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Context of 'Before Summer 1995: CIA Begins Tracking Islamist Militants in Europe'

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Friday prayers outside the Islamic Cultural Institute, on October 19, 2001. Friday prayers outside the Islamic Cultural Institute, on October 19, 2001. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]The Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, has numerous ties to terrorist activities during this period and after 9/11, and the Treasury Department will call the mosque “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe.” It is initially headed by Anwar Shaaban (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995 and December 14, 1995), an opponent of the current Egyptian regime and a supporter of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya militant group, which is run by the ‘Blind Sheikh,’ Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman (see Late 1993-1994).
bullet It recruits fighters for militant Islamic causes and sends them to Afghanistan for training. One of the recruits, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who will testify for the prosecution at the trial of men accused of bombing US embassies in Africa in 1998, will say that he knew Shaaban well, adding: “He was my guide. I went there every weekend to be with him.” After studying with Shaaban for some time, Shaaban arranges for Kherchtou and a group of other men to receive military training in Afghanistan. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001]
bullet There is heavy telephone traffic between the Institute and the New York mosque run by Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, and Italian police say it is a logistical base for the WTC bombing (see Late 1993-1994).
bullet The Algerian militant group Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains influence in the mosque after Shaaban dies in the Bosnian Civil War (see After 1995).
bullet It creates a “cottage industry in supplying false passports and other bogus documents” according to European intelligence officials, and serves as a gateway to Europe for operatives from Afghanistan. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002]

Entity Tags: L’Houssaine Kherchtou, Islamic Cultural Institute, Al-Qaeda, Anwar Shaaban, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In late 1993, the FBI discovers that WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef used a mosque in Milan, Italy, known as the Islamic Cultural Institute, as a logistical base (see Late 1993-1994). The Italian government begins investigating the mosque and soon discovers that it is the main European headquarters for Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a radical Egyptian militant group, and is also the logistical base for mujaheddin traveling to fight in Bosnia. The mosque is run by Anwar Shaaban, who has a close working relationship with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, and who also stays in regular contact with al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. Shaaban runs a training camp thirty miles outside of Milan where fighters heading to Bosnia can practice using weapons and explosives. The mosque also helps smuggle men, money, and weapons to Bosnia. [Schindler, 2007, pp. 163-164] On June 25, 1995, Italian police raid the mosque and over 70 other locations in northern Italy. Seventeen people are indicted and eleven of them are arrested, but that is only a fraction of the hundreds investigated. Inside the mosque, police find forgery tools, letters to wanted radicals around the world, and hundreds of false documents. Plots to bomb targets in other countries and a US target elsewhere in Italy are averted. Shaaban escapes arrest, as he had already left the country, but he is killed in Croatia a short time later (see December 14, 1995). [United Press International, 6/26/1995; Vidino, 2006, pp. 216-218] But the Islamic Cultural Institute will soon reopen and continue to be a focal point for radical militants in Europe. It will be linked the 9/11 attacks and other violent plots (see Late 1998-September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Anwar Shaaban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Islamist radicals based at the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, obtain the CIA’s Redbook, two Arabic copies of which will be found at the institute in a 1995 raid. Several seals, rubber stamps, blank and counterfeit documents, and other tools used to forge documents are also found in the raid. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 63 pdf file] The Redbook is a manual produced by the CIA for immigration officials; it helps the officials identify terrorists using telltale signs in their passports (see 1992). The institute is a key support center for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and al-Qaeda-linked radicals fighting in Bosnia (see 1993 and After and Late 1993-1994). It is unclear how the Redbook comes to be at the institute.

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Islamic Cultural Institute

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA begins a program to track Islamist militants in Europe. The program is operated by local stations in Europe and CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who will go on to found the agency’s bin Laden unit in early 1996 (see February 1996). The program is primarily focused on militants who oppose the Egyptian government. It traces the support network that supplies money and recruits to them and that organizes their propaganda. US Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker will later say that the operation involves intercepting telephone calls and opening mail. Suspects are identified in Egypt and in European cities such as Milan (see 1993 and After), Oslo, and London (see (Late 1995)). [Grey, 2007, pp. 125] The intelligence gathered as a part of this operation will be used for the CIA’s nascent rendition program (see Summer 1995).

