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Profile: Ken Williams
Ken Williams was a participant or observer in the following events:
By 1990, Arizona became one of the main centers in the US for radical Muslims, and it remains so through 9/11. A number of future al-Qaeda leaders live in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1990s (see 1986). Around 1991, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour moved to Arizona for the first time (see October 3, 1991-February 1992) and he will spend much of the rest of the decade in the state. The FBI apparently remains largely oblivious of Hanjour, though one FBI informant claims that by 1998 they “knew everything about the guy.” [New York Times, 6/19/2002; Washington Post, 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521] In 1994, the Phoenix FBI office uncovers startling evidence connecting Arizona to radical Muslim militants. According to FBI agent James Hauswirth, they are told that a group of “heavy duty associates” of al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman have arrived in the area, fleeing New York in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They are in the area to train a recruit as a suicide bomber. The recruit apparently is an FBI informant. FBI agent Ken Williams, who will later author the July 2001 “Phoenix memo,” orders surveilance of the training. The informant is driven to a remote stretch of desert and instructed in how to use explosives. A device is thrown at a car, but it fails to explode. The FBI secretly videotapes the entire incident. One of the two men is later positively linked to Abdul-Rahman. But apparently the investigation into the people involved fails to make progress. Hauswirth later blames this on a lack of support from higher-ups in the Phoenix office, recalling, “The drug war was the big thing back then, and terrorism was way on the back burner.” Additionally, also in 1994, a key FBI informant will begin monitoring local radical militants (see October 1996). However, terrorism will remain a low priority for the Phoenix, Arizona, FBI office (see April 2000-June 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 209-210]
Harry Ellen. [Source: Associated Press]Harry Ellen, a businessman who converted to Islam, has high credibility with Muslims in Arizona because of his work on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He has had important meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1994, he began working as an FBI informant. Ken Williams, the Phoenix FBI agent who will later write the July 2001 “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001), is his handler. In October 1996, Ellen tells Williams that he has suspicions about an Algerian pilot who is training other Middle Eastern men to fly. He later recalls, “My comment to Williams was that it would be pitiful if the bad guys were able to gain this kind of access to airplanes, flight training and crop dusters. I said, ‘You really ought to look at this, it’s an interesting mix of people.’” Ellen had previously begun spying on a man known as Abu Sief, which apparently is his alias. Sief had come to Arizona from New Jersey in 1993, and bragged about having close ties with al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef (when Yousef’s computer is seized in the Philippines in 1995, there is a mention of a contact in Tucson, Arizona, but it is unknown if this is a reference to Sief or someone else (see January 7-11, 1995)). Sief attended a New Jersey mosque that many of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers also attended. Ellen soon sees the unnamed Algerian pilot meeting with Abu Sief. He tells this to Williams and later will claim, “I told him to be very concerned about air schools.” However, Ellen will claim that Williams responds by telling him to “leave it alone.” So he does. Ellen later believes that Williams should have sent the gist of his Phoenix memo at this time, instead of four and a half years later. Hani Hanjour is living in Phoenix by this time and taking flight training nearby (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Ellen later will say he did not know Hanjour directly, but he knew some of his friends and relatives. Ellen and Williams will have a falling out in late 1998 on an unrelated manner, and Ellen’s flow of information will stop. [Washington Post, 5/24/2002; New York Times, 5/24/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 211, 352-355, inset 21]
Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]The FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, investigates a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport. FBI agent Ken Williams initiates an investigation into the possibility of Islamic militants learning to fly aircraft, but he has no easy way to query a central FBI database about similar cases. Because of this and other FBI communication problems, he remains unaware of most US intelligence reports about the potential use of airplanes as weapons, as well as other, specific FBI warnings issued in 1998 and 1999 concerning Islamic militants training at US flight schools (see May 15, 1998; September 1999). Williams will write the “Phoenix memo” in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). He had been alerted about some suspicious flight school students in 1996, but it is not clear if this person was mentioned in that previous alert or not (see October 1996). [US Congress, 7/24/2003 ]
Aukai Collins in Chechnya.
