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Context of 'Late July-August 2001: US Fails to Capture or Kill Al-Zawahiri'

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The southern part of Yemen attempts to cede from the rest of the country, but loses the ensuing war and north Yemeni forces take the south’s capital, Aden, reuniting the country. Yemen first united in 1990, but tensions between the two former independent halves of the country resulted in the civil war. As the south is regarded as communist, the north is backed by both the US and Osama bin Laden. [Guardian, 5/6/1994; CounterPunch, 5/20/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002; Terrorism Monitor, 4/8/2004] The New York Times will say that the north Yemeni president uses “large numbers of Arab Afghans formed into Islamic terrorist units as his shock troops.” [New York Times, 11/26/2000] CIA officer Michael Scheuer will comment, “In 1993 and 1994, bin Laden sent al-Qaeda fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan—via Sudan—to fight the Yemeni Communists in the civil war that yielded a reunified Yemen.” [Scheuer, 2006, pp. 151] According to Western intelligence, before the war Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a brother of north Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh, received US$ 20 million from bin Laden to help settle Arab Afghan fighters in the country. When war breaks out, as military commander he deploys these fighters in the war’s final battle for the south’s capital of Aden. Despite its socialist tendencies, the south is backed by Saudi Arabia, as it thinks a divided Yemen is less of a threat to it. [CounterPunch, 5/20/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002; Terrorism Monitor, 4/8/2004] Veteran Middle Eastern journalist Brian Whittaker will comment, “The Saudis invested hugely in the war on behalf of the South, and the outcome is a defeat for them as much as anyone.” [Middle East International, 7/22/1994] After the war, the government will allow the radical fighters to settle in Yemen and use it as a base (see After July 1994).

Entity Tags: Yemen, Osama bin Laden, Saudi Arabia, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, United States

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Al-Qaeda deputy head Ayman al-Zawahiri spends time in Yemen and holds meetings there. Yemen is favorably inclined towards militants, due to the help they provided to the winning side in the 1994 civil war (see May 21-July 7, 1994 and After July 1994). Al-Zawahiri holds Islamic Jihad meetings at the Youth House, a government-run hall in the capital of Sana’a, according to confessions presented at a 1999 Cairo trial (see 1999). A defector will later reveal where al-Zawahiri is staying in Yemen to the local authorities, but the authorities, who sympathize with radical Islam, tip off al-Zawahiri and he escapes to Afghanistan (see Spring-Summer 1998). [Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002] Al-Zawahiri is also reported to be in Yemen in the summer of 2001 (see Late July-August 2001).

Entity Tags: Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After the Yemen civil war in 1994, in which militants helped North Yemen defeat its southern counterpart, there is an effort to absorb extremists into the mainstream (see After July 1994). However, some foreign intelligence services complain that this allows radicals to operate freely in Yemen. Nabil ad-Din, a former officer in Egypt’s state security will later say that “there were always problems” with Yemeni security officials because “they shared the same values of the people they were supposed to be arresting.” US officials will say that although some senior officers in the local Political Security Organization (PSO) take antiterrorism seriously, the organization as a whole tends to see Islamists as useful allies against domestic opponents. In addition, an Italian intelligence report will later state that the PSO even provides “logistical and intelligence assistance” to Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who frequently visits Yemen (see Mid-1990s-Spring 1998). [Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Yemeni Political Security Organization, Nabid ad-Din

