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By Paul Thompson
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The Congressional Investigative Committee has held hearings on the subject of the intelligence failures related to the tracking of 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar. However, as damning as those failures are, what’s being reported is not the whole story. The story of Alhazmi and Almihdhar is worth exploring in detail, because it consists of so many strange and contradictory components that when strung together, demonstrate repeated cases of gross government incompetence at every turn. Why did the government not prevent them from entering the country despite several opportunities? Why do neighbors claim the two men had frequent, brief limousine rides in the middle of the night? How can evidence of the two being at two different places at once be explained? What did Israel’s secret service know about them, and why was their warning to the CIA seemingly ignored? Why have visits by head hijacker Mohamed Atta been denied by all but their neighbors? Why have many major newspapers suggested that Khalid Almihdhar may still be alive?
By connecting the dots left by previous media reports, it becomes clear that there is much more to these two than has been officially acknowledged. The truth is that the case of Alhazmi and Almihdhar has been a tremendous embarrassment to the Bush Administration—and it could prove even more embarrassing if the media starts asking real questions.
Hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi (left) and Khalid Almihdhar (right) in Saudi Arabia. [FBI]
The Two Experienced Militants
Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar were not like the other hijackers. While it is true that the two Saudis were of a similar age and the same nationality as most of the other 9/11 conspirators (Alhazmi was 25 and Almihdhar was 26 [Newsweek, 6/2/02]), they had much more worldly and militant backgrounds than the others, despite their young ages. In the mid-1990s both apparently were in the Bosnia conflict, and then fought in Chechnya at various times between 1996 and 1998. [Observer, 9/23/01, CIA Director Tenet Testimony, 6/18/02, Arab News, 9/20/01, ABC News, 1/9/02, Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02] Almihdhar may also have been part of the Islamic Army of Aden, a militant group in Yemen affiliated with al-Qaeda. [Cox News, 10/21/01] Some of the other hijackers had also fought in Chechnya—but much later—during the years 2000 and 2001. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had the most obvious ties to extreme militant Islamic groups [Washington Post, 9/25/01, Arab News, 9/20/01, Arab News, 9/22/01], and may have been the main in-country organizers of the attacks. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/27/02]
The Phone Number in Yemen
In 1998, an al-Qaeda operative who had been involved in the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi was captured and interrogated by the FBI. One key bit of information acquired during his questioning was the telephone number of a safe house in Yemen, owned by bin Laden associate Ahmed Al-Hada, Almihdhar’s father-in-law. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] US intelligence wiretapped the phone line and soon learned that the safe house was an al-Qaeda “logistics center” used by the organization to plan their attacks. Al-Qaeda operatives around the world, including Osama bin Laden and other top leaders, used the phone line regularly to pass on information. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] It is known that from 1996 to 1998, the two years bin Laden had a traced satellite phone, he called the phone number of the safe house dozens of times. [Sunday Times, 3/24/02, Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02]
At the end of December 1999, the CIA, FBI and State Department discovered from communications it intercepted on the phone line of the Yemeni safe house, that there would be an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January and that Almihdhar and an associate named Nawaf would attend. [Newsweek, 6/2/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] Accounts vary, but either during or slightly after the meeting, they learned that Nawaf’s last name was Alhazmi. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02, New York Times, 9/21/02] During a stopover on Almihdhar’s flight to Malaysia on January 5, an unnamed country secretly checked Almihdhar’s passport on behalf of the CIA, discovering his full name, Saudi passport number, and a multiple-entry visa for the US issued on April 7, 1999 and good until April 6, 2000 (Alhazmi got the same kind of visa in the same month, but it isn’t known when US intelligence learns this [Copley News, 10/17/02]). [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02, New York Times, 9/21/02, New York Times, 10/17/02] The intelligence agency also learned that Almihdhar “made his travel arrangements through a Yemeni organization that is well known to US intelligence as a logistical center and base of support for al-Qaeda.” [Newsweek, 9/20/01] By the time of the meeting, the CIA was very aware of Almihdhar’s ties to al-Qaeda, and knew that he had been to an al-Qaeda logistics facility in Yemen. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02]
The condominium complex where the January meeting was held. [Newsweek]
The al-Qaeda Summit in Malaysia
The Malaysia meeting took place from January 5-8, 2000. In hindsight, it may have been the most pivotal gathering of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, and has been called a “top-level al-Qaeda summit.” [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/27/02] The CIA Director later claimed that at the time he thought the meeting was to plan an al-Qaeda attack somewhere in Southeast Asia. [CIA Director Congressional Testimony, 10/17/02] US officials now contend that there is “no doubt” that the planning for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the 9/11 11 attacks occurred at the meeting. This was reportedly confirmed in interviews with people detained in the wake of the attacks. [USA Today, 2/12/02, CNN, 8/30/02]
The meeting was held in an upscale condominium complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. “About a dozen” people attended, posing as tourists. [CNN, 8/30/02] The Special Branch, Malaysia’s security service, followed and photographed the suspected terrorists at the request of the CIA. “They snapped pictures of the men sightseeing and ducking into cybercafes to check Arabic Web sites.” [Newsweek, 6/2/02] As the CIA Director later noted, “Surveillance indicated that the behavior of the individuals was consistent with clandestine activity—they did not conduct any business or tourist activities while in Kuala Lumpur, and they used public telephones and cyber cafes exclusively.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] Some of the attendees, including Almihdhar, were even captured on videotape. [Ottawa Citizen, 9/17/01, Observer, 10/7/01, CNN, 3/14/02, New Yorker, 1/14/02] It appears that the meeting was not wiretapped. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02] The presumed failure to monitor the planners’ actual discussions during their four-day retreat in Kuala Lumpur would later prove to be one of the most consequential missed opportunities.