[Source: Lyons Press publicity photo]An American Caucasian Muslim named Aukai Collins later says he reports to the FBI on hijacker Hani Hanjour for six months this year. [Associated Press, 5/24/2002] The FBI later acknowledges they paid Collins to monitor the Islamic and Arab communities in Phoenix between 1996 and 1999. He also was an informant overseas and once had an invitation to meet bin Laden (see Mid-1998). [ABC News, 5/23/2002; Associated Press, 5/24/2002] Collins claims that he is a casual acquaintance of Hanjour while Hanjour is taking flying lessons. [Associated Press, 5/24/2002] Collins sees nothing suspicious about Hanjour as an individual, but he tells the FBI about him because Hanjour appears to be part of a larger, organized group of Arabs taking flying lessons. [The Big Story with John Gibson, 5/24/2002] He says the FBI “knew everything about the guy,” including his exact address, phone number, and even what car he drove. The FBI denies Collins told them anything about Hanjour, and denies knowing about Hanjour before 9/11. [ABC News, 5/23/2002] Collins later calls Hanjour a “hanky panky” hijacker: “He wasn’t even moderately religious, let alone fanatically religious. And I knew for a fact that he wasn’t part of al-Qaeda or any other Islamic organization; he couldn’t even spell jihad in Arabic.” [Collins, 2003, pp. 248] Collins tells the New York Times that he worked with FBI agent Ken Williams, who will write a July 2001 memo expressing concerns about radical militants attending Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). He says that he quarrels with Williams and quits helping him. It is unknown if Williams ever learns about Hanjour before 9/11. [New York Times, 5/24/2002] Collins closely matches the description of the informant who first alerted Williams to Zacaria Soubra, a flight student who will be the main focus of Williams’ memo (see April 2000). If this is so, it bolsters Collins’ claims that he knew Hanjour, because many of Soubra’s friends, including his roommate (and al-Qaeda operative) Ghassan al-Sharbi do know Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). After 9/11, Collins will claim that based on his experience with the FBI and CIA, he is 100 percent sure that some people in those agencies knew about the 9/11 attack in advance and let it happen. “Just think about it—how could a group of people plan such a big operation full of so many logistics and probably countless e-mails, encrypted or not, and phone calls and messengers? And you’re telling me that, through all of that, that the CIA never caught wind of it?” [Salon, 10/17/2002]
Bin Laden sends a fax from Afghanistan to Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, a London-based Muslim imam who dubs himself the “mouth, eyes, and ears of Osama bin Laden.” Bakri publicly releases what he calls bin Laden’s four specific objectives for a holy war against the US. The instruction reads, “Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks.” Noting this, the Los Angeles Times will wryly comment that “Bin Laden hasn’t been shy about sharing his game plan.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] In 2001, FBI agent Ken Williams will grow concerned about some Middle Eastern students training in Arizona flight schools. He will link several of them to Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist group founded by Bakri. Williams will quote several fatwas (calls to action) from Bakri in his later-famous July 2001 memo (see July 10, 2001). However, he apparently will not be aware of this particular call to action. These students linked to Bakri’s group apparently have no connection to any of the 9/11 hijackers. In another interview before 9/11, Bakri will boast of recruiting “kamikaze bombers ready to die for Palestine.”
(see Early September 2001) [Associated Press, 5/23/2002]
The FBI receives reports that a militant organization is planning to send students to the US for aviation training. The organization’s name remains classified, but apparently it is a different organization than one mentioned in a very similar warning the year before (see After May 15, 1998). The purpose of this training is unknown, but the organization viewed the plan as “particularly important” and it approved open-ended funding for it. The Counterterrorism Section at FBI headquarters issues a notice instructing 24 field offices to pay close attention to Islamic students from the target country engaged in aviation training. Ken Williams’s squad at the Phoenix FBI office receives this notice, although Williams does not recall reading it. Williams will later write his “Phoenix memo” on this very topic in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry later will conclude, “There is no indication that field offices conducted any investigation after receiving the communication.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003] However, an analyst at FBI headquarters conducts a study and determines that each year there are about 600 Middle Eastern students attending the slightly over 1,000 US flight schools. [New York Times, 5/4/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003] In November 2000, a notice will be issued to the field offices, stating that it has uncovered no indication that the militant group is recruiting students. Apparently, Williams will not see this notice either. [US Congress, 7/24/2003]