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Many high-ranking Yemeni government officials help al-Qaeda and other militants, beginning in 1996, according to Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, a Yemeni official who will be captured after 9/11 and sent to the US prison in Guanatanamo, Cuba. Abdulrahman is a section chief in Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), the Yemeni equivalent of the FBI, until his arrest in 2002 (see September 2002). His 2008 Guantanamo file will state: “Detainee stated that since 1996, numerous high-ranking employees in the Yemeni government and PSO were involved in aiding al-Qaeda and other extremists through the provision of false passports and by giving them safe haven out of the country under the guise of deportation. These PSO officials included detainee; Mohammed al-Surmi, deputy chief of the PSO; Ghalib al-Qamish, director of the PSO; Colonel Ahmad Dirham, commander of the Deportation Department in the PSO; and Abdallah al-Zirka, an officer in the Yemeni Passport Authority. According to detainee, the second highest ranking person in the Yemeni government, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, was aware of the involvement of al-Surmi and al-Qamish in these activities since at least 1999.” An analyst notes in the file that Mohsen is the (half) brother of Yemeni President Saleh. [US Department of Defense, 9/24/2008] Note that this is based on Guantanamo files leaked to the public in 2011 by the non-profit whistleblower group WikiLeaks. There are many doubts about the reliability of the information in the files (see April 24, 2011). However, it should also be noted that other information corroborates the charges, including the involvement of some names mentioned by Abdulrahman (for instance, see Spring-Summer 1998, After July 1994, December 26, 1998, and April 27, 2005).

Entity Tags: Ghalib al-Qamish, Abdallah al-Zirka, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Mohammed al-Surmi, Ahmad Dirham, Yemeni Political Security Organization

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar.Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar. [Source: Associated Press]Ahmed Nasrallah, a veteran al-Qaeda operative who has been in Yemen for several years, decides to defect and turn himself in to the Yemeni government. He discloses the location of al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen and even gives away the location of al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a southern Yemeni town. He describes al-Qaeda’s weaponry, security, and violent plans for the future. He offers to spy on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or on a militant Yemeni group led by Zein al-Abidine Almihdhar, a relative of hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. (In 1999 Zein will be caught and executed in Yemen for kidnappings and killings.) However, two officials in the Political Security Organization (Yemen’s equivalent of the FBI) have radical militant ties and hand over Nasrallah to al-Qaeda operatives. These operatives plan to kill him for betraying their group, but he escapes to Egypt before they can do so. The Egyptian government then interrogates him for more than a year. However, it is not known what he told them before 9/11, or what they might have passed to the US. One of the two Yemeni officers helping al-Qaeda on this matter, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, will be recorded by Italian intelligence in 2000 apparently mentioning the upcoming 9/11 attacks (see August 12, 2000). The other officer, Mohammed al-Surmi, is Deputy Chief of the PSO. [Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Ahmed Nasrallah, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, Mohammed al-Surmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A large group of Islamic Jihad operatives are sentenced in Cairo in what becomes known as the “Trial of the Albanian Returnees.” Various disclosures are made at the trial about the way Islamic Jihad operated and how it provided support to al-Qaeda by forging travel documents, transferring money, and arranging communications. One of the revelations is that al-Qaeda has a key communication hub in Yemen. Despite this revelation (see Late 1998-Early 2002), al-Qaeda will continue to use it through 2001 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The defendants were arrested not only in Egypt, but also in Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1995, the CIA arranged a deal with Egypt to capture Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt to be tortured and prosecuted (see Summer 1995). Eighty-seven of the defendants are convicted and ten are sentenced to death, including al-Zawahiri, who is tried in absentia. [New York Times, 11/21/2001] One of the convicted is Khaled Abu el-Dahab, who was operating a sleeper cell in California with double agent Ali Mohamed throughout the 1990’s (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab is sentenced to fifteen years in prison (see September 10, 1998). There are credible reports that many of the defendants confessed after being tortured in Egypt and Albania. [New York Times, 11/21/2001; Wright, 2006, pp. 269] The trial nearly eradicates the remnants of Islamic Jihad in Egypt and, according to some of the defendants, leaves only about forty members outside of Egypt. Al-Zawahiri and the other remaining members end up allying even closer to al-Qaeda. The two organizations will formally merge in early 2001 (see June 2001). [Wright, 2006, pp. 336]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Islamic Jihad, Egypt, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman.Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman. [Source: US Defense Department]Italian intelligence successfully wiretaps an al-Qaeda cell in Milan, Italy, starting in late 1999. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002] In a wiretapped conversation from this day, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, a section chief in Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO - roughly the equivalent to the FBI in the US) traveling on a diplomatic passport (see Spring-Summer 1998), talks about a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft and the sky. The conversation takes place in a car on the way to a terrorist summit near Bologna (see August 12, 2000 and Shortly After), and the person Abdulrahman talks to is Mahmoud Es Sayed, a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000). There are several significant aspects to the conversation:
bullet Abdulrahman makes comments indicating he has foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He says that he is “studying airlines,” comments, “Our focus is only on the air,” and tells Es Sayed to remember the words “above the head.” He also says that next time they meet he hopes to bring Es Sayed “a window or piece of the airplane,” and that the security on Alitalia and at Rome airport is poor. The name of the operation is given as “Jihadia,” and Abdulrahman says, “the big blow will come from the other country: one of those blows no one can ever forget.” He adds: “[It is] moving from south to north, from east to west: whoever created this plan is crazy, but he’s also a genius. It will leave them speechless.” He also says: “We can fight any power using candles and airplanes: they will not be able to stop us with even their most powerful weapons. We must hit them. And keep your head up.… Remember, the danger in the airports.… If it happens the newspapers from all over the world will write about it.”
bullet Es Sayed remarks, “I know brothers who went to America with the trick of the wedding publications.” The phrase “Big wedding” is sometimes used by al-Qaeda as code for a bombing or attack, including 9/11 (see November 30, 1999 and Late Summer 2001), so, taken together with Abdulrahman’s remarks, this indicates an unconventional attack in the US using aircraft;
bullet The two discuss training camps in Yemen, which are “proceeding on a world scale.” They also mention youth in Italy, and presumably the youth are training;
bullet Es Sayed says, “my dream is building an Islamic state,” and Abdulrahman replies that this is possible because the Yemeni government is weak and “sooner or later we will dominate it;”
bullet Es Sayed asks after a person named Ayman, evidently al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri;
bullet Abdulrahman twice mentions the name of Abdul Mejid, apparently a reference to Abdul Mejid al-Zindani, a radical leader in Yemen and associate of Osama bin Laden (see January-August 1998);
bullet Es Sayed makes the cryptic comment, “One must be cautious, like in Iran; not a single photo.”
Beginning in October 2000, FBI experts will help Italian police analyze the intercepts and warnings. Related conversations are overheard early the next year (see January 24, 2001 and February 2001). Neither Italy nor the FBI will fully understand their meaning until after 9/11, but apparently the Italians will understand enough to give the US an attack warning in March 2001 (see March 2001). After 9/11, this conversation and others like it will cause US intelligence to think there may be a link between the 9/11 plot and Yemen’s PSO. [Los Angeles Times, 5/29/2002; Guardian, 5/30/2002; Washington Post, 5/31/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002; Vidino, 2006, pp. 224-5] Author Lorenzo Vidino will later comment: “The chilling conversation alarmed officials before 9/11, but it took on a completely different resonance after the attacks had taken place. [Abdulrahman], who had close connections to the highest ranks of al-Qaeda, likely knew about the plan in advance and had told Es Sayed about it.” [Vidino, 2006, pp. 226]

Entity Tags: Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Mahmoud Es Sayed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Ayman al-Zawahiri.Ayman al-Zawahiri. [Source: FBI]The US receives intelligence that bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is receiving medical treatment at a clinic in Sana’a, Yemen. However, the Bush administration rejects a plan to capture him, as officials are not 100 percent sure the patient is al-Zawahiri. Officials later regret the missed opportunity. [ABC News, 2/20/2002] In another account, an anonymous CIA source claims that the “Egyptian intelligence service briefed us that he was in a hospital in Sana’a. We sent a few people over there, and they made a colossal screwup. While our guys were conducting a surveillance of the hospital, the guards caught them with their videocameras.” [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] CIA Director Tenet will touch on this incident in his 2007 book, saying that only that on July 24, 2001, “we had reporting that al-Zawahiri was in Yemen and we were pursuing confirmation and a plan to exfiltrate him to the United States. Although we doubted this information, it was out intention to play this hand out.” He doesn’t mention what happened after that. [Tenet, 2007] Al-Zawahiri also appears to have spent time in Yemen in 1998 (see Spring-Summer 1998).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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