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Context of '(September 2000): Informer Tells FBI Al-Qaeda Is Interested in Air Traffic Control Procedures'

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In late 1993, bin Laden asks Ali Mohamed to scout out possible US, British, French, and Israeli targets in Nairobi, Kenya. Mohamed will later confess that in December 1993, “I took pictures, drew diagrams and wrote a report.” Then he travels to Sudan, where bin Laden and his top advisers review Mohamed’s work. In 1994, Mohamed claims that “bin Laden look[s] at a picture of the American Embassy and point[s] to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber.” A truck will follow bin Laden’s directions and crash into the embassy in 1998. Mohamed seems to spend considerable time in Nairobi working with the cell he set up there and conducting more surveillance. He also is sent to the East African nation of Djibouti to scout targets there, and is asked to scout targets in the West African nation of Senegal. [Los Angeles Times, 10/21/2000; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001; LA Weekly, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 6/16/2004] Much of his work seems to be done together with Anas al-Liby, a top al-Qaeda leader with a mysterious link to Western intelligence agencies similar to Mohamed’s. In 1996, British intelligence will pay al-Liby to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi (see 1996), and then will let him live openly in Britain until 2000 (see Late 1995-May 2000). Al-Liby is said to be a “computer wizard” known for “working closely” with Mohamed. [New York Times, 2/13/2001; New York Times, 4/5/2001] L’Houssaine Kherchtou, an al-Qaeda member who later turns witness for a US trial (see September 2000), was trained in surveillance techniques in Pakistan by Mohamed in 1992. Kherchtou will claim he later comes across Mohamed in 1994 in Nairobi. Mohamed, Anas al-Liby, and a relative of al-Liby’s use Kherchtou’s apartment for surveillance work. Kherchtou sees al-Liby with a camera about 500 meters from the US embassy. [Washington File, 2/22/2001] Mohamed returns to the US near the end of 1994 after an FBI agent phones him in Nairobi and asks to speak to him about an upcoming trial. [Washington File, 2/22/2001]

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, Anas al-Liby, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ali Mohamed, the al-Qaeda double agent living in California, receives a letter from Ihab Ali Nawawi (an apparent al-Qaeda sleeper cell operative living in Orlando, Florida, at the time (see September 1999)). Nawawi tells Mohamed that Wadih El-Hage, a key member of the al-Qaeda cell in Kenya, has been interviewed by the FBI (see August 21, 1997). Mohamed is given a new contact number for El-Hage. Mohamed calls El-Hage and speaks to him about this, then calls other operatives who pass on the warning of the FBI’s interest in El-Hage to bin Laden. US intelligence is monitoring Mohamed’s phone calls at this time, so presumably they are aware of these connections. [New York Times, 10/24/2000; Raleigh News and Observer, 10/21/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001] Yet, despite all of these monitored communications, neither Mohamed, nor Nawawi, nor El-Hage, are apprehended at this time, even though all three are living in the US. Their plot to blow up two US embassies in Africa succeeds in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998).

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Ihab Ali Nawawi, Ali Mohamed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ihab Ali Nawawi.Ihab Ali Nawawi. [Source: FBI]Ihab Ali Nawawi is arrested in Orlando, Florida. He is considered an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. Nawawi’s family moved from Egypt to the US in the late 1970’s and he graduated from an Orlando high school. He fought in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and helped bin Laden move to Sudan in 1991. Nawawi received a commercial pilot’s license from Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1993. He crashed an airplane owned by bin Laden in 1995 on a runway in Khartoum, Sudan (see Early 1993). He lived in Sudan until 1996 when he moved back to Orlando. Nawawi’s role in al-Qaeda is revealed days after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa when Ali Mohamed’s residence in California is raided. A letter from Nawawi is discovered asking Mohamed to give his “best regards to your friend Osama”(see August 24, 1998). Nawawi’s connection to the embassy bombings were possibly discovered months earlier, because there were a series of phone calls in 1997 between an Orlando telephone owned by Nawawi’s sister and an al-Qaeda safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. Many telephone numbers connected to that house were being monitored by US intelligence at the time. Given his obvious al-Qaeda ties, it is not clear why agents waited until May 1999 before arresting Nawawi. He is questioned in front of a grand jury, but prosecutors say he is lying and he refuses to talk anymore. FBI agents will visit the Airman Flight School in September 1999 to enquire about his attendance there (see September 1999). He will remain jailed and in September 2000 is finally charged for contempt and perjury. In October 2001, the St. Petersburg Times will report, “There are signs that Ali’s resolve might now be weakening. Court records indicate that Ali’s lawyers seemed to reach an understanding with the government in March [2001]. Since that time, all documents in the case have been filed under seal.” [St. Petersburg Times, 10/28/2001] In May 2002, three full years after his arrest, the New York Times will report that “Nawawi remains in federal custody even now, although he has not been charged with conspiring in the embassy bombing.” [New York Times, 5/18/2002] As of the end of 2005, there appears to be no further news on what has happened to Nawawi, and no sign of any trial. When Nawawi is arrested, he is working as a taxi driver. At this time Al-Qaeda operative Nabil al-Marabh is working as a taxi driver about 80 miles away in Tampa, Florida, and while the similarity is intriguing, there is no known reported connection between the two men (see February 1999-February 2000). [St. Petersburg Times, 10/28/2001]