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Edward Walker, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA proposes a policy of abducting Islamic Jihad militants and sending them to Egypt which will soon be approved by President Bill Clinton (see June 21, 1995). The Clinton administration began a policy of allowing abductions, known as “renditions,” in 1993 (see 1993). At first, renditions were rarely used because few countries wanted the suspects. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is one of the architects of a 1995 agreement with Egypt to send rendered militants there. He will later recall: “It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them,” due to legal and diplomatic complications. The CIA realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice because the Islamic Jihad is the prime political enemy of the Egyptian government, and many Islamic Jihad militants also work for al-Qaeda, an enemy of the US.
Turning a Blind Eye - However, the Egyptian secret police force, the Mukhabarat, is notorious for its torture of prisoners. As part of the program, the US helps track, capture, and transport suspects to Egypt (see Before Summer 1995) and then turns a blind eye while the Egyptians torture them. Scheuer claims the US could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning and get answers by the evening. Because torture is illegal in the US, US officials are never present when the torture is done. Further, the CIA only abducts suspects who have already been convicted in absentia. Talaat Fouad Qassem is the first known person the CIA renders to Egypt (see September 13, 1995). But the number of renditions greatly increases in 1998, when the CIA gets a list of Islamic Jihad operatives around the world (see Late August 1998). These renditions result in a big trial in Egypt in 1999 that effectively destroys Islamic Jihad as a major force in that country (see 1999). [New Yorker, 2/8/2005]
CIA, NSC, Justice Department Lawyers Consulted - Scheuer will say that lawyers inside and outside the CIA are intensively consulted about the program: “There is a large legal department within the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is a section of the Department of Justice that is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work, and there is a team of lawyers at the National Security Council, and on all of these things those lawyers are involved in one way or another and have signed off on the procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamed up is just absurd.” [Grey, 2007, pp. 140-141]
Leadership of Program - The rendition program does not focus solely on al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and other suspected terrorists are also abducted. Scheuer will later tell Congress, “I authored it and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August 1995, until June 1999.” [US Congress, 4/17/2007 pdf file] A dedicated Renditions Branch will be established at CIA headquarters in 1997 (see 1997), but the relationship between Scheuer and its manager is not known—it is unclear whether this manager is a subordinate, superior, or equal of Scheuer, or whether Scheuer takes on this responsibility as well. After Scheuer is fired as unit chief in May 1999 (see June 1999), his role in the rendition program will presumably be passed on to his successor, Richard Blee, who will go on to be involved in rendition after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In a piece apparently about Blee, journalist Ken Silverstein will say that he “oversaw… the [Counterterrorist Center] branch that directed renditions.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Mukhabarat (Egypt), Richard Blee, Islamic Jihad, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Egypt, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

President Bill Clinton signs Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39) approving a rendition program recently proposed by the CIA (see Summer 1995). This program is the development of an earlier idea also approved by Clinton (see 1993) and comes two months after the bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). The rendition program as approved by Clinton explicitly covers renditions of fugitives to the US to face trial: “When terrorists wanted for violation of US law are at large overseas, their return for prosecution shall be a matter of the highest priority and shall be a continuing central issue in bilateral relations with any state that harbors or assists them.” The directive does not require the foreign government’s consent: “Return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government.”
Third Countries - The 9/11 Commission will later point out that this directive also expressly approves transferring suspects to other countries: “If extradition procedures were unavailable or put aside, the United States could seek the local country’s assistance in a rendition, secretly putting the fugitive in a plane back to America or some third country for trial.”
Implications - In 2007, journalist Stephen Grey will comment on the policy’s implications: “In essence, the US government chose to outsource its handling of terrorists because neither Clinton nor his Republican opponents were prepared to establish a proper legal framework for the US to capture, interrogate, and imprison terrorists itself; nor to take the more direct military or diplomatic action required to eliminate the leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; nor to confront countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan whose policies helped encourage the growth of terrorism; nor to strengthen adequately the CIA’s own key capabilities.” [Grey, 2007, pp. 121, 123]

Entity Tags: Stephen Grey, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Mustafa Hamza.Mustafa Hamza. [Source: Public domain]Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend the Organization of African Unity summit. Less than an hour after his arrival, Islamist militants attack his motorcade. Gunmen shoot at his limousine, but the grenade launcher they have malfunctions. Ethiopian soldiers kill five of the assassins and capture three more, while two of Mubarak’s bodyguards are killed. A second ambush is planned further down the road, but the motorcade turns around, probably saving Mubarak’s life. Investigators determine that the Egyptian-based militant groups Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad worked with al-Qaeda on the plot. The leader of the plot was Mustafa Hamza, a leader in both al-Qaeda and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Ayman al-Zawahiri was also involved, and personally inspected the planned killing ground. The Sudanese intelligence agency also assisted. For instance, the weapons were smuggled into the country through the Sudanese embassy. Ethiopia and Egypt charge the government of Sudan with complicity in the attack. Bin Laden is living openly in Sudan at the time. Egyptian officials privately tell US intelligence they believe Osama bin Laden funded the attack, and the US agrees. The US contemplates attacking bin Laden in Sudan, but decides against it (see Shortly After June 26, 1995). [MSNBC, 5/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 213-214] In 1998, Hamza will become overall head of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, running it while in hiding outside of Egypt. In late 2004, he will be extradited from Iran to stand trial in Egypt (see Spring 2002). [Reuters, 1/9/2005]

