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Context of 'September 10, 2001: NSA Monitors Call as 9/11 Mastermind KSM Gives 9/11 Hijacker Atta Final Approval to Launch Attacks'

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A phone bill of one of the 9/11 hijackers. More details are unknown.A phone bill of one of the 9/11 hijackers. More details are unknown. [Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]While living in the US, the 9/11 hijackers make at least 206 international phone calls. In 2006, these calls will be mentioned in a German intelligence report based on telephone records obtained from the FBI. There are 66 calls to Syria, 32 calls to Saudi Arabia, and 29 calls to Germany. A majority of the call are made from a cell phone registered to hijacker Marwan Alshehhi. Additional details on who was called, who else made the calls, when the calls were made, what other countries were called, etc… have not been made public. The Chicago Tribune will later note that the calls to Germany are not surprising since Alshehhi and some others were living there, but “the hijackers’ connections to Saudi Arabia and Syria are far from fully explained.” [Chicago Tribune, 3/8/2006] It is unknown when these calls were discovered, but reports suggest at least some of the hijackers’ international calls were being monitored by US intelligence as they were made (see Summer 2001, September 10, 2001, and Early 2000-Summer 2001).

Entity Tags: Marwan Alshehhi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Around this time, the NSA intercepts telephone conversations between 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, but apparently it does not share the information with any other agencies. The FBI has had a $2 million reward for KSM since 1998 (see January 8, 1998), while Atta is in charge of hijacker operations inside the US. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002; Independent, 6/6/2002] The monitored calls between the two of them continue until September 10, one day before the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). The NSA either fails to translate these messages in a timely fashion or fails to understand the significance of what was translated. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002] However, it will later be revealed that an FBI squad built an antenna in the Indian Ocean some time before 9/11 with the specific purpose of listening in on KSM’s phone calls, so they may have learned about these calls to Atta on their own (see Before September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohamed Atta, National Security Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of the phone calls of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). The squad builds their own antenna in Madagascar specifically to intercept KSM’s calls. [Wright, 2006, pp. 344] It has not been revealed when this antenna was built or what was learned from this surveillance. However, there have been media reports that the NSA monitored some phone calls between KSM and Mohamed Atta in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001). Further, US intelligence monitored a call between KSM and Atta a day before 9/11 that was the final go-ahead for the attacks (see September 10, 2001). So presumably the I-49 squad should have known about these calls as well if this antenna did what it was designed to do.

Entity Tags: Mohamed Atta, National Security Agency, I-49, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The French newspaper Le Figaro will report in late 2001 that on this day, “According to Arab diplomatic sources as well as French intelligence, very specific information [is] transmitted to the CIA with respect to terrorist attacks against American interests around the world, including on US soil.” A French intelligence report sent to the US this day “enumerates all the intelligence, and specifies that the order to attack [is] to come from Afghanistan.” [Le Figaro (Paris), 10/31/2001] It will later be revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed gives Mohamed Atta the final go-ahead in a phone call from Afghanistan the day before 9/11 (see September 10, 2001).

