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Context of 'March 10, 2002: Ridge Says FBI Can’t Find Any Al-Qaeda Cells in US'

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Khaled Abu el-Dahab.Khaled Abu el-Dahab. [Source: Egyptian government]In the mid-1980’s, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, an Egyptian medical student, joins the militant group Islamic Jihad, and also meets Ali Mohamed. Mohamed convinces el-Dahab to move to the US and become a sleeper cell agent. El-Dahab does so in 1987, moving to Santa Clara, California, where Mohamed has a residence. El-Dahab marries an American woman, becomes a US citizen, and gets a job at a computer company. In 1987, a female acquaintance of el-Dahab enters his apartment unannounced and finds several men there cleaning rifles. She decides it is something she does not want to know about, and breaks off contact with him. In 1990, Mohamed and el-Dahab travel together to Afghanistan. They are financially supported by a network of US sympathizers, including two Egyptian-American doctors. Beginning in 1990, El-Dahab’s apartment becomes an important communications hub for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad cells all over the world. For much of the 1990’s, the Egyptian government cut direct phone links to countries like Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan in an effort to disrupt communications between radical militants. So Dahab acts as a telephone operator for the Islamic Jihad network, using a three-way calling feature to connect operatives in far-flung countries. He communicates with bin Laden’s base in Sudan (where bin Laden lives until 1996). He receives phone calls from the likes of Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also visits California twice (see Spring 1993; Late 1994 or 1995). He distributes forged documents and makes money transfers. He is trained to make booby-trapped letters, enrolls in a US flight school to learn how to fly gliders and helicopters, and recruits additional US sleeper agents (see Mid-1990s). He helps translate US army manuals and topographical maps into Arabic for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad training. El-Dahab will move to Egypt in 1998 and get arrested in October of that year. He will confess his role in all of this in an Egyptian trial in 1999. The Egyptian government will sentence him to 15 years in prison (see 1999). [New York Times, 10/23/2001; London Times, 11/11/2001; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Khaled Abu el-Dahab travels to Afghanistan to be personally congratulated by bin Laden. He is congratulated for recruiting 10 US citizens of Middle Eastern descent into al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was particularly keen to recruit such people so their US passports could be used for international travel by other al-Qaeda operatives. El-Dahab makes this visit with Ali Mohamed; the two of them make up the heart of an al-Qaeda cell based in Santa Clara, California (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab will reveal this information in a 1999 trial in Egypt. The names of the recruits and other details about them apparently are not publicly revealed, and it is unclear if or when they are ever uncovered. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/2001]

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Khaled Abu el-Dahab

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Nabil al-Marabh returned to Canada from Afghanistan in February 1994 using a fraudulent Saudi Arabian passport. But his request for asylum was eventually denied. He then enters the US in June 1995 and applies for asylum there. That too is denied, and he is ordered deported in 1997. But the order is not enforced and he continues to live in the US and Canada illegally until 9/11. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 10/22/2001; Knight Ridder, 5/23/2003] Al-Marabh moves to Boston and gets a job as a taxi driver. He had known al-Qaeda operatives Bassam Kanj, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, and Raed Hijazi in training camps in Afghanistan (see Late 1980s; 1989-1994), and this group of four regathers in Boston. Kanj has been there since 1995, driving taxis at the same company that hires al-Marabh. Elzahabi moves to Boston from New York City in 1997 and also gets a job at this same taxi company. There are conflicting accounts as to who brings Raed Hijazi to Boston and why he goes there, but by the beginning of 1998 he is also working for this taxi company. [Boston Globe, 2/5/2001; New York Times, 9/18/2001; New York Times, 10/14/2001; Washington Post, 9/4/2002] Al-Marabh and Hijazi are roommates for at least two months. While they work together driving taxis, Hijazi is saving his earnings to spend on bomb plots and is working on an al-Qaeda plot to attack a US warship. That plot will develop into the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. [ABC News 7 (Chicago), 1/31/2002; Washington Post, 9/4/2002] Around the end of 1998, Kanj and Hijazi leave Boston to work on al-Qaeda plots overseas while Elzahabi leaves in 1999 to fight as a sniper in Chechnya. Al-Marabh will also leave, moving to Florida in early 1999 (see February 1999-February 2000), but he periodically returns to his Boston residence for some time, as his wife and son continue to live there. These four men will continue to help each other in various al-Qaeda plots. [Boston Globe, 2/5/2001; Boston Globe, 6/26/2004] Apparently, al-Qaeda recruiter Kamal Derwish also works at the same Boston taxi company, though the timing is not clear. He trained in Afghanistan in 1992, a time when al-Marabh was also there. He will be killed by a US missile strike in November 2002 (see November 3, 2002). [Christian Science Monitor, 5/23/2003] Even though the Boston FBI is aware long before 9/11 that at least four of the men are connected to al-Qaeda (see January 2001), the FBI will officially deny the possibility of any al-Qaeda cell in Boston until 2004 (see June 27, 2004).