Entity Tags: Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Mustafa Hamza, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hosni Mubarak, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Hussan al-Turabi.Hussan al-Turabi. [Source: CNN]On June 26, 1995, there is a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as he visits Ethiopia (see June 26, 1995). The CIA soon concludes Osama bin Laden authorized the operation, and they plan a retaliation attack. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] Evidence suggests that the government of Sudan and Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s leader, know where bin Laden is living in Sudan and helped support the plot. The United Nations Security Council places sanctions on Sudan as a result. The US examines options for attacking bin Laden and/or al-Turabi’s facilities in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The options developed by the US military are rejected for being unstealthy and a de facto war on Sudan. In the ensuing months, there are reports of Egyptian covert operations against bin Laden and an Egyptian military build-up on the Sudanese border. These factors influence bin Laden’s decision to move to Afghanistan in 1996 (see May 18, 1996). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 140-41] One suspect in the assassination, Anas al-Liby, moves to Britain. The British government not only refuses to extradite him to Egypt, but secretly hires him to assassinate the leader of Libya (see (Late 1995) and 1996).

Entity Tags: United Nations Security Council, Hosni Mubarak, Hassan al-Turabi, Osama bin Laden, Anas al-Liby, Central Intelligence Agency, Sudan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Diplomats at the US embassy in Egypt are not informed of the CIA’s rendition program. At this time the program is primarily aimed at locating enemies of the Egyptian regime and bringing them back to Egypt, where they are tortured (see Summer 1995 and Before Summer 1995). The only exception to this is US ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker, who is read into the CIA program although he is actually a State Department employee. One of the diplomats’ jobs is to report on Egypt’s extremely poor human rights record, including its torture methods. Walker will later comment, “It wasn’t a question of mincing words… I think the human rights reports were correct.” He will add that there are Chinese walls at the embassy to keep the CIA program secret from the diplomats: “The walls were huge and they only come together at the ambassador level… [The diplomats working on human rights] might have been a little upset if they knew what was going on.” [Grey, 2007, pp. 126]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Edward Walker

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Talaat Fouad Qassem, 38, a known leader of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), an Egyptian extremist organization, is arrested and detained in Croatia as he travels to Bosnia from Denmark, where he has been been living after being granted political asylum. He is suspected of clandestine support of terrorist operations, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see February 26, 1993). He also allegedly led mujaheddin efforts in Bosnia since 1990 (see 1990). In a joint operation, he is arrested by Croatian intelligence agents and handed over to the CIA. Qassem is then interrogated by US officials aboard a US ship off the Croatian coast in the Adriatic Sea and sent to Egypt, which has a rendition agreement with the US (see Summer 1995). An Egyptian military tribunal has already sentenced him to death in absentia, and he is executed soon after he arrives. [Associated Press, 10/31/1995; Washington Post, 3/11/2002, pp. A01; Mahle, 2005, pp. 204-205; New Yorker, 2/8/2005] According to the 1999 book Dollars for Terror, two weeks before his abduction, Qassem was in Switzerland negotiating against Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Some Muslim Brotherhood exiles were negotiating with the Egyptian government to be allowed to return to Egypt if they agreed not to use Muslim Brotherhood Swiss bank accounts to fund Egyptian militant groups like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, but Qassem and other radicals oppose this deal. So the removal of Qassem helps the Muslim Brotherhood in their conflict with more militant groups. [Labeviere, 1999, pp. 70-71]

Entity Tags: Croatia, Egypt, Talaat Fouad Qassem, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muslim Brotherhood

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

In June 1995, al-Qaeda sponsors a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (see June 26, 1995 and Shortly After June 26, 1995). Some time in 1995, al-Qaeda leader Anas al-Liby moves to Britain and applies for political asylum. Not long after he arrives, Egypt asks the British government to extradite him for his alleged role in the assassination attempt. They send a detailed file on him, including information on how he had fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and then moved with him to Sudan. But the extradition request is refused. British officials question whether al-Liby could get a fair trial in Egypt and fear he could face the death penalty. The next year, British intelligence hires al-Liby, a Libyan, to assassinate Libyan ruler Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi (see 1996). Al-Liby will continue to live openly in Britain until 2000 (see Late 1995-May 2000 and May 2000). [Times (London), 1/16/2003]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Anas al-Liby, Hosni Mubarak, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Anwar Shaaban, an Islamist militant in charge of logistics for mujaheddin fighting in Bosnia, is killed in Croatia. Shaaban had been based at the Islamic Cultural Institute mosque in Milan, but managed to avoid arrest when it was raided (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995). On December 14, 1995, the same day a peace accord is signed ending the Bosnian war, Shaaban is killed by Croatian troops in what mujaheddin claim is an ambush. Shaaban’s diary is found, and it cites regular meetings between al-Qaeda leaders and leaders of the Bosnian Muslim government, including General Staff Chief Rasim Delic and Interior Minister Bakir Alispahic. [Schindler, 2007, pp. 216-217] Shaaban, a leader of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya militant group, had been in regular contact with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. [Schindler, 2007, pp. 163-164]

Entity Tags: Rasim Delic, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Anwar Shaaban, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bakir Alispahic

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains more influence in the Islamic Cultural Institute, a militant mosque in Milan, Italy, following the death of its former head, Anwar Shaaban. Under the leadership of Shaaban, who died in the Bosnian war, the mosque had been built up into a key European logistics center for militant Islamists. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001] The mosque is described as “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe” (see 1993 and After), but the GIA is said to be infiltrated by government informers at this point and is losing strength in Algeria due to the penetration (see October 27, 1994-July 16, 1996).