Entity Tags: France, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta calls 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) in Afghanistan. KSM gives final approval to Atta to launch the attacks. The specifics of the conversation haven’t been released. [Independent, 9/15/2002] Unnamed intelligence officials later tell Knight Ridder Newspapers that the call is monitored by the NSA, but only translated after the 9/11 attacks. KSM, “using coded language, [gives] Atta final approval” for the attacks. [Knight Ridder, 9/9/2002] NSA monitored other calls between KSM and Atta in the summer of 2001 but did not share the information about this with other agencies (see Summer 2001). Additionally, it will later be revealed that an FBI squad built an antenna in the Indian Ocean some time before 9/11 with the specific purpose of listening in on KSM’s phone calls, so they may have learned about this call to Atta on their own (see Before September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: United States, Mohamed Atta, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Within the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland is a little-known unit called the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center (DEFSMAC). According to author James Bamford, who is an expert on the NSA, the center’s purpose is “to serve as the nation’s chief warning bell for a planned attack on America. It serves as the focal point for ‘all-source’ intelligence—listening posts, early-warning satellites, human agents, and seismic detectors.” According to one former NSA official, DEFSMAC “has all the inputs from all the assets, and is a warning activity. They probably have a better feel for any worldwide threat to this country from missiles, aircraft, or overt military activities, better and more timely, at instant fingertip availability, than any group in the United States.” If they received indications that an attack was imminent, DEFSMAC officials could “immediately send out near-real-time and in-depth, all-source intelligence alerts to almost 200 ‘customers,’ including the White House Situation Room, the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, the [Defense Intelligence Agency] Alert Center, and listening posts around the world.” Its analysts could be “closely monitoring all intercepts flooding in; examining the latest overhead photography; and analyzing data from early-warning satellites 22,300 miles above the equator. DEFSMAC would then flash the intelligence to the US Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, NORAD at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and other emergency command centers.” But on this morning, as Bamford will conclude, “DEFSMAC learned of the massive airborne attacks after the fact—not from America’s multibillion-dollar spy satellites or its worldwide network of advanced listening posts, or its army of human spies, but from a dusty, off-the-shelf TV set.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 33-35] The NSA had in fact intercepted numerous calls between some of the hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, beginning in early 2000 and ending just weeks before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It also intercepted two messages in Arabic on September 10, stating, “The match is about to begin,” and “Tomorrow is zero hour,” but these are supposedly not translated until September 12 (see September 10, 2001). [Washington Post, 6/20/2002] The NSA even intercepted a series of communications between 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and lead 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta beginning in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), continuing to a message where KSM gives Atta the final go-ahead for the attacks on September 10, 2001 (see September 10, 2001). Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, will later claim that the “NSA had no [indications] that al-Qaeda was specifically targeting New York and Washington… or even that it was planning an attack on US soil” (see October 17, 2002). [National Journal, 6/19/2006]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center, James Bamford

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission’s cursory review of NSA material related to the attacks and al-Qaeda in general does not find any reports about NSA intercepts of communications between the hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Neither does it find any reports about calls intercepted by the NSA between alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). Author Philip Shenon will write about the commission’s review of the NSA files in a 2008 book and will discuss what Commission staffers found there, but will not mention these intercepts, some of which were mentioned in declassified portions of the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004). The review is only conducted by a few staffers (see January 2004, June 2004, and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004) and is not comprehensive, so it is unclear whether the NSA does not provide the reports to the 9/11 Commission, or the commission simply fails to find them in the large number of files the NSA made available to it. However, the staffers do find material possibly linking some of the hijackers to Iran and Hezbollah (see January-June 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 87-8, 155-7, 370-3] In its final report, the commission will make passing references to some of the calls the NSA intercepted without pointing out that the NSA actually intercepted them. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 87-88, 222] However, the endnotes that indicate the sources of these sections will not contain any references to NSA reports, but instead refer to an interview with NSA Director Michael Hayden and an FBI timeline of the hijackers’ activities. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 477, 518]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General Michael Mukasey makes an apparent reference to the intercepts of the 9/11 hijackers’ calls by the NSA before the attacks in a speech pleading for extra surveillance powers. Mukasey says: “[Officials] shouldn’t need a warrant when somebody with a phone in Iraq picks up a phone and calls somebody in the United States because that’s the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that’s the call that we didn’t know about. We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn’t know precisely where it went.” [FORA(.tv), 3/27/2008; New York Sun, 3/28/2008] According to a Justice Department response to a query about the speech, this appears to be a reference to the Yemen hub, an al-Qaeda communications facility previously alluded to by Mukasey in a similar context (see February 22, 2008). [Salon, 4/4/2008] However, the hub was in Yemen, not Afghanistan and, although it acted as a safe house, it was primarily a communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). In addition, the NSA did not intercept one call between it and the 9/11 hijackers in the US, but several, involving both Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, not just one of the hijackers (see Spring-Summer 2000, Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001, and (August 2001)). Nevertheless, the NSA failed to inform the FBI the hub was calling the US (see (Spring 2000)). (Note: it is possible Mukasey is not talking about the Yemen hub in this speech, but some other intercept genuinely from an al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan—for example a call between lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in the US and alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who may have been in Afghanistan when such call was intercepted by the NSA (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). However, several administration officials have made references similar to Mukasey’s about the Yemen hub since the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was revealed (see December 17, 2005).)

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

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