Who Else Was at the Meeting?
The meeting was hosted by an Indonesian man named Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali. He had been the main financier of Operation Bojinka, a plot to down 12 airliners simultaneously that was uncovered in 1995 by Philippine police. It has been noted that the 9/11 attacks were essentially a second attempt at Bojinka. [Washington Post, 9/23/01] After 1995, Hambali became one of al-Qaeda’s most important figures in Southeast Asia. [CNN, 8/30/02] His name was first discovered on documents referring to a Malaysian company by Philippine police in 1995, as part of the Bojinka investigation. However, Philippine intelligence officials did not track down Hambali, allegedly for lack of resources. Nor did they share this information with their Malaysian counterparts. [CNN, 3/14/02]
The condominium was owned by a Malaysian man named Yazid Sufaat, a US-educated microbiologist and former Malaysian Army captain. While reports conflict on the issue of whether or not Sufaat was present at the actual meeting, he did admit to meeting Almihdhar and Alhazmi. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] Sufaat was arrested and detained by the Malaysian government in December 2001. [Newsweek, 6/2/02]
From left to right: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Hambali, Yazid Sufaat, and Ramzi Binalshibh. No pictures of bin Atash or Fahad al-Quso are available.
One man who attended the meeting was Tawifiq bin Atash, better known by his alias “Khallad.” One US counter-terrorism official called the one-legged war veteran a “trusted member of bin Laden’s inner circle.” Khallad traveled from his home in Yemen to Afghanistan in 1989 where he joined al-Qaeda at its inception. He later was in charge of bin Laden’s bodyguards, and served as bin Laden’s “personal intermediary” with operatives implementing the attack on the USS Cole. [Newsweek, 9/20/01] Fahad al-Quso, a top al-Qaeda operative, also attended. [Newsweek, 9/20/01] He was assigned to shoot a film of the USS Cole bombing. [Observer, 10/7/01]
Much later it was revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders and the alleged “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks—attended the meeting. [Independent, 6/6/02, CNN, 8/30/02] The US had known that Mohammed was a major terrorist ever since his connection with Operation Bojinka in 1995 was established. Interestingly, the Congressional inquiry revealed that CIA Director George Tenet has prevented the declassification of all information regarding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (even his name was not allowed to be mentioned in the inquiry’s report). [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02, New York Times, 9/22/02]
Ramzi Binalshibh was also at the meeting. Investigators believe he was slated to be the 20th hijacker, but failed four times to get a US visa. His presence at the meeting was only publicly confirmed in September 2002, around the time of his capture in Pakistan. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02, Time, 9/15/02] The Malaysian police took pictures of Binalshibh standing beside bin Atash. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02] He was captured on videotape as well. [Newsweek, 11/26/01] It remains unclear if the CIA knew Binalshibh’s identity from the meeting surveillance, or only after 9/11. A German report claims they knew about him in January 2000. [Der Spiegel, 10/1/02] They certainly had an opportunity to track him from the meeting back to Germany and surveil him there, which would have led to hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, and the other members of the al-Qaeda cell Binalshibh was in.
Finally, unnamed members of Islamic Jihad were also known to have been at the meeting. [Cox News, 10/21/01] Islamic Jihad had merged with al-Qaeda in February 1998. [ABC News, 11/17/01]
Who Knew About the Meeting, and What Did They Do About It?
After the Kuala Lumpur meeting, the CIA was in possession of a substantial amount of incriminating evidence concerning the two future 9/11 hijackers. The CIA knew that Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi had ties to Osama bin Laden because they both had attended what the CIA considered “to be a gathering of al-Qaeda agents.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] And, as mentioned above, the agency was aware that Khalid Almihdhar “held a US B-1/B-2 multiple-entry visa” and had made his travel arrangements to Malaysia through a Yemeni organization considered by the CIA to be a “logistical center” for al-Qaeda.