Entity Tags: Groupe Islamique Armé, Islamic Cultural Institute

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” [Newsweek, 10/1/2001] Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A Renditions Branch is established at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Its job is to find militant leaders and then assist their abduction. The US government has been rendering suspects for four years (see 1993), and the CIA has had a dedicated program for this since the summer of 1995 (see Summer 1995). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 276] Although some specific rendition operations are known (see Summer 1998, July 1998-February 2000, and Late August 1998), the total before 9/11 is not. Estimates vary, but generally fall into a similar range:
bullet Citing a public statement by CIA Director George Tenet, 9/11 commission deputy executive director Chris Kojm will say “70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9/11;”
bullet Shortly after this, Tenet himself will confirm there were “over 70” renditions; [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
bullet Tenet will also say “many dozen” suspects were rendered before 9/11; [Central Intelligence Agency, 3/24/2004]
bullet The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say that the Branch is involved in “several dozen” renditions before 9/11; [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 728 pdf file]
bullet Michael Scheuer, a CIA manager responsible for operations against Osama bin Laden, will say that between 1995 and May 1999 “[t]he operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people…” [CounterPunch, 7/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, George J. Tenet, Renditions Branch (CIA), Chris Kojm, Counterterrorist Center, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s special unit focusing on bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996), later will claim that before 9/11 members of the bin Laden family in the US are nearly completely off limits to US law enforcement. Author Douglas Farah, a former longtime Washington Post reporter, later will write that “All the bin Ladens living in the United States were granted Saudi diplomatic passports in 1996.… In 1998, when the FBI’s New York office actually sought to investigate some of the bin Laden family’s activities in this country because of suspicions of ties to terrorism, the State Department forced them to shut down the entire operation. Because the bin Laden’s were ‘diplomats’ and as such enjoyed diplomatic immunity, making such investigations illegal.” Scheuer will comment about the 1998 investigation, “My counterparts at the FBI questioned one of the bin Ladens. But then the State Department received a complaint from a law firm, and there was a huge uproar. We were shocked to find out that the bin Ladens in the United States had diplomatic passports, and that we weren’t allowed to talk to them.” Scheuer believes that these unusual diplomatic privileges may help explain how the bin Ladens will be able to depart so quickly just after 9/11 (see September 13, 2001; September 14-19, 2001). Farah later says he interviewed Scheuer about this and claims to have found a second source to verify the information. [Farah, 12/5/2004; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 6/6/2005] The issue of diplomatic passports for the bin Laden family has generally not been reported in the US media, although a 2005 New Yorker article will mention in passing that in 1996, “the State Department stymied a joint effort by the CIA and the FBI to question one of bin Laden’s cousins in America, because he had a diplomatic passport, which protects the holder from US law enforcement.” [New Yorker, 2/8/2005] This is a probable reference to the 1996 investigation of Abdullah Awad bin Laden (although he is bin Laden’s nephew, not cousin (see February-September 11, 1996)). It is unclear what connection there may be, if any, between that investigation and this 1998 investigation.

Entity Tags: Bin Laden Family, Michael Scheuer, Douglas Farah, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA’s bin Laden unit, first created in early 1996 (see February 1996), is ordered disbanded. It is unclear who gave the order. The unit appears to have been the most vocal section of the US government pushing for action against bin Laden. Apparently CIA Director George Tenet is unaware of the plans to disband the unit. He intervenes in mid-May and preserves the unit. Michael Scheuer, the head of the unit, later will comment that by doing so, Tenet “dodged the bullet of having to explain to the American people why the [CIA] thought bin Laden was so little of a threat that it had destroyed the bin Laden unit weeks before two US embassies were demolished.” Scheuer also will comment, “the on-again, off-again signals about the unit’s future status made for confusion, distraction, and much job-hunting in the last few weeks” before the embassy attacks. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, Alec Station

