and any other official delegations which your government may deem appropriate, to come to the Sudan and work with [us] in order to assess the data in our possession and help us counter the forces your government, and ours, seek to contain.” This is a reference to Sudan’s extensive files on al-Qaeda gathered during the years bin Laden lived there, which the Sudanese had offered the US before (see March 8, 1996-April 1996). Sudan allows Ijaz to see some of these files. Ijaz discusses the letter with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Berger, and other prominent US officials, but to no success. No US official sends any reply back to Sudan. Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan, will complain, “It was an offer US officials did not take seriously.” ABC News will report in 2002 that the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry plans to investigate Sudan’s offer. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), co-chairman of the inquiry, will ask, “Why wouldn’t we be accepting intelligence from the Sudanese?” But the inquiry’s 2003 final report will make no mention of this offer or other offers to hand over the files (see February 5, 1998; May 2000). (It should be noted the report is heavily censored so this might be discussed in redacted sections.) Hamilton, the recipient of the letter, will become the Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The Commission’s 2004 final report will not mention Sudan’s offers, and will fail to mention the direct involvement of the Commission’s Vice Chairman in these matters. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002; ABC News, 2/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Sandy Berger, Tim Carney, Osama bin Laden, Omar Al-Bashir, Mansoor Ijaz, Al-Qaeda, Daniel Robert (“Bob”) Graham, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lee Hamilton, Madeleine Albright

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A photocopy of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Comoros passport in Sudan’s intelligence files.A photocopy of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Comoros passport in Sudan’s intelligence files. [Source: Richard Miniter]Gutbi al-Mahdi, head of Sudan’s intelligence agency, sends a letter to David Williams, an FBI station chief. It reads, “I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the FBI. I would like to take this opportunity with pleasure to invite you to visit our country. Otherwise, we could meet somewhere else.” Apparently the FBI is very eager to accept the offer and gain access to Sudan’s files on bin Laden and his associates. The US had been offered the files before (see March 8, 1996-April 1996; April 5, 1997), but the US position was that Sudan’s offers were not serious since Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi was ideologically close to bin Laden. But al-Turabi has lost power to moderates by this time, and in fact he is placed under arrest in 1998. There is a political battle between US agencies over the Sudanese offer, and in the end the State Department forbids any contact with al-Mahdi. On June 24, 1998, Williams is obliged to reply, “I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation.” Al-Madhi later will complain, “If they had taken up my offer in February 1998, they could have prevented the [US embassy] bombings.” Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan until 1997, will say, “The US failed to reciprocate Sudan’s willingness to engage us on serious questions of terrorism. We can speculate that this failure had serious implications - at the least for what happened at the US Embassies in 1998. In any case, the US lost access to a mine of material on bin Laden and his organization.” One of the plotters in the bombings is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who is living in Sudan but making trips to Kenya to participate in the bombing preparations. Sudan has files on him and continues to monitor him. Sudan also has files on Saif al-Adel, another embassy bomber who has yet to be captured. Sudan also has files on Wadih El-Hage and Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, both of whom have contact with members of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell (see September 16, 1998; Late 1998; 1993). Salim even attends the same small Hamburg mosque as 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi. Vanity Fair magazine will suggest that if al-Madhi’s offer had been properly followed up, both the embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks could have been foiled. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] It is later revealed that the US was wiretapping bin Laden in Sudan on their own (see Early 1990s).

