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Context of 'August 29-September 4, 2001: Minneapolis Memo to FAA Warning of Moussaoui Is Blocked by FBI Headquarters'

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Diana Dean.Diana Dean. [Source: Seattle Times]Al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam is arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, attempting to enter the US with components of explosive devices. One hundred and thirty pounds of bomb-making chemicals and detonator components are found inside his rental car. He subsequently admits he planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on December 31, 1999. [New York Times, 12/30/2001] Alert border patrol agent Diana Dean stops him; she and other agents nationwide had been warned recently to look for suspicious activity. Ressam’s bombing would have been part of a wave of attacks against US targets over the New Year’s weekend (see December 15-31, 1999). He is later connected to al-Qaeda and convicted. [US Congress, 9/18/2002; PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002]

Entity Tags: Diana Dean, Ahmed Ressam, Los Angeles International Airport, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested (see August 16, 2001), the FBI’s Minneapolis field office becomes very concerned that he may be part of a larger operation involving hijacked aircraft and that he represents a real threat to US national security. One of the agents, Harry Samit, will later say that he and his colleagues are “obsessed” with Moussaoui. Samit sends over 70 communications warning about Moussaoui to the following:
bullet The Hezbollah, bin Laden, and Radical Fundamentalist Units at FBI headquarters (see August 20-September 11, 2001);
bullet Another FBI field office (see August 23, 2001);
bullet The CIA (see August 24, 2001);
bullet The FBI’s offices in Paris and London;
bullet The FAA;
bullet The Secret Service;
bullet The Immigration and Naturalization Service; and
bullet Another intelligence agency (possibly the National Security Agency).
While some of these bodies are responsive (see August 22, 2001 and August 24, 2001), Samit and his colleagues in Minnesota are forced to engage in a running battle with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters, which obstructs their attempts to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings. Samit will later accuse the RFU of “criminal negligence” because they were trying to “run out the clock” to deport Moussaoui, instead of prosecuting him. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 101-221 pdf file; USA Today, 3/9/2006; Washington Post, 3/21/2006]

Entity Tags: FBI Minnesota field office, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, FBI Headquarters, Harry Samit, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hussein al-Attas.Hussein al-Attas. [Source: Public domain]Hours after Zacarias Moussaoui is taken into custody in Minnesota, his friend and roommate Hussein al-Attas is interviewed by the FBI. The two men had recently driven together to Minnesota from Oklahoma (see August 10-11, 2001).
bullet According to a summary of the interview written at the time, “Al-Attas indicated that Moussaoui believes that it is acceptable to kill civilians who harm Muslims and that he approves of martyrs.”
bullet Al-Attas says Moussaoui talked about holy war every day when they roomed together.
bullet When asked if he had ever heard Moussaoui make a plan to kill those who harm Muslims, “Al-Attas admit[s] that he may have heard him do so, but that because it is not in [al-Attas’] own heart to carry out acts of this nature, he claimed that he kept himself from actually hearing and understanding.”
bullet Al-Attas says Moussaoui holds strong anti-American views and might be willing to act on his beliefs.
bullet Al-Attas describes Moussaoui as so secretive that he refuses to give his full name, identifying himself only as “Shaqil.”
bullet He also says that Moussaoui told him “true” Muslims must prepare themselves to fight and they should understand the suffering of Muslims in places like Palestine and Kosovo.
bullet He mentions that he and Moussaoui are carrying fighting gloves and shin guards to practice martial arts as part of Moussaoui’s philosophy that Muslims should be ready to fight nonbelievers.
bullet He has not heard Moussaoui mention any specific terrorist plot, but says that Moussaoui “is suspicious to me, too.”
FBI agents interview al-Attas again the following day, then charge him with violating the terms of his student visa by working at a mosque in Oklahoma, and arrest him. During the second interview, al-Attas says that Moussaoui follows the teachings of a sheikh whose name he would not disclose to him (see August 17, 2001). The agents contact FBI supervisors in Washington to seek approval to get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer. The supervisors are aware of what al-Attas said in the interview, but nevertheless they tell the Minnesota FBI agents that they do not want to attempt to get the warrant because it has not been shown that Moussaoui is an agent of a foreign power. The New York Times will note that the content of al-Attas’ interview “raise[s] new questions about whether top [FBI] officials… were aggressive enough in responding to that information.” [Washington Post, 1/31/2002; New York Times, 5/24/2002; Associated Press, 3/21/2006] Al-Attas will be arrested shortly after 9/11 and held as a material witness. He will later plead guilty to lying about Moussaoui. He lied in claiming that he did not know Moussaoui’s real name, lied about plans to go with Moussaoui to New York City in late August 2001, lied about Moussaoui’s desire to participate in holy war, and lied about a planned trip to speak to religious scholars who would encourage al-Attas to participate in holy war. He will be sentenced to time served, but will be kept imprisoned until the conclusion of Moussaoui’s trial in 2006 (see March 6-May 4, 2006). [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 7/22/2002; Associated Press, 10/22/2002] It is also later revealed that Moussaoui had recently convinced al-Attas to fight in Chechnya in order to prepare for holy war. [Wall Street Journal, 2/4/2002] Furthermore, the person who attempts to post bond for al-Attas had been the subject of a full-field FBI international terrorism investigation in Oklahoma. This unnamed person was a recruiter for a radical Palestinian group and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] In post-9/11 media accounts, al-Attas is generally portrayed as someone who had been innocently and accidentally caught up with Moussaoui. But it appears that in the weeks before 9/11, US intelligence will consider the possibility that al-Attas may have been plotting with Moussaoui. For instance, a CIA cable that will be sent on August 24 is titled “Subjects Involved in Suspicious 747 Flight Training,” (see August 24, 2001) one that will be sent on August 28 has Moussaoui and al-Attas’ names as the title. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 7/22/2002; Associated Press, 10/22/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 540]