Entity Tags: Bassam Kanj, Al-Qaeda, Nabil al-Marabh, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, Kamal Derwish, Raed Hijazi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Bassam Kanj.
Bassam Kanj. [Source: FBI]Bassam Kanj is killed in a battle in Lebanon. Kanj lived on and off in Boston for nearly 15 years, and was a friend of al-Qaeda operatives Nabil al-Marabh, Raed Hijazi, and Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi. All four of them fought together in Afghanistan in the late 1980s (see Late 1980s), then worked at the same Boston taxi company in the 1990s (see June 1995-Early 1999). In late 1998, Kanj left Boston for Lebanon where he apparently recruited a couple hundred people to take part in a rebellion to overthrow the Lebanese government. He is killed during a five day battle, along with 21 others. Two days after the battle, a Lebanese newspaper identifies him as an al-Qaeda operative who had received financial support from bin Laden. This leads to a renewed focus on him in the US. In February 2001, the Boston Globe will report, “The FBI is continuing to look at Kanj’s and Hijazi’s activities in the Boston area in hopes of learning more about their contacts inside bin Laden’s far-flung organization.” Michael Rolince, chief of international terrorism operations for the FBI, will tell the Globe that both men had a “higher station” than most in al-Qaeda, and will add, “We are still trying to sort out who played what role.” [Boston Globe, 2/5/2001] Presumably, this leads the FBI to take another look at Nabil al-Marabh, who had been roommates with both Hijazi and Kanj and is already wanted for a variety of al-Qaeda contacts. An individual matching al-Marabh’s description is even mentioned in a prominent New York Times story about al-Qaeda in January 2001. The article states, “In early 1997, Hijazi moved to Boston, where he had a friend from his years in Afghanistan.” [New York Times, 1/15/2001] Yet apparently there is no concerted effort to find al-Marabh, who will even be set free after being arrested trying to illegally enter the US (see June 27, 2001-July 11, 2001). The Boston FBI began investigating Elzahabi for militant ties in 1999, but lost track of him when he went to fight in Chechnya (see 1997 and 1999). But apparently he is not detected reentering the US shortly before 9/11 (see Mid-August 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, Nabil al-Marabh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bassam Kanj, Michael Rolince, Raed Hijazi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi moves to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Elzahabi has a long association with al-Qaeda, and has just returned from Chechnya where he fought as a sniper (see April 16, 2004-June 25, 2004). His “name was known to the FBI well before the Sept. 11 attacks, according to law enforcement officials who declined to be identified. He also was on a list of possible or suspected terrorists” circulated to foreign airlines and banks shortly after 9/11. [Fox News, 6/26/2004; Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 6/30/2004] In fact, Canadian intelligence began investigating him for suspected militant ties in 1997, and the Boston FBI began investigating him in 1999, but lost track of him when he left the US later that year (see 1997 and 1999). He was connected to al-Qaeda operatives Raed Hijazi, Nabil al-Marabh, and Bassam Kanj. He worked as a Boston taxi driver with them (see June 1995-Early 1999), and also fought with them in Afghanistan (see Late 1980s). Fox News will later note that Elzahabi has a “potential link to Zacarias Moussaoui” since Moussaoui moved to Minneapolis in early August 2001 and is arrested on August 15, but no firm connection between the two has been shown. It has not been reported exactly when Elzahabi arrives in Minneapolis, but he applies for a commercial driver’s license on August 23, 2001. He is fingerprinted for a criminal background check at that time, which presumably would alert the FBI that he is living in Minneapolis if they do not know already. But it is not known if Minneapolis FBI agents, desperately trying to get a warrant for Moussaoui, are told about Elzahabi before 9/11. In January 2002, the FBI will run his name through a database. Despite the FBI’s knowledge of his al-Qaeda ties, he is cleared to get the license. This allows him to haul hazardous materials. His friend and al-Qaeda operative Nabil al-Marabh received a similar license the year before (see August 2000-January 2001). Elzahabi will apply for a license allowing him to carry general freight in September 2003 and he will get insurance clearance to start work in April 2004. However, he will be arrested by FBI that same month (see April 16, 2004-June 25, 2004). [Fox News, 6/26/2004; Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 6/30/2004]

