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Context of 'October 1996: Phoenix FBI Agent Has First Suspicions of Local Flight Students'

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By 1990, Arizona became one of the main centers in the US for radical Muslims, and it remains so through 9/11. A number of future al-Qaeda leaders live in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1990s (see 1986). Around 1991, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour moved to Arizona for the first time (see October 3, 1991-February 1992) and he will spend much of the rest of the decade in the state. The FBI apparently remains largely oblivious of Hanjour, though one FBI informant claims that by 1998 they “knew everything about the guy.” [New York Times, 6/19/2002; Washington Post, 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521] In 1994, the Phoenix FBI office uncovers startling evidence connecting Arizona to radical Muslim militants. According to FBI agent James Hauswirth, they are told that a group of “heavy duty associates” of al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman have arrived in the area, fleeing New York in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They are in the area to train a recruit as a suicide bomber. The recruit apparently is an FBI informant. FBI agent Ken Williams, who will later author the July 2001 “Phoenix memo,” orders surveilance of the training. The informant is driven to a remote stretch of desert and instructed in how to use explosives. A device is thrown at a car, but it fails to explode. The FBI secretly videotapes the entire incident. One of the two men is later positively linked to Abdul-Rahman. But apparently the investigation into the people involved fails to make progress. Hauswirth later blames this on a lack of support from higher-ups in the Phoenix office, recalling, “The drug war was the big thing back then, and terrorism was way on the back burner.” Additionally, also in 1994, a key FBI informant will begin monitoring local radical militants (see October 1996). However, terrorism will remain a low priority for the Phoenix, Arizona, FBI office (see April 2000-June 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 209-210]

Entity Tags: James Hauswirth, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Hani Hanjour, Ken Williams

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Bomb making materials found in Yousef’s Manila apartment.Bomb making materials found in Yousef’s Manila apartment. [Source: CNN]After a late night raid of the Manila, Philippines, apartment central to the Bojinka plot (see January 6, 1995), investigators find what the Los Angeles Times will call “an intelligence gold mine.” [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002] Very quickly, a team of US intelligence agents joins Philippine investigators to sort through the evidence, which fills three police vans. Investigators are able to match fingerprints in the apartment with fingerprints on record for Ramzi Yousef, already believed to be the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see February 26, 1993). There are priests’ robes, pipe bombs, a dozen passports, chemicals, maps of the Pope’s planned route through Manila, and more. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002] “The most damning information was gleaned from Yousef’s notebook computer, and four accompanying diskettes.” The data is encrypted and in Arabic, but technicians are quickly able to decipher and translate it. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001] Computer data includes “the names of dozens of associates, and photos of some; a record of five-star hotels; and dealings with a trading corporation in London, a meat market owner in Malaysia, and an Islamic center in Tucson, Ariz.… They describe how money moved through an Abu Dhabi banking firm.” [Washington Post, 9/23/2001] Photographs of all five operatives who would place bombs on airplanes are recovered from a deleted computer file. [Los Angeles Times, 5/28/1995] Wali Khan Amin Shah is identified from one of these five photos, plus a list of cell phone numbers found on the hard drive. He is traced to another Manila apartment and arrested on January 11. Under interrogation, Shah, who soon escapes from custody in unexplained circumstances (see January 13, 1995), confesses that most of the funds for the Bojinka plot were channeled to Yousef through a bank account belonging to Ahmad al-Hamwi, a Syrian working at the International Relations and Information Center (IRIC), a charity front run by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001] But despite these leads, Ramzi Yousef is the only other person successfully arrested based on all this data (and Yousef’s arrest will largely be due to an informant responding to an existing tip off program (see February 7, 1995)). The Philippine government will arrest other Bojinka plotters later in the year, including another one of the five operatives assigned to place bombs on the planes, but they will all be released (see April 1, 1995-Early 1996). Al-Hamwi is never arrested, while Khalifa is actually in US custody at the time of the Bojinka raid but is soon let go (see April 26-May 3, 1995). The IRIC will be closed down, but its operations are immediately taken over by another close associate of Khalifa (see 1995 and After).