Entity Tags: Hussein al-Attas, Zacarias Moussaoui, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Zacarias Moussaoui’s roommate, Hussein al-Attas, makes thirteen phone calls from jail to El Hadj Ndiaye, the imam of his local mosque in Norman, Oklahoma looking for assistance in raising money for his bond. Al-Attas was arrested and jailed shortly after Moussaoui was detained (see August 16, 2001 and August 16, 2001). Ndiaye reportedly becomes “very upset” when he hears that Moussoaui is going to be deported. According to an FBI translation of one of these conversations, Ndiaye says, “I heard you guys wanted to go on jihad.” Al-Attas responds, “Don’t talk about that now.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 134, 167-8, 201 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file] The Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters learns of the translated conversation on August 29 (see August 29, 2001), but the RFU chief downplays the significance of the reference to jihad. Two other people involved in posting the bond for al-Attas were the subject of counterterrorism investigations (see August 20, 2001 and August 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, Hussein al-Attas, El Hadj Ndiaye

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

At a meeting attended by Mike Maltbie of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU), RFU chief Dave Frasca, FBI agent Rita Flack, and an FAA representative who is familiar with the Moussaoui case, a decision is made not to advise the FAA about the Moussaoui investigation at this point because Moussaoui and Al-Attas are presumably in custody. (Al-Attas is bailed out of custody on August 20) [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 134, 149-150 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 pdf file] Al-Attas is suspected of involvement in terrorism at this point and investigators believe he and Moussaoui may be involved in a plot against the US that involves the hijacking of an airplane (see August 17, 2001 and August 24, 2001). The FBI will eventually warn the FAA, but it will fail to mention that its Minneapolis office believes Moussaoui intends to hijack an airliner (see September 4, 2001).

Entity Tags: Michael Maltbie, David Frasca, Federal Aviation Administration, Rita Flack, FBI Headquarters, Radical Fundamentalist Unit

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Margaret Gillespie, an FBI agent detailed to the CIA who has just found out that future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is in the US (see August 21-22, 2001), suggests asking failed Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam whether he recognizes Almihdhar, but the proposal is not acted on. Ressam was arrested on his way to bomb Los Angeles airport (see December 14, 1999), but has been co-operating with the US government against al-Qaeda (see May 30, 2001). Gillespie makes the suggestion in an e-mail to Tom Wilshire, a CIA representative to the FBI. It is unclear what Wilshire does with the suggestion, but Ressam is not interviewed. When shown photos of Almihdhar after 9/11, Ressam will not recognize him. The FBI also fails to ask Ressam about Zacarias Moussaoui before 9/11, but shortly after 9/11 Ressam will identity Moussaoui as a person that attended al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan (see Late August-Early September 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 275-6, 541]

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, Tom Wilshire, Khalid Almihdhar, Ahmed Ressam, Margaret Gillespie, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Frustrated with the lack of response from FBI headquarters about Zacarias Moussaoui, the Minnesota FBI contacts an FBI agent working with the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and asks for help. [US Congress, 10/17/2002] On this day, the CIA sends a cable to stations and bases overseas requesting information about Moussaoui. The cable is titled, “Subjects Involved in Suspicious 747 Flight Training.” The cable says that the FBI is investigating Moussaoui for possible involvement in the planning of a terrorist attack and mentions his efforts to obtain flight training. It also suggests he might be “involved in a larger plot to target airlines traveling from Europe to the US.” [US Congress, 9/18/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 540] It calls him a “suspect 747 airline attacker” and a “suspect airline suicide hijacker”—showing that the form of the 9/11 attack is not a surprise, at least to the CIA. [US Congress, 10/17/2002] FBI headquarters responds by chastising the Minnesota FBI for notifying the CIA without approval. [Time, 5/21/2002]

