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Double agent Ali Mohamed is interviewed by the US military about al-Qaeda, but what exactly is said is uncertain because the interview files are supposedly lost. When Mohamed’s FBI handler John Zent interviewed him in May 1993 (see May 1993), he mentioned al-Qaeda training camps. FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who will later investigate Mohamed, will recall, “John realizes that Ali is talking about all these training camps in Afghanistan. And starts talking about this guy named bin Laden. So John calls the local rep from army intelligence” and arranges for them to interview him. A special team of army investigators shows up from Fort Meade, Virginia, which is the home of the NSA. “They bring maps with them and they bring evidence.… And so they debrief Ali, and he lays out all these training camps.” What else he may reveal is not known. Cloonan is not sure why Mohamed volunteered all this vital al-Qaeda information. Earlier in the year, FBI investigators discovered that Mohamed stole many top secret US military documents and gave them to Islamic militants (see Spring 1993). However, Mohamed faces no trouble from the Defense Department about that. FBI agent Joseph O’Brien will later ask, “Who in the government was running this show? Why didn’t the Bureau bring the hammer down on this guy Mohamed then and there?” Whatever Mohamed says in this interview is not shared with US intelligence agencies, even though it would have obvious relevance for the worldwide manhunt for Ramzi Yousef going on at the time since Yousef trained in some of the camps Mohamed is describing. Several years later, Cloonan will attempt to find the report of Mohamed’s interview with army intelligence but “we were never able to find it. We were told that the report was probably destroyed in a reorganization of intelligence components” in the Defense Department. (Lance 2006, pp. 130-131)
US-al-Qaeda double agent Ali Mohamed is detained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Vancouver, British Columbia, after attempting to pick up a man named Essam Marzouk, who is carrying numerous false passports. The RCMP identifies Mohamed as a top al-Qaeda operative. Mohamed admits to it that he traveled to Vancouver to help Marzouk sneak into the US and admits working closely with Osama bin Laden. (Williams and McCormick 11/4/2001; Oziewicz and Ha 11/22/2001; Waldman 11/26/2001) After many hours of questioning, Mohamed tells the Canadian officials to call John Zent, his handler at the FBI. Zent confirms that Mohamed works for the FBI and asks them to release him. They do. (Lance 2006, pp. 124) Mohamed is accompanied by fellow al-Qaeda operative Khaled Abu el-Dahab (see 1987-1998), who brings $3,000 sent by bin Laden to pay for Marzouk’s bail. Marzouk had run one of bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and was an active member of the al-Qaeda allied group Islamic Jihad at the time. However, Canadian intelligence apparently is unaware of his past. Marzouk will spend almost a year in detention. But then, again with the help of another visit to Canada by Mohamed, Marzouk will be released and allowed to live in Canada (see June 16, 1993-February 1998). He later will help train the bombers who carry out the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). (Oziewicz and Ha 11/22/2001; Bell 11/26/2005) Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent who later investigates Mohamed, will say: “I don’t think you have to be an agent who has worked terrorism all your life to realize something is terribly amiss here. What was the follow up? It just sort of seems like [this incident] dies.” (Lance 2006, pp. 125)
FBI agent Jack Cloonan is given the task of building a file on double agent Ali Mohamed. Mohamed is living openly in California and has already confessed to working for al-Qaeda (see May 1993). He has been monitored since 1993 (see Autumn 1993). (Lance 2006, pp. 138) Cloonan is part of Squad I-49, a task force made up of prosecutors and investigators that begins focusing on bin Laden in January 1996 (see January 1996). Mohamed has been an informant for FBI agents on the West Coast of the US (see 1992 and June 16, 1993), though when he stops working with them exactly remains unknown. Cloonan and other US officials will have dinner with Mohamed in October 1997 (see October 1997), but Mohamed will not be arrested until after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see September 10, 1998).