Entity Tags: Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, Nabil al-Marabh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge admits that the FBI has failed to find a single al-Qaeda cell operating in the US. He suspects there are active cells, but cannot explain why none have been caught. [London Times, 3/11/2002] Seemingly obvious al-Qaeda cells, such as Nabil al-Marabh’s Boston cell (see June 27, 2004) and Ali Mohamed’s Santa Clara, California, cell (see Mid-1990s), appear to have escaped detection or public mention. The FBI will issue a report in 2005 that again will claim that no sleeper cells can be found in the US (see February 2005). On September 12, 2001, the New York Times reported, “Authorities said they had also identified accomplices in several cities who had helped plan and execute Tuesday’s attacks. Officials said they knew who these people were and important biographical details about many of them.” [New York Times, 9/13/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Tom Ridge, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi is confronted by the FBI and agrees to a series of voluntary interviews. He admits to training at a militant training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1980s (see Late 1980s). He admits to having known al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaida, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi while living there. He worked in Afghanistan as a sniper in combat and as an instructor at the training camps until 1995. After getting a gunshot wound, he moved to Boston and drove a taxi. Al-Qaeda operatives Nabil al-Marabh, Bassam Kanj, and Raed Hijazi also moved to Boston and worked at the same taxi company (see June 1995-Early 1999). In 1999, he went to Chechnya and fought as a sniper, returning to the US one month before 9/11 (see Mid-August 2001). On June 25, 2004, Elzahabi is charged with lying to the FBI about the extent of his relationship with Hijazi while living in Boston. In addition, it is claimed that in 1995 he sent a large number of field radios to Afghanistan. Some of this equipment was recovered by US soldiers after 9/11. He is charged with lying about shipping these radios. [Boston Globe, 6/26/2004; Fox News, 6/26/2004] In December 2005, he will be indicted for possessing fraudulent immigration documents and faking a marriage to remain in the US. However, he still has not been tried on the earlier charges. [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 12/8/2005]

Entity Tags: Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Nabil al-Marabh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Abu Zubaida, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

It is reported that the FBI’s Boston office is investigating if there may have been an al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Boston and whether it may have had connections to the 9/11 attacks. The Boston FBI had previously denied the existence of any Boston cell, even though they knew before 9/11 that four Boston taxi drivers—Nabil al-Marabh, Raed Hijazi, Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi, and Bassam Kanj—all knew each other well and were all connected to al-Qaeda (see January 2001; Mid-August 2001). But the FBI shows new interest in the possibility after indicting Elzahabi in Minnesota a few days earlier (see April 16, 2004-June 25, 2004). The Boston Globe comments, “The possibility that unknown people in Boston were providing support to terrorists, including the 10 who hijacked the two planes out of Logan Airport, has been the subject of much conjecture among law enforcement officials.” [Boston Globe, 6/27/2004] Unofficially, it seems that even before 9/11, some in the FBI thought that al-Qaeda had cells in Boston. On September 12, 2001, an anonymous long-time Boston FBI agent told the Boston Globe that there were “a lot of terrorist cells in [the Boston] area.… It’s a facilitator for terrorist activity. There have been cells here of bin Laden’s associates. They’re entrenched here.” [Boston Globe, 9/12/2001] Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke says, “We uncovered plots in December of 1999 that also involved Boston cab drivers around the millennium rollover. I think there is a high probability the Boston FBI missed a major cell there.” [WCVB 5 (Boston), 6/28/2004]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A secret FBI report issued this month and later leaked to the press states, “Al-Qaeda leadership’s intention to attack the United States is not in question. However, their capability to do so is unclear, particularly in regard to ‘spectacular’ operations. We believe al-Qaeda’s capability to launch attacks within the United States is dependent on its ability to infiltrate and maintain operatives in the United States. To date, we have not identified any true ‘sleeper’ agents in the US.… Limited reporting since March indicates al-Qaeda has sought to recruit and train individuals to conduct attacks in the United States, but is inconclusive as to whether they have succeeded in placing operatives in this country. US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers” ABC News notes that this seemingly contradicts the sleeper cell depiction seven men arrested in Lackawanna, New York, in 2002. It also differs from warnings by FBI Director Robert Mueller and other US officials, who have warned that sleeper cells are probably in place. [ABC News, 3/9/2005] In 2002, it was also reported that no sleeper cells can be found in the US (see March 10, 2002).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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