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Context of 'September 15, 1998: US Arrests Bin Laden’s Personal Secretary'

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Mahmud Abouhalima.Mahmud Abouhalima. [Source: Agence France-Presse]Mahmud Abouhalima is arrested for his role in the February 1993 WTC bombing. He meets with US investigators without his lawyer and provides a detailed account of the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, bin Laden’s main support base in the US in the early 1990s. He says that twice he turned to a Texas acquaintance named Wadih El-Hage to buy weapons for his associates. El-Hage, who turns out to be bin Laden’s personal secretary (see September 15, 1998), will later be caught and convicted of bombing the US embassies in Africa in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Abouhalima further recounts fighting in Afghanistan with the mujaheddin in the 1980s and tells of travelling to training camps with a Palestinian man named Mohammed Odeh. A Palestinian man with the name Mohammed Saddiq Odeh will later be convicted of a role in the 1998 embassy bombings as well. Abouhalima offers additional inside information about the bomb plot and his associates in exchange for a lighter sentence. But, as the New York Times will later note, prosecutors turn down the offer “for reasons that remain unclear.” Abouhalima is later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. [New York Times, 10/22/1998]

Entity Tags: Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Wadih El-Hage, Mahmud Abouhalima

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The outside and inside of El-Hage’s house in Nairobi. These pictures were apparently taken during the 1997 raid and were used as evidence in El-Hage’s trial.The outside and inside of El-Hage’s house in Nairobi. These pictures were apparently taken during the 1997 raid and were used as evidence in El-Hage’s trial. [Source: FBI]Dan Coleman, an FBI agent working with Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, has been examining transcripts from wiretapped phones connected to bin Laden’s businesses in Sudan (see Early 1990s). One frequently called number belongs to Wadih El-Hage, a US citizen who is later revealed to be bin Laden’s personal secretary. El-Hage often makes obvious and clumsy attempts to speak in code. The CIA comes to believe that El-Hage might be recruited as an agent. On this day, Coleman, two CIA agents, and a Kenyan police officer enter El-Hage’s house in Nairobi, Kenya, with a search warrant. The investigators interview El-Hage (who returned that day from visiting bin Laden in Afghanistan) and confiscate his computer. [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001; Wright, 2006, pp. 242-244] A large amount of incriminating evidence is discovered in El-Hage’s documents and computer files (see Shortly After August 21, 1997 and Shortly After August 21, 1997). El-Hage moves to the US, where he is interviewed by a grand jury, then let go (see September 24, 1997). He will be arrested shortly after al-Qaeda bombs the US embassy in Nairobi (see September 15, 1998). He will be sentenced to life in prison for his role in that attack. State Department officials will later strongly assert that while staffers at the US embassy in Kenya were told about the raid at the time, they were not told about any potential connection to al-Qaeda. However, US intelligence officials strongly assert that the embassy staff was frequently briefed about the bin Laden connection. [New York Times, 1/9/1999]

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, US Department of State, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Central Intelligence Agency, Dan Coleman, Alec Station

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Wadih El-Hage asks an associate, Essam al Ridi, for advice on his status with the FBI. El-Hage, who helps al-Qaeda bomb US embassies in Africa not long after this (see September 15, 1998), is under investigation by the FBI and his home in Nairobi, Kenya, was searched the previous year (see August 21, 1997). El-Hage is meeting al Ridi to act as a mediator between al Ridi and a mutual acquaintance, with whom al Ridi is arguing over a business deal in which he made money on a plane he sold to Osama bin Laden (see Early 1993). According to al Ridi, El-Hage solicits his advice “on the status that he had with the FBI.” It is unclear why El-Hage would think al Ridi might know his status with the FBI. Al Ridi asks El-Hage if there is anything that he should be concerned about, and El-Hage replies, “No, absolutely.” Al Ridi then advises El-Hage to tell the FBI everything he knows, “Be very forthcoming and very honest and clear with them and just carry it out until it’s over.” El-Hage also says that items were seized from his home indicating he was linked to al Ridi (see Shortly After August 21, 1997), but the two do not discuss the possibility that al Ridi might be contacted by the US government, although he will later testify for the prosecution at the embassy bombers’ US trial. [United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1/14/2001]