Two Saudis, Hamdan al Shalawi and Mohammed al-Qudhaeein, are detained for trying twice to get into the cockpit on a passenger airplane flying from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C. They claim they thought the cockpit was the bathroom, and sue the FBI for racism. After 9/11, the FBI will consider the possibility that this was a “dry run” for the 9/11 attacks, but apparently does not come to a definite conclusion. In late 1999, it is discovered that the two were traveling to Washington to attend a party at the Saudi embassy and their ticket had been paid by the Saudi government. Apparently influenced by their government ties, the FBI decides not to prosecute or investigate the men. Al-Qudhaeein leaves the US. In 2000, intelligence information will be received indicating al-Qudhaeein had received explosives and car bomb training in Afghanistan. As a result, his name is added to a no-fly watch list. In April 2000, FBI agent Ken Williams is investigating Zacaria Soubra, a suspected radical militant attending a flight school in Phoenix, and discovers that the car Soubra is driving is actually owned by al-Qudhaeein. Soubra is friends with al Shalawi and al-Qudhaeein. This and other evidence will influence Williams to write his later-famous July 2001 memo warning about potential terrorists training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). In August 2001, al-Qudhaeein applies for a visa to reenter the US, but is denied entry. It has not been revealed why al-Qudhaeein wanted to reenter the US, or if Williams or anyone else in US intelligence knew about his attempted reentry, or if anyone took action as a result of it. [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 43-44; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Al Shalawi, the other Saudi involved in the cockpit incident, also has a radical militant background. In November 2000, US intelligence discovers he is training in a camp in Afghanistan, learning how to conduct a car bomb attack. One of his friends in Arizona is Ghassan al Sharbi, an al-Qaeda operative who will be captured in Pakistan with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. Al Sharbi is one of the targets of Williams’ July 2001 memo. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
[Source: Public domain]In early April 2000, Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams gets a tip that makes him suspicious that some flight students might be Islamic militants. Williams will begin an investigation based on this tip that will lead to his “Phoenix memo” warning about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001) [New York Times, 6/19/2002] It appears that Lebanese flight school student Zacaria Soubra has been seen at a shooting range with Abu Mujahid, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Abu Mujahid appears to match Aukai Collins, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East, who also goes by the name Abu Mujahid, and is an FBI informant spying on the Muslim community in the area at the time (see 1998). Collins also claims to have been the informant referred to in the Phoenix memo, which again suggests that Collins was the one at the shooting range with Soubra. [Salon, 10/17/2002] On April 7, Williams appears at Soubra’s apartment and interviews him. Soubra acts defiant, and tells Williams that he considers the US government and military legitimate targets of Islam. He has photographs of bin Laden on the walls. Williams runs a check on the license plate of Soubra’s car and discovers the car is actually owned by a suspected militant with explosives and car bomb training in Afghanistan who had been held for attempting to enter an airplane cockpit the year before (see November 1999-August 2001). [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 43-44] On April 17, Williams starts a formal investigation into Soubra. [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams will be reassigned to work on an arson case and will not be able to get back to work on the Soubra investigation until June 2001 (see April 2000-June 2001). He will release the Phoenix memo one month later. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect Soubra had ties to terrorism. For instance, in 2003, an unnamed official will claim, “Soubra was involved in terrorist-supporting activities, facilitating shelter and employment for people… involved with al-Qaeda.” For a time, he and hijacker Hani Hanjour attend the same mosque, though there is no evidence they ever meet. Soubra’s roommate at the time of Williams’ interview is Ghassan al-Sharbi. In 2002, al-Sharbi will be arrested in Pakistan with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. While Williams will focus on Soubra, al-Sharbi will also be a target of his memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003] In 2004, Soubra will be deported to Lebanon after being held for two years. He will deny any connection to Hanjour or terrorism. [Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004] Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of the British militant group Al-Muhajiroun, will later admit that Soubra was the leader of Al-Muhajiroun’s branch in Arizona. [Time, 5/27/2002]
In April 2000, FBI agent Ken Williams begins investigating an Arizona flight student named Zacaria Soubra with suspicious radical militant ties. Soubra will be the main focus of Williams’s July 2001 memo about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). But Williams’ investigation into Soubra is greatly slowed because of internal politics and personal disputes. When he returns to this case in December 2000, he and all the other agents on the international terrorism squad are diverted to work on a high-profile arson case. James Hauswirth, another Arizona FBI agent, will later say, “[Williams] fought it. Why take your best terrorism investigator and put him on an arson case? He didn’t have a choice.” The arson case is solved in June 2001 and Williams returns to the issue of Islamic militant flight school students. His memo comes out much later than it otherwise might have. Hauswirth will write a letter to FBI Director Mueller in late 2001, complaining, “[Terrorism] has always been the lowest priority in the division; it still is the lowest priority in the division.” Others insiders later concur that the Arizona FBI placed a low priority on terrorism cases before 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002]
