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Context of 'July 10, 2001: FBI Agent Sends Memo Warning that Unusual Number of Muslim Extremists Are Learning to Fly in Arizona'

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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]

Entity Tags: Ken Williams, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Zacaria Soubra.
Zacaria Soubra. [Source: Public domain]In early April 2000, Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams gets a tip that makes him suspicious that some flight students might be Islamic militants. Williams will begin an investigation based on this tip that will lead to his “Phoenix memo” warning about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001) [New York Times, 6/19/2002] It appears that Lebanese flight school student Zacaria Soubra has been seen at a shooting range with Abu Mujahid, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Abu Mujahid appears to match Aukai Collins, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East, who also goes by the name Abu Mujahid, and is an FBI informant spying on the Muslim community in the area at the time (see 1998). Collins also claims to have been the informant referred to in the Phoenix memo, which again suggests that Collins was the one at the shooting range with Soubra. [Salon, 10/17/2002] On April 7, Williams appears at Soubra’s apartment and interviews him. Soubra acts defiant, and tells Williams that he considers the US government and military legitimate targets of Islam. He has photographs of bin Laden on the walls. Williams runs a check on the license plate of Soubra’s car and discovers the car is actually owned by a suspected militant with explosives and car bomb training in Afghanistan who had been held for attempting to enter an airplane cockpit the year before (see November 1999-August 2001). [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 43-44] On April 17, Williams starts a formal investigation into Soubra. [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams will be reassigned to work on an arson case and will not be able to get back to work on the Soubra investigation until June 2001 (see April 2000-June 2001). He will release the Phoenix memo one month later. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect Soubra had ties to terrorism. For instance, in 2003, an unnamed official will claim, “Soubra was involved in terrorist-supporting activities, facilitating shelter and employment for people… involved with al-Qaeda.” For a time, he and hijacker Hani Hanjour attend the same mosque, though there is no evidence they ever meet. Soubra’s roommate at the time of Williams’ interview is Ghassan al-Sharbi. In 2002, al-Sharbi will be arrested in Pakistan with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. While Williams will focus on Soubra, al-Sharbi will also be a target of his memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003] In 2004, Soubra will be deported to Lebanon after being held for two years. He will deny any connection to Hanjour or terrorism. [Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004] Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of the British militant group Al-Muhajiroun, will later admit that Soubra was the leader of Al-Muhajiroun’s branch in Arizona. [Time, 5/27/2002]

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, Abu Zubaida, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ken Williams, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Zacaria Soubra

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529]
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. [Associated Press, 5/22/2002] Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001]
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” [Insight, 5/27/2002] However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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