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Context of 'December 14-25, 1999: Private Investigators Discover Al-Qaeda Sleeper Cell in California'

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Khalil Deek.Khalil Deek. [Source: Ali Jarekji / Reuters]In 2007, the New Yorker magazine will note, “American intelligence officials had been investigating [Khalil] Deek and [Abu] Zubaida’s activities since at least the late eighties,” but it will not explain why. Deek is a Palestinian and naturalized US citizen living in California for most of the 1990s who will later reportedly mastermind several al-Qaeda bomb plots. [New Yorker, 1/22/2007] Abu Zubaida, the nom de guerre of Saudi-born Palestinian Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein (also spelled Zein al-Abideen Muhammad Hassan) [Washington Post, 4/22/2009] , joins the Palestinian uprising in 1987, when he is only sixteen years old. He then goes to Afghanistan, presumably joins with bin Laden, and fights there before the war ends in 1989. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 95] Between 1988 and 1996, Deek is apparently involved with the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a US-based charity which the US government will later call a “front group” for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The IAP is closely tied to the Holy Land Foundation, established near Dallas, Texas, in 1989 (see 1989), and it appears the foundation was investigated from very early on. Deek is living in Dallas that year. [Orange County Weekly, 5/31/2001] Palestinian militant activity through organizations like the IAP may explain why these two are investigated at this time, and/or the two may have engaged in other activities. Counterterrorism expert Rita Katz will later claim that the Jordanian government “knew about Deek since the early 1990s. They had a lot of interest in him. They really considered him a major terrorist figure.” [Orange County Weekly, 6/17/2004] Deek and Zubaida will later work together on a number of operations, for instance using the honey trade to ship drugs and weapons (see May 2000), and masterminding a millennium bomb plot in Jordan. [New Yorker, 1/22/2007]

Entity Tags: Khalil Deek, Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, Abu Zubaida, Rita Katz, Islamic Association for Palestine

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Saraah Olson.Saraah Olson. [Source: ABC News]In 1992 and early 1993, the “Blind Sheikh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, visits a mosque in Anaheim, California, and is hosted by an al-Qaeda sleeper cell there. Cell leaders Hisham Diab and Khalil Deek live next door to each other and are avid followers of Abdul-Rahman. Apparently he stays with Deek on one trip and with Diab on another. Saraah Olson, Diab’s wife, sees Abdul-Rahman on television in connection with the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see February 26, 1993) and fears that her husband is a terrorist. She will later claim, “I called the FBI. I said I have information about the blind sheikh. He’s been to my house, and I need to speak to someone.” But she will say they responded, “We don’t know who you’re talking about. Thank you for the information. And they hung up.” [ABC News, 12/23/2004; ABC News, 12/23/2004] From 1990 until 1996, when she divorces Diab, she claims that “some of Osama bin Laden’s top deputies would stay with her and her husband.” She claims she repeatedly tried to warn the FBI about this but was never taken seriously. She also claims that even after Abdul-Rahman was arrested in mid-1993, he would regularly call Diab from prison each Sunday and deliver fiery sermons that were recorded and distributed to some of his other followers. US intelligence had been investigating Deek since at least the late 1980s but never took any action against him (see Late 1980s). [ABC News, 12/23/2004; Los Angeles Times, 10/8/2006] Apparently also in the early 1990s, the FBI is apparently aware that Deek is running militant training camps in California for followers of Abdul-Rahman, but they take no action against him or the camps (see Early 1990s). Diab eventually becomes a US citizen and then will leave the US in June 2001. He is now believed to be hiding in Pakistan with top al-Qaeda leaders. The FBI has been asked about Olson’s allegations but has neither confirmed nor denied them. [ABC News, 12/23/2004]

Entity Tags: Saraah Olson, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Hisham Diab, Khalil Deek, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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

As an al-Qaeda millennium plot is broken up in Jordan (see November 30, 1999), attention is focused on the fact that two of the plotters were long time US residents. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger sends a memo to President Clinton about the two men, Raed Hijazi and Khalil Deek. Hijazi had lived in California and then moved to Boston to drive a taxi there for several years. The 9/11 Commission will say Berger tells Clinton was a naturalized US citizen who had “been in touch with extremists in the United States as well as abroad.” Later in the month, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will warn Berger in an e-mail, “Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks in the US are likely.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 179, 501] Deek is arrested on December 11 (see December 11, 1999), but he will eventually be released without being charged (see May 2001). A few days later, Clarke authorizes a study that looks into Deek’s connections, but no action will be taken when it is discovered Deek’s next-door neighbor is still living in Anaheim, California, and running an al-Qaeda sleeper cell there (see December 14-25, 1999). Similarly, while Hijazi will be arrested overseas some months later (see September 2000), US intelligence seems oblivious to the other al-Qaeda operatives who have been his roommates and fellow taxi drivers in Boston (see June 1995-Early 1999 and October 2000). One of them, Nabil al-Marabh, will apparently go on to have a major role in the 9/11 plot (see for example January 2001-Summer 2001 and Early September 2001). Investigators will also fail to act on knowledge of financial transactions between Hijazi and three of the 9/11 hijackers (see Spring 2001).

