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Context of '1999: Clinton Officials Ask About Islamic Jihad Leader’s US Visits, FBI Agents Respond: ‘Don’t Worry About It’'

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Fawaz Damra.Fawaz Damra. [Source: Associated Press]By the mid-1980s, Osama bin Laden and his mentor Abdullah Azzam jointly founded a charity front based in Pakistan which is called Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) (which means “services office”) and is also known as Al-Kifah (which means “struggle”) (see 1984). Branches start to open in the US; the first one apparently opens in Tucson, Arizona, where al-Qaeda has a sleeper cell (see 1986). But around 1986, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, the right hand man of double agent Ali Mohamed, informally founds the branch in Brooklyn, New York, and it soon becomes the most important US branch. [New York Times, 10/22/1998; Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 269-270] On December 29, 1987, three men, Mustafa Shalabi, Fawaz Damra, and Ali Shinawy, formally file papers incorporating Al-Kifah, which is called the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. At first, it is located inside the Al Farouq mosque, which is led by Damra. But eventually it will get it own office space next to the mosque. Shalabi, a naturalized citizen from Egypt, runs the office with two assistants: Mahmud Abouhalima, who will later be convicted for a role in bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 (see February 26, 1993), and El Sayyid Nosair, who will assassinate a Jewish leader in New York in 1990 (see November 5, 1990). [New York Times, 4/11/1993; Newsweek, 10/1/2001; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11/4/2001] Jamal al-Fadl, a founding member of al-Qaeda and future FBI informant (see June 1996-April 1997), also works at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in its early days. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 155] The Brooklyn office recruits Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans to go fight in Afghanistan, even after the Soviets withdraw in early 1989. As many as 200 are sent there from the office. Before they go, the office arranges training in the use of rifles, assault weapons, and handguns, and then helps them with visas, plane tickets, and contacts. They are generally sent to the MAK/Al-Kifah office in Peshawar, Pakistan, and then connected to either the radical Afghan faction led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf or the equally radical one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. [New York Times, 4/11/1993] The CIA has some murky connection to Al-Kifah that has yet to be fully explained. Newsweek will later say the Brooklyn office “doubled as a recruiting post for the CIA seeking to steer fresh troops to the mujaheddin” fighting in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Brooklyn office is where “veterans of [the Afghan war arrived] in the United States—many with passports arranged by the CIA.” [Newsweek, 10/1/2001] Robert I. Friedman, writing for New York magazine, will comment that the Brooklyn office was a refuge for ex- and future mujaheddin, “But the highlight for the center’s regulars were the inspirational jihad lecture series, featuring CIA-sponsored speakers.… One week on Atlantic Avenue, it might be a CIA-trained Afghan rebel traveling on a CIA-issued visa; the next, it might be a clean-cut Arabic-speaking Green Beret, who would lecture about the importance of being part of the mujaheddin, or ‘warriors of the Lord.’ The more popular lectures were held upstairs in the roomier Al-Farouq Mosque; such was the case in 1990 when Sheikh [Omar] Abdul-Rahman, traveling on a CIA-supported visa, came to town.” One frequent instructor is double agent Ali Mohamed, who is in the US Special Forces at the time (see 1987-1989). Bin Laden’s mentor Azzam frequently visits and lectures in the area. In 1988, he tells “a rapt crowd of several hundred in Jersey City, ‘Blood and martyrdom are the only way to create a Muslim society.… However, humanity won’t allow us to achieve this objective, because all humanity is the enemy of every Muslim.’” [New York Magazine, 3/17/1995] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, future Al-Qaeda second in command, makes a recruiting trip to the office in 1989 (see Spring 1993). [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] The Brooklyn office also raises a considerable amount of money for MAK/Al-Kifah back in Pakistan. The Independent will later call the office “a place of pivotal importance to Operation Cyclone, the American effort to support the mujaheddin. The Al-Kifah [Refugee Center was] raising funds and, crucially, providing recruits for the struggle, with active American assistance.” [Independent, 11/1/1998] Abdul-Rahman, better known as the “Blind Sheikh,” is closely linked to bin Laden. In 1990, he moves to New York on another CIA-supported visa (see July 1990) and soon dominates the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. Shalabi has a falling out with him over how to spend the money they raise and he is killed in mysterious circumstances in early 1991, completing Abdul-Rahman’s take over. Now, both the Brooklyn and Pakistan ends of the Al-Kifah/MAK network are firmly controlled by bin Laden and his close associates. In 1998, the US government will say that al-Qaeda’s “connection to the United States evolved from the Al-Kifah Refugee Center.” Yet there is no sign that the CIA stops its relationship with the Brooklyn office before it closes down shortly after the 1993 WTC bombing. [New York Times, 10/22/1998]