As the CIA later admitted, they should have put the names of Almihdhar and Alhazmi on a watch list at this time. The watch list, a database known as TIPOFF, currently consists of over 80,000 names, with about 2,000 new names being added every month. [Los Angeles Times, 9/22/02] Regulations require that the list is checked for visa applications or whenever someone enters or leaves the US (note that it is not checked for domestic flights). Officials are liable to be subject to criminal penalties if they fail to consult TIPOFF when required. The Congressional inquiry noted that “the threshold for adding a name to TIPOFF is low,” explaining that even a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is connected with a terrorist group, warrants the addition of the person’s name to the database. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] Why were Almihdhar and Alhazmi, whose names were reportedly important enough to have been mentioned to the CIA Director several times that January [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02], not added to the watch list?
National Security Agency (NSA) Director Michael Hayden later claimed, “In early 2000, at the time of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, we had the Alhazmi brothers, Nawaf and Salem, as well as Khalid Almihdhar, in our sights. We knew of their association with al-Qaeda, and we shared this information with the [intelligence] community. I’ve looked at this closely.” [NSA Director Congressional Testimony, 10/17/02] However, according to a Congressional inquiry report, the NSA did not share this information with other US intelligence agencies even though “it was in the NSAs database.” Nor did the NSA itself submit the names to the TIPOFF database. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02, AP, 9/26/2002]
The big question mark however lies with the FBI, who claims it was left out of the loop by the CIA. Eleanor Hill, Staff Director of the Congressional investigation into 9/11, reported: “A CIA communication in early January 2000 states that Almihdhar’s travel documents, including his multiple entry visa for the United States, were shared with the FBI for further investigation. No one at the FBI recalls having received such documents at the time. No confirmatory record of the transmittal of the travel documents has yet been located at either the CIA or the FBI.” There are details about e-mails by a CIA employee while the Malaysian meeting was still in progress claiming that he briefed two FBI agents about Almihdhar. But even if this in fact happened, the agent does not recall telling the FBI about Almihdhar’s multiple-entry visa. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
That the FBI was not provided with this information is significant because, had this intelligence been shared, it is very likely that the FBI would have added the two Saudis to the TIPOFF database.
Hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi (left) and Khalid Almihdhar (right) in the United States. [FBI]
On to Southern California
On January 8, 2000, Alhazmi and Almihdhar flew from Malaysia seated together and on the same airplane as Khallad bin Atash, an important al-Qaeda terrorist. Presumably they flew to Thailand. The CIA learned this the next day, but did nothing with the information, and failed to follow them. [New York Times, 10/17/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02]
On January 15, Alhazmi and Almihdhar flew from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles, California. [MSNBC, 12/11/01] According to Newsweek, the CIA tracked the flight into the US, but was aware only of Alhazmi being on the plane, not Almihdhar. But given their knowledge of the latter’s multiple-entry US visa, the agency must have conjectured that it was certainly possible that Almihdhar might also travel to the country. Yet, as the magazine noted, “astonishingly, the CIA did nothing with this information. Agency officials didn’t tell the INS, which could have turned them away at the border, nor did they notify the FBI, which could have covertly tracked them to find out their mission.” [Newsweek, 6/2/02] About two months later, the FBI claims the CIA learned that Almihdhar had also been on the flight (the CIA denies it), but again failed to do anything about it. [Michael Rolince Testimony, 9/20/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02]
A March 5, 2000 cable sent to CIA headquarters concerning Alhazmi’s presence in the US was interestingly marked “Action Required: None.” The next day a different overseas CIA station noted that the cable had been “read with interest,”“particularly the information that a member of this group traveled to the US…”—but again the CIA did not act. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] The CIA Director maintains no one read the cable. [New York Times, 10/17/02] The Congressional inquiry noted that, “Although the individuals had already entered the United States, the sharing of this information with the FBI and appropriate law enforcement authorities could have prompted investigative efforts to locate these individuals and surveil their activities within the United States.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
Or Were They There Already?