FISA court judge Royce Lamberth was angry with the FBI over misleading statements made in FISA wiretap applications. [Source: Public domain]While monitoring foreign terrorists in the US, the FBI listens to calls made by suspects as a part of an operation called Catcher’s Mitt, which is curtailed at this time due to misleading statements by FBI agents. It is never revealed who the targets of the FBI’s surveillance are under this operation, but below are some of the terrorism suspects under investigation in the US at the time:
Imran Mandhai, Shuyeb Mossa Jokhan and Adnan El Shukrijumah in Florida. They are plotting a series of attacks there, but Mandhai and Jokhan are brought in for questioning by the FBI and surveillance of them stops in late spring (see November 2000-Spring 2002 and May 2, 2001);
Another Florida cell connected to Blind Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. The FBI has been investigating it since 1993 (see (October 1993-November 2001));
Al-Qaeda operatives in Denver (see March 2000);
A Boston-based al-Qaeda cell involving Nabil al-Marabh and Raed Hijazi. Cell members provide funding to terrorists, fight abroad, and are involved in document forging (see January 2001, Spring 2001, and Early September 2001);
Fourteen of the hijackers’ associates the FBI investigates before 9/11. The FBI is still investigating four of these people while the hijackers associate with them; [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 169 ]
Hamas operatives such as Mohammed Salah in Chicago. Salah invests money in the US and sends it to the occupied territories to fund attacks (see June 9, 1998).
When problems are found with the applications for the wiretap warrants, an investigation is launched (see Summer-October 2000), and new requirements for warrant applications are put in place (see October 2000). From this time well into 2001, the FBI is forced to shut down wiretaps of al-Qaeda-related suspects connected to the 1998 US embassy bombings and Hamas (see March 2001 and April 2001). One source familiar with the case says that about 10 to 20 al-Qaeda related wiretaps have to be shut down and it becomes more difficult to get permission for new FISA wiretaps. Newsweek notes, “The effect [is] to stymie terror surveillance at exactly the moment it was needed most: requests from both Phoenix [with the Ken Williams memo (see July 10, 2001)] and Minneapolis [with Zacarias Moussaoui’s arrest] for wiretaps [will be] turned down [by FBI superiors],” (see August 21, 2001 and August 28, 2001). [Newsweek, 5/27/2002] Robert Wright is an FBI agent who led the Vulgar Betrayal investigation looking into allegations that Saudi businessman Yassin al-Qadi helped finance the embassy bombings, and other matters. In late 2002, he will claim to discover evidence that some of the FBI intelligence agents who stalled and obstructed his investigation were the same FBI agents who misrepresented the FISA petitions. [Judicial Watch, 9/11/2002]
Entity Tags: Royce Lamberth, Shuyeb Mossa Jokhan, Catcher’s Mitt, Robert G. Wright, Jr., Zacarias Moussaoui, Raed Hijazi, Mohammad Salah, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Adnan Shukrijumah, Central Intelligence Agency, Nabil al-Marabh, Ken Williams, Imran Mandhai, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
Hani Hanjour. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]While most evidence places future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour on the East Coast in the summer of 2001, Hanjour may undergo some flight training in Phoenix, Arizona, as well. Hanjour trained at the Sawyer School of Aviation previously (see 1998), and there is some evidence he returns there. One school document records Hanjour’s name for use of a flight simulator on June 23, 2001, though his name does not appear on payment records. Faisal al-Salmi, Rayed Abdullah, and Lotfi Raissi also use the flight simulator this day. Al-Salmi will later be convicted of lying about his associations with Hanjour (see February 15, 2002). Abdullah had moved with Hanjour from Florida in 1997, and is known for giving extremist speeches at a Phoenix mosque (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Raissi will later be suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot, then cleared (see September 21, 2001). There are also indications that Hanjour signs up to use a flight simulator in August with three other Muslim men, including al-Salmi. One Sawyer employee is fairly certain she sees Hanjour during the summer. Another witness sees Hanjour with al-Salmi elsewhere in Phoenix. The 9/11 Commission will note that the evidence of Hanjour training in Phoenix during the summer is not definitive, but “the FBI’s Phoenix office believes it is plausible that Hanjour return[s] to Arizona for additional training.” [New York Times, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529] On July 10, 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum to FBI headquarters urging a nationwide check on Middle Eastern students at flight schools (see July 10, 2001), but apparently neither Williams nor anyone else actually conducts any kind of check on Phoenix flight schools at this time (see July 10-September 11, 2001).
