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Context of 'December 18, 2001: FBI Officials Testify to Congress about State of Al-Qaeda'

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A group of six young men are arrested in Yemen, where they are alleged to have been planning a series of bombings. Five of the men are British. They include Mohsin Ghalain, the stepson of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a leading radical cleric in Britain and informer for the British security services (see Early 1997), and Shahid Butt, Abu Hamza’s “six-foot four-inch enforcer.” The men are members of the militant Supporters of Sharia organization run by Abu Hamza and are in Yemen to work with the Islamic Army of Aden, a local radical organization and al-Qaeda affiliate.
Arrest Merely a Coincidence - The Yemeni government will say that they are arrested purely by coincidence, after the police notice a group of them committing a minor traffic violation. When their vehicle is found and searched following a chase, a cache of weapons and explosives is found in it.
Skepticism about Yemeni Claim - However, author Mary Quin will later comment: “Several aspects of the story about how the Britons were apprehended did not ring true. Having spent a week on Yemeni roads myself, it seemed highly unlikely that a police officer would bother to pull over a vehicle at midnight for something as mundane as going the wrong way around a traffic island.… The fact that the car happened to be stashed with weapons and explosives seemed too much of a coincidence. I was also suspicious of the reported speed with which the police located the two hotels where the defendants were staying.”
Informant Tip? - Instead, Quin will speculate that the Yemeni authorities were tipped off by an informer, Hetam bin Farid, who will later go on to command the Islamic Army of Aden (see (December 30, 1998-October 31, 1999)). Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will also say that the timing of the arrests “suggest[s] that Yemeni intelligence services had prior warning of the bomb plot.” [Quin, 2005, pp. 103-4, 116; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 156-157, 176, 178-179]

Entity Tags: Supporters of Sharia, Islamic Army of Aden, Hetam bin Farid, Mohsin Ghalain, Shahid Butt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Victims’ family members Lorie Van Auken (right) and Kristen Breitweiser (left) are shocked to learn Tom Wilshire blocked a cable to the FBI about Khalid Almihdhar’s visa. Victims’ family members Lorie Van Auken (right) and Kristen Breitweiser (left) are shocked to learn Tom Wilshire blocked a cable to the FBI about Khalid Almihdhar’s visa. [Source: Banded Artists]Doug Miller, an FBI agent assigned to Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, reads CIA cables reporting that 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar has a US visa and drafts a cable to the FBI to inform it of this. The CIA obtained the information through a tap on Almihdhar’s phone in Yemen (see December 29, 1999) and by monitoring him as he passed through Dubai (see January 2-5, 2000) on his way to an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000).
Draft Cable - Miller writes that Almihdhar has a US visa (see April 3-7, 1999) and that the visa application states his destination is New York and he intends to stay for three months. The draft cable mentions the tap on Almihdhar’s phone, his planned travel to Malaysia, and the links between his phone and the 1998 East African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998 and October 4, 2001). It also says that the CIA has obtained photographs of Almihdhar and these will be sent separately. Miller asks the FBI for feedback resulting from an FBI investigation.
Blocked - Another CIA officer named Michael Anne Casey accesses Miller’s draft about an hour after he writes it. The cable is then blocked on the orders of the station’s deputy chief, Tom Wilshire, as a few hours after Miller drafts the cable Casey attaches a message to it saying, “pls hold off on [cable] for now per [Tom Wilshire].” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 240 pdf file] Miller is also told, “This is not a matter for the FBI.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 311]
'No Reason to Kill the Message' - Author James Bamford will later comment: “A potential terrorist and member of al-Qaeda was heading for the US, the FBI’s jurisdiction—its turf—and he [Miller] was putting the FBI on notice so it could take action. There was no reason to kill the message.” [Bamford, 2008, pp. 19] Miller will later say he has no “rational answer” as to why the cable was blocked, but will speculate that Alec Station officers were annoyed he had encroached on their territory. [Congressional Quarterly, 10/1/2008] Casey drafts a cable falsely saying that the information about Almihdhar’s visa has been shared with the FBI (see Around 7:00 p.m. January 5, 2000) and there will be a discussion the next day about whether the cable should be sent (see January 6, 2000). The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later call the failure to pass the information to the FBI a “significant failure” but will be unable to determine why the information was not passed on. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 250 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission will know of the incident, but will relegate it to an endnote in its final report, omitting Wilshire’s role entirely. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502] The CIA inspector general will falsely claim that the cable is not sent, “[a]pparently because it was in the wrong format or needed editing.” [Central Intelligence Agency, 6/2005, pp. xv pdf file]

