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Context of 'Late 1998: FBI Asks NSA to Pass on All Calls between Al-Qaeda Yemen Hub and US'

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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

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

The FBI asks the NSA to pass on all calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and the US. The hub, which is run by an operative named Ahmed al-Hada and was involved in the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see Late August 1998), is a key al-Qaeda logistics center and intelligence gleaned from listening in on calls to and from it will help prevent some attacks (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Dan Coleman, one of the FBI agents who places the request, will say, “anyone who called the Yemen number is white-hot, a top suspect.” However, the NSA will not inform the FBI of all calls between the hub and the US. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] In particular, two 9/11 hijackers will call the hub while they are in the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, the information will be withheld from the FBI and various explanations will be offered for this failure (see (Spring 2000), Summer 2002-Summer 2004, and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Dan Coleman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Dan ColemanDan Coleman [Source: CNN]Beginning in the autumn of 1998, the FBI uses the phone records of an al-Qaeda communications hub run by operative Ahmed al-Hada and his son Samir to build a map of al-Qaeda’s global organization. A map showing all the places in the world that have communicated with the hub is posted on the wall of the interagency counterterrorism I-49 squad in New York. The hub’s telephone number was uncovered during the East African embassy bombings investigation (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). [Al Ahram, 2/21/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] According to FBI agent and I-49 squad member Dan Coleman, al-Hada is “uncle of half the violent jihadists we knew in the country.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] Several of his sons and sons-in-law are al-Qaeda operatives and some die fighting and training with radical Islamists; this is known to US intelligence before 9/11. Hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is also a son-in-law of al-Hada. [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Fox News, 2/14/2002; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The number is monitored by the NSA and over the next three years it mines intelligence that helps authorities foil a series of plots, including planned attacks on the US Embassy in Paris and the US Consulate in Istanbul, along with an attempted airline hijacking in Africa. However, the hub also serves as a planning center for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which is successful (see October 12, 2000). [US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] The CIA, as the primary organization for gathering foreign intelligence, has jurisdiction over conversations on the al-Hada phone. Helped by the NSA, it stakes out the house—tapping the phone, planting bugs, and taking satellite photographs of its visitors. However, the CIA apparently does not provide the FBI with all the relevant information it is obtaining about al-Qaeda’s plans. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] For example, the FBI is not informed that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi make calls to the communications hub from the US between spring 2000 and summer 2001 (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001). The FBI also asks the NSA to pass any calls between the communications hub and the US to the FBI, but the NSA does not do this either (see Late 1998). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, I-49, National Security Agency, Samir al-Hada, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, Dan Coleman, Ahmed al-Hada, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