The Justice Department directs an existing unit called Squad I-49 to begin building a legal case against bin Laden. This unit is unusual because it combines prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, who have been working on bin Laden related cases, with the FBI’s New York office, which was the FBI branch office that dealt the most with bin Laden -related intelligence. Patrick Fitzgerald effectively directs I-49 as the lead prosecutor. FBI agent Dan Coleman becomes a key member while simultaneously representing the FBI at Alec Station, the CIA’s new bin Laden unit (February 1996) where he has access to the CIA’s vast informational database. (Lance 2006, pp. 218-219) The other initial members of I-49 are: Louis Napoli, John Anticev, Mike Anticev, Richard Karniewicz, Jack Cloonan, Carl Summerlin, Kevin Cruise, Mary Deborah Doran, and supervisor Tom Lang. All are FBI agents except for Napoli and Summerlin, a New York police detective and a New York state trooper, respectively. The unit will end up working closely with FBI agent John O’Neill, who heads the New York FBI office. Unlike the CIA’s Alec Station, which is focused solely on bin Laden, I-49 has to work on other Middle East -related issues. For much of the next year or so, most members will work on the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, because it crashed near New York and is suspected to have been carried out by Middle Eastern militants (July 17, 1996-September 1996). However, in years to come, I-49 will grow considerably and focus more on bin Laden. (Wright 2006, pp. 240-241) After 9/11, the “wall” between intelligence collection and criminal prosecution will often be cited for the failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. But as author Peter Lance will later note, “Little more than ten months after the issuance of Jamie Gorelick’s ‘wall memo,’ Fitzgerald and company were apparently disregarding her mandate that criminal investigation should be segregated from intelligence threat prevention. Squad I-49… was actively working both jobs.” Thanks to Coleman’s involvement in both I-49 and the CIA’s Alec Station, I-49 effectively avoids the so-called “wall” problem. (Lance 2006, pp. 220)
US prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and FBI agents Jack Cloonan and Harlan Bell, all members of the I-49 squad, take Ali Mohamed out for dinner at a restaurant in Sacramento, California (he has recently moved there from Santa Clara, California). Fitzgerald pays for Mohamed’s meal. Cloonan will later recall, “The purpose in us going to meet Ali at that point in time is that we wanted to gain his cooperation. We knew of his long history having been connected to al-Qaeda, and what we desperately wanted was to convince Ali Mohamed to cooperate with us that night.” During the several-hour-long meeting, Mohamed says the following:
He “loved” bin Laden and “believes in him.” (Williams and McCormick 11/4/2001; Lance 2006, pp. 274-276)
He organized bin Laden’s move from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1991 (see Summer 1991).
He was in Somalia training militants to fight US soldiers in 1993. He claims “bin Laden’s people were responsible” for the killing of 18 US soldiers there (see 1993).
He trained bin Laden’s personal bodyguards in 1994 and he lived in bin Laden’s house while doing so (see Shortly After February 1994). (Lance 2006, pp. 274-276)
He says he trained people in “war zones, and… war zones can be anywhere.” (Waldman 11/26/2001)
He asserts he doesn’t need a religious edict to make war on the US since it is “obvious” that the US is “the enemy.” Author Peter Lance will later note these words clearly “amounted to treason.”
Cloonan will recall, “He said that he was in touch with hundreds of people he could call on in a moment’s notice that could be, quote, ‘operational,’ and wage jihad against the United States. Very brazenly, he said, ‘I can get out anytime and you’ll never find me. I’ve got a whole network. You’ll never find me.”