Entity Tags: Ramzi Yousef, Operation Bojinka, Wali Khan Amin Shah, International Relations and Information Center, Abdul Hakim Murad, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Ahmad al-Hamwi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Harry Ellen.Harry Ellen. [Source: Associated Press]Harry Ellen, a businessman who converted to Islam, has high credibility with Muslims in Arizona because of his work on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He has had important meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1994, he began working as an FBI informant. Ken Williams, the Phoenix FBI agent who will later write the July 2001 “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001), is his handler. In October 1996, Ellen tells Williams that he has suspicions about an Algerian pilot who is training other Middle Eastern men to fly. He later recalls, “My comment to Williams was that it would be pitiful if the bad guys were able to gain this kind of access to airplanes, flight training and crop dusters. I said, ‘You really ought to look at this, it’s an interesting mix of people.’” Ellen had previously begun spying on a man known as Abu Sief, which apparently is his alias. Sief had come to Arizona from New Jersey in 1993, and bragged about having close ties with al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef (when Yousef’s computer is seized in the Philippines in 1995, there is a mention of a contact in Tucson, Arizona, but it is unknown if this is a reference to Sief or someone else (see January 7-11, 1995)). Sief attended a New Jersey mosque that many of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers also attended. Ellen soon sees the unnamed Algerian pilot meeting with Abu Sief. He tells this to Williams and later will claim, “I told him to be very concerned about air schools.” However, Ellen will claim that Williams responds by telling him to “leave it alone.” So he does. Ellen later believes that Williams should have sent the gist of his Phoenix memo at this time, instead of four and a half years later. Hani Hanjour is living in Phoenix by this time and taking flight training nearby (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Ellen later will say he did not know Hanjour directly, but he knew some of his friends and relatives. Ellen and Williams will have a falling out in late 1998 on an unrelated manner, and Ellen’s flow of information will stop. [Washington Post, 5/24/2002; New York Times, 5/24/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 211, 352-355, inset 21]

Entity Tags: Ramzi Yousef, Harry Ellen, Ken Williams, Abu Sief, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

On several occasion between 1996 and 1999, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour attends flight schools in Arizona (see October 1996-December 1997 and 1998). The 9/11 Commission will later note, “It is clear that when Hanjour lived in Arizona in the 1990s, he associated with several individuals who have been the subject of counterterrorism investigations.” Some of the time, he is accompanied by two friends, Bandar Al Hazmi and Rayed Abdullah. Al Hazmi and Abdullah have been friends with each other in high school in Saudi Arabia, but it is not known if either knew Hanjour before moving to the US. Al Hazmi and Hanjour are roommates for a time. Al Hazmi will finish his training and leave the US for the last time in January 2000 (he apparently will be interviewed overseas in 2004). Abdullah becomes a leader of a Phoenix mosque where he reportedly gives extremist speeches. He will continue to train with Hanjour occasionally through the summer of 2001. The FBI apparently will investigate him in May 2001. He will repeatedly be questioned by authorities after 9/11, then move to Qatar. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission will report that the FBI remains suspicious of Al Hazmi and Abdullah, but neither man is charged with any crime. The 9/11 Commission will also imply that another of Hanjour’s Arizona associates is al-Qaeda operative Ghassan al Sharbi. Al Sharbi will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). He apparently is a target of Ken Williams’s “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001). Another associate of Hanjour’s, Hamed al Sulami, is in telephone contact with a radical Saudi imam who is said to be the spiritual advisor to al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. This imam may have a role in recruiting some of the 9/11 hijackers. Abdulaziz Alomari, for instance, was a student of this imam. It seems that al Sulami is also a target of Williams’s memo. [Washington Post, 9/10/2002; US Congress, 9/26/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 233, 520-521, 529]

Entity Tags: Rayed Abdullah, Hani Hanjour, Bandar Al Hazmi, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hamed al Sulamis

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Ken Williams.Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]The FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, investigates a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport. FBI agent Ken Williams initiates an investigation into the possibility of Islamic militants learning to fly aircraft, but he has no easy way to query a central FBI database about similar cases. Because of this and other FBI communication problems, he remains unaware of most US intelligence reports about the potential use of airplanes as weapons, as well as other, specific FBI warnings issued in 1998 and 1999 concerning Islamic militants training at US flight schools (see May 15, 1998; September 1999). Williams will write the “Phoenix memo” in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). He had been alerted about some suspicious flight school students in 1996, but it is not clear if this person was mentioned in that previous alert or not (see October 1996). [US Congress, 7/24/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Ken Williams, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529]
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. [Associated Press, 5/22/2002] Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001]
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” [Insight, 5/27/2002] However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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