While the 9/11 hijackers are in the US, the NSA intercepts several calls between them and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by Ahmed al-Hada, who is hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see August 4-25, 1998).
Summary of Calls -
bullet The first calls are made by Almihdhar and are intercepted during the spring and summer of 2000 (see Spring-Summer 2000).
bullet More calls are made by hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001).
bullet The final call from the US is intercepted just a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).
The NSA intercepted the hijackers’ calls outside the US before this (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and continues to do so in 2000 (see Summer 2000) after Almihdhar returns to Yemen (see June 10, 2000 and (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)).
Calls' Content - Some of the calls may only contain non-operational information, as they are reportedly between Almihdhar and his wife. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 343] However, the calls are also used to relay messages to the 9/11 hijackers. [Embassy of Yemen (Washington), 2/13/2002; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005]
Agencies' Roles - The CIA is the lead agency monitoring the communications hub. It has planted bugs inside it and is wiretapping all calls (see Late August 1998). Intercepts of calls to and from the hub are a major plank of the US intelligence community’s effort to fight al-Qaeda. Also involved is the FBI, which is using phone records to plot these calls on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). Some of the calls intercepted by US intelligence come from Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in Afghanistan (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). After 9/11, counterterrorism officials will say that the number was one of the hottest targets being monitored by the NSA and was an “intelligence bonanza.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 343]
Importance of Failure - Also after 9/11, counterterrorism officials will agree that the failure to follow leads to the US from this number was a huge missed opportunity to stop the 9/11 plot. For instance, FBI agent Kenneth Maxwell will say: “Two al-Qaeda guys living in California—are you kidding me? We would have been on them like white on snow: physical surveillance, electronic surveillance, a special unit devoted entirely to them.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file]
Discussed after 9/11 - The failure to roll up the plot based on these communications intercepts will be discussed following 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, National Security Agency, Hoda al-Hada, Ahmed al-Hada, Kenneth Maxwell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts calls between 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, but does not notify the FBI that Almihdhar is in the US. However, the NSA disseminates reports about some of the calls, which are made from phones registered to Nawaf Alhazmi (see Spring-Summer 2000). The NSA will later say that it does not usually intercept calls between the US and other countries at this time, as it believes that this should be done by the FBI. Despite this, the NSA acquires information about such calls and provides the information to the FBI in regular reporting and in response to specific requests. The FBI, which has a standing request for such information about any calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998), then uses this information in its investigations based on warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The NSA will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry the reason the FBI is not notified about Almihdhar is because it does not realize that Almihdhar is in the US. However, no explanation is offered for why the NSA fails to realize this. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 36, 73-4 pdf file] This explanation will be contradicted by one offered in a 2004 article about the issue that reports the intercepts are not exploited precisely because the NSA knows one of the parties is in the US and therefore does not want to deal with his calls (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After). In addition, the FBI used information gained from intercepted calls to and from the hub in Yemen to make a world map of al-Qaeda’s organization, indicating that the locations talking to the hub could be determined by US intelligence (see Late 1998-Early 2002). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Both the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission examine the NSA’s intercepts of various calls made by the hijackers to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry refers to several of the calls and gives an idea of the content of some of them. But it does not mention those made by Nawaf Alhazmi and possibly other hijackers from the US after the USS Cole bombing, which are only disclosed later in the media (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and March 15, 2004 and After). However, this section of the Inquiry report is heavily redacted so most details remain unknown. It states that, although the NSA intercepted the calls and disseminated dispatches about some of them, the NSA did not realize the hijackers were in the US at the time the calls were made. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 11-12, 143-146, 155-157 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission Report contains a briefer section on the intercepts and deals with those which led to the surveillance of the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000). In addition, it mentions that Almihdhar called his wife from San Diego in the spring of 2000, but fails to mention that his wife lived at an al-Qaeda communications hub and that the calls were intercepted by the NSA (see Spring-Summer 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 181, 222] The Los Angeles Times comments: “The [9/11 Congressional Inquiry] and the Sept. 11 commission that came after it referred indirectly to the calls from Yemen to San Diego. But neither report discloses what the NSA gleaned from the calls, or why they were never disclosed to the FBI.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The publication of the 9/11 Commission report and revelations about domestic surveillance by the NSA will lead to increased media interest in and revelations about the intercepts starting from 2004 (see March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Hoda al-Hada, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, 9/11 Commission, Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

It was disclosed in 2003 that the NSA had intercepted several calls between hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001 and Summer 2002-Summer 2004). But in 2004, after revelations that the NSA has been wiretapping inside the US, some media begin to re-examine the circumstances of the hijackers’ calls from the US, as the Bush administration uses the example of these calls as a justification for the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program. [New York Times, 12/16/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] The calls are thought to be a key aspect of the alleged intelligence failures before 9/11. In late 1998, the FBI had started plotting intercepts of al-Qaeda calls to and from the communications hub on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). According to author Lawrence Wright, “[h]ad a line been drawn from the [communications hub] in Yemen to Alhazmi and Almihdhar’s San Diego apartment, al-Qaeda’s presence in America would have been glaringly obvious.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 343-344] In 2006, former NSA Director Michael Hayden will tell the Senate that if the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program had been active before 9/11, the NSA would have raised the alarm over the presence of hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in San Diego. [CNN, 5/19/2006] However, reports in the press suggest otherwise. For example, in one newspaper a senior intelligence official will say that it was not technically possible for the NSA, which had a budget of around $3.6 billion in 2000, to trace the calls. “Neither the contents of the calls nor the physics of the intercepts allowed us to determine that one end of the calls was in the United States,” says the official. [Bamford, 2002, pp. 482; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] But another report flatly contradicts this. “NSA had the technical ability to pick up the actual phone number in the US that the switchboard was calling but didn’t deploy that equipment, fearing they would be accused of domestic spying.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It is unclear why concerns about domestic spying allegations would prevent the NSA from passing the information on to the FBI. Almihdhar and Alhazmi were not US citizens, but foreign nationals who had entered the US illegally claiming to be tourists. In addition, there was a wealth of evidence connecting them to al-Qaeda (see Early 1999, January 5-8, 2000, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). In any event, the NSA did reportedly disseminate dispatches about some of these US calls (see Spring-Summer 2000). Some FBI officials will later profess not to know what went wrong and why they were not notified of the hijackers’ presence in the US by other agencies. A senior counterterrorism official will say: “I don’t know if they got half the conversation or none of it or hung up or whatever. All I can tell you is we didn’t get anything from it—we being the people at the FBI who could have done something about it. So were they sitting on it? I don’t know.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The US intelligence community, through the CIA, also had access to the phone company’s records for the Yemeni communications hub, which would have shown what numbers were being called in the US (see Late 1998-Early 2002).