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A joint surveillance operation conducted by the CIA and Albanian intelligence identifies an Islamic Jihad cell that is allegedly planning to bomb the US Embassy in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The cell was created in the early 1990s by Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The operation intercepts lengthy discussions between the cell and Ayman. [New Yorker, 2/8/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 269] At the behest of the US government, Egypt, which is co-operating with the US over renditions (see Summer 1995), issues an arrest warrant for Shawki Salama Attiya, one of the militants in the cell. Albanian forces then arrest Attiya and four of the other suspected militants. A sixth suspect is killed, but two more escape. The men are taken to an abandoned airbase, where they are interrogated by the CIA, and then flown by a CIA-chartered plane to Cairo, Egypt, for further interrogation. The men are tortured after arriving in Egypt:
bullet Ahmed Saleh is suspended from the ceiling and given electric shocks; he is later hanged for a conviction resulting from a trial held in his absence;
bullet Mohamed Hassan Tita is hung from his wrists and given electric shocks to his feet and back;
bullet Attiya is given electric shocks to his genitals, suspended by his limbs and made to stand for hours in filthy water up to his knees;
bullet Ahmed al-Naggar is kept in a room for 35 days with water up to his knees, and has electric shocks to his nipples and penis; he is later hanged for an offence for which he was convicted in absentia;
bullet Essam Abdel-Tawwab will also describe more torture for which prosecutors later find “recovered wounds.”
On August 5, 1998, a letter by Ayman al-Zawahiri will be published that threatens retaliation for the Albanian abductions (see August 5, 1998). Two US embassies in Africa will be bombed two days later (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [Washington Post, 3/11/2002, pp. A01; New Yorker, 2/8/2005; Grey, 2007, pp. 128] The US State Department will later speculate that the timing of the embassy bombings was in fact in retaliation for these arrests. [Ottawa Citizen, 12/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Mohamed Hassan Tita, Shawki Salama Attiya, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, Albania, Central Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Saleh, Ahmed al-Naggar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Essam Abdel-Tawwab, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Kosovar Albanian Struggle

In February 2000, CIA Director George Tenet testifies to Congress, “Since July 1998, working with foreign governments worldwide, we have helped to render more than two dozen terrorists to justice. More than half were associates of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization.” Renditions are a policy of grabbing a suspect off the street of one country and taken the person to another where he was wanted for a crime or questioning without going through the normal legal and diplomatic procedures. [Associated Press, 12/27/2005] The CIA had a policy of rendering Islamic Jihad suspects to Egypt since 1995 (see Summer 1995). In July 1998, the CIA discovered a laptop containing organizational charts and locations of al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad operatives, so presumably these renditions are a direct result of that intelligence find (see Late August 1998).

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

CIA operatives kidnap Ahmad Salama Mabruk and two other members of Islamic Jihad outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan (see Late August 1998). This is part of a covert CIA program to arrest Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt (see Summer 1995). [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002] Mabruk is the closest ally of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two leader. Mabruk’s laptop computer turns out to contain al-Qaeda organizational charts and vital information about Islamic Jihad members in Europe. FBI agent Dan Coleman later calls this “the Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda.” However, the CIA will not turn this information over to the FBI. John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s New York office, tries to get around this by sending an agent to Azerbaijan to get copies of the computer files from the Azerbaijani government. When that fails, he persuades President Clinton to personally appeal to the president of Azerbaijan for the files. The FBI eventually gets the files, but the incident deepens the tensions between the CIA and FBI. [Wright, 2006, pp. 268-269] The US monitored 67 phone calls between bin Laden and Azerbaijan from 1996 to 1998 (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Presumably, many of these would have been to Mabruk. Mabruk is sent to Egypt and given a long prison sentence. [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002]