After dinner, Cloonan will recall that Fitzgerald turned to him and said, “This is the most dangerous man I have ever met. We cannot let this man out on the street.” But Lance will later note, “But that’s just what he did. Patrick Fitzgerald allowed Ali Mohamed to go free”—even though Mohamed firmly rejected the offer to cooperate. During the dinner, other agents break into Mohamed’s house and bug his computer (his phone is already tapped (see Late 1994). Mohamed will continue to live in California for nearly a year and won’t be arrested until after the August 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). The FBI apparently makes a report based on Mohamed’s comments at this meeting (see After October 1997). But no evidence has come to light that Mohamed’s confession is shared with top US officials or spread widely within US intelligence before 9/11. (Lance 2006, pp. 274-276) In 2003, Fitzgerald will testify before a Senate committee and claim that when he had to make the decision after the embassy bombings whether or not to arrest Mohamed (see September 10, 1998), the “decision to arrest was made partly in the dark” because prosecutors could “not learn what information [the FBI] had gathered” on Mohamed. Fitzgerald will fail to mention that he was sitting with FBI agents when Mohamed gave this startling confession. (US Congress 10/21/2003)
Double agent Ali Mohamed gives a hint about the upcoming African embassy bombings to an FBI agent. Harlan Bell, one of the FBI agents who met with Mohamed at an October 1997 dinner where Mohamed detailed his al-Qaeda ties (see October 1997), is apparently continuing to regularly talk to him on the phone (though it is not known what they discuss). Bell begins recording these phone calls (which are presumably being recorded by others as well since all of Mohamed’s communications are being monitored by this time (see October 1997-September 10, 1998)). FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who works with Bell in the I-49 bin Laden squad, will later recall that after the embassy bombings Bell will replay one of these taped conversations. “It became apparent from listening to one of those tapes that Ali was talking about a possible target in East Africa. He never specifically said the embassy or that he knew an attack was imminent, but he was giving this up in a sense before the attack took place.” (Lance 2006, pp. 207-208)
The FBI installs a wiretap in double agent Ali Mohamed’s computer (the FBI has been monitoring his phone since 1993 (see Autumn 1993 and Late 1994)). According to FBI agent Jack Cloonan, “The Sacramento [FBI] office did a wonderful job of getting into his apartment, wiring it up, and exploiting his computer. So we were able to download a lot of stuff.” (Lance 2006, pp. 276) Not much is known about what is on his computer, but a 2001 trial will mention that Wadih El-Hage, head of the cell in Kenya planning the African embassy bombings (see Between October 1997 and August 7, 1998), sent Mohamed a computer file about the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri by drowning in Kenya in May 1996 (see May 21, 1996). (Lance 2006, pp. 297-298) Journalist Peter Lance believes that, given Mohamed’s apparent foreknowledge of the embassy bombings, the computer probably contained references to that operation. In his book Triple Cross, he asks, “If [US agents] now had access to Mohamed’s phone and hard disk, why didn’t they come to understand his role as a key player in the embassy bombing plot?… If their motive was to lie in wait—to monitor his phone calls and e-mail traffic—why didn’t that surveillance put them right in the middle of the embassy plot?” (Lance 2006, pp. 276)
After the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the British intelligence service MI6 obtains some important information about the attacks, but does not share it with the FBI. MI6 obtains the information from a member of the bombing cell, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who already has a relationship with MI6 when the attack happens (see Mid-Summer 1998). Kherchtou tries to flee Kenya after the bombing, but, tipped off by the British, local authorities detain him and hand him over to MI6. He is debriefed in Nairobi, but, although the British say they share the information with the CIA, they do not provide it to the FBI, which is investigating the bombing. FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later comment: “[W]e’ve got hundreds of agents on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania trying to figure out what happened. Let me just say it would have been real helpful if the British had told us they had one of the cell members in custody.” Kherchtou helped plan the bombings (see Late 1993-Late 1994) and is handed over to the FBI in the summer of 2000, later becoming a star prosecution witness at the trial (see Summer 2000 and September 2000). (Vest 6/19/2005)