Entity Tags: Jamal al-Fadl, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Mustafa Shalabi, Maktab al-Khidamat, Osama bin Laden, Fawaz Damra, El Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Central Intelligence Agency, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Al Farouq Mosque, Abdullah Azzam, Ali Shinawy, Ali Mohamed, Al-Kifah Refugee Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Khaled Abu el-Dahab.Khaled Abu el-Dahab. [Source: Egyptian government]In the mid-1980’s, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, an Egyptian medical student, joins the militant group Islamic Jihad, and also meets Ali Mohamed. Mohamed convinces el-Dahab to move to the US and become a sleeper cell agent. El-Dahab does so in 1987, moving to Santa Clara, California, where Mohamed has a residence. El-Dahab marries an American woman, becomes a US citizen, and gets a job at a computer company. In 1987, a female acquaintance of el-Dahab enters his apartment unannounced and finds several men there cleaning rifles. She decides it is something she does not want to know about, and breaks off contact with him. In 1990, Mohamed and el-Dahab travel together to Afghanistan. They are financially supported by a network of US sympathizers, including two Egyptian-American doctors. Beginning in 1990, El-Dahab’s apartment becomes an important communications hub for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad cells all over the world. For much of the 1990’s, the Egyptian government cut direct phone links to countries like Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan in an effort to disrupt communications between radical militants. So Dahab acts as a telephone operator for the Islamic Jihad network, using a three-way calling feature to connect operatives in far-flung countries. He communicates with bin Laden’s base in Sudan (where bin Laden lives until 1996). He receives phone calls from the likes of Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also visits California twice (see Spring 1993; Late 1994 or 1995). He distributes forged documents and makes money transfers. He is trained to make booby-trapped letters, enrolls in a US flight school to learn how to fly gliders and helicopters, and recruits additional US sleeper agents (see Mid-1990s). He helps translate US army manuals and topographical maps into Arabic for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad training. El-Dahab will move to Egypt in 1998 and get arrested in October of that year. He will confess his role in all of this in an Egyptian trial in 1999. The Egyptian government will sentence him to 15 years in prison (see 1999). [New York Times, 10/23/2001; London Times, 11/11/2001; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ali Mohamed helps Ayman al-Zawahiri enter the US for a fundraising tour and acts as his head of security during his stay. At the time, al-Zawahiri is known to have been the head of the militant group Islamic Jihad since the late 1980’s. He is also al-Qaeda’s de facto number two leader, though this is not widely known. This is apparently his second visit to the US; having previously paid a recruiting visit to the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn in 1989 (see 1986-1993). The exact timing of this second visit is disputed, but New Yorker magazine will report that “people at the FBI” assert “al-Zawahiri arrived in America shortly after the first bombing of the World Trade Center” in February 1993. Al-Zawahiri stays at Mohamed’s residence in Santa Clara, California, posing as a representative of a charity organization. It is said that not much money is raised. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] Al-Zawahiri will make another apparently more successful fundraising trip to the US in either late 1994 or sometime in 1995 (see Late 1994 or 1995).