Entity Tags: Essam al Ridi, Wadih El-Hage, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers allegedly told US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and some speculate that is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Miller will write, “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Mohamed al-Owhali, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Azzam, Al-Qaeda, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Wadih El Hage.Wadih El Hage. [Source: FBI]On September 15, 1998, Wadih El-Hage is arrested in the US after appearing before a US grand jury. A US citizen, he had been bin Laden’s personal secretary. He will later be convicted for a role in the 1998 US embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [New York Times, 9/18/1998]

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On September 15, 1998, bin Laden’s former personal secretary Wadih El-Hage is arrested in the US (see September 15, 1998). His address book had been discovered in 1997 (see Shortly After August 21, 1997), but apparently after his arrest investigators pursue new leads from it. One name in the book is Ghassan Dahduli. Both El-Hage and Dahduli lived in Tucson, Arizona in the late 1980s. Dahduli ran an Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP) office from the same Tucson mosque that El-Hage attended. Dahduli moved to Richardson, Texas, with the IAP office in 1990, around the time El-Hage moved to Arlington, Texas. Both towns are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. El-Hage lived in Africa for much of the 1990s, but by 1998 he was back in Texas and he was seen in a Texas restaurant with Dahduli. The IAP, InfoCom, and Holy Land Foundation all have offices next to each other, and all have been accused of being fronts for Hamas. Dahduli worked at both the IAP and InfoCom. [Dallas Morning News, 9/23/2001; Nation, 12/24/2001] Based on the connection between Dahduli and El-Hage and other information, the FBI opens up a criminal investigation into all three organizations in 1999. They determine that Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk invested $150,000 in InfoCom in 1992, and his wife Nadia Marzouk invested $250,000 in 1993. On September 25, 2000, federal agents confront Dahduli in a shopping center parking lot and threaten to deport him, but offer to not do so if he agrees to become an informant on these organizations. Dahduli refuses and publicizes the offer to turn informant, even putting information about it on the Internet. He applies for political asylum in the US. [Nation, 12/24/2001; Dallas Morning News, 12/20/2002] In early 2001, the Dallas Morning News begins publishing stories about InfoCom and its suspected ties to Hamas. Apparently, some combination of the Dahduli-El-Hage link, media pressure, and the investments of Marzouk and his wife prompts the FBI to raid InfoCom on September 5, 2001, one week before 9/11 (see September 5-8, 2001). It will be the only significant action the US government takes against a Muslim charity in the US before 9/11. [Columbia Journalism Review, 1/2002] Shortly after 9/11, Dahduli will be arrested and questioned. He will be deported to Jordan in December 2001. [Nation, 12/24/2001]

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Mousa Abu Marzouk, Nadia Marzouk, Islamic Association for Palestine, InfoCom Corporation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Journalist Simon Reeve will write in the 1999 book The New Jackals that shortly after the African embassy bombings, “With the help of one, possibly two, medium-level moles within [al-Qaeda], Americans arrested and questioned 20 of bin Laden’s closest associates and began inquiries in 28 countries.” Reeve does not say how he knows this, but his book is heavily sourced by interviews with US intelligence officials. The notion that the US had moles within al-Qaeda runs counter to the usual official US position after 9/11 that al-Qaeda was nearly impenetrable. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 204] Top bin Laden associates arrested during this time include:
bullet Mamdouh Mahmud Salim (see September 16, 1998);
bullet Khalid al-Fawwaz, Ibrahim Eidarous, and Adel Abdel Bary (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998);
bullet Ihab Saqr, Essam Marzouk, and Ahmad Salama Mabruk (see Late August 1998);
bullet Ali Mohamed (see September 10, 1998); and
bullet Wadih El-Hage (see September 15, 1998).