The FBI is told that three arrested Islamist militants working for Osama bin Laden are about to be released from prison in the UK. But the FBI works quickly and prevents their release. Khalid al-Fawwaz, Ibrahim Eidarous, and Adel Abdel Bary had been arrested in London on September 23, 1998, not long after the US embassy bombings in Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Fawwaz is an al-Qaeda operative while Eidarous and Bary are Islamic Jihad operatives, but all three of them ran the Advice and Reformation Committee (ARC), a bin Laden front in London (see September 23, 1998-July 12, 1999). The three of them had been arrested for a role in the embassy bombings, but in July 1999, a British judge says there is not enough evidence to keep them imprisoned. FBI agents Ali Soufan, Dan Coleman, Jack Cloonan, and US attorneys Patrick Fitzgerald and Ken Karas work quickly and put together a request to have the three men extradited to the US to stand trial there. (The US already had requested al-Fawwaz’s extradition shortly after his arrest in September (see September 23, 1998-July 12, 1999).) As a result, the three men are rearrested on July 12, 1999, apparently without ever being released, and a long battle to extradite them begins. (Rohde 7/13/1999; Soufan 2011, pp. 97-104)
FBI Director Louis Freeh and other top FBI officials are briefed about the ongoing al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) as part of their regular daily update. They are told the CIA is in the lead and that the CIA promises to let the FBI know if an FBI angle to the case develops. But they are not told that the CIA has just found out that one of the participants, Khalid Almihdhar, has a US visa. (9/11 Commission 1/26/2004) It is unclear who the other top FBI officials that are briefed are. However, Dale Watson, the assistant director of the counterterrorism division, and Thomas Pickard, the FBI’s deputy director at this time and its acting director in the summer of 2001, will also learn of the summit by July 2001, although it is unclear exactly when they are informed (see July 12, 2001). (Pickard 6/24/2004) According to Vanity Fair, Richard Blee, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, “provided surveillance updates for [the CIA’s] top officers, the FBI, and the White House” while the summit is in progress. (Zeman et al. 11/2004) One FBI official familiar with the case will later complain: “[The CIA] purposely hid [Almihdhar] from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau.… The thing was, they didn’t want John O’Neill and the FBI running over their case. And that’s why September 11 happened.… They have blood on their hands.” (Bamford 2004, pp. 224) Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent in the I-49 squad that focuses on al-Qaeda, will later say: “If that information [got] disseminated, would it have had an impact on the events of 9/11? I’m telling you that it would have.” (Thomas 5/10/2004)
FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of the FBI’s I-49 bin Laden squad, will tell author Peter Lance after 9/11 that another FBI agent belonging to I-49 named Frank Pellegrino saw some of the surveillance photos taken of the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia several months earlier (see January 5-8, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000 and Shortly After). Cloonan will say, “Pellegrino was in Kuala Lumpur,” the capital of Malaysia. “And the CIA chief of station said, ‘I’m not supposed to show these photographs, but here. Take a look at these photographs. Know any of these guys?’” But Pellegrino does not recognize them, as he is working to catch Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and apparently is not involved in other cases. However, there have been numerous reports that KSM was at the summit (see January 5-8, 2000). Further, Lance will note that if Pellegrino could not identify KSM, he could have recognized Hambali, another attendee of the summit. Pellegrino was in the Philippines in 1995 and worked with local officials there as they interrogated Abdul Hakim Murad, one of the Bojinka bombers (see February-Early May 1995). During this time, Murad’s interrogators learned about Hambali’s involvement in a front company called Konsonjaya and passed the information on to US officials (see Spring 1995). Further, an FBI report from 1999 shows the FBI was aware of Hambali’s ties to Konsonjaya by that time (see May 23, 1999). (Lance 2006, pp. 340-341)
The FBI extracts a full confession from L’Houssaine Kherchtou, also known as “Joe the Moroccan,” a member of the cell that bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). However, in contrast with methods used on al-Qaeda operatives after 9/11, he is not tortured and the FBI is at pains to treat him well.