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Khalil Deek, Raed Hijazi, Sandy Berger, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Nabil al-Marabh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Khalil Deek.Khalil Deek. [Source: Tawfiq Deek]Khalil Deek is arrested by police in Peshawar, Pakistan, and immediately extradited to Jordan. The Jordanian government requested the arrest after tying Deek to a millennium plot to blow up hotels in Jordan that had been broken up a few days ago (see November 30, 1999). [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] Deek is a naturalized US citizen who has been part of a California al-Qaeda sleeper cell for most of the 1990s. He had been investigated by US authorities since the late 1980s (see Late 1980s, March 1993-1996, and December 14-25, 1999) but was never arrested. Deek’s computer is confiscated when he is arrested, and computer files reveal the targets of the Jordanian plot. [Cooley, 2002, pp. 33] According to contemporary press accounts, Deek, who was running a computer repair shop in Peshawar, Pakistan, had helped encrypt al-Qaeda’s Internet communications and smuggled recruits to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Some reports identify him as a former mujaheddin fighter, a US Army veteran, and a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Articles also claim he worked closely with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida on the Jordanian plot and other things (see May 2000, Late 1980s, and 1998-December 11, 1999). [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] CNN says Deek “is believed to be the mastermind” of the Jordanian plot. [CNN, 12/17/1999] But, unlike the rest of the defendants in the Jordanian case, Deek is transferred from a maximum-security prison to a minimum-security one. He alone is not charged. He will be released in May 2001 (see May 2001). [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] It will later be alleged that Deek was a Jordanian intelligence mole (see Shortly After December 11, 1999).

Entity Tags: Jordan, Al-Qaeda, Abu Zubaida, Khalil Deek, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Rita Katz.Rita Katz. [Source: Publicity photo /]Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, hearing about Ahmed Ressam’s arrest earlier in the day (see December 14, 1999), hires a team of private terrorism analysts to complete a report on militant Islamic cells in North America. The Investigative Project on Terrorism, led by Steven Emerson, finishes the report just prior to the end of the year, hoping to help stop any millennium plots. [New Yorker, 5/29/2006] Investigator Rita Katz discovers that a man named Khalil Deek who has just been arrested in Jordan for a role in a millennium plot is a US citizen (see December 11, 1999). Using only public records, she begins looking into Deek’s activities in the US. She believes that she discovers a sleeper cell consisting of: [Katz, 2003, pp. 161-162]
bullet Khalil Deek. He is an al-Qaeda operative who has lived in Anaheim, California, for most of the 1990s. A former senior CIA official will later claim that Deek’s extremist connections were already “well established in the classified intelligence” by this time, and in fact, it will later be reported that Deek’s connections with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida had been investigated since the late 1980s (see Late 1980s). Katz learns from intelligence reports that Deek has connections to a militant cell based in Montreal, Canada that includes Ressam. She suspects that Deek is coordinating al-Qaeda groups in North America. [LA Weekly, 9/15/2005; New Yorker, 1/22/2007] Deek regularly wires tens of thousands of dollars to overseas destinations. Business records show Deek was still in Anaheim as late as August 1998. The research team discovers Deek may have been visiting the US as late as September 1999. [US Congress, 1/25/2000; Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006]
bullet Hisham Diab. Katz learns that Diab is Deek’s next door neighbor in Anaheim and she suspects the two of them have been operating a sleeper cell there (in fact, Diab’s wife had already repeatedly tried to warn the FBI about her husband, to no avail (see March 1993-1996). [LA Weekly, 9/15/2005]
bullet She discovers that Deek and Diab have formed a charity front called Charity Without Borders (this group received a $75,000 state grant in 1997 to distribute fliers encouraging the recycling of used motor oil). [LA Weekly, 9/15/2005; Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006]
bullet Tawfiq Deek, Khalil Deek’s brother. Katz discovers that Tawfiq has presented himself as the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP) spokesman in California. Katz calls the IAP the “Hamas front in America.” [Katz, 2003, pp. 167] Khalid Ashour, a Palestinian. He had lived in the same apartment building as the Deek brothers and Diab, and also worked with the IAP. But what most interests Katz is that he had been heavily involved in the Islamic Center of Tuscon in the early 1990s. The Islamic Center is important for the IAP but is also believed to be the focal point for al-Qaeda’s first base in the US (see 1994). Katz discovers that he had been arrested in 1991 trying to enter the US with a fake ID and border guards found handbooks of explosives and bombs in his car. In 1999, he had moved nearly half a million dollars out of the US despite holding a job that only paid $600 a week. [Katz, 2003, pp. 167-168]
bullet Although Katz does not discover it at the time, another associate of the Deeks and Diab in Anaheim named Adam Gadahn will later emerge as a prominent al-Qaeda spokesman in Afghanistan (see Spring 2004).
Katz, Emerson, and other members of the Investigative Project on Terrorism will brief members of the National Security Council about what they learned on December 25, 1999, but no action will be taken against the suspects they have uncovered (see December 25, 1999).

Entity Tags: Tawfiq Deek, National Security Council, Richard A. Clarke, Khalil Deek, Khalid Ashour, Adam Gadahn, Hisham Diab, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Steven Emerson, Rita Katz

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

US intelligence learns about a likely al-Qaeda cell in California but fails to act on it. In early December 1999, US intelligence learned that a participant in an attempted al-Qaeda linked millennium plot in Jordan was a US citizen by the name of Khalil Deek. President Clinton was immediately notified because of the implication that al-Qaeda had a presence inside the US (see December 9, 1999). The FBI began interviewing Deek’s neighbors in Anaheim, California, but apparently learned little. However Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke tasked the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a private research team, to look into Deek’s US ties. On this day, the team goes to the White House and gives a report on their findings to Clarke and an assistant of his known only as Peter, and others on the National Security Council (NSC). Rita Katz has been leading the research effort and gives a presentation outlining the sleeper cell they believe they have discovered in Anaheim consisting of Deek, his brother Tawfiq Deek, Khalid Ashour, Hisham Diab, and a charity front known as Charity Without Borders (see December 14-25, 1999). According to a later account by Katz, Clarke, Peter, and the others are impressed at how much the team was able to learn looking only through public records. They express surprise that the FBI was not able to learn as much. The NSC gives the information to the FBI but apparently they do nothing with it. Katz will report in 2003 that Ashour is still living in California even though his request for asylum could have been easily denied. [Katz, 2003, pp. 156-174]

Entity Tags: Khalil Deek, Hisham Diab, Khalid Ashour, Tawfiq Deek, Rita Katz, National Security Council, Steven Emerson, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

NATO troops patrol the village of Bocinja Donja in 2001.NATO troops patrol the village of Bocinja Donja in 2001. [Source: NATO / Paul Hanson]In the wake of the failed al-Qaeda millennium bomb plots, US investigators will discover that a number of suspects in the plots have connections to an obscure village in Bosnia named Bocinja Donja. At the end of the Bosnian war in late 1995, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic kicked out the Serbians living in this small village 60 miles north of the capital of Sarajevo and gave their houses to about 100 former mujaheddin who fought in Bosnia. Most of them married local women, allowing them to stay despite a treaty requiring all foreign fighters to leave Bosnia. In contrast to the rest of Bosnia, the village is governed by strict Islamic law. Suspects who lived in or visited the village include:
bullet Karim Said Atmani. A former roommate of Ahmed Ressam, he is believed to be the document forger for Ressam’s group that attempted to bomb the Los Angeles airport (see December 14, 1999). He was a frequent visitor to Bosnia until late 1999. [Washington Post, 3/11/2000]
bullet Khalil Deek. Suspected of masterminding the Los Angeles airport plot (see December 15-31, 1999) and a Jordanian millennium plot (see December 11, 1999), Deek was investigated by US intelligence since the late 1980s (see Late 1980s) but inexplicably never even watchlisted until 2004 (see Spring 2004). Deek’s brother says Khalil lived in Bosnia for a while, working for a “Muslim relief organization.” [Washington Post, 3/11/2000; Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] He worked for the IARA, which reportedly funneled weapons and recruits into Bosnia (see Early 1990s).
bullet Hisham Diab. While he has not been explicitly connected to this village, he fought in Bosnia and was Deek’s next door neighbor and close al-Qaeda associate all through the 1990s (see March 1993-1996 and December 14-25, 1999), so presumably they spent time in Bosnia together. [New Yorker, 1/22/2007]
bullet Hamid Aich. He lived in Canada and is connected to Ressam’s group (see December 21, 1999). He also will openly live in Ireland and apparently fund a wide variety of militant groups and plots there before escaping to Afghanistan just before 9/11 (see June 3, 2001-July 24, 2001).
Other mujaheddin connected to this village are wanted by authorities in other countries for other alleged crimes. A senior US official will say, “We have been concerned about this community for years. We flushed out a lot of them [after the end of the war].… [But] we find the whole group of them a threat, and we want them out of there.” [Washington Post, 3/11/2000] Others tied to the millennium plots have ties to Bosnian war generally because Ressam belonged to a group of armed robbers called the “Roubaix gang” that trained in Islamic camps in Bosnia. [Los Angeles Times, 1/13/2000] Izetbegovic will step down as leader of Muslim Bosnia in October 2000. [New York Times, 10/20/2003] In late 2000 and early 2001, the mujaheddin will gradually be moved out of the village and replaced by the original Serbian inhabitants.

Entity Tags: Roubaix gang, Karim Said Atmani, Khalil Deek, Hamid Aich, Alija Izetbegovic, Hisham Diab

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Khalil Deek, member of an al-Qaeda cell in Anaheim, California, is mysteriously released in Jordan and allowed to go free. Deek had been arrested on suspicions that he masterminded a series of planned millennium attacks in Jordan (see December 11, 1999). Investigators believe he may have masterminded an attempted bombing of the Los Angeles airport as well (see December 15-31, 1999), and in fact US intelligence had been interested in him since the late 1980s (see Late 1980s, December 14-25, 1999, and May 2000). But despite is the seemingly strong evidence against him, he is released this month after mounting a hunger strike. Relatives tell a US newspaper that US government officials pressured Jordan to let him go. [Orange County Register, 9/12/2005] Despite the fact that US officials had previously labeled him a terrorist mastermind, they do not protest his release. [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] The Jordanian government claims they lacked evidence Deek was aware of terrorist activities. [Orange County Weekly, 6/17/2004] The Los Angeles Times reports that he had cooperated with US investigators in deciphering al-Qaeda computer documents. [Los Angeles Times, 3/29/2000] He is deported to the United Arab Emirates. He is rearrested there and held for several days, and then let go again. [Orange County Weekly, 5/31/2001] A few days later, Deek emerges at the US embassy in Pakistan with his wife and family. He approaches the embassy gates, asking staffers there help to bring his family back to the US. However, he is only able to speak to someone through an intercom and is not allowed in the building. He is told to come back in two weeks. A newspaper will later comment, “Given that the US government already considered him a dangerous man, it’s not surprising that embassy officials weren’t eager to provide him with travel visas. But it is weird that they didn’t let him inside the building and simply arrest him.” [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] It will later be alleged that Deek was actually a mole for the Jordanian government (see Shortly After December 11, 1999).

Entity Tags: US intelligence, Jordan, Khalil Deek

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Al-Qaeda has released a series of video messages featuring Adam Gadahn. This one is from September 2, 2006.Al-Qaeda has released a series of video messages featuring Adam Gadahn. This one is from September 2, 2006. [Source: Public domain / Wikipedia]The Washington Post will report in May 2004, “US officials have continued investigating [Khalil] Deek’s whereabouts, a fact that is made clear since [his name has recently] appeared on US terrorist lookout lists.” Deek is a naturalized US citizen whom authorities believe was a member of an al-Qaeda cell in Anaheim, California for most of the 1990s. He was arrested in Jordan for masterminding an al-Qaeda millennium bomb plot there (see December 11, 1999). Then he was let go, apparently with US approval (see May 2001). US intelligence has a record dating back to the late 1980s of investigating Deek for a variety of criminal activities but taking no action against him (see Late 1980s, March 1993-1996, December 14-25, 1999, November 30, 1999, May 2000, December 15-31, 1999). It is not known why Deek is finally watchlisted at this time, though it is likely connected to wide publicity about Adam Gadahn. Gadahn, a Caucasian American also known as “Azzam the American,” was a member of Deek’s Anaheim cell in the mid-1990s. He moved to Afghanistan where he has since become well-known as a top al-Qaeda media spokesman. [New Yorker, 1/22/2007] Counterterrorism expert Rita Katz, who investigated Deek for the US government in the late 1990s, says it’s “a mystery” law enforcement officials have not arrested or even charged Deek as a terrorist. [Orange County Weekly, 6/17/2004] A US newspaper reporter who closely followed Deek’s career will comment that Deek seemingly “couldn’t get arrested to save his life.” [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006] Deek has not been hard from since. There will be unconfirmed reports that he was killed somewhere in Pakistan in early 2005, but his body has not been found. [Orange County Weekly, 6/15/2006]

Entity Tags: Adam Gadahn, United States, Khalil Deek

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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