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ali Mohamed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A young Ayman al-Zawahiri dressed as a Westerner.A young Ayman al-Zawahiri dressed as a Westerner. [Source: Public domain via BBC]Ali Mohamed helps Ayman al-Zawahiri enter the US for another fundraising tour and acts as his head of security during his stay. At the time, al-Zawahiri is known to have been the head of the militant group Islamic Jihad since the late 1980’s. He is also al-Qaeda’s de facto number two leader, though this is not widely known. This is apparently his third visit to the US after recruiting and fundraising trips in 1989 and 1993 (see Spring 1993) . [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] Al-Zawahiri travels on a passport forged by Mohamed and uses a false name. He pretends to be a doctor for a charity raising money for refugees in Afghanistan, but in fact raises money for his Islamic Jihad group. Some donors know his true purpose, and others do not. According to one security expert, he is also in the US “to see whom he could recruit here, what could be done here—preparing the establishment of a base.” Mohamed and Khaled Abu el-Dahab (see 1987-1998), the two known members of a Santa Clara, California, based al-Qaeda sleeper cell, host al-Zawahiri in Santa Clara and escort him to nearby mosques in Santa Clara, Stockton, and Sacramento. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001] He spends weeks in the US, traveling to other states such as Texas and New York to raise money from mosques there as well. He raises as much as $500,000. El-Dahab is later told some of the money collected is used later in the year to fund bombing of Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing 17 diplomats (see November 19, 1995). [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/2001] Accounts on the timing of the trip are vague, and differ as to whether it took place in late 1994 or some time in 1995. Perhaps coincidentally, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden’s brother-in-law, is arrested in mid-December 1994 in Morgan Hill, California, approximately 30 miles from Santa Clara. The FBI finds and quickly translates literature in Khalifa’s luggage advocating training in assassination, explosives, and weapons, bombing churches, and murdering Catholic priests, but seemingly inexplicably, they deport him a few months later (see December 16, 1994-May 1995). Two directors of President Clinton’s National Security Council’s counterterrorism team later will claim that they did not learn of al-Zawahiri’s trips until 1999, and even then they only learned about it by accident and were unable to get the FBI to reveal any more about the trips (see 1999).

Entity Tags: Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Islamic Jihad, Ali Mohamed, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. [Source: CBS News]Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law to bin Laden, is arrested in the US. He is held for visa fraud, but he is believed to be a major terrorist. His arrest takes place at a Holiday Inn in Morgan Hill, California. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001] That is only about 20 miles from Santa Clara, where double agent Ali Mohamed is running an al-Qaeda cell (see 1987-1998). Counterterrorism expert Steven Emerson will later say of Khalifa and Mohamed, “It seems to me that they were probably in contact. I’m basing that only intuitively on the fact that they were in the same area, they were close to bin Laden, and they would’ve had an incentive to stay together.” [Lance, 2006, pp. 167] According to one account, Khalifa is arrested on behalf of the government of Jordan, because he is on trial there. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001] Another account claims that Philippine authorities “tipped off Federal authorities on Khalifa’s movements.” [Filipino Reporter, 4/27/1995] He is traveling on a Saudi passport. He’d flown into the US from London on December 1 and has papers indicating he would be heading back to the Philippines. [Lance, 2006, pp. 158-159] It has been claimed that the CIA helped him get his US visa (see December 1, 1994). There are many reasons for US authorities to suspect Khalifa is a major terrorist figure:
bullet He is arrested with Mohammed Loay Bayazid, one of the dozen or so original members of al-Qaeda. Bayazid had attempted to purchase nuclear material for bin Laden the year before (see December 16, 1994).
bullet Philippine investigators had recently completed a secret report on terrorist funding. The report focuses on Khalifa, and says his activities in the Philippines strongly link with Muslim extremist movements in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Romania, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Albania, the Netherlands, and Morocco. It calls a charity which Khalifa runs a “pipeline through which funding for the local extremists is being coursed.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the report was released just one day before Khalifa’s arrest in the US (see December 15, 1994).
bullet His possessions, which are quickly examined and translated, include a handwritten manual in Arabic detailing how to set up a terrorist curriculum at a school in the Philippines, giving lessons in bomb-making and assassination. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001]
bullet Khalifa’s business card was discovered in a search of the New York City residence of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman in 1993 (see August 1993).