On July 5, 2001, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke gave a dramatic briefing to representatives from several domestic agencies on the urgent al-Qaeda threat (see July 5, 2001). However, the warnings given generally are not passed on by the attendees back to their respective agencies. The domestic agencies were not questioned about how they planned to address the threat and were not told what was expected of them. According to the 9/11 Commission, attendees later “report that they were told not to disseminate the threat information they received at the meeting. They interpreted this direction to mean that although they could brief their superiors, they could not send out advisories to the field.” One National Security Council official has a different recollection of what happened, recalling that attendees were asked to take the information back to their agencies and “do what you can” with it, subject to classification and distribution restrictions. But, for whatever reason, none of the involved agencies post internal warnings based on the meeting, except for Customs which puts out a general warning based entirely on publicly known historical facts. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 258, 264] The FAA issues general and routine threat advisories that don’t reflect the level of urgency expressed by Clarke and others (see January-August 2001). FAA Administrator Jane Garvey later claims she was unaware of a heightened threat level, but in 2005 it will be revealed that about half of the FAA’s daily briefings during this time period referred to bin Laden or al-Qaeda (see April 1, 2001-September 10, 2001). [New York Times, 4/18/2004] Clarke said rhetorically in the meeting that he wants to know if a sparrow has fallen from a tree. A senior FBI official attended the meeting and promised a redoubling of the FBI’s efforts. However, just five days after Clarke’s meeting, FBI agent Ken Williams sends off his memo speculating that al-Qaeda may be training operatives as pilots in the US (see July 10, 2001), yet the FBI fails to share this information with Clarke or any other agency. [Washington Post, 5/17/2002; Clarke, 2004, pp. 236-37] The FBI will also fail to tell Clarke about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001), or what they know about Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see August 23, 2001).
Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Customs Service, Nawaf Alhazmi, Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorism and Security Group, George J. Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, Ken Williams, Richard A. Clarke, Khalid Almihdhar, Central Intelligence Agency
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]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.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 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. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 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 ; Washington Post, 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. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 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. [Los Angeles Times, 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. [Associated Press, 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. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 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). [Los Angeles Times, 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” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 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.” [Arizona Republic, 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. [New York Times, 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.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 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]
Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
On July 10, 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum to FBI headquarters urging a nationwide check on Middle Eastern students at flight schools (see July 10, 2001), but apparently neither Williams nor anyone else actually conducts any kind of check on Phoenix flight schools at this time. Phoenix flight school managers will later claim that the FBI does not ask them for tips on suspicious students before 9/11. A Sawyer School manager apparently had suspicions about some of his students (though he does not mention alleged Flight 77 pilot Hani Hanjour specifically). He later will say that had he known the FBI was concerned that some students might be Islamic militants, “I would have called someone.” Another flight school manager claims he has a good relationship with the FBI and is surprised he is not asked about Williams’s concerns. He will complain, “Should flight schools be clairvoyant?” [New York Times, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529] In fact, although Hanjour left Arizona in March 2001 and lived on the East Coast after that time, there is evidence he comes back for some flight training in the Phoenix area in June and August 2001, including at the Sawyer School (see Summer 2001). The 9/11 Commission will later note that the evidence of Hanjour training in Phoenix during the summer is not definitive, but “the FBI’s Phoenix office believes it is plausible that Hanjour return[s] to Arizona for additional training.” [New York Times, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529] It does not appear that Williams or any other FBI official checks flight schools anywhere else in Arizona before 9/11.