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, US intelligence, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Simon Reeve, Ihab Saqr, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, Adel Abdel Bary, Ali Mohamed, Essam Marzouk, Ibrahim Eidarous, Al-Qaeda, Khalid al-Fawwaz

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings.President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings. [Source: White House]President Bush receives a classified presidential daily briefing (PDB) at his Crawford, Texas ranch indicating that Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. The PDB provided to him is entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The entire briefing focuses on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002] The analysts who drafted the briefing will say that they drafted it on the CIA’s initiative (see July 13, 2004), whereas in 2004 Bush will state that he requested a briefing on the topic due to threats relating to a conference in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, where Western intelligence agencies believed Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders (see April 13, 2004). The analysts will later explain that they saw it as an opportunity to convey that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the US was both current and serious. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260] The existence of this briefing is kept secret, until it is leaked in May 2002, causing a storm of controversy (see May 15, 2002). While National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim the memo is only one and a half pages long, other accounts state it is 11 1/2 pages instead of the usual two or three. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] A page and a half of the contents will be released on April 10, 2004; this reportedly is the full content of the briefing. [Washington Post, 4/10/2004] The briefing, as released, states as follows (note that the spelling of certain words are corrected and links have been added):
bullet Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US (see December 1, 1998). Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America” (see May 26, 1998).
bullet After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -REDACTED-service (see December 21, 1998).
bullet An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told -REDACTED- service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
bullet The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden’s first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself (see December 14, 1999), but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaida was planning his own US attack (see Late March-Early April 2001 and May 30, 2001).
bullet Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
bullet Although bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993 (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
bullet Al-Qaeda members—including some who are US citizens—have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks (see January 25, 2001). Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens (see September 15, 1998), and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s (see November 1989 and September 10, 1998).
bullet A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks (see October-November 1998).
bullet “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman and other US-held extremists” (see 1998, December 4, 1998, and May 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223] According to the Washington Post, this information came from a British service. [Washington Post, 5/18/2002]
bullet Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York (see May 30, 2001).
bullet The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related (see August 6, 2001). CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives (see May 16-17, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
In retrospect, the briefing is remarkable for the many warnings that apparently are not included (see for instance, from the summer of 2001 prior to August alone: May 2001, June 2001, June 12, 2001, June 19, 2001, Late Summer 2001, July 2001, July 16, 2001, Late July 2001, Late July 2001, Summer 2001, June 30-July 1, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Early August 2001). According to one account, after the PDB has been given to him, Bush tells the CIA briefer, “You’ve covered your ass now” (see August 6, 2001). Incredibly, the New York Times later reports that after being given the briefing, Bush “[breaks] off from work early and [spends] most of the day fishing.” [New York Times, 5/25/2002] In 2002 and again in 2004, National Security Adviser Rice will incorrectly claim under oath that the briefing only contained historical information from 1998 and before (see May 16, 2002 and April 8, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Islamic Jihad, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles International Airport, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