bullet He is an unindicted coconspirator in the “Landmarks” bombings plot, which would have killed thousands in New York City. The trial is getting underway at this time. Abdul-Rahman will be convicted and sentenced to over 300 years in prison (see June 24, 1993).
bullet A State Department cable from days after his arrest states Khalifa is a “known financier of terrorist operations and an officer of an Islamic NGO in the Philippines that is a known Hamas front.”
bullet An alias is found in his personal organizer that was also used in a bomb-making manual brought into the US by Ahmad Ajaj, Ramzi Yousef’s travel partner, when the two of them came to the US to implement the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see September 1, 1992).
bullet Bojinka plotter Wali Khan Amin Shah’s phone number is found in Khalifa’s possessions. The Bojinka plot, if successful, also would have killed thousands (see January 6, 1995). [Lance, 2006, pp. 158-159]
bullet A number in Pakistan that Ramzi Yousef had used to call the Philippines is found as well. Author Peter Lance will later note that such numbers “should have led the FBI directly to Ramzi Yousef, the world’s most wanted man” at the time. [Lance, 2006, pp. 160]
However, despite this wealth of highly incriminating material, within weeks of his arrest the US will decide to deport him to Jordan (see January 5, 1995). Over the next four months, even more of his links to terrorist activity will be discovered (see Late December 1994-April 1995). But Khalifa will be deported anyway (see April 26-May 3, 1995), and then soon freed in Jordan (see July 19, 1995).

Entity Tags: Ramzi Yousef, Steven Emerson, US Department of State, Wali Khan Amin Shah, Philippines, Ahmad Ajaj, Peter Lance, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Jordan, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Rescue workers removing bodies from the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad.Rescue workers removing bodies from the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. [Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]The Islamic Jihad blows up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two cars filled with explosives crash through the embassy gates, killing the bombers and sixteen others. Ayman al-Zawahiri will later write in a book, “The bomb left the embassy’s ruined building as an eloquent and clear message.” Islamic Jihad is already closely tied to al-Qaeda by this time. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] The Egyptian government had recently dispatched up to 100 government agents to London with the task of eliminating militants opposed to the Egyptian government. The Independent will later report, “Sources in Cairo said that several of the dead embassy officials were working under cover as diplomats to help the Pakistani authorities track down” militants. In the wake of the attack, plans to send more Egyptian government agents to Pakistan to hunt militants in that region are scuttled. [Independent, 12/6/1995] Some of the money for the bombing operation was apparently raised by al-Zawahiri on a fundraising trip to the US (see Late 1994 or 1995). One suspect, a Canadian citizen named Ahmed Said Khadr, will be arrested in Pakistan a short time after the bombings. He will soon be released at the request of the Canadian prime minister, but will later be revealed to be a founding member of al-Qaeda (see January 1996-September 10, 2001).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmed Said Khadr, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Dan Benjamin and Steve Simon, director and senior director of the National Security Council’s counterterrorism team, review some old intelligence files and learn that Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda’s number two leader, had done fundraising in the US a few years earlier (see Spring 1993) (see Late 1994 or 1995). They call FBI agents Michael Rolince and Steve Jennings to a meeting at the White House. Benjamin will recall, “We said to them: ‘This is incredible. Al-Zawahiri was here. He must have been fundraising, he had to have handlers. What can you tell us?’ And [one of them] said, ‘We got it covered. Don’t worry about it.’ And it was a blow-off.” Only later do Benjamin and Simon learn that one of al-Zawahiri’s hosts had been Ali Mohamed, even though Mohamed is already in US custody and his arrest had been front page news by the time the White House meeting took place. The FBI still fails to pursue the connection and rejects an offer of new authority to monitor activity in radical mosques. [New York Times, 10/30/1998; CBS News, 10/2/2002; Washington Post, 10/2/2002; Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 306-307, 465]

Entity Tags: Steve Jennings, Michael Rolince, Steve Simon, Daniel Benjamin, Ali Mohamed, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline


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