The FBI sends a request to the CIA, asking the agency to check for information on eight Islamist radicals mentioned in the Phoenix memo (see July 10, 2001). However, the CIA apparently does not find any additional information about them. [USA Today, 5/20/2002; Washington Times, 5/23/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 350-1] Had the CIA investigated these men closely they might have turned up ties connecting them to al-Qaeda. For instance, in 2000, two friends of the main target of the Phoenix memo were detained and deported after twice attempting to enter a US airplane cockpit in what may have been practice for the 9/11 attacks. That same year it was learned by US intelligence that one of these men had received explosives and car bombing training in Afghanistan (see November 1999-August 2001). Other ties between the men in the memo go undiscovered; for instance, another person targeted in the memo had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and will later be arrested with a top al-Qaeda leader (see July 10, 2001). Around this time, the Phoenix memo is sent to FBI headquarters and its I-49 squad in New York (see July 27, 2001 and after and July 27, 2001 or Shortly After). After 9/11, the CIA will say it did not receive the memo and its Office of Inspector General will agree with this. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 3/28/2005 ] However, in a 2006 book journalist Lawrence Wright will report that the memo was also sent to the CIA’s bin Laden unit. One of the sources Wright cites for this passage is Mark Rossini. Rossini is an FBI agent who at one time worked in the unit’s I-49 squad in New York, but was detailed to the bin Laden station in the summer of 2001. [Wright, 2006, pp. 316, 350, 381, 426 Sources: Mark Rossini]
FBI headquarters. [Source: GlobeXplorer]FBI headquarters receives the Phoenix Memo, but does not act on it. The memo was drafted by Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams and warns that a large number of Islamic extremists are learning to fly in the US. It is dated 17 days earlier, but is not uploaded until this date (see July 10, 2001). Although the memo is addressed to eight specific agents, it is apparently not received by all of them. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later say that the memo was not delivered directly to the addressees, but uploaded to a central dispatching point, from where it was assigned to Radical Fundamentalist Unit agent Elizabeth Matson on July 30. Before sending the memo, Williams called both Matson and her colleague Fred Stremmel to talk to them about it. Matson pulls up the memo, which has “routine” precedence, and prints and reads it. However, she thinks it should go to the bin Laden unit. A week later she discusses the matter with bin Laden unit agent Jennifer Maitner and they agree that Maitner will do some research and then they will talk again. Matson will later tell the Office of Inspector General she may have mentioned the memo to her superior, but is not sure. Her superior will say he was not consulted. Maitner discusses the memo with bin Laden unit chief Rod Middleton and also sends it to the FBI’s Portland, Oregon, field office, which was previously interested in one of the men named in the memo. However, she does not do anything else with it before 9/11, apparently due to her high workload. The FBI will later acknowledge the memo did not receive the sufficient or timely analysis that it deserved. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 65-77, 80 ] The memo is also seen by the FBI’s New York field office (see July 27, 2001 or Shortly After), another RFU agent researching the Moussaoui case (see August 22, 2001) and possibly the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see (July 27, 2001)).
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)).
Rita Flack, an intelligence operations specialist with the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit, is looking for evidence of ties between Zacarias Moussaoui and a foreign power so the agency can obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 21, 2001). On this day, she comes across the Phoenix memo written by FBI agent Ken Williams (see July 10, 2001) which observed that an unusual number of Islamic radicals are taking aviation training in the US. In the memo, Williams suggested that bin Laden may be coordinating the flight training as part of preparations for a terrorist attack. Flack prints the Phoenix memo. She will later tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that it is her usual practice to read the documents she prints, but she will not recall actually reading the Phoenix memo. She will also say she did not give the memo to anyone else, including colleague Mike Maltbie or the Minneapolis FBI field office. Nor did she discuss it with anyone, she says. After 9/11, she will say that there was nothing in the memo that would have bolstered Moussaoui’s connection to a foreign power, although this will be disputed by three National Security Law Unit attorneys (see August 22-28, 2001). The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will state: “We believe she should have at least recognized the relevance of the [memo] and the potential relationship of its theories to the Moussaoui case… We think [Flack] should have brought the Phoenix [memo] to someone’s attention.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 145-6, 217-8 ; US Department of Justice, 3/1/2006 ] The Senate Judiciary Committee will also later say, “The [Phoenix memo] contained information that was material to the decision whether or not to seek a FISA warrant in the Moussaoui case.” [US Congress, 2/2003]