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Saif al-Adel, Tim Carney, US Department of State, Gutbi Al-Mahdi, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, David Williams, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Hassan al-Turabi, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Sayyid Nazir Abbass. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files.Sayyid Nazir Abbass. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 7, 1998, hours after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Sudanese government arrested two suspicious Pakistani men. The men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, appear to have been involved in the embassy bombings. The Sudanese offered to hand the men over to the FBI (see August 4-19, 1998), but the US chose to bomb a factory in Sudan on August 20 instead, in retaliation for Sudan’s previous support for bin Laden (see August 20, 1998). It quickly emerges that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda and the Sudanese government had no link to the embassy bombings (see September 23, 1998). But despite the factory bombing, the Sudanese continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US over them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143] The Sudanese also remind the FBI of the extensive files on al-Qaeda they say they are still willing to share (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998). The FBI wants to set up a meeting to pursue the offers, but the State Department vetoes the idea. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] Journalist Jonathan Randal will later note: “Quite apart from its antipathy to the [Sudanese] regime, [the US] was bogged down trying to sell the botched [factory] attack to querulous Americans. To have taken up the Sudanese offer after the attack risked prompting more embarrassing explaining about why it had not been accepted before.” Meanwhile, the Sudanese are interrogating the two men and learn more about their al-Qaeda connections. For instance, they had listed the manager of a business owned by bin Laden as a reference on their visa applications. Finally, on September 2, 1998, Sudan sends the two men back to Pakistan. They are turned over to the Pakistani ISI, but what happens next is unclear. An NBC Dateline reporter will later attempt to track them down in Pakistan, only to receive a threatening anonymous call to leave or face dire consequences. The reporter gives up the search. One rumor is the ISI immediately allows them to disappear into Afghanistan. Another rumor is that the Pakistani government later trades them to bin Laden to buy off radicals who could threaten the government. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Sayyid Nazir Abbass, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Sudan, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mamdouh Mahmud Salim.Mamdouh Mahmud Salim. [Source: FBI]Mamdouh Mahmud Salim (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), an al-Qaeda operative from the United Arab Emirates connected to the 1998 East African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), is arrested at a used car dealership near Munich, Germany. He is arrested by a special commando unit of German police, with CIA agents directing them nearby. The German government has no idea who Salim is, and the US only notified Germany about the planned arrest five hours in advance. [PBS, 9/30/1998; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 12/12/2005] The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will later say that Salim was Osama bin Laden’s “right hand man,” and “head of bin Laden’s computer operations and weapons procurement.” He is also “the most senior-level bin Laden operative arrested” up until this time. [New York Times, 9/29/2001; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 pdf file] Author Lawrence Wright will later note that bin Laden and Salim worked together in Afghanistan in the 1980s, “forging such powerful bonds that no one could get between them.” Salim was also one of the founding members of al-Qaeda (see August 11-20, 1988) and bin Laden’s personal imam (i.e., preacher). [Wright, 2006, pp. 131, 170] Starting in 1995, Salim had been making frequent visits to Germany. Mamoun Darkazanli, who lives in Hamburg and associates with Mohamed Atta’s al-Qaeda cell, had signing powers over Salim’s bank account. Both men attended Al-Quds mosque, the same Hamburg mosque as future 9/11 hijackers Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi attend. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The FBI learns much from Salim about al-Qaeda, and this information could be useful to the US embassy bombings investigation. However, the FBI is unwilling to brief its German counterparts on what it knows about Salim and al-Qaeda. [New York Times, 9/29/2001]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On top is El-Hage’s business card for his fake charity, Help Africa People. Below is his card for his business Anhar Trading. On the lower left is a US address and on the lower right is Darkazanli’s address in Germany.On top is El-Hage’s business card for his fake charity, Help Africa People. Below is his card for his business Anhar Trading. On the lower left is a US address and on the lower right is Darkazanli’s address in Germany. [Source: CNN]The CIA first became interested in Mamoun Darkazanli in 1993 (see 1993). The FBI shows interest in Darkazanli after al-Qaeda operatives Wadih El Hage and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim (a.k.a. Abu Hajer) are arrested in late 1998 (see September 16, 1998-September 5, 2001 and September 16, 1998). According to FBI documents, Darkazanli’s fax and telephone numbers are discovered in El Hage’s address book. Darkazanli’s Deutsche Bank account number is found in the book as well. [CNN, 10/16/2001] El-Hage had created a number of shell companies as fronts for al-Qaeda activities, and one of these uses the address of Darkazanli’s apartment. [Chicago Tribune, 11/17/2002] Further, El-Hage’s business card shows Darkazanli’s Hamburg address. The FBI also discovers that Darkazanli has power of attorney over a bank account belonging to Salim, a high-ranking al-Qaeda member. El Hage will later be convicted for his role in the 1998 US embassy bombings, and Salim will remain in US custody. [New York Times, 6/20/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file] By this time, Darkazanli is associating with members of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell, and may be a member of the cell himself.

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Mamoun Darkazanli, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA and FBI send a joint investigative team to Sudan to investigate whether that country is a sponsor of terrorism. Sudan again offers to hand over its voluminous files on al-Qaeda (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998), and the offer is again rejected. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The US will finally agree to see the files shortly before 9/11 (see July-August 2001).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Sudan, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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