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Context of 'May 15, 1998: Oklahoma FBI Memo Warns of Potential Terrorist-Related Flight Training; No Investigation Ensues'

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Ken Williams.Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]The FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, investigates a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport. FBI agent Ken Williams initiates an investigation into the possibility of Islamic militants learning to fly aircraft, but he has no easy way to query a central FBI database about similar cases. Because of this and other FBI communication problems, he remains unaware of most US intelligence reports about the potential use of airplanes as weapons, as well as other, specific FBI warnings issued in 1998 and 1999 concerning Islamic militants training at US flight schools (see May 15, 1998; September 1999). Williams will write the “Phoenix memo” in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). He had been alerted about some suspicious flight school students in 1996, but it is not clear if this person was mentioned in that previous alert or not (see October 1996). (US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)

An FBI pilot sends his supervisor in the Oklahoma City FBI office a memo warning that he has observed “large numbers of Middle Eastern males receiving flight training at Oklahoma airports in recent months.” The memo, titled “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” further states this “may be related to planned terrorist activity” and “light planes would be an ideal means of spreading chemicals or biological agents.” The memo does not call for an investigation, and none occurs. (Clay 5/29/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003) The memo is “sent to the bureau’s Weapons of Mass Destruction unit and forgotten.” (Smith 9/25/2002) In 1999, it will be learned that an al-Qaeda agent has studied flight training in Norman, Oklahoma (see May 18, 1999). Hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi will briefly visit the same school in 2000; Zacarias Moussaoui will train at the school in 2001 (see February 23-June 2001).

The FBI receives reports that a militant Islamic organization might be planning to bring students to the US for flight training, at some point in 1998 after the May 15 memo (see May 15, 1998) warns about Middle Eastern men training at US flight schools. (Smith 9/25/2002) The FBI is aware that people connected to this unnamed organization have performed surveillance and security tests at airports in the US and made comments suggesting an intention to target civil aviation. Apparently, this warning is not shared with other FBI offices or the FAA, and a connection with the Oklahoma warning is not made; a similar warning will follow in 1999 (see 1999). (US Congress 7/24/2003)

Ihab Ali Nawawi.Ihab Ali Nawawi. [Source: FBI]Ihab Ali Nawawi is arrested in Orlando, Florida. He is considered an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. Nawawi’s family moved from Egypt to the US in the late 1970’s and he graduated from an Orlando high school. He fought in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and helped bin Laden move to Sudan in 1991. Nawawi received a commercial pilot’s license from Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1993. He crashed an airplane owned by bin Laden in 1995 on a runway in Khartoum, Sudan (see Early 1993). He lived in Sudan until 1996 when he moved back to Orlando. Nawawi’s role in al-Qaeda is revealed days after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa when Ali Mohamed’s residence in California is raided. A letter from Nawawi is discovered asking Mohamed to give his “best regards to your friend Osama”(see August 24, 1998). Nawawi’s connection to the embassy bombings were possibly discovered months earlier, because there were a series of phone calls in 1997 between an Orlando telephone owned by Nawawi’s sister and an al-Qaeda safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. Many telephone numbers connected to that house were being monitored by US intelligence at the time. Given his obvious al-Qaeda ties, it is not clear why agents waited until May 1999 before arresting Nawawi. He is questioned in front of a grand jury, but prosecutors say he is lying and he refuses to talk anymore. FBI agents will visit the Airman Flight School in September 1999 to enquire about his attendance there (see September 1999). He will remain jailed and in September 2000 is finally charged for contempt and perjury. In October 2001, the St. Petersburg Times will report, “There are signs that Ali’s resolve might now be weakening. Court records indicate that Ali’s lawyers seemed to reach an understanding with the government in March [2001]. Since that time, all documents in the case have been filed under seal.” (Murphy 10/28/2001) In May 2002, three full years after his arrest, the New York Times will report that “Nawawi remains in federal custody even now, although he has not been charged with conspiring in the embassy bombing.” (Shenon 5/18/2002) As of the end of 2005, there appears to be no further news on what has happened to Nawawi, and no sign of any trial. When Nawawi is arrested, he is working as a taxi driver. At this time Al-Qaeda operative Nabil al-Marabh is working as a taxi driver about 80 miles away in Tampa, Florida, and while the similarity is intriguing, there is no known reported connection between the two men (see February 1999-February 2000). (Murphy 10/28/2001)