John O’Neill (left) with Dan Coleman at O’Neill’s retirement party on August 22, 2001. [Source: Dan Coleman]Counterterrorism expert John O’Neill retires from the FBI. He says it is partly because of the recent power play against him, but also because of repeated obstruction of his investigations into al-Qaeda. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] In his last act, he signs papers ordering FBI investigators back to Yemen to resume the USS Cole investigation, now that Barbara Bodine is leaving as ambassador (they arrive a couple days before 9/11). He never hears the CIA warning about hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar sent out just one day later. He also apparently is not told about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui on August 15, 2001 [PBS, 10/3/2002] ; nor does he attend a June meeting when the CIA reveals some of what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] ABC News reporter Chris Isham will later say, “John had heard the alarm bells, too, and we used to talk about it. And he knew that there was a lot of noise out there and that there were a lot of warnings, a lot of red flags, and that it was at a similar level that they were hearing before the millennium, which was an indication that there was something going on. And yet he felt that he was frozen out, that he was not in a capacity to really do anything about it anymore because of his relationship with the FBI. So it was a source of real anguish for him.” [PBS, 10/3/2002]
Entity Tags: USS Cole, Walid Arkeh, Nawaf Alhazmi, Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid Almihdhar, Ken Williams, John O’Neill, Al-Qaeda, Barbara Bodine, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chris Isham
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
George Piro. [Source: FBI]George Piro and Ken Williams, two agents at the FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, visit a flight school in Phoenix to see if any suspicious students have attended it recently and the manager immediately informs them about Hani Hanjour, one of the alleged hijackers of Flight 77. As they watched the terrorist attacks unfolding on television, Piro and Williams decided they wanted to start responding to the crisis on their own initiative, rather than sitting around and waiting for an order. They know Phoenix has the second-highest concentration of flight schools in the nation. Piro therefore looked in the Yellow Pages and found three programs that offer commercial pilot licenses. With this information in hand, the two agents set out to visit some flight schools. The first one they go to is the Sawyer School of Aviation at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. They ask the manager there if any suspicious students have attended recently. Almost without hesitation, she gives them the file of one such student: Hanjour. [Graff, 2011, pp. 325; Washingtonian, 5/5/2011] Hanjour received training at the flight school earlier this year and, previously, in 1998 (see 1998 and Summer 2001). [Washington Post, 10/15/2001; Associated Press, 12/29/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529] He allegedly flew Flight 77 into the Pentagon (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Fox News, 1/7/2016] Just after they are given the file, Piro receives a call on his cell phone from an agent from the FBI’s Boston office. The agent, who is currently at Logan International Airport in Boston, says he has a name from the passenger manifest for Flight 77 that the Phoenix agents should look into: Hani Hanjour. To the agent’s surprise, Piro replies, “I’m holding his file in my hands right now.” Piro and Williams then head back to their office to report their progress. At the office, Piro tells their squad leader, “I’ve identified one of the hijackers.” Incredulous at this news, the squad leader replies, “Get out of here—I don’t have time for jokes today.” [Graff, 2011, pp. 325-326; Washingtonian, 5/5/2011]
In November 2002, as the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry was finishing its investigation, it had formally asked for a report by the Justice Department (which oversees the FBI) to determine “whether and to what extent personnel at all levels should be held accountable” for the failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. An identical request was made to the CIA (see June-November 2004). [New York Times, 9/14/2004] The Justice Department report, titled “A Review of the FBI’s Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks,” is completed this month. [Washington Post, 4/30/2005] It centers on three FBI failures before 9/11: the failure to follow up on the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 (see August 16, 2001), the failure to follow up on FBI agent Ken Williams’ memo (see July 10, 2001) warning about Islamic militants training in US flight schools, and the FBI’s failure to follow up on many leads to hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar. The report provides some new details about miscommunications, inaction, and other problems. [New York Times, 9/14/2004] The report remains classified. Senior Senate Judiciary Committee members Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) call for its release. The senators state, “While the needs of national security must be weighed seriously, we fear the designation of information as classified, in some cases, serves to protect the executive branch against embarrassing revelations and full accountability. We hope that is not the case here.” [Washington Times, 7/12/2004; New York Times, 9/14/2004] One problem complicating the issuing of even a declassified version is the possibility that the material would taint the criminal proceedings against Zacarias Moussaoui. In early 2005, the Justice Department inspector general’s office will ask the judge presiding over Moussaoui’s case for permission to release a declassified version of the report. But the judge will turn down the request in April 2005, even after Moussaoui pleads guilty (see April 30, 2005). The report will finally be released in June 2005 without the section on Moussaoui (see June 9, 2005). [New York Times, 2/13/2005]
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