Entity Tags: Islamic Jihad, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, Central Intelligence Agency, Dan Coleman, John O’Neill, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer.
Michael Scheuer. [Source: Publicity photo]CIA Director George Tenet removes Michael Scheuer as head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer had headed the unit since its inception in 1996 (see February 1996), and was known as a strong advocate for more government action against bin Laden. The full name of the new head of the unit has not been released and little is known about his performance. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Deputy Director of Operations Jack Downing tells Scheuer he is being fired because he is “mentally burned out” and because of a recent disagreement with the FBI over whether the deputy chief of Alex Station, who was detailed to the CIA from the FBI, could release information to the FBI without Scheuer’s approval. Downing tells Scheuer he was in the right, but that the criticism of his subordinate “should not have been put on paper”, and the FBI’s management is angry with him. Downing says he will get a medal and a monetary award, but should tell his subordinates he has resigned. Scheuer refuses to lie to his officers, signs a memo saying he will not accept a monetary award, and tells Downing “where he should store the medal.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 263-4; Wright, 2006, pp. 313] According to author Steve Coll, Scheuer’s CIA colleagues “could not be sure exactly [why Scheuer left] but among at least a few of them a believe settled in that [he] had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat…” In particular, he was angry about two recent missed opportunities (see 1997-May 29, 1998 and February 11, 1999) to assassinate bin Laden. [Coll, 2004, pp. 449-450] Scheuer will write in 2004 that, “On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency’s senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America’s attack on bin Laden, ones that the bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among [US intelligence agencies]… The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today.” Problems include poor cooperation between agencies and a lack of experienced staff working on the bin Laden issue. Scheuer never receives a response to his memo. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Jack Downing, George J. Tenet, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A large group of Islamic Jihad operatives are sentenced in Cairo in what becomes known as the “Trial of the Albanian Returnees.” Various disclosures are made at the trial about the way Islamic Jihad operated and how it provided support to al-Qaeda by forging travel documents, transferring money, and arranging communications. One of the revelations is that al-Qaeda has a key communication hub in Yemen. Despite this revelation (see Late 1998-Early 2002), al-Qaeda will continue to use it through 2001 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The defendants were arrested not only in Egypt, but also in Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1995, the CIA arranged a deal with Egypt to capture Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt to be tortured and prosecuted (see Summer 1995). Eighty-seven of the defendants are convicted and ten are sentenced to death, including al-Zawahiri, who is tried in absentia. [New York Times, 11/21/2001] One of the convicted is Khaled Abu el-Dahab, who was operating a sleeper cell in California with double agent Ali Mohamed throughout the 1990’s (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab is sentenced to fifteen years in prison (see September 10, 1998). There are credible reports that many of the defendants confessed after being tortured in Egypt and Albania. [New York Times, 11/21/2001; Wright, 2006, pp. 269] The trial nearly eradicates the remnants of Islamic Jihad in Egypt and, according to some of the defendants, leaves only about forty members outside of Egypt. Al-Zawahiri and the other remaining members end up allying even closer to al-Qaeda. The two organizations will formally merge in early 2001 (see June 2001). [Wright, 2006, pp. 336]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Islamic Jihad, Egypt, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA drafts a new plan to combat al-Qaeda. The document, entitled “The Plan,” has several elements:
bullet Continue with the CIA’s rendition program, which had begun some time previously (see Summer 1995);
bullet Continue with disruption operations against al-Qaeda;
bullet Hire and train better officers with counterterrorism skills;
bullet Recruit more assets and try to penetrate al-Qaeda’s ranks;
bullet Close gaps in the collection of signals and imagery intelligence;
bullet Increase contacts with the Northern Alliance (see Summer 1999). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 142]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, is arrested at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While much less known than his brother, Mohammed quietly served an important role as Ayman’s deputy in Islamic Jihad, and as the group’s military commander (see 1993). He apparently disagreed with the increasing unification between Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, and quit in 1998 over that issue. [Jacquard, 2002, pp. 108] He is arrested in the UAE and then flown to Egypt as a part of the CIA’s rendition program (see Summer 1995). A senior former CIA officer will later confirm US involvement in the operation. [Grey, 2007, pp. 246, 299] Mohammed had been sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt the year before. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] But his execution is not carried out, and he is said to reveal what he knows about Islamic Jihad. In 2007 it will be reported that his sentence is likely to be lessened in return for agreeing to renounce violence. [Jacquard, 2002, pp. 108; Associated Press, 4/20/2007] Note: there is a dispute about when he was arrested. Some sources indicate it was in the spring of 1999. [Grey, 2007, pp. 246; Associated Press, 4/20/2007] Others indicate it was a year later. [Jacquard, 2002, pp. 108; New Yorker, 9/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Mohammed al-Zawahiri, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The inside cover of the training manual found in Manchester, depicting a knife plunging through the Earth.The inside cover of the training manual found in Manchester, depicting a knife plunging through the Earth. [Source: FBI]British authorities raid the Manchester home of Anas al-Liby. Remarkably, al-Liby was a top al-Qaeda leader who nonetheless had been allowed to live in Britain (see Late 1995-May 2000); some speculate his treatment was connected to a joint al-Qaeda-British plot to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 1996 (see 1996). [Observer, 9/22/2001] The raid may have been conducted as part of an investigation into al-Liby’s role in the 1998 embassy bombings. [Associated Press, 9/21/2001] Al-Liby is arrested and then let go for lack of evidence (see May 2000). But shortly after he is let go, investigators searching through his possessions find “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants,” a 180-page al-Qaeda training manual written in Arabic. FBI agent Ali Soufan, who speaks Arabic, is the first to discover the manual. [Soufan, 2011, pp. 113-114] The manual appears to have been written in the late 1980’s by double agent Ali Mohamed. He wrote the manual, and many others, by cobbling together information from his personal experiences and stolen US training guides (see November 5, 1990). Others have since updated it as different versions spread widely. “The FBI does not know if any of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the manual… However, many of their tactics come straight from Mohamed’s lessons, such as how to blend in as law-abiding citizens in a Western society.” [Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001] George Andrew, deputy head of anti-terrorism for the FBI’s New York City office, later will claim that after studying the manual, the FBI suspect that al-Qaeda operatives are attempting to infiltrate US society. But the FBI think they are not yet ready to strike. [Associated Press, 9/21/2001] The existence of the manual is made public in a US trial in April 2001. [New York Times, 4/5/2001]