Relaxing Surroundings, Respectful Treatment - FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later say of the initial interrogation, which took place in Morocco, “The setting was beautiful, it was this grand house with stables out back, gazelles bouncing in the background, palm trees, three-course meals.” Kherchtou had a relationship with the British intelligence service MI6 (see Mid-Summer 1998 and Shortly After August 7, 1998), but had broken off contact with it and has to be lured to Morocco, where his debriefing is headed by Patrick Fitzgerald. Cloonan will later describe the questioning: “We advised [Kherchtou] of his rights. We told him he could have a lawyer anytime, and that he could pray at any time he wanted. We were letting the Moroccans sit in on this, and they were dumbfounded.… The Moroccans said he’d never talk. He never shut up for 10 days.” Fitzgerald denies Kherchtou a plea bargaining agreement, and says he must plead guilty to conspiracy to murder, for which he may receive a life sentence, though Fitzgerald promises to ask the judge for leniency. However, Cloonan will later say, “His wife needed money for medical treatment in Khartoum, and al-Qaeda had failed to provide it.” It is Cloonan’s “in” with Kherchtou, who is also sure that the US will not torture him. When Kherchtou wavers, Cloonan steps in. As he recalls: “I said, ‘Joe, you understand English, so I’d like you to go out and pray on this with your two Moroccan brothers.’ I thought Fitzy was going to give birth. Joe went out and prayed and came back and said yes.” He provides the FBI with details of the plot and becoming a star witness at the trial (see September 2000). (Vest 6/19/2005; Rose 12/16/2008)
Invaluable Information - Kherchtou’s information, provided at a time when the US knows comparatively little about al-Qaeda, is, in Cloonan’s assessment, invaluable. “He told us about a lot of things,” Cloonan later says. “We learned how they recruited people, their front organizations, how they used NGOs [non-governmental organizations], false passports, what they thought about kidnapping, how they developed targets, did their surveillance, a day in the life of Osama bin Laden, what weapons they used, what vehicles they drove, who was the principal liaison with the Sudanese government, that there was a relationship between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, how they did their training exercises, their finances, and their membership.” After the trial, he enters the witness protection program in the US. Four of his onetime associates will receive life sentences as a direct result of his information. (Rose 12/16/2008)
FBI Use Kherchtou as Example of Successful Interrogation Tacticss - FBI officials will later compare this outcome favorably to procedures used by other US agencies after 9/11. For example, following the detainee abuse scandals after 9/11, FBI manager Tom Harrington will write that the FBI has “been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques.” Cloonan will later contrast Kherchtou’s treatment with that of al-Qaeda training manager Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in December 2001, when the US sent al-Libi to Egypt to be tortured and interrogated, but some of the information he provided there turned out to be false (see December 19, 2001 and January 2002 and After). (Vest 6/19/2005)
At the trial of al-Qaeda operatives accused of participating in the 1998 US African embassy bombings, it is disclosed that an unnamed al-Qaeda operative had requested information about air traffic control procedures. This information is provided to the FBI by a co-operating witness, L’Houssaine Kherchtou (see Summer 2000), and is mentioned by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who says that Kherchtou “observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali [Nawawi], about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system, and it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane.” Nawawi is a Florida-based al-Qaeda operative and pilot who is arrested in 1999 (see May 18, 1999). The identity of the Egyptian is not disclosed, although both Kherchtou and Nawawi are associates of former Egyptian army officer Ali Mohamed, who used Kherchtou’s apartment to plot the Nairobi embassy bombing (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and January 1998). (United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 8 2/21/2001) Mohamed also conducted surveillance of airports in the early 1980s with a view to hijacking an airliner, and subsequently worked as a security adviser to Egyptair, where he had access to the latest anti-hijacking measures. (Lance 2006, pp. 11-12) Jack Cloonan, one of the FBI agents who debriefed Kherchtou, will later receive the Phoenix Memo (see July 27, 2001 or Shortly After), which states that an inordinate amount of bin Laden-related individuals are learning to fly in the US (see July 10, 2001). (Vest 6/19/2005) However, he will not apparently make the connection between the memo’s premise and the information from Kherchtou.
Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” (Behar 5/22/2002; House 7/24/2003) Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. (Schrom 10/1/2002) Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ; Smith 7/25/2003)
Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. (Schrom 10/1/2002)
Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. (Schrom 10/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 )
Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ) One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. (Krikorian 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 521)
Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529)
Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002) This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. (Solomon 5/22/2002) Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. (Connell 10/28/2001; Krikorian 1/24/2003; Wagner 5/2/2004; Sherman 11/2004) Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). (Connell 10/28/2001)
Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” (Behar 5/22/2002) , so they can later hijack aircraft. (Schrom 10/1/2002)
Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” (House 7/24/2003) (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. (Risen 5/4/2002)
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 7/10/2001 ; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 )
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002) One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” (Insight 5/27/2002) However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” (Schrom 10/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ) Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002)
The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism, receives Ken Williams’ Phoenix Memo, but only briefly checks the named radicals and does not respond to Williams. In the memo, Williams noted that there is a suspiciously large number of Islamic extremists learning to fly in Arizona. Some of them will turn out to be connected to 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). Williams sent the memo to FBI headquarters (see July 27, 2001 and after) and the I-49 squad in the New York FBI field office. In New York, the memo is read by FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of the I-49 squad. Cloonan believes that the memo has a “glaring deficiency,” as he thinks bin Laden does not have a support operation in Arizona any more. He forms the opinion that William’s theory and conclusions are “faulty.” However, two of the hijackers were in Arizona in early 2001 (see December 12, 2000-March 2001) and some of the people named in the memo will later be linked to bin Laden (see October 1996-Late April 1999). In August 2001, Cloonan will ask, “Who’s going to conduct the thirty thousand interviews? When the f_ck do we have time for this?” Nonetheless, he checks out the eight names mentioned in the memo. He will apparently find nothing, although several individuals associated with the Phoenix cell are Sunni extremists (see November 1999-August 2001). The memo is also read by an analyst and an auditor in New York while they are researching other matters, and Cloonan will tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) he may have discussed the memo with some of his colleagues. The OIG’s report will say Cloonan told investigators that “he did not contact Williams or anyone else in Phoenix to discuss the [memo].” However, in a 2006 book author Lawrence Wright, citing an interview with Cloonan, will say that Cloonan spoke to Williams’ supervisor in Phoenix about it. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 77-9 ; Wright 2006, pp. 350, 426) The I-49 squad possibly forwards the memo to the Alec Station bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see (July 27, 2001)).
FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi, who has discovered 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is in the country (see August 21-22, 2001), contacts the FBI’s New York field office to give it a heads up that information about Almihdhar will soon be passed to it, and it will be asked to search for him. Corsi does not usually call in advance of sending notification, but she thinks that the situation is urgent in this case, as they need to locate Almihdhar, who is watchlisted at this time (see August 23, 2001), before he leaves the US. However, when she sends written notification (see August 28, 2001), it only has “routine” precedence, the lowest level. When asked about the discrepancy after 9/11, Corsi will say that this case was “no bigger” than any other case. I-49 squad supervisor Jack Cloonan and another FBI supervisor will later also say they recognized there was some urgency to the Almihdhar investigation, but the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will comment: “Yet, the FBI in New York did not treat it like an urgent matter.” (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 303-5, 354 )
After learning that FBI headquarters wants the search for 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar to be an intelligence investigation, FBI supervisor Jack Cloonan protests, saying a criminal investigation would be more appropriate. Cloonan, an agent on the I-49 al-Qaeda squad at the FBI’s New York office, says that the search should be conducted by criminal agents, as they would have more freedom and resources, due to an existing indictment of Osama bin Laden. Other agents on the squad make the same argument (see August 23, 2001 and August 28, 2001). However, in the end the search will be conducted as an intelligence investigation, but will not find Almihdhar before 9/11 as only one inexperienced agent will be assigned to it (see August 29, 2001). (Wright 2006, pp. 353)
It has been widely reported that the CIA never had any assets near bin Laden before 9/11. For instance, Lawrence Wright will write in his highly regarded 2006 book, The Looming Tower, “The fact is that the CIA had no one inside al-Qaeda or the Taliban security that surrounded bin Laden.” (Wright 2006, pp. 265) But author Ronald Kessler will write in a 2004 book, “Often, the CIA used operatives from Arab intelligence services like those of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and other countries to infiltrate bin Laden’s organization.” A longtime CIA officer says, “Egyptians, Jordanians, [and] Palestinians penetrated the bin Laden organization for us. It’s B.S. that we didn’t.” Kessler further explains that such operations remain one of the CIA’s best-kept secrets and often occur even with intelligence agencies the CIA is sometimes otherwise at odds with. Kessler says, “In return for help, the CIA provided them with money, equipment, and intelligence on their adversaries. Over the years, the Jordanians, for example, relied on the CIA to alert them to plots against the king. Over time, the Jordanians became so good at the intelligence game that they were better at detecting plots than the CIA.” (Kessler 2004, pp. 143) Jack Cloonan, an FBI expert on al-Qaeda, will later say, “There were agents run into the camps. But most of them were not very well placed,” and lacked access to the inner circles. (Waterman 11/27/2006) One example of such an asset may be Khalil Deek, who worked closely with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see 1998-December 11, 1999) and was reportedly a mole for Jordanian intelligence (see Shortly After December 11, 1999). In the months before 9/11, Jordan will warn the US that al-Qaeda is planning a major attack inside the US using aircraft (see Late Summer 2001), and Egypt will warn the CIA that al-Qaeda has 20 operatives on a mission in the US, some of them training to fly (see Late July 2001).
