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Context of 'February 7-21, 1997: Monitored Calls of Al-Qaeda Operatives in Kenya Indicate One of Them Is Meeting Bin Laden in Afghanistan'

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It will later be revealed in a US trial that, by this time, US intelligence agents are aware that an al-Qaeda cell exists in Kenya. (In fact, it may have been aware of this since late 1994 (see Late 1994)). [East African, 1/1/2001] Further evidence confirming and detailing the cell is discovered in May and June of 1996 (see May 21, 1996). By August 1996, US intelligence is continually monitoring five telephone lines in Nairobi used by the cell members, such as Wadih El-Hage. The tapping reveals that the cell is providing false passports and other documents to operatives. They are sending coded telephone numbers to and from al-Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan. The surveillance is apparently being conducted without the required approval of either President Clinton or Attorney General Janet Reno. [Associated Press, 12/19/2000; East African, 1/1/2001] Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Kenya, will be briefed about the cell in early 1997, but will be told there is no evidence of a specific threat against the embassy or American interests in Kenya. [New York Times, 1/9/1999] Ali Mohamed, an al-Qaeda double agent living in California, will later admit in US court that he had been in long distance contact with Wadih El-Hage, one of the leaders of the cell, since at least 1996. It will also be revealed that US intelligence had been wiretapping Mohamed’s California phone calls since at least 1994 (see Late 1994), so presumably US intelligence is recording calls between Mohamed and the Kenya cell from both ends. The Nairobi phone taps continue until at least August 1997, when Kenyan and US agents conduct a joint search of El-Hage’s Nairobi house (see August 21, 1997). [United States of America v. Ali Mohamed, 10/20/2000; Associated Press, 12/19/2000; East African, 1/1/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Prudence Bushnell, Wadih El-Hage

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

In 2001, four men will be convicted of participating in the 1998 embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). During their trial, it will come to light that the NSA was listening in on bin Laden’s satellite phone (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Additionally, during this time bin Laden calls some of the plotters of the bombing before the bombing takes place. The prosecution will show records revealing that bin Laden calls Kenya 16 times, apparently all before an August 1997 raid on the Nairobi, Kenya, house of Wadih El-Hage (see August 21, 1997), who is taking part in the embassy bombing plot and is bin Laden’s former personal secretary. The transcripts of two calls between El-Hage and al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef (using bin Laden’s phone) are even read to the jury in the trial. The defense however, shows that at least 40 additional calls are made from bin Laden’s phone to Kenya after El-Hage left Kenya in September 1997. Further, El-Hage makes some calls to Khalid al-Fawwaz, who essentially is serving as bin Laden’s press secretary in London and is being frequently called by bin Laden around the same time. The transcript of a February 1997 call between El-Hage and Mohamed Saddiq Odeh, one of the other embassy bombing plotters, is also read to the jury. The US had been wiretapping El-Hage’s phone and other phones connected to the al-Qaeda Kenya cell, since at least April 1996 (see April 1996). [CNN, 4/16/2001] In one call, El-Hage is overheard saying after returning from visiting bin Laden in Afghanistan that bin Laden has given the Kenya al-Qaeda cell a “new policy.” After the raid on El-Hage’s house, US investigators will discover that policy is “militarizing” the cell. But most details of what is said in these calls has not been made public. [Washington Post, 5/2/2001] In another call in July 1997, cell member Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul) specifies which mobile phone the cell needs to use when calling bin Laden. [New York Times, 1/13/2001] US intelligence also listens in during this time as bin Laden frequently calls the Kenya office of Mercy International, an office that is being monitored because of suspected al-Qaeda ties (see Late 1996-August 20, 1998). It has not been explained how the US failed to stop the August 1998 embassy bombings, given their surveillance of all these calls before the bombing took place.