Entity Tags: United Kingdom, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Anas al-Liby, Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Ali Soufan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer, former head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), returns to the unit to serve as an adviser, but is not allowed to debrief detainees. Scheuer, who was fired from the unit in 1999 (see June 1999), remains with Alec Station until 2004, when he resigns from the CIA and authors Imperial Hubris, a book critical of the CIA and the US government’s fight against terrorism in general. He had finished his first book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, before 9/11, and it is released in 2002. He will later complain that he is given a job title but no official duties. Other CIA officers seek out his services, but these requests are blocked, apparently by James Pavitt, the Deputy Director of Operations. Scheuer comments: “The CIA knew that Through Our Enemies’ Eyes was respected by Islamists and that, as the author, I would be an effective debriefer. Mr. Pavitt, however, put burying my career above using me to elicit information to defend America.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 264; Scheuer, 2006, pp. xvii]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, James Pavitt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA officer Richard Blee, who is now chief of the CIA’s station in Kabul, Afghanistan, objects to the FBI interviewing high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The FBI obtained access to al-Libi after he was handed over to the US, and is obtaining some information from him about Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, who will be prosecuted in the US (see December 19, 2001). However, according to FBI agent Jack Cloonan, “for some reason, the CIA chief of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach.” [American Prospect, 6/19/2005] CIA Director George Tenet learns of Blee’s complaints and insists that al-Libi be turned over to the CIA (see January-April 2002), which promptly puts him on a plane to Egypt (see January 2002 and After), where he is tortured and makes false statements (see February 2002). Blee was in charge of the CIA’s bin Laden unit on 9/11 and has only recently become chief of its Kabul station. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 59-60, 297] The FBI, which has long experience interviewing suspects, will continue in its attempts to use rapport-building techniques (see Late March through Early June, 2002), whereas the CIA will employ harsher techniques, despite not having much experience with interviews (see Mid-April 2002).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Blee, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

In January 2002, the Observer reports that Anas al-Liby, one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders, has been recently captured in Afghanistan. Al-Liby is considered one of bin Laden’s computer experts, and a long-time member of al-Qaeda’s ruling council. [Observer, 1/20/2002] In early March 2002, the London Times mentions al-Liby’s capture as an established fact. [London Times, 3/11/2002] Then, in late March 2002, the London Times and the Washington Post report that al-Liby has been recently captured in Sudan. Anonymous CIA sources and anonymous “senior administration officials” claim that al-Liby has been captured, but the Sudanese and US governments officially deny the arrest. The London Times says the arrest “has been kept a closely guarded secret.” Some senior officials who told the Post al-Liby had been arrested later change their account and say it was someone with a similar name. [London Times, 3/17/2002; Washington Post, 3/19/2002; Washington Post, 3/20/2002] Al-Liby remains on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a $25 million reward on his name. It will later be lowered to $5 million. [London Times, 5/8/2005] Al-Liby appears to have collaborated with British intelligence to kill Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 1996 and was allowed to openly live in Britain until 2000 (see Late 1995-May 2000; 1996). In 2003, it will be reported that al-Liby was captured in Sudan and then secretly deported to Egypt, where he is wanted for an attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (see (Late 1995)). [Scotland on Sunday, 10/26/2003] In 2007, human rights groups will list al-Liby as a possible ghost prisoner still held by the US (see June 7, 2007).