For the most part, the media has consistently reported that Alhazmi and Almihdhar first moved to the United States in early 2000, and the FBI Director has recently concurred. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/27/02]. However, numerous other reports suggest otherwise; that the two Saudis had been in the US before, and in the case of Alhazmi, long before. Soon after the attacks, the Wall Street Journal cited public records that put Alhazmi in San Diego as early as 1996. [Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01] Another story, reported by the Associated Press, placed Alhazmi in Cody, Wyoming in the fall of 1999. Witnesses said he was one of two men making a truck delivery from Canada to a high school there and had asked for directions to Florida. They left a very memorable impression. [AP, 10/23/01, Las Vegas Review Journal, 10/26/01]
The Parkwood Apartments. [San Diego Channel 10]
But certainly by November 1999, Alhazmi and Almihdhar were in San Diego. [Washington Post, 9/30/01, San Diego Channel 10, 10/5/01, Newsweek, 6/2/02] Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, they met a man by the name of Omar Al-Bayoumi, who offered to drive them to San Diego and help them get settled. He brought them to the Parkwood Apartments, a well-kept building in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, and even paid their first two months’ rent. (Al-Bayoumi is under investigation and it is still unclear if he acted as terrorist support or just a remarkably good Samaritan). [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02]
If the two Saudis were in the US prior to the January Malaysia meeting, then there should be immigration records documenting their entry—records that the CIA would have discovered as they were investigating Almihdhar between December 1999 and the January meeting. The two had a habit of doing everything openly in their own names: Where are their immigration, credit card, and other records from 1999? Was the CIA aware in January 2000 that they had already visited the US?
The early movements of these two take on greater importance with the recent revelation of an early 1999 NSA communications intercept “in which a Nawaf Alhazmi was referenced.” [AP, 9/25/02] Significantly, the intercept was not mentioned in the Joint Staff Inquiry report published on September 20, 2002 but instead was leaked a few days later to the Associated Press. Unfortunately, the anonymous intelligence official who informed the news agency of the intercept disclosed no additional details. Notwithstanding, the revelation of this early 1999 intercept suggests the possibility that Alhazmi, and perhaps Almihdhar, were under some degree of surveillance by US intelligence before January 2000.
Strange Limousine Rides
Back in the Parkwood Apartments, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi struck their neighbors as odd. They had no furniture but often carried briefcases and seemed to be on their cell phones very frequently. [Washington Post, 9/30/01] Time magazine reported: “I saw them watching and playing flight-simulator games when I was walking my dog at 10 or 11 at night. They would leave the front door open, recalls Ed Murray, who lived across from them… Anytime you saw them, they were on their cell phones. What I found strange was that they always kept to themselves. Even if someone got in the pool, they got out. Another neighbor, Nancy Coker, 36, saw them getting into limos late at night, even though the car that neighbors said they drove was a gray Toyota Camry, early ‘90s vintage. A week ago, I was coming home between 12 and 1 a.m. from a club. I saw a limo pick them up. It wasn’t the first time. In this neighborhood you notice stuff like that. In the past couple of months, I have seen this happen at least two or three times.” [Time, 9/24/01] Note the comment, “a week ago,” which suggests the two were still living in the Parkwood Apartments until just before 9/11, 2001.
Living in the USA
The two lived in San Diego about as openly as they could. They used their real names on their rental agreement, [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and credit cards. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] In February, the two paid $3,000 cash for a 1988 Toyota Corolla and registered it in Almihdhar’s name (the registration was later signed over to Alhazmi). [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01] Incredibly, they were even listed in the 2000-2001 San Diego phone book: “ALHAZMI Nawaf M 6401 Mount Ada Rd. 858-279-5919.” In September 2000, Alhazmi opened a bank account. As Newsweek pointed out, investigators “could have easily tracked them through bank records,” had they been looking. [Newsweek, 6/2/02]
San Diego’s Islamic Center. [San Diego Channel 10]
What were they actually doing with their time? Supposedly they were learning English, but no one can remember either of them ever going to a single class. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02] They were readily visible within the local Muslim community, mingling at the Islamic Center of San Diego (which is not associated with radicalism). [Washington Post, 9/30/01] They also spent a considerable amount of time enjoying themselves. For example, Alhazmi spent a lot of time at the San Diego State University library, surfing the Web, and he had season passes to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. They also apparently liked to hang out at Cheetah’s, a nude bar. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02]
Strangely, Alhazmi worked briefly at a Texaco gas station and car wash—the only known example of any of the 19 hijackers holding a job while in the US. For one month, he worked for minimum wage two days a week, vacuuming and drying cars. Apparently the owner was very happy with his work. [Washington Post, 12/29/01] Certainly he didn’t work for the money—someone was already sending them thousands of dollars from the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps it was done to make connections: the station was known as a hangout for Arab men, who would sit and talk at picnic tables at the station. Alhazmi liked to hang out with these men even when he wasn’t working. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02]
On June 10, 2000, Almihdhar left the US for Frankfurt, Germany. On July 7, 2000, Alhazmi applied to the INS for a 6-month extension on his visa which was to expire on July 15, and the visa was routinely extended. Had the CIA put the two on a watch list, the INS would not have extended Alhazmi’s visa and