Airman Flight School.Airman Flight School. [Source: FBI]Al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui flies to the US. Three days later, he starts flight training at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma. (Other Islamic extremists had previously trained at the same flight school or other schools in the area (see September 1999)). He trains there until May, but does not do well and drops out before getting a pilot’s license. His visa expires on May 22, but he does not attempt to renew it or get another one. He stays in Norman, arranging to change flight schools, and frequently exercising in a gym. (MSNBC 12/11/2001; US Congress 10/17/2002) According to US investigators, would-be hijacker Ramzi Bin al-Shibh later says he meets Moussaoui in Karachi, Pakistan, in June 2001 (see June 2001). (Schmidt 11/20/2002)

Two agents from the Oklahoma City FBI office visit Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, to learn about Zacarias Moussaoui’s training there earlier in the year. One of these agents had visited the same school in September 1999 to learn more about Ihab Ali Nawawi, an al-Qaeda agent who trained there in 1993. Apparently, this agent forgets the connection when he visits the school to look into Moussaoui. He later admits he should have connected the two cases. (Cullen and Ranalli 9/18/2001; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 322) The staff director of the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry later states, “No one will ever know whether a greater focus on the connection between these events would have led to the unraveling of the September 11 plot.” (Smith 9/25/2002) The Oklahoma City office also does not connect Moussaoui to a memo that had come from its office in May 1998 warning that “large numbers of Middle Eastern males” were receiving flight training in Oklahoma and could be planning terrorist attacks (see May 15, 1998). Furthermore, Moussaoui’s Oklahoma roommate Hussein al-Attas is also under suspicion at this time (see August 16, 2001). One of the people who attempted to post bond for al-Attas, William Webb, had previously been the subject of an extensive investigation by the same Oklahoma City FBI office. Webb is a member of the extremist group the Muslim Brotherhood and is also Vice President of Overseas Operations and Recruiting for the Palestinian group Fatah. Further, Webb is connected to Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who has frequent ties with some of the 9/11 hijackers and is suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot (see March 2001 and After). Al-Awlaki was the subject of an FBI counterterrorism inquiry the year before (see June 1999-March 2000). These connections are also not noticed. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 322; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 134-5 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006 pdf file)

The FBI issues a reward of $5 million for information on Adnan Shukrijumah, starting a world-wide manhunt that will last for years. Shukrijumah lived in the same area as most of the 9/11 hijackers and was reportedly seen with Mohamed Atta in the spring of 2001 (see May 2, 2001), when he was being investigated by the FBI over two terrorist plots (see April-May 2001 and (Spring 2001)). Information gleaned from detainees suggests that Shukrijumah is a top al-Qaeda operative who was trained in Afghanistan and is associated with 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002). In May 2004 Attorney General John Ashcroft will even single out Shukrijumah as the most dangerous al-Qaeda operative planning to attack the US. However, despite reported sightings in Central America, he is still on the run in 2006 and believed to be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. (Ragavan 4/7/2003; Willing 6/15/2003; Kaufman and Rabinowitz 10/27/2003; 9/11 Commission 8/21/2004, pp. 40-41 pdf file; Meyer 9/3/2006)
Flight Training - US authorities claim he is a pilot and has been receiving flight training outside the US for several years, though they do not release any evidence to substantiate this. His family insists that he is neither a qualified pilot nor an al-Qaeda operative. (Willing 6/15/2003; CNN 9/5/2003) A senior Bush administration official says the government has evidence Shukrijumah had attended the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, but does not say when. Other Islamist militants, including Zacarias Moussaoui, attended that school before 9/11 (see February 23-June 2001, May 18, 1999 and May 15, 1998). The director of the school claims there is no evidence of a student with any of Shukrijumah’s publicly revealed aliases. (Shenon and Lichtblau 3/21/2003)


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