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Context of 'Late November 2001: Satellite Phone Ruse Aids Bin Laden’s Escape'

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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

The NSA, monitoring a telephone in an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002), has listened in on phone calls revealing that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi are to attend an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999). Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned, as well as the first names of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. On this day, the NSA shares this information with the CIA’s Alec Station bin Laden unit. Other US intelligence agencies, including FBI headquarters and the FBI’s New York field office, are told as well. Although Khalid Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned in one call, the NSA only passes on his first name. Also, the NSA has already learned from monitoring the Yemen hub that Nawaf’s last name is Alhazmi and that he is long-time friends with Almihdhar (see Early 1999). However, they either don’t look this up in their records or don’t pass it on to any other agency. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 239 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 310] An NSA analyst makes a comment that is shared between US intelligence agencies, “Salem may be Nawaf’s younger brother.” This turns out to be correct. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file] A CIA officer will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that information from the Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) was reviewed in late 1999 during a worldwide effort to disrupt millennium attack plots (see December 15-31, 1999) and “a kind of tuning fork… buzzed when two [of the hijackers] reportedly planning a trip to [Malaysia] were linked indirectly to what appeared to be a support element… involved with the Africa bombers.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] The fact that they are connected to the Yemen communication hub already indicates some importance within al-Qaeda. It is learned they are connected to the embassy bombings in some way (see October 4, 2001 and Late 1999). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file] The NSA report about them on this day is entitled, “Activities of Bin Laden Associates,” showing the clear knowledge of their ties to bin Laden. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The CIA will track Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to the Malaysia summit (see January 2-5, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000).

Entity Tags: Salem Alhazmi, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI New York Field Office, Khalid Almihdhar, FBI Headquarters, Al-Qaeda, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Ahmed al-Hada, National Security Agency, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In a series of articles for UPI, journalist Richard Sale reveals many details about the NSA’s electronic surveillance of al-Qaeda. “The United States has scored notable successes in an information war against the organization of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. US hackers have gone into foreign bank accounts and deleted or transferred money and jammed or blocked the group’s cell or satellite phones.” It is also mentioned that “Bin Laden is surrounded by US listening posts.” The articles discuss the extent to which the NSA’s Echelon satellite network is monitoring al-Qaeda, and even seems to make an oblique reference to monitoring the al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen that enabled the NSA to discover valuable information on hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see December 29, 1999). The articles also reveal that since 1995, bin Laden tried to protect his communications with a “full suite of tools,” but “codes were broken.” An expert adds that “you don’t use your highest level of secure communications all the time. It’s too burdensome, and it exposes it to other types of exploitation.” The articles also imply that Echelon is used in illegal ways. An anonymous former senior US intelligence official says, “This isn’t about legality. This is about trying to protect American lives.” [United Press International, 2/9/2001; United Press International, 2/13/2001; United Press International, 2/21/2001] While bin Laden’s communications were certainly thoroughly monitored before 9/11 (see November 1996-Late August 1998), no evidence has come to light since 9/11 that the US was hacking into bank accounts or jamming signals.

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, Echelon, Khalid Almihdhar, National Security Agency, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Abdullah Tabarak.Abdullah Tabarak. [Source: Public domain]As US forces close in on Tora Bora, bin Laden’s escape is helped by a simple ruse. A loyal bodyguard named Abdallah Tabarak takes bin Laden’s satellite phone and goes in one direction while bin Laden goes in the other. It is correctly assumed that the US can remotely track the location of the phone. Tabarak is eventually captured with the phone while bin Laden apparently escapes. Tabarak is later put in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Interrogation of him and others in Tora Bora confirm the account. [Washington Post, 1/21/2003] This story indicates bin Laden was still at least occasionally using satellite phones long after media reports that the use of such phones could reveal his location (see February 9-21, 2001). The US will consider Tabarak such a high-value prisoner that at one point he will be the only Guantanamo prisoner that the Red Cross will be denied access to. However, in mid-2004 he will be released and returned to his home country of Morocco, then released by the Moroccan government by the end of the year. Neither the US nor the Moroccan government will offer any explanation for his release. The Washington Post will call the release of the well-known and long-time al-Qaeda operative an unexplained “mystery.” [Washington Post, 1/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Abdallah Tabarak, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