Entity Tags: FBI Minnesota field office, Zacarias Moussaoui, Counterterrorist Center, FBI Headquarters, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI fails to ask Ahmed Ressam, an al-Qaeda operative arrested during the Millennium alert (see December 14, 1999), whether he can identify Zacarias Moussaoui. Agents in Seattle holding Ressam receive a general notification about the Moussaoui case, but it lacks urgency and they do not follow up on it with Ressam (see September 4, 2001). When asked shortly after 9/11, Ressam will say he recognizes Moussaoui from al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. The 9/11 Commission will conclude that had Ressam been shown photos of Moussaoui and identified him before 9/11, the FBI would have been able to search his belongings. The belongings contain enough information to potentially prevent 9/11 (see August 16, 2001). The FBI also fails to ask Ressam whether he recognizes Khalid Almihdhar at this time, although Ressam has never met Almihdhar and will not identify him after 9/11 (see August 21, 2001). [Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 275-6, 541]

Entity Tags: Ahmed Ressam, FBI Headquarters, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Zacarias Moussaoui

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Harry Samit, an agent at the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, drafts a memo to the FAA summarizing the facts of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. In it, he writes, “Minneapolis believes that Moussaoui, [his roommate Hussein] al-Attas, and others not yet known were engaged in preparing to seize a Boeing 747-400 in commission of a terrorist act. As Moussaoui denied requests for consent to search his belongings and was arrested before sufficient evidence of criminal activity was revealed, it is not known how far advanced were his plans to do so.” He also mentions Moussaoui’s physical and marital arts training and expresses concern that France, where Moussaoui will soon be deported, may not be able to hold him or his property for long. But Mike Maltbie of the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) instructs the Minneapolis field office not to send the memo because he is also drafting a memo on the Moussaoui case that will be sent to the FAA and other agencies. However Maltbie’s memo lacks a threat assessment and does not mention Minneapolis’ suspicions that Moussaoui might be planning a terrorist act involving a hijacked airplane. The memo does not result in any FAA action. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 174-7 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 3/20/2006] A meeting between Samit and a Minneapolis FAA officer will also fail to produce any FAA action (see September 4, 2001).

Entity Tags: Michael Maltbie, FBI Headquarters, Harry Samit, Zacarias Moussaoui, FBI Minnesota field office, Radical Fundamentalist Unit

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI headquarters dispatches a memo to the entire US intelligence community summarizing what has been learned about Zacarias Moussaoui. The memo, written by Mike Maltbie, an agent in the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU), reports that the FBI has become suspicious of Moussaoui because he took flight simulation training for a 747 jet, a course normally taken by airline pilots. Moussaoui, who has no flying experience, paid cash for the training, the memo also notes. It also says that Moussaoui has radical Islamic fundamentalist beliefs and has been linked to Chechen militants. However, the memo does not include a threat assessment or indicate that some FBI investigators believe Moussaoui is part of a yet unknown plot to hijack an airplane and use it in a terrorist attack. As a later congressional inquiry will report, the memo fails to “recommend that the addressees take any action or look for any additional indicators of a terrorist attack, nor [does] it provide any analysis of a possible hijacking threat or provide any specific warnings.” [US Congress, 9/24/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 175-6 pdf file] Several days earlier, Maltbie blocked the release of a memo from the FBI’s Minneapolis field office that was addressed to the FAA and did contain a threat assessment (see August 29-September 4, 2001). When the FAA receives the FBI memo, it decides not to issue a security alert to the nation’s airports in response. An FAA representative later explains to the New York Post, “[Moussaoui] was in jail and there was no evidence he was connected to other people.” [New York Post, 5/21/2002] The FBI memo contrasts sharply with an internal CIA warning sent out on August 24. That memo, which was based on less information, warned that Moussaoui might be “involved in a larger plot to target airlines traveling from Europe to the US” (see August 24, 2001). [US Congress, 9/18/2002] It turns out that prior to this time, al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam had started cooperating with investigators. He had trained with Moussaoui in Afghanistan and will willingly share this information after 9/11. The FBI dispatch, with its notable lack of urgency and details, fails to prompt the agents in Seattle holding Ressam to question him about Moussaoui. Had the connection between these two men been learned before 9/11, presumably the search warrant for Moussaoui would have been approved and the 9/11 plot might have unraveled (see Late August-Early September 2001). [Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002]

Entity Tags: Zacarias Moussaoui, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Federal Aviation Administration, FBI Headquarters, Michael Maltbie, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, David Frasca, Ahmed Ressam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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