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Context of 'Before August 7, 1998: NSA Intercepts Calls to Communications Hub Involved in Embassy Bombings'

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I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of bin Laden’s satellite phone with other agencies (see December 1996). The squad develops a plan to build their own antennas near Afghanistan to capture the satellite signal themselves. As a result, the NSA gives up transcripts from 114 phone calls to prevent the antennas from being built, but refuses to give up any more. Presumably, this must have happened at some point before bin Laden stopped regularly using his satellite phone around August 1998 (see December 1996). [Wright, 2006, pp. 344] Also presumably, some of these transcripts will then be used in the embassy bombings trial that takes place in early 2001 (see February-July 2001), because details from bin Laden’s satellite calls were frequently used as evidence and some prosecutors in that trial were members of I-49. [CNN, 4/16/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, I-49, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden.An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden. [Source: Inmarsat]During this period, Osama bin Laden uses a satellite phone to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The phone—a Compact M satellite phone, about the size of a laptop computer—was purchased by a student in Virginia named Ziyad Khaleel for $7,500 using the credit card of a British man named Saad al-Fagih. After purchasing the phone, Khaleel sent it to Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s unofficial press secretary in London (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998). Al-Fawwaz then shipped it to bin Laden in Afghanistan. [CNN, 4/16/2001] It appears US intelligence actually tracks the purchase as it occurs (see November 1996-Late December 1999), probably because an older model satellite phone bin Laden has is already being monitored (see Early 1990s). Bin Laden’s phone (873682505331) is believed to be used by other top al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Atef. Al-Fawwaz also buys satellite phones for other top al-Qaeda leaders around the same time. Though the calls made on these phones are encrypted, the NSA is able to intercept and decrypt them. As one US official will put it in early 2001, “codes were broken.” [United Press International, 2/13/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The Los Angeles Times will report that the monitoring of these phones “produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts over two years.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] Bin Laden’s satellite phone replaces an older model he used in Sudan that apparently was also monitored by the NSA (see Early 1990s). Billing records for his new phone are eventually released to the media in early 2002. Newsweek will note, “A country-by-country analysis of the bills provided US authorities with a virtual road map to important al-Qaeda cells around the world.” [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] The countries called are:
bullet Britain (238 or 260). Twenty-seven different phone numbers are called in Britain. Accounts differ on the exact number of calls. Khalid al-Fawwaz, who helps publish statements by bin Laden, receives 143 of the calls, including the very first one bin Laden makes with this phone. Apparently most of the remaining calls are made to pay phones near him or to his associates. He also frequently calls Ibrahim Eidarous, who works with al-Fawwaz and lives near him. [CNN, 4/16/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 111]
bullet Yemen (221). Dozens of calls go to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is run by the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see Late August 1998). [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002; Bamford, 2008, pp. 8]
bullet Sudan (131). Bin Laden lived in Sudan until 1996 (see May 18, 1996), and some important al-Qaeda operatives remained there after he left (see February 5, 1998). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Iran (106). Newsweek will later report: “US officials had little explanation for the calls to Iran. A Bush administration official said that US intelligence has believed for years that hard-line anti-American factions inside Iran helped bin Laden’s organization operate an ‘underground railroad’ smuggling Islamic militants to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.” [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Azerbaijan (67). An important al-Qaeda operative appears to be based in Baku, Azerbaijan. [Washington Post, 5/2/2001] This is most likely Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who is very close to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda cell there. He kidnapped by the CIA in Baku in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998).
bullet Kenya (at least 56). In the embassy bombings trial, prosecutors introduce evidence showing 16 calls are made on this phone to some of the embassy bombers in Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), apparently all before a raid in August 1997 (see August 21, 1997). The defense introduces evidence showing at least 40 more calls are made after that time (see Late 1996-August 1998). [CNN, 4/16/2001]
bullet Pakistan (59).
bullet Saudi Arabia (57).
bullet A ship in the Indian Ocean (13).
bullet The US (6).
bullet Italy (6).
bullet Malaysia (4).
bullet Senegal (2). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Egypt (unknown). Newsweek reports that calls are made to Egypt but doesn’t say how many. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002]
bullet Iraq (0). Press reports note that the records indicate zero calls were made to Iraq. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] 1,100 total calls are made on this phone. Adding up the above numbers means that the destination of over 100 calls is still unaccounted for. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The use of this phone stops two months after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. However, it appears bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to use other satellite phones occasionally after this time. Shortly after 9/11, James Bamford, an expert authority on the agency, says “About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him.… He may still use [satellite phones] occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing.” [CNN, 9/21/2001] According to a different account, bin Laden will attempt to use a different phone communication method, but US intelligence will soon discover it and continue monitoring his calls (see Late 1998 and After).