Entity Tags: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Atef, Osama bin Laden, Khalid al-Fawwaz, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mustafa Fadhil.Mustafa Fadhil. [Source: FBI]US intelligence is monitoring the phones of an al-Qaeda cell in Kenya (see April 1996 and Late 1996-August 1998), as well as the phones of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Between January 30 and February 3, 1997, al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef calls Wadih El-Hage, the leader of the Kenyan cell, several times. El-Hage then flies to Pakistan and on February 4, he is monitored calling Kenya and gives the address of the hotel in Peshawar where he is staying. On February 7, he calls Kenyan cell member Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul) and says he is still in Peshawar, waiting to enter Afghanistan and meet al-Qaeda leaders. [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 37, 5/1/2001] Then, later on February 7, Fazul calls cell member Mohammed Saddiq Odeh. According to a snippet of the call discussed in a 2001 trial, Fazul informs Odeh about a meeting between the “director” and the “big boss,” which are references to El-Hage and Osama bin Laden respectively. In another monitored call around this time, Fazul talks to cell member Mustafa Fadhil, and they complain to each other that Odeh is using a phone for personal business that is only meant to be used for al-Qaeda business. Then, on February 21, El-Hage is back in Kenya and talks to Odeh on the phone in another monitored call. [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 37, 5/1/2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 39, 5/3/2001]

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Mustafa Fadhil, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, US intelligence, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In February 1997, Wadih El-Hage, Osama bin Laden’s former personal secretary now living in Kenya and working on an al-Qaeda bomb plot, goes to Afghanistan and visits bin Laden and al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef (see February 7-21, 1997). He returns to Kenya with a seven-page report from Atef, al-Qaeda’s military commander, that details al-Qaeda’s new ties to the Taliban. Atef writes: “We wish to put our Muslim friends in the picture of the events, especially that the media portrayed an untrue image about the Taliban movement. Our duty towards the movement is to stand behind it, support it materially and morally.” On February 25, 1997, El-Hage faxes the report to some associates with the suggestion that it be shared with the “brothers in work.” US intelligence is monitoring El-Hage’s phone and learns the contents of the fax and whom it is sent to. The fax is sent to:
bullet Ali Mohamed, the US-al-Qaeda double agent living in California. Mohamed has already been under surveillance since 1993 for his al-Qaeda ties (see Autumn 1993). He will not be arrested until one month after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see September 10, 1998).
bullet Ihab Ali Nawawi, an apparent al-Qaeda operative living in Orlando, Florida. It is not known if Nawawi is monitored after this, but communications between him, Mohamed, and El-Hage are discovered in January 1998 (see January 1998). He will not be arrested until May 1999 (see May 18, 1999).
bullet Farid Adlouni. He is a civil engineer living in Lake Oswego, Oregon. In 1996 and 1997, El-Hage calls Adlouni in Oregon 72 times, sometimes just before or after meeting with bin Laden. Later in 1997, Adlouni’s home phone and fax numbers will be found in two personal phone directories and one notebook kept by El-Hage (see Shortly After August 21, 1997). Records show that El-Hage has extensive dealings with Adlouni, mostly by selling gems El-Hage bought in Africa for a better price in the US. The FBI interviews Adlouni twice in late 1997, but he is not arrested. As of 2002, it will be reported that he continues to live in Oregon and remains a “person of interest” and subject of investigation by the FBI.
bullet Other copies of the fax are sent to associates in Germany, but they have not been named. Apparently these contacts do not result in any arrests, as there are no known arrests of al-Qaeda figures in Germany in 1997. [Oregonian, 9/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Ihab Ali Nawawi, Taliban, Wadih El-Hage, Osama bin Laden, Farid Adlouni

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In an early 2001 UPI article, it will be reported that “Final approval for the [August 7, 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998)] was given August 4 or 5 with [Mohammed Saddiq] Odeh and [Mustafa] Fadhil coordinating details over the phone. They had met in Kenya in April to discuss operational details, US government sources said.” Both Odeh and Fadhil are in Kenya at the time, and they fly out of the country together on August 6. [United Press International, 1/2/2001] Odeh had been living and working in Mombasa, Kenya, with two other al-Qaeda operatives, and US intelligence monitored calls in early 1997 to cell members in Mombasa (see August 1997). They monitored a call to Odeh in which another cell member complained that Odeh was using the wrong phone number to discuss al-Qaeda business (see February 7-21, 1997), so it seems probable that Odeh’s phone was monitored after that time. Phone tapping of the cell was cut off in late 1997, but resumed in May 1998 (see May 1998).

Entity Tags: Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Mustafa Fadhil

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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