Entity Tags: Michael Hayden, Khalid Almihdhar, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada, Bush administration (43), US intelligence, Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Former NSA director and soon-to-be CIA director Michael Hayden says that a program in which the NSA listens in on calls between the US and other countries without obtaining warrants would have prevented 9/11, had it been in place then. Hayden tells a Senate hearing discussing his confirmation as CIA director, “Had this been in place prior to the attacks, the two hijackers who were in San Diego, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, almost certainly would have been identified as who they were, what they were, and most importantly, where they were.” Hayden also says, “I can demonstrate in closed session how the physics and the math would work.” [US Congress, 5/18/2006 pdf file] However, the NSA actually intercepted the calls between Alhazmi and Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), which it knew had been in contact with Osama bin Laden (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and was also involved in the East African embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998) and the attack on the USS Cole (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000). Before 9/11, the NSA was entitled to pass on information about the calls to the FBI, but did not do so, even though the FBI had specifically asked for information about calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998 and (Spring 2000)). Various explanations for this failure are offered after 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Vice President Cheney linked the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program to the case of 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.Vice President Cheney linked the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program to the case of 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. [Source: White House]Vice President Dick Cheney justifies an NSA program for warrantless surveillance of conversations between the US and other countries by referring to communications between 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The calls were intercepted by the NSA, but this did not help the US roll up the plot. Echoing remarks previously made by President Bush (see December 17, 2005), Cheney says: “If you’ll recall, the 9/11 Commission focused criticism on the nation’s inability to uncover links between terrorists at home and terrorists overseas [note: the 9/11 Commission’s final report does not actually say this (see December 17, 2005)]. The term that was used is ‘connecting the dots’—and the fact is that one small piece of data might very well make it possible to save thousands of lives. If this program had been in place before 9/11, we might have been able to prevent it because we had two terrorists living in San Diego, contacting terrorist-related numbers overseas.” [Office of the Vice President, 8/25/2006] Before 9/11, the NSA was entitled to pass on information about the calls to the FBI, but did not do so, even though the FBI had specifically asked for information about calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998 and (Spring 2000)). Various explanations for this failure are offered after 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell admits, “9/11 should have and could have been prevented; it was an issue of connecting information that was available.” [ABC News, 9/18/2007] The reason he gives for this is: “There was a terrorist. He was a foreigner. He was in the United States [note: presumably he is referring to Khalid Almihdhar]. He was planning to carry out the 9/11 attacks. What the 9/11 Commission and the Joint Inquiry found is that person communicated back to al-Qaeda overseas and we failed to detect it.” [US Congress, 9/18/2007] However, it is unclear which portions of the 9/11 Commission and Congressional Inquiry reports he thinks he is referring to. The 9/11 Commission report contains two brief mentions of these calls to and from the US, but does not say whether they were detected or not, although it does say that other calls made outside the US by the 9/11 hijackers were detected. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 87-8, 181, 222] The Congressional Inquiry report says that the calls between Almihdhar in the US and the al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen were intercepted and analyzed by the NSA, which distributed reports to other intelligence agencies about some of them. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file] The FBI had requested the NSA inform it of calls between the number Almihdhar talked to, an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, and the US (see Late 1998), but the NSA did not do so (see (Spring 2000)). A variety of explanations are offered for this after 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Mike McConnell, 9/11 Commission, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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