Entity Tags: Ziyad Khaleel, Saad al-Fagih, Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim Eidarous, Khalid al-Fawwaz, Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmad Salama Mabruk

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, discovers that al-Qaeda has established a communications hub and operations center in Sana’a, Yemen, and that there are frequent calls between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see May 1996 and November 1996-Late August 1998). [Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] According to Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer, the CIA learns of this “communications conduit” through a CIA officer detailed to the NSA and stationed overseas. According to Scheuer, the NSA “refuse[s] to exploit the conduit and threaten[s] legal action against the agency officer who advised of its existence.” Despite the threat, the officer continues to supply the information. Scheuer asks senior CIA officials to intervene with the NSA, but this only leads to “a desultory interagency discussion without resolution.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] Author James Bamford will say: “Scheuer knew how important the house [the operations center in Yemen] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA,… Barbara McNamara, and asked for transcripts of the conversations coming into and going out of the house. And the best the NSA would do would be to give them brief summaries every… once a week or something like that, you know, just a report, not the actual transcripts or anything. And so he got very frustrated, he went back there and they still refused.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] Because of the lack of information, the CIA will actually build its own listening post to get some of the information the NSA is concealing from it (see After December 1996).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Alec Station, Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mohamed al-Owhali.Mohamed al-Owhali. [Source: CNN]Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali briefly stayed at the hub about three months before the bombings and made some calls from there. He then traveled to other locations, including Pakistan, and flew to Kenya on August 2. Beginning August 4, he makes a series of calls to al-Hada at the Yemen hub. The details of these calls have not been revealed, but they continue until about two hours before the embassy bombings take place. Al-Owhali is supposed to be martyred in the attack, but he runs away at the last minute and survives. Beginning on August 8, he repeatedly calls al-Hada, asking for help getting out of Kenya. He eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada is actually about to fly to Kenya to help al-Owhali get out when al-Owhali is arrested on August 12. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI allegedly trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan, to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a (however, it is likely that the NSA at least is already monitoring the hub phone number). Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23, 3/27/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998, pp. 1 pdf file] Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 275-8] The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 48]

Entity Tags: Mohamed al-Owhali, Mike Feghali, Ahmed al-Hada, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar makes a series of calls to an al-Qaeda communications hub run by his father-in-law, Ahmed al-Hada. A Yemeni police official will later tell Agence France-Presse that Almihdhar “made a number of overseas calls to Ahmed al-Hada, who was then in Sana’a, before, during, and after” the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Hada is involved in the embassy bombings and the US intelligence community begins joint surveillance of his phone after the bombings (see Late August 1998), although the NSA may already have been monitoring it (see Before August 7, 1998). The calls made by Almihdhar are from overseas and the FBI learns of this, presumably during the investigation into the embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998) [Agence France Presse, 2/15/2002] Around this time Almihdhar is also in contact with al-Hada’s son, Samir, who is his brother-in-law, and the Yemen Times will later report that these contacts are monitored. However, it is not clear whether this is just by local authorities in Yemen, or also by US intelligence. [Yemen Times, 2/18/2002] British Prime Minister Tony Blair will later say that one of the 9/11 hijackers, presumably Almihdhar, played a key role in the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa (see October 4, 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ahmed al-Hada, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Calls are made using Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is involved in the embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). According to MSNBC, two of the calls from bin Laden’s phone are made “days before” the bombings. The NSA is intercepting calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone at this time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and his phone is used to make dozens of calls to the Yemen communications hub from 1996 to 1998, but it is unclear what is done with the intercepts, as the NSA is sometimes unwilling to share information with other US intelligence agencies (see Between 1996 and August 1998, December 1996, Between 1996 and September 11, 2001, and Before September 11, 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 10/10/2001; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002] The communications hub is run by veteran mujaheddin Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of one of the embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Al-Owhali stays at the hub in the months before the bombing and obtains a fake passport in Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998 pdf file] The NSA continues to intercept calls to and from the hub after the embassy bombings (see Late August 1998 and August 4-25, 1998).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers allegedly told US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and some speculate that is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Miller will write, “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Mohamed al-Owhali, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Azzam, Al-Qaeda, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen.Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS NOVA]The investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) led to the discovery of the phone number of an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). The hub is run by an al-Qaeda veteran named Ahmed al-Hada, who is helped by his son Samir and is related to many other al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and elsewhere. He is also the father in law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, whose wife, Hoda al-Hada, lives at the hub with their children. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 277, 309, 343, 378] Several of Ahmed al-Hada’s relatives die fighting for al-Qaeda before 9/11, a fact known to US intelligence. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Guardian, 2/15/2006] The NSA may already be aware of the phone number, as they have been intercepting Osama bin Laden’s communications for some time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and, according to Newsweek, “some” of bin Laden’s 221 calls to Yemen are to this phone number. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; Media Channel, 9/5/2006] The US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to monitor the number. The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] US intelligence also learns that the communications hub is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002] The joint effort enables the FBI to map al-Qaeda’s global organization (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and at least three of the hijackers use the number, enabling the NSA to intercept their communications and find out about an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999 and January 5-8, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until Samir al-Hada dies resisting arrest in early 2002 (see February 13, 2002).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Samir al-Hada, Khalid Almihdhar, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden, Hoda al-Hada, Ahmed al-Hada

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of the phone calls of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). The squad builds their own antenna in Madagascar specifically to intercept KSM’s calls. [Wright, 2006, pp. 344] It has not been revealed when this antenna was built or what was learned from this surveillance. However, there have been media reports that the NSA monitored some phone calls between KSM and Mohamed Atta in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001). Further, US intelligence monitored a call between KSM and Atta a day before 9/11 that was the final go-ahead for the attacks (see September 10, 2001). So presumably the I-49 squad should have known about these calls as well if this antenna did what it was designed to do.

Entity Tags: Mohamed Atta, National Security Agency, I-49, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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