The Los Angeles Times reports that “despite intense interrogations and investigations,” no senior al-Qaeda leaders appear to be amongst the nearly 600 detainees at the Guantanamo prison. One US official says that some usual intelligence has been gained from the detainees, but “it’s not roll-up-plots, knock-your-socks-off-kind of stuff.” This official says the detainees are mostly “low-and middle-level” fighters and supporters, not “the big-time guys” high enough to help unravel plots and understand al-Qaeda’s structure. Another official similarly says there are “no big fish” there. “Some of these guys literally don’t know the world is round.” The Times also notes that several European countries “have quietly offered to take prisoners home and put them on trial if US officials can provide evidence that they have committed a crime.” But none has been released for trial so far. [Los Angeles Times, 8/18/2002] The New York Times will confirm in June 2004 that no al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders are being held at the prison and that in fact the vast majority are innocent of any militant connections (see June 21, 2004). Some al-Qaeda leaders will be sent into the prison from secret CIA prisons in September 2006 (see September 2-3, 2006).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Paul Butler, chief of staff for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, claims in a briefing that the prisoners being held in Guantanamo are “very dangerous people” who include “senior al-Qaeda operatives and leaders and Taliban leaders.” However, the New York Times will later report that “several senior officials with detailed knowledge of the Guantanamo detainees described Mr. Butler’s portrait of the camp as a work of verbal embroidery, saying none of the detainees at the camp could possibly be called a leader or senior operative of al-Qaeda.” [New York Times, 6/21/2004] Probably the closest to an al-Qaeda leader being held is one of bin Laden’s former bodyguards who nonetheless will be released later in 2004 (see Late November 2001). There were media reports as far back as August 2002 that no al-Qaeda leaders were being held at Guantanamo (see August 18, 2002). Some al-Qaeda leaders will be sent into the prison from secret CIA prisons in September 2006 (see September 2-3, 2006).

Entity Tags: Paul Butler

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Mohamad Farik Amin.Mohamad Farik Amin. [Source: FBI]The US temporarily closes a network of secret CIA prisons around the world and transfers the most valuable prisoners to the US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, for eventual military tribunals. The prison network will be reopened a short time later (see Autumn 2006-Late April 2007). There were reportedly fewer than 100 suspects in the CIA prisons; most of them are apparently sent back to their home countries while fourteen are sent to Guantanamo. All fourteen have some connection to al-Qaeda. Seven of them reportedly had some connection to the 9/11 attacks. Here are their names, nationalities, and the allegations against them.
bullet Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) (Pakistani, raised in Kuwait). He is the suspected mastermind of 9/11 attacks and many other al-Qaeda attacks. A CIA biography of KSM calls him “one of history’s most infamous terrorists.”
bullet Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi (Saudi). He allegedly helped finance the 9/11 attacks.
bullet Hambali (Indonesian). He attended a key planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) and is accused of involvement in many other plots, including the 2002 Bali bombings (see October 12, 2002).
bullet Khallad bin Attash (a.k.a. Tawfiq bin Attash) (Yemeni). He also attended a key planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) and had a role in other plots such as the 2000 USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000).
bullet Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (Pakistani, raised in Kuwait). He allegedly helped finance the 9/11 attacks and arranged transportation for some hijackers. His uncle is KSM.
bullet Ramzi bin al-Shibh (Yemeni). A member of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell with Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers. The CIA calls him the “primary communications intermediary” between the hijackers and KSM. He also attended a key planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000).
bullet Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (Saudi). He is said to have been one of the masterminds of the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000). He also attended a key planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000).
The remaining seven suspects are alleged to have been involved in other al-Qaeda plots:
bullet Abu Zubaida (Palestinian, raised in Saudi Arabia). He is said to be a facilitator who helped make travel arrangements for al-Qaeda operatives. He is also alleged to have organized a series of planned millennium attacks.
bullet Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (Tanzanian). He was indicted for a role in the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). He is also said to be an expert document forger.
bullet Majid Khan (Pakistani). He lived in the US since 1996 and is said to have worked with KSM on some US bomb plots (see March 5, 2003).
bullet Abu Faraj al-Libbi (a.k.a. Mustafa al-‘Uzayti) (Libyan). He allegedly became al-Qaeda’s top operations officer after KSM was captured.
bullet Mohamad Farik Amin (a.k.a. Zubair) (Malaysian). He is a key Hambali associate and was allegedly tapped for a suicide mission targeting Los Angeles.
bullet Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep (a.k.a. Lillie) (Malaysian). He is a key Hambali associate. He is accused of providing funds for the 2003 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia (see August 5, 2003). He was allegedly tapped for a suicide mission targeting Los Angeles.
bullet Gouled Hassan Dourad (Somali). He allegedly scouted a US military base in Djibouti for a planned terrorist attack.
The fourteen are expected to go on trial in 2007. [Knight Ridder, 9/6/2006; Central Intelligence Agency, 9/6/2006; USA Today, 9/7/2006]

Entity Tags: Majid Khan, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Mohamad Farik Amin, Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Hambali, Gouled Hassan Dourad, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Khallad bin Attash, Abu Zubaida, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Central Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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