Entity Tags: Anas al-Liby

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In the wake of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida’s arrest (see March 28, 2002), the FBI discovers much useful information (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). FBI agent Dan Coleman leads a team to sort through Zubaida’s computer files and documents. However, at the same time, some US officials come to believe that Zubaida’s prominence in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy has been overestimated. Many FBI officials conclude that he was used as little more than a travel agent for training camp attendees because he was mentally ill. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
FBI Agent Coleman: Zubaida Is Mentally Crippled - FBI counterterrorist operative Dan Coleman will go through Zubaida’s journals and other materials seized from his Faisalabad safe house. Coleman will say: “Abu Zubaydah was like a receptionist, like the guy at the front desk [of a hotel]. He takes their papers, he sends them out. It’s an important position, but he’s not recruiting or planning.” Because Zubaida is not conversant with al-Qaeda security methods, “[t]hat was why his name had been cropping up for years.” Of Zubaida’s diaries, Coleman will say: “There’s nothing in there that refers to anything outside his head, not even when he saw something on the news, not about any al-Qaeda attack, not even 9/11. All it does is reveal someone in torment. [Zubaida is physically and mentally crippled from wounds suffered fighting in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.] Based on what I saw of his personality, he could not be what they say he was.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008] Coleman will add: “He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable.” Zubaida’s diary evidences his apparent schizophrenia; he wrote it in three different personas, or voices, each with a different and distinctive personality. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
Islamist Al-Deen: Importance Overstated? - Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager, was captured along with Zubaida. The terrified al-Deen will readily answer questions from his captors, and will describe Zubaida as a well-known functionary with little knowledge of al-Qaeda operations. Al-Deen will be sent to a detention facility in Morocco and later to Syria; his subsequent whereabouts and status will remain unknown to the public. [Washington Post, 3/29/2009]
Informant Says Zubaida Behaved Oddly - Other accounts back up this assessment. For instance, Omar Nasiri, a former informant for European intelligence agencies who met Zubaida in the 1990s, will later describe Zubaida’s odd behavior, saying he “shuffled around his home in near-total darkness, carrying a gas lantern from room to room. He barely spoke and would often communicate by pointing.” [New Yorker, 1/22/2007]
CIA Officer Scheuer: Zubaida Served as Key Hub - Michael Scheuer, who previously ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), will later say of Zubaida’s importance: “I’d followed him for a decade. If there was one guy you could call a ‘hub,’ he was it.” Scheuer will describe Zubaida not as an actual al-Qaeda member, but “the main cog in the way they organized,” a point of contact for Islamists from many parts of the globe seeking combat training in the Afghan camps. Scheuer will say that Zubaida, a Palestinian, “never swore bayat [al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance] to bin Laden,” and he was bent on causing damage to Israel, not the US. [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Involvement in Pre-9/11 Plots - However, Zubaida does appear to have been involved in numerous plots before 9/11 (see for instance November 30, 1999 and Early September 2001). Al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam cooperated with US investigators after being arrested. He worked with Zubaida and suggested Zubaida was of some importance, but not one of al-Qaeda’s highest leaders. According to Ressam, Zubaida “is the person in charge of the [training] camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. He takes care of the expenses of the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 133] Furthermore, when Zubaida was caught, apparently he and several others staying with him were in the middle of building a bomb. According to one of the CIA officers who helped capture him, the soldering iron used in making the bomb was still hot when he was captured (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). [Senate Intelligence Committee, 4/22/2009 pdf file]
CIA Chief Tenet Rejects Diagnosis of Schizophrenia - In a 2007 book, former CIA Director George Tenet will claim that the reports that Zubaida was mentally unstable were “[b]aloney.… Apparently, the source of the rumor that Abu Zubaida was unbalanced was his personal diary, in which he adopted various personas. From that shaky perch, some junior Freudians leapt to the conclusion that Zubaida had multiple personalities. In fact, agency psychiatrists eventually determined that in his diary he was using a sophisticated literary device to express himself.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 243]
Zubaida Touted as High-Level Terror Chief - Regardless, despite being briefed otherwise, President Bush and others in his administration will repeatedly tout the importance of capturing Zubaida and no hint of any doubts about his importance or sanity will be publicly expressed (see April 9, 2002 and After). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]

Entity Tags: Ron Suskind, George J. Tenet, Dan Coleman, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Abu Zubaida, Ahmed Ressam, Omar Nasiri, Noor al-Deen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Late 2005: CIA Closes Unit Hunting Bin Laden

The CIA closes its unit that had been in charge of hunting bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders. Analysts in the unit, known as Alec Station, are reassigned to other parts of the CIA Counterterrorist Center. CIA officials explain the change by saying the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals. Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit when if formed in 1996 (see February 1996), says the move reflects a view within the CIA that bin Laden is no longer the threat he once was, and complains, “This will clearly denigrate our operations against al-Qaeda.” Robert Grenier, head of the Counterterrorist Center in 2005, is said to have instigated the closure. [New York Times, 7/4/2006; Guardian, 7/4/2006] The White House denies the search for bin Laden has slackened, calling the move merely a “reallocation of resources” within the CIA. [Reuters, 8/17/2006]

Entity Tags: Robert Grenier, Osama bin Laden, Counterterrorist Center, Alec Station, Michael Scheuer, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Former CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who ran the agency’s “rendition” program that sent suspected terrorists to foreign nations to be interrogated for information in the late 1990s (see Summer 1995 and 1997), says during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the assurances of Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria that a suspect will not be tortured are not “worth a bucket of warm spit.” Scheuer tells the assembled lawmakers that he knows of at least three mistakes that the CIA has made in its overseas rendition program, including the capture and subsequent torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002 and October 10, 2002-October 20, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 149-150; US Congress, 4/17/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, Maher Arar, Michael Scheuer, House Foreign Affairs Committee

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck has a special segment called “War Games” during the week’s broadcasts. In today’s show, he is joined by former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer (see February 1996) and retired Army Sergeant Major, Tim Strong. The three discuss what they say is the upcoming “civil war” in America, which, they assert, will be led by “citizen militias” made up of principled, ideologically correct conservatives. Beck says that he “believes we’re on this road.” The three decide among themselves that the US military would refuse to obey President Obama’s orders to subdue the insurrection and would instead join with “the people” in “defending the Constitution” against the government. [Salon, 2/22/2009] Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin’s blog “Hot Air” features an entry that calls Beck’s rhetoric “implausible” and “nutty.” [Hot Air, 2/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Michelle Malkin, Tim Strong, Fox News, Glenn Beck

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism, 2010 Elections

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