Entity Tags: Ihab Ali Nawawi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The FBI extracts a full confession from L’Houssaine Kherchtou, also known as “Joe the Moroccan,” a member of the cell that bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). However, in contrast with methods used on al-Qaeda operatives after 9/11, he is not tortured and the FBI is at pains to treat him well.
Relaxing Surroundings, Respectful Treatment - FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later say of the initial interrogation, which took place in Morocco, “The setting was beautiful, it was this grand house with stables out back, gazelles bouncing in the background, palm trees, three-course meals.” Kherchtou had a relationship with the British intelligence service MI6 (see Mid-Summer 1998 and Shortly After August 7, 1998), but had broken off contact with it and has to be lured to Morocco, where his debriefing is headed by Patrick Fitzgerald. Cloonan will later describe the questioning: “We advised [Kherchtou] of his rights. We told him he could have a lawyer anytime, and that he could pray at any time he wanted. We were letting the Moroccans sit in on this, and they were dumbfounded.… The Moroccans said he’d never talk. He never shut up for 10 days.” Fitzgerald denies Kherchtou a plea bargaining agreement, and says he must plead guilty to conspiracy to murder, for which he may receive a life sentence, though Fitzgerald promises to ask the judge for leniency. However, Cloonan will later say, “His wife needed money for medical treatment in Khartoum, and al-Qaeda had failed to provide it.” It is Cloonan’s “in” with Kherchtou, who is also sure that the US will not torture him. When Kherchtou wavers, Cloonan steps in. As he recalls: “I said, ‘Joe, you understand English, so I’d like you to go out and pray on this with your two Moroccan brothers.’ I thought Fitzy was going to give birth. Joe went out and prayed and came back and said yes.” He provides the FBI with details of the plot and becoming a star witness at the trial (see September 2000). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005; Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Invaluable Information - Kherchtou’s information, provided at a time when the US knows comparatively little about al-Qaeda, is, in Cloonan’s assessment, invaluable. “He told us about a lot of things,” Cloonan later says. “We learned how they recruited people, their front organizations, how they used NGOs [non-governmental organizations], false passports, what they thought about kidnapping, how they developed targets, did their surveillance, a day in the life of Osama bin Laden, what weapons they used, what vehicles they drove, who was the principal liaison with the Sudanese government, that there was a relationship between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, how they did their training exercises, their finances, and their membership.” After the trial, he enters the witness protection program in the US. Four of his onetime associates will receive life sentences as a direct result of his information. [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
FBI Use Kherchtou as Example of Successful Interrogation Tacticss - FBI officials will later compare this outcome favorably to procedures used by other US agencies after 9/11. For example, following the detainee abuse scandals after 9/11, FBI manager Tom Harrington will write that the FBI has “been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques.” Cloonan will later contrast Kherchtou’s treatment with that of al-Qaeda training manager Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in December 2001, when the US sent al-Libi to Egypt to be tortured and interrogated, but some of the information he provided there turned out to be false (see December 19, 2001 and January 2002 and After). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Jack Cloonan, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Thomas J. Harrington, L’Houssaine Kherchtou

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

At the trial of al-Qaeda operatives accused of participating in the 1998 US African embassy bombings, it is disclosed that an unnamed al-Qaeda operative had requested information about air traffic control procedures. This information is provided to the FBI by a co-operating witness, L’Houssaine Kherchtou (see Summer 2000), and is mentioned by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who says that Kherchtou “observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali [Nawawi], about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system, and it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane.” Nawawi is a Florida-based al-Qaeda operative and pilot who is arrested in 1999 (see May 18, 1999). The identity of the Egyptian is not disclosed, although both Kherchtou and Nawawi are associates of former Egyptian army officer Ali Mohamed, who used Kherchtou’s apartment to plot the Nairobi embassy bombing (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and January 1998). [United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 8, 2/21/2001] Mohamed also conducted surveillance of airports in the early 1980s with a view to hijacking an airliner, and subsequently worked as a security adviser to Egyptair, where he had access to the latest anti-hijacking measures. [Lance, 2006, pp. 11-12] Jack Cloonan, one of the FBI agents who debriefed Kherchtou, will later receive the Phoenix Memo (see July 27, 2001 or Shortly After), which states that an inordinate amount of bin Laden-related individuals are learning to fly in the US (see July 10, 2001). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005] However, he will not apparently make the connection between the memo’s premise and the information from Kherchtou.

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Fitzgerald, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jack Cloonan

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

The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism, receives Ken Williams’ Phoenix Memo, but only briefly checks the named radicals and does not respond to Williams. In the memo, Williams noted that there is a suspiciously large number of Islamic extremists learning to fly in Arizona. Some of them will turn out to be connected to 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). Williams sent the memo to FBI headquarters (see July 27, 2001 and after) and the I-49 squad in the New York FBI field office. In New York, the memo is read by FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of the I-49 squad. Cloonan believes that the memo has a “glaring deficiency,” as he thinks bin Laden does not have a support operation in Arizona any more. He forms the opinion that William’s theory and conclusions are “faulty.” However, two of the hijackers were in Arizona in early 2001 (see December 12, 2000-March 2001) and some of the people named in the memo will later be linked to bin Laden (see October 1996-Late April 1999). In August 2001, Cloonan will ask, “Who’s going to conduct the thirty thousand interviews? When the f_ck do we have time for this?” Nonetheless, he checks out the eight names mentioned in the memo. He will apparently find nothing, although several individuals associated with the Phoenix cell are Sunni extremists (see November 1999-August 2001). The memo is also read by an analyst and an auditor in New York while they are researching other matters, and Cloonan will tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) he may have discussed the memo with some of his colleagues. The OIG’s report will say Cloonan told investigators that “he did not contact Williams or anyone else in Phoenix to discuss the [memo].” However, in a 2006 book author Lawrence Wright, citing an interview with Cloonan, will say that Cloonan spoke to Williams’ supervisor in Phoenix about it. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 77-9 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 350, 426] The I-49 squad possibly forwards the memo to the Alec Station bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see (July 27, 2001)).

Entity Tags: I-49, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), Jack Cloonan, Ken Williams

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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