On September 24, 2001, the US freezes the bank accounts of a number of people and businesses allegedly linked to al-Qaeda (see September 24, 2001). However, no accounts at the Al-Shamal Islamic Bank in Sudan are frozen, despite a 1996 State Department report that bin Laden co-founded the bank and capitalized it with $50 million (see August 14, 1996). As the Chicago Tribune will later note, bin Laden has been more closely linked to this bank than to any other bank in the world. (Crewdson 11/3/2001) On September 26, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) publicly notes that Al-Shamal was able to obtain correspondent accounts with three US banks, as well as many European and Middle East banks, giving Al-Shamal direct or indirect access to US banking. (Senator Carl Levin 9/26/2001) Al-Shamal claims that it cut ties with bin Laden long ago. However, tipped off by Levin’s comments, one day later a group of computer hackers claim to have hacked into Al-Shamal’s computers, found evidence of existing al-Qaeda-linked bank accounts, and then turned the information over to the FBI. The FBI neither confirms nor denies getting such information. (McWilliams 10/12/2001) Several days later, it is reported that European banks are quietly cutting off all dealings with Al-Shamal despite the lack of any formal blacklisting of it. (Associated Press 10/1/2001) The Los Angeles Times will later report that after 9/11, the Sudanese government greatly increased their cooperation with US intelligence in hopes of improving relations with the US. In November 2001, some FBI agents including Jack Cloonan go to Sudan and are allowed to interview the manager at Al-Shamal. Bank records are made available to US investigators as well. Cloonan will later say, “Until then, the Sudanese had a credibility problem with the US, but they gave us everything we asked for.” (Silverstein 4/29/2005) But multiple sources will later report that, as of late 2002 at least, Saudi multimillionaire Adel Batterjee heads Al-Shamal and is one of its largest shareholders. (Devon and Mitre 10/28/2002; Gunaratna 2003, pp. 112; Roe, Cohen, and Franklin 2/22/2004) Batterjee had long been suspected of al-Qaeda ties and was even detained by the Saudi government over his al-Qaeda links in 1993 (see 1993). The US will officially designate him a terrorist financier in 2004 (see December 21, 2004). The Chicago Tribune notes that an official US blacklisting of the bank “could well have diplomatic repercussions that the White House… would rather avoid.” A Saudi financial services conglomerate, Dar Al-Maal Al-Islami Trust (DMI), has a major stake in Al-Shamal, and DMI is headed by Prince Mohammed al-Faisal al-Saud, a cousin of the Saudi King Fahd. (His accountant will later be arrested in Spain and accused of being an important al-Qaeda financier (see April 23, 2002).) Other Saudi royals and prominent businesspeople are also invested in DMI. (Crewdson 11/3/2001) Furthermore, one of the bank’s three founding members and major shareholders is Saleh Abdullah Kamel, a Saudi billionaire and chairman of the Dallah al-Baraka Group. (Komisar 12/20/2002) Al-Shamal apparently continues to operate and the US apparently has not taken any action against it. It is unclear if Batterjee continues to run it.