Entity Tags: Michael Anne Casey, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Almihdhar, Doug Miller, 9/11 Commission, Alec Station, Tom Wilshire, Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Inspector General (CIA)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After FBI agents Margaret Gillespie and Dina Corsi learn that 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi may be in the US (see August 21-22, 2001), they call a meeting with Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer interested in the investigation who is on loan to the FBI. Although all three will later be unable to recall the specifics of the conversation, they agree that it is important to initiate an investigation to locate Almihdhar. However, Wilshire has been aware that Almihdhar has a US visa since January 2000, when he frustrated the passage of such information to the FBI (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). He is also already aware that Alhazmi entered the US in January 2000 (see May 15, 2001) but again does not share this with the FBI. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 301-2 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Tom Wilshire, Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Dina Corsi, Margaret Gillespie, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Tom Wilshire, a CIA manager detailed to the FBI (see May 2001), writes to Dave Frasca, head of the FBI’s radical fundamentalist unit, to obtain information about the progress of the case of Zacarias Moussaoui. Moussaoui was arrested by the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, which Wilshire refers to as the “Minneapolis Airplane IV crowd.” Presumably, this is a reference to the films Airplane and Airplane II, which were parodies of disaster and sci-fi movies. He asks whether leads have been sent out to obtain additional biographical information and whether the FBI has photographs it can provide the CIA. He receives a reply from one of Frasca’s subordinates telling him there are no indications Moussaoui has plans for nefarious activity (see August 24, 2001). [BBC, 3/13/2001; BBC, 3/13/2001; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 151 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, David Frasca, Zacarias Moussaoui, Central Intelligence Agency, Tom Wilshire

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Khaled al-Harbi (right) talking to Osama bin Laden or one of his doubles.Khaled al-Harbi (right) talking to Osama bin Laden or one of his doubles. [Source: US Department of Defense]A conversation between Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda spokesman Suliman abu Ghaith, and Khaled al-Harbi, a veteran of al-Qaeda’s jihad in Bosnia, is videotaped. A portion of the taped conversation is later said to be found by the US and will be used as evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11. [Unknown, 2001; Guardian, 12/13/2001; Kohlmann, 2004, pp. 28-9] According to a translation released by the Pentagon, the man said to be bin Laden says: “[W]e calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all… (inaudible)… due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is what we had hoped for.” He continues: “We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day. We had finished our work that day and had the radio on. It was 5:30 p.m. our time.… Immediately, we heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We turned the radio station to the news from Washington.… At the end of the newscast, they reported that a plane just hit the World Trade Center.… After a little while, they announced that another plane had hit the World Trade Center. The brothers who heard the news were overjoyed by it.” [US Department of Defense, 12/13/2001 pdf file] The release of the tape, which is said to be found by US intelligence officers in Jalalabad, will be a major news story, and the tape will be taken by the media as proof of bin Laden’s responsibility for 9/11. President Bush will comment, “For those who see this tape, they’ll realize that not only is he guilty of incredible murder, he has no conscience and no soul, that he represents the worst of civilization.” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw will add, “By boasting about his involvement in the evil attacks, bin Laden confirms his guilt.” [BBC, 12/14/2001; Fox News, 12/14/2001; CNN, 12/16/2001] However, the tape will later be disputed from three points of view:
bullet The accuracy of the translation will be questioned (see December 20, 2001). For example, the man thought to be bin Laden does not say “we calculated in advance the number of casualties,” but “we calculated the number of casualties”;
bullet An analyst will conclude that the tape was actually made earlier as a part of a US-run sting operation (see (September 26, 2001));
bullet Some commentators will question whether the person in the video is actually bin Laden (see December 13, 2001).
In mid-2002, Al Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda will allegedly interview al-Qaeda figures Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see April, June, or August 2002). In a 2003 book he will co-write, Fouda will claim that he asked an unnamed al-Qaeda operative who was setting up the interview if the bin Laden video was fake. This person will supposedly reply: “No. The tape, the brothers said—I am not sure whether they left it behind or not—but the Sheikh [bin Laden], yes, was talking to someone from Mecca.” [Fouda and Fielding, 2003, pp. 135]

Entity Tags: Jack Straw, George W. Bush, Khaled al-Harbi, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bush administration (43), Suliman abu Ghaith, Yosri Fouda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism holds a hearing on the global reach of al-Qaeda and hears testimony from several intelligence community officers. One of them is Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to the FBI who was involved in several pre-9/11 failures (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, August 22, 2001, and August 24, 2001). Wilshire is described as the deputy chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section. In his opening remarks, Wilshire describes the “worldwide jihad movement,” which is “considered to be legitimate by many of our allies in terms of defense of Islam,” as a “multibillion effort” active in, for example, Chechnya, Bosnia, and the Philippines. Although some of the “tributaries” to the movement are “somehow legitimate,” al-Qaeda is “one of the most significant off-shoots,” and views the US as “the stabilising mechanism that allows the regimes that [Osama] bin Laden views to be corrupt [such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia] and to stay in power.” Wilshire also says that one of bin Laden’s goals was to provoke a “land war in Afghanistan,” although he perhaps did not anticipate it taking its current form. He discusses how al-Qaeda has changed over the years, the bayat oath of loyalty to bin Laden, and numbers of operatives: he puts the organization’s “elite” in the hundreds, but says it also has “small thousands” fighting in places like Afghanistan and Chechnya, as well as “thousands” more around the world, although perhaps “their skill level is not as high.” He also discusses a recently released videotape in which a man thought to be bin Laden said the “muscle” hijackers did not know they were on a suicide mission until the last minute (see Mid-November 2001), and calls bin Laden “very charismatic.” Wilshire adds that radical Islamists have looked at the possibility of setting up training camps in the US, but that it is easier for them to have introductory training in Europe, which was the case of a group of British citizens arrested in Yemen (see December 23, 1998). Finally, he says that al-Qaeda is linked to Abu Sayyaf, which is not just a local Filipino group and falls under “outside influence.” [US Congress. Senate. Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, 12/18/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Terrorism Operations Section, Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, Tom Wilshire

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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