March 20, 2002: SAAR Network Is Raided

US Customs Agents carry out boxes of evidence from SAAR network businesses on March 20, 2002.US Customs Agents carry out boxes of evidence from SAAR network businesses on March 20, 2002. [Source: Mike Theiler/ Getty Images]Scores of federal agents raid 14 entities in a cluster of more than 100 homes, charities, think tanks, and businesses in Herndon, Virginia, a town just outside of Washington with a large Muslim population. No arrests are made and no organizations are shut down, but over 500 boxes of files and computer files are confiscated, filling seven trucks. This group of interlocking entities is widely known as the SAAR network (it is also sometimes called the Safa Group). SAAR stands for Sulaiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, a Saudi banker and billionaire who largely funded the group beginning in the early 1980s (see July 29, 1983). He is said to be close to the Saudi ruling family and is on the Golden Chain, a list of early al-Qaeda supporters (see 1988-1989). [New York Times, 3/21/2002; Farah, 2004, pp. 152; Wall Street Journal, 6/21/2004] The name and address of Salah al-Rajhi, Suleiman’s brother, was discovered in 1998 in the telephone book of Wadih El-Hage (see September 15, 1998). El-Hage was bin Laden’s personal secretary and was convicted of a role in the 1998 US embassy bombings. [New York Times, 3/25/2002] The raids are said to be primarily led by David Kane, a Customs agent working with a Customs investigation started just after 9/11 code-named Operation Greenquest. Many of the organizations are located at an office building at 555 Grove Street in Herndon. Kane writes in an affidavit for the raid that many organizations based there are “paper organizations” which “dissolve and are replaced by other organizations under the control of the same group of individuals.” [New York Times, 3/21/2002; Wall Street Journal, 6/21/2004] Investigators appear to be primarily interested in the connections between the SAAR network and the Al Taqwa Bank, a Swiss bank closed after 9/11 on suspicions of funding al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups (see November 7, 2001). They are also interested in connections between both SAAR and Al Taqwa and the Muslim Brotherhood (see December 1982). According to author Douglas Farah, “US officials [later say] they had tracked about $20 million from [SAAR] entities flowing through Nada’s Bank al Taqwa, but said the total could be much higher. The ties between Nada and [SAAR] leaders were many and long-standing, as were their ties to other [Muslim] Brotherhood leaders.… For a time, Suleiman Abdel Aziz al-Rajhi, the SAAR Foundation founder, worked for Nada” at Al Taqwa’s Liechtenstein branch. [New York Times, 3/25/2002; Farah, 2004, pp. 154-155] Organizations and individuals targeted by the raid include:
bullet Yaqub Mirza. He is the director of virtually all of the organizations targeted in the raid. The Wall Street Journal claims, “US officials privately say Mr. Mirza and his associates also have connections to al-Qaeda and to other entities officially listed by the US as sponsors of terrorism.” [Wall Street Journal, 4/18/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/6/2002]
bullet The SAAR Foundation or the Safa Trust, an umbrella group for the SAAR network. The SAAR Foundation had recently disbanded and reformed as the Safa Trust. [New York Times, 3/21/2002; Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2002; Washington Post, 10/7/2002]
bullet Hisham Al-Talib, who served as an officer of the SAAR Foundation and Safa Trust, had previously been an officer of firms run by Youssef Nada. Nada is one of the main owners of the Al Taqwa Bank. [Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2002]
bullet Mar-Jac Poultry Inc., an Islamic chicken processor with operations in rural Georgia. [Wall Street Journal, 6/21/2004]
bullet Jamal Barzinji. An officer of Mar-Jac and other organizations targeted in the raid, he had previously been involved with Nada’s companies. [Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2002]
bullet The International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). [New York Times, 3/21/2002]
bullet The Muslim World League. It is considered to be a parent organization for the IIRO. [New York Times, 3/21/2002]
bullet International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIRT). The IIRT had been under investigation since at least 1998. [New York Times, 3/21/2002]
bullet Tarik Hamdi, an employee at IIRT. His home is also raided. He carried a battery for a satellite phone to Afghanistan in early 1998, and the battery was used for Osama bin Laden’s phone (see May 28, 1998). [New York Times, 3/21/2002]
bullet Abdurahman Alamoudi, a top Muslim lobbyist who formerly worked for one of the SAAR organizations. His nearby home is raided. The search yields a memo on large transactions involving Hamas, operations against the Israelis, and the notation “Met Mousa Abu Marzouk in Jordan.” Marzouk is a Hamas leader believed to be involved in fundraising for Hamas in the US for many years (see July 5, 1995-May 1997). Alamoudi is alleged to be a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. [Wall Street Journal, 6/21/2004]
bullet Samir Salah, an Egyptian-born president of the Piedmont Trading Corporation, which is part of the SAAR network. He is also a former director and treasurer of the Al Taqwa Bank’s important Bahamas branch. Additionally, he was a founder of a Bosnian charity reportedly connected to a plot to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia. [New York Times, 3/25/2002]
bullet Ibrahim Hassabella. He is a shareholder of the SAAR Foundation and also a former secretary of the Al Taqwa Bank. [New York Times, 3/25/2002] Investigators will later find that much of SAAR’s money seemed to disappear into offshore bank accounts. For instance, in 1998, SAAR claimed to have moved $9 million to a charity based in the tax haven of the Isle of Man, but investigators will find no evidence the charity existed. One US official involved in the probe will say of SAAR, “Looking at their finances is like looking into a black hole.” [Washington Post, 10/7/2002] In 2003, it will be reported that US investigators are looking into reports that the director of the SAAR foundation for most of the 1990s stayed in the same hotel as three of the 9/11 hijackers the night before the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). Some US investigators had looked into the SAAR network in the mid-1990s, but the FBI blocked the investigation’s progress (see 1995-1998).

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