FBI agent Jack Cloonan arrives in Sudan with several other FBI agents and is given permission by the Sudanese government to interview some al-Qaeda operatives living there. The interviews were conducted at safe houses arranged by Sudanese intelligence. Cloonan interviews Mubarak al Duri, an Iraqi. He lived in Tuscon, Arizona, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was al-Qaeda’s chief agent attempting to purchase weapons of mass destruction (see 1986). Cloonan will later claim that al Duri and a second Iraqi al-Qaeda operative laughed when asked about possible bin Laden ties to Saddam Hussein’s government. “They said bin Laden hated Saddam.” Bin Laden considered Hussein “a Scotch-drinking, woman-chasing apostate.” Cloonan also interviews Mohammed Loay Bayazid, an American citizen and founding member of al-Qaeda (see August 11-20, 1988), who ran an al-Qaeda charity front in the US (see December 16, 1994). (Silverstein 4/29/2005) The CIA will interview them in 2002, but they apparently remain free in Sudan (see Mid-2002).
Jose Padilla, a US citizen and “enemy combatant” alleged to be an al-Qaeda terrorist (see May 8, 2002) and held without charges for over three years (see October 9, 2005), is charged with being part of a North American terrorist cell that sent money and recruits overseas to, as the indictment reads, “murder, maim, and kidnap.” The indictment contains none of the sensational allegations that the US government has made against Padilla (see June 10, 2002), including his supposed plan to detonate a “dirty bomb” inside the US (see Early 2002) and his plans to blow up US hotel and apartment buildings (see March 2002). Nor does the indictment accuse Padilla of being a member of al-Qaeda. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says, “The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist (see September-October 2000) with the intention of fighting a violent jihad.” He refuses to say why the more serious charges were not filed. Some provisions of the Patriot Act helped the investigation, Gonzales adds: “By tearing down the artificial wall that would have prevented this kind of investigation in the past, we’re able to bring these terrorists to justice,” he says. The Padilla case has become a central part of the dispute over holding prisoners such as Padilla without charge; by charging Padilla with lesser crimes, the Bush administration avoids the possibility of the Supreme Court ruling that he and other “enemy combatants,” particularly American citizens, must either be tried or released. Law professor Eric Freedman says the Padilla indictment is an effort by the administration “to avoid an adverse decision of the Supreme Court.” Law professor Jenny Martinez, who represents Padilla, says: “There’s no guarantee the government won’t do this again to Mr. Padilla or others. The Supreme Court needs to review this case on the merits so the lower court decision is not left lying like a loaded gun for the government to use whenever it wants.” Padilla’s lawyers say the government’s case against their client is based on little more than “double and triple hearsay from secret witnesses, along with information allegedly obtained from Padilla himself during his two years of incommunicado interrogation.” Padilla will be transferred from military custody to the Justice Department, where he will await trial in a federal prison in Miami. He faces life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to murder, maim, and kidnap overseas. The lesser charges—providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy—carry maximum prison terms of 15 years each. (Associated Press 11/22/2005; Fox News 11/23/2005)
'Dirty Bomb' Allegations 'Not Credible,' Says Former FBI Agent - Retired FBI agent Jack Cloonan, an expert on al-Qaeda, later says: “The dirty bomb plot was simply not credible. The government would never have given up that case if there was any hint of credibility to it. Padilla didn’t stand trial for it, because there was no evidence to support it.” (Rose 12/16/2008)
Issue with CIA Videotapes - In 2002, captured al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida identified Padilla as an al-Qaeda operative (see Mid-April 2002) and the government cited Zubaida as a source of information about Padilla after Padilla’s arrest. Yet, sometime this same month, the CIA destroys the videotapes of Zubaida’s interrogations from the time period where he allegedly identified Padilla (see November 2005). The Nation’s Aziz Huq will later comment: “Given the [Bush] administration’s reliance on Zubaida’s statements as evidence of Padilla’s guilt, tapes of Zubaida’s interrogation were clearly relevant to the Padilla trial.… A federal criminal statute prevents the destruction of any record for a foreseeable proceeding, even if the evidence is not admissible.… [I]t seems almost certain that preservation of the tapes was legally required by the Jose Padilla prosecution.” (Huq 12/11/2007)
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