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Context of '1994: FBI Watches Suicide Bomber Train in Arizona, Fails to Take Action'

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Islamic Center of Tucson.Islamic Center of Tucson. [Source: Jacob Rader]In 1986, Maktab al-Khidamat (a.k.a. Al-Kifah), the precursor organization to al-Qaeda, opens its first branch in the US at the Islamic Center of Tucson, in Tucson, Arizona. Counterterrorism expert Rita Katz will later call the Islamic Center, “basically, the first cell of al-Qaeda in the United States; that is where it all started.” The organization’s journal, Al Jihad (Holy War), is initially distributed in the US from there. Other branches around the US soon follow (see 1985-1989). [New York Times, 6/19/2002]
bullet A number of important future al-Qaeda figures are connected to the Tucson branch in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, including:
bullet Mohammed Loay Bayazid, one of the founders of al-Qaeda two years later.
bullet Wael Hamza Julaidan, another founder of al-Qaeda, and a Saudi multimillionaire. He was president of the Islamic Center starting in 1983 and leaves the US around 1986.
bullet Wadih El-Hage, bin Laden’s future personal secretary, who will later be convicted for a role in the 1998 US embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). El-Hage is connected to the murder of a liberal imam at the rival mosque to the Islamic Center in 1990 (see January 1990).
bullet Mubarak al Duri, al-Qaeda’s chief agent attempting to purchase weapons of mass destruction. [Washington Post, 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
Throughout the 1980s, the mosque provides money, support, and fighters to the mujaheddin fighting in Afghanistan. Around 1991, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour will move 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. He will briefly live in Tucson, but his ties to earlier al-Qaeda connections there remain elusive. [Washington Post, 9/10/2002]

Entity Tags: Rita Katz, Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, Maktab al-Khidamat, Mubarak al Duri, Al-Qaeda, Hani Hanjour, Wael Hamza Julaidan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A young Hani Hanjour.
A young Hani Hanjour. [Source: FBI]Future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour first arrives in the US on October 3, 1991. [US Congress, 9/26/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520] Some media accounts have him entering the country in 1990. He apparently is the first hijacker to enter the US. [Time, 9/24/2001; Cox News Service, 10/15/2001; New York Times, 6/19/2002] He takes an English course in Tucson, Arizona until early 1992. There are some important al-Qaeda operatives currently living in Tucson. However, it is not known if Hanjour has contact with them at this time, or even when he first develops his radical militant beliefs. According to Hanjour’s eldest brother Abulrahman, Hani stays in Arizona for three months then returns to Saudi Arabia, where he spends the next five years managing his family’s lemon and date farm. [Washington Post, 10/15/2001] FBI Director Robert Mueller also reports his stay as lasting three months. [US Congress, 9/26/2002] However, the FBI tells one person that Hanjour may have stayed in the US for as long as 15 months. [Washington Post, 9/10/2002]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Hani Hanjour, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 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

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

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

In April 2000, FBI agent Ken Williams begins investigating an Arizona flight student named Zacaria Soubra with suspicious radical militant ties. Soubra will be the main focus of Williams’s July 2001 memo about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). But Williams’ investigation into Soubra is greatly slowed because of internal politics and personal disputes. When he returns to this case in December 2000, he and all the other agents on the international terrorism squad are diverted to work on a high-profile arson case. James Hauswirth, another Arizona FBI agent, will later say, “[Williams] fought it. Why take your best terrorism investigator and put him on an arson case? He didn’t have a choice.” The arson case is solved in June 2001 and Williams returns to the issue of Islamic militant flight school students. His memo comes out much later than it otherwise might have. Hauswirth will write a letter to FBI Director Mueller in late 2001, complaining, “[Terrorism] has always been the lowest priority in the division; it still is the lowest priority in the division.” Others insiders later concur that the Arizona FBI placed a low priority on terrorism cases before 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ken Williams, James Hauswirth, Zacaria Soubra

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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