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Context of 'August 28, 2001: CIA Fails to Connect KSM, Bin Al-Shibh, and Moussaoui'

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After a renditions branch is established at the CIA in 1997, responsibility at the agency for dealing with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) is transferred there. This is because he is wanted in connection with the Bojinka plot (see January 8, 1998). The 9/11 Commission will say that this both improves the CIA’s coverage of KSM—because it gives them a “man-to-man” focus—and also degrades it—as less analysis is performed related to rendition targets. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 276-7] The CIA’s inspector general will say that at this time the agency’s Counterterrorist Center considers KSM a “high-priority target for apprehension and rendition,” but will fail to recognize the importance of reporting from “credible sources” before 9/11 that shows he is a top al-Qaeda leader and is sending other terrorists to the US to work for Osama bin Laden (see June 12, 2001 and August 28, 2001). The inspector general will recommend that an accountability board review the performance of at least four officers for these failures. [Central Intelligence Agency, 6/2005, pp. xii-xiii pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In April 2001, the CIA analyzed some “intriguing information associated with a person known as ‘Mukhtar.’” The CIA didn’t know who this was at the time, only that he was associated with top al-Qaeda deputy Abu Zubaida and that he seemed to be involved in planning al-Qaeda activities. On August 28, 2001, the CIA receives a cable reporting that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) has the nickname of Mukhtar (which means “brain” in Arabic). However, apparently no one at the CIA’s bin Laden unit makes the connection between this new information and the April 2001 information. The 9/11 Commission writes, “Only after 9/11 would it be discovered that Muhktar/KSM had communicated with a phone that was used by [Ramzi] bin al-Shibh, and that bin al-Shibh had used the same phone to communicate with [Zacarias] Moussaoui [who is in US custody by this time.]” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 322; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 277]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Ramzi Yousef, Alec Station, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Central Intelligence Agency, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Zakariya Essabar.Zakariya Essabar. [Source: Interpol]Al-Qaeda Hamburg cell member Zakariya Essabar allegedly travels to Pakistan and delivers a message to al-Qaeda leaders about the timing of the 9/11 attacks. Hamburg cell member Ramzi bin al-Shibh will later be arrested and interrogated, and according to a 2005 report about his interrogations, Essabar delivers the simple message “eleven nine.” Most countries around the world, including Muslim countries, put the day before the month, so this is a reference to September 11, the date of the upcoming 9/11 attacks. This message is supposed to be sent to someone with the name Mukhtar in Pakistan. Mukhtar is a commonly used alias of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) (see August 28, 2001), and he is in Karachi, Pakistan, at the time (see Early September 2001), so this is likely a reference to him. But Essabar apparently is unable to quickly find KSM, and he calls bin al-Shibh in Germany to say he is having trouble finding him. Presumably, bin al-Shibh loses contact with Essabar after this, so it is unclear what happens to the message. [Washington Post, 5/24/2005] However, it is unclear how reliable bin al-Shibh’s claims may be, especially since he may be tortured later. Bin al-Shibh will give conflicting information about Essabar. At one point, he claims he knows nothing about Essabar at all. At another point, he claims that al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef told Essabar to try to acquire a US visa, but did not explain why, and Essabar had no foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. But at another point, he claims that Essabar was told the get the US visa so he “could travel to the United States to take part in the planned attacks.” [Reuters, 5/21/2005; Washington Post, 5/24/2005] While it may be uncertain if Essabar delivers a message on the timing of the 9/11 attacks, it is highly likely that he does flee to Afghanistan at this time. Others will later say they see him at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in late September 2001 (see September 10, 2001). His whereabouts after then will be unknown.

Entity Tags: Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Zakariya Essabar, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI senior interrogator and al-Qaeda expert Ali Soufan, in conjunction with FBI agent Steve Gaudin, interrogate suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002) using traditional non-coercive interrogation methods, while Zubaida is under guard in a secret CIA prison in Thailand. A CIA interrogation team is expected but has not yet arrived, so Soufan and Gaudin who have been nursing his wounds are initially leading his questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. “We kept him alive,” Soufan will later recall. “It wasn’t easy, he couldn’t drink, he had a fever. I was holding ice to his lips.” At the beginning, Zubaida denies even his identity, calling himself “Daoud;” Soufan, who has pored over the FBI’s files on Zubaida, stuns him by calling him “Hani,” the nickname his mother called him. Soufan and Gaudin, with CIA officials present, elicit what he will later call “important actionable intelligence” from Zubaida. To help get him to talk, the agents bring in a box of audiotapes and claim they contain recordings of his phone conversations. He begins to confess.
Zubaida Reveals KSM Is 9/11 Mastermind - Zubaida tells Soufan that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and confirms that Mohammed’s alias is “Mukhtar,” a vital fact US intelligence discovered shortly before 9/11 (see August 28, 2001). Soufan shows Zubaida a sheaf of pictures of terror suspects; Zubaida points at Mohammed’s photo and says, “That’s Mukhtar… the one behind 9/11” (see April 2002). Zubaida also tells Soufan about American al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla (see March 2002 and Mid-April 2002). In 2009, Soufan will write of his interrogations of Zubaida (see April 22, 2009): “This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.” When the CIA begins subjecting Zubaida to “enhanced interrogation tactics” (see Mid-April 2002), Soufan will note that they learn nothing from using those tactics “that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions… The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.” [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007; Mayer, 2008, pp. 155; New York Times, 4/22/2009; Newsweek, 4/25/2009]
Standing Up to the CIA - The CIA interrogation team members, which includes several private contractors, want to begin using “harsh interrogation tactics” on Zubaida almost as soon as they arrive. The techniques they have in mind include nakedness, exposure to freezing temperatures, and loud music. Soufan objects. He yells at one contractor (whom other sources will later identify as psychologist James Mitchell—see Late 2001-Mid-March 2002, January 2002 and After and Between Mid-April and Mid-May 2002), telling him that what he is doing is wrong, ineffective, and an offense to American values. “I asked [the contractor] if he’d ever interrogated anyone, and he said no,” Soufan will later say. But, Mitchell retorts that his inexperience does not matter. “Science is science,” he says. “This is a behavioral issue.” Instead, Mitchell says, Soufan is the inexperienced one. As Soufan will later recall, “He told me he’s a psychologist and he knows how the human mind works.” During the interrogation process, Soufan finds a dark wooden “confinement box” that the contractor has built for Zubaida. Soufan will later recall that it looked “like a coffin.” (Other sources later say that Mitchell had the box constructed for a “mock burial.”) An enraged Soufan calls Pasquale D’Amuro, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism. “I swear to God,” he shouts, “I’m going to arrest these guys!” Soufan challenges one CIA official over the agency’s legal authority to torture Zubaida, saying, “We’re the United States of America, and we don’t do that kind of thing.” But the official counters with the assertion that the agency has received approval from the “highest levels” in Washington to use such techniques. The official even shows Soufan a document that the official claims was approved by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. It is unclear what document the official is referring to.
Ordered Home - In Washington, D’Amuro is disturbed by Soufan’s reports, and tells FBI director Robert Mueller, “Someday, people are going to be sitting in front of green felt tables having to testify about all of this.” Mueller orders Soufan and then Gaudin to return to the US, and later forbids the FBI from taking part in CIA interrogations (see May 13, 2004). [New York Times, 9/10/2006; Newsweek, 4/25/2009]
Disputed Claims of Effectiveness - The New York Times will later note that officials aligned with the FBI tend to think the FBI’s techniques were effective while officials aligned with the CIA tend to think the CIA’s techniques were more effective. [New York Times, 9/10/2006] In 2007, former CIA officer John Kiriakou will make the opposite claim, that FBI techniques were slow and ineffective and CIA techniques were immediately effective. However, Kiriakou led the team that captured Zubaida in Pakistan and does not appear to have traveled with him to Thailand (see December 10, 2007). [ABC News, 12/10/2007; ABC News, 12/10/2007 pdf file]
Press Investigation Finds that FBI Interrogations Effective - In 2007, Vanity Fair will conclude a 10 month investigation comprising 70 interviews, and conclude that the FBI techniques were effective. The writers will later note, “America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.” CIA Director George Tenet reportedly is infuriated that the FBI and not the CIA obtained the information and he demands that the CIA team get there immediately. But once the CIA team arrives, they immediately put a stop to the rapport building techniques and instead begin implementing a controversial “psychic demolition” using legally questionable interrogation techniques. Zubaida immediately stops cooperating (see Mid-April 2002). [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007]

Entity Tags: Steve Gaudin, Vanity Fair, Robert S. Mueller III, James Elmer Mitchell, Jose Padilla, Abu Zubaida, Ali Soufan, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, John Kiriakou, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pasquale D’Amuro

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

FBI agents are able to get prisoner Abu Zubaida to confess that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) is the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Zubaida, captured in Pakistan in March 2002 (see March 28, 2002), is considered a high-ranking prisoner, although there is controversy over just how important he was to al-Qaeda (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). FBI agents Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin have been interrogating Zubaida using traditional non-coercive interrogation methods, while he is being held in a secret CIA prison in Thailand (see Late March through Early June, 2002). A CIA interrogation team is expected but has not yet arrived. Soufan shows Zubaida a sheaf of pictures of high priority suspects; Zubaida points at KSM’s photo and says, “That’s Mukhtar… the one behind 9/11.” Shortly before 9/11, US intelligence had learned that the alias “Mukhtar” was frequently used by KSM (see August 28, 2001), but this is important confirmation. The more stunning revelation is that KSM is “the one behind 9/11.” [Mayer, 2008, pp. 155; New York Times, 4/22/2009; Newsweek, 4/25/2009] Zubaida proceeds to lay out more details of the 9/11 plot, although exactly what and how much he says is unknown. [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007] It is unclear how much US intelligence knew about KSM’s role in the 9/11 attacks prior to this, although at least some was known (see (December 2001)).

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaida, Ali Soufan, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Steve Gaudin, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Abu Zubaida circa 2008.Abu Zubaida circa 2008. [Source: Defense Department.]In a speech defending the US treatment of high-level al-Qaeda prisoners, President Bush apparently makes some false claims about how valuable the intelligence from some prisoners was. He says that Abu Zubaida, who was captured in March 2002 (see March 28, 2002), revealed that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) used the alias ‘Mukhtar.’ “This was a vital piece of intelligence that helped our intelligence community pursue KSM.” However, the 9/11 Commission’s final report published in 2004 revealed that the fact that KSM had that alias was known to US intelligence before 9/11 (see August 28, 2001). Bush also claims that Zubaida’s interrogation identified Ramzi bin al-Shibh as an accomplice in the 9/11 attacks. [New York Times, 9/8/2006] However, this was known months before Zubaida’s capture, and reported in the US press as early as September 2001. A CBS News report from that time said bin al-Shibh was “believed to have provided logistics backup for the hijackers.” [CBS News, 9/29/2001] Bush also describes the interrogation techniques used on the prisoners as “safe, lawful and effective,” and he claims torture was not used. However, the New York Times notes that “the Bush administration has yet to make public the legal papers prepared by government lawyers that served as the basis for its determination that those procedures did not violate American or international law.” [New York Times, 9/8/2006] Both the New York Times and Washington Post publish prominent stories pointing out the factual errors in Bush’s statements, but this does not become a big political issue. [Washington Post, 9/7/2006; New York Times, 9/8/2006] Bush repeatedly exaggerated the importance of Zubaida in the months after his capture as well (see Shortly After March 28, 2002).

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaida, George W. Bush, Ramzi bin al-Shibh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari held without charge for seven years by the Bush administration on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent (see December 12, 2001 and June 23, 2003), pleads guilty to one felony count of providing material support to a terrorist organization. Al-Marri was released from the Naval Brig in Charleston on order of the Obama administration’s Justice Department and charged with multiple counts of supporting terrorism (see February 27, 2009). He faces up to 15 years in prison. Until accepting the plea, al-Marri has always denied any connection with al-Qaeda or with Islamist terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder says of the al-Marri plea: “Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we as a nation still face. But it also reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to the values upon which the nation was founded and the rule of law.” Lawrence Lustberg, one of al-Marri’s lawyers, says his client agreed to the plea bargain “because he wanted to go home,” and because of fears that a jury trial might end up with al-Marri serving 30 years and not a maximum of 15. (Holder rejected earlier plea deals, insisting that al-Marri serve at least 15 years in prison.) Court papers show that al-Marri was an al-Qaeda agent, with close ties to alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Al-Marri admitted to attending al-Qaeda training camps between 1998 and 2001, and to coming to the US at Mohammed’s direction (see September 10, 2001). The plan was for al-Marri to stay in contact with Mohammed using code names—al-Marri was “Abdo” and Mohammed was “Muk,” apparently short for his nickname “Mukhtar” (see August 28, 2001)—and a Hotmail email account. Documents confirming this were found at an al-Qaeda safe house in Pakistan. Al-Marri’s attempts to contact both Mohammed and al-Qaeda financier Mustafa al-Hawsawi after the 9/11 attacks were unsuccessful. Al-Marri also conducted research on the effects of cyanide gas, and on potential targets for terrorist attacks, including waterways, dams, and tunnels. Al-Marri’s plea agreement says that he will be deported to Saudi Arabia or Qatar when his sentence is completed, or perhaps sooner. The judge in the case, Michael Mihm, has not yet ruled whether al-Marri will be given credit for the seven years he served in the Charleston brig. [Politico, 4/30/2009; New York Times, 4/30/2009; US Newswire, 4/30/2009]

Entity Tags: Eric Holder, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Lawrence Lustberg, US Department of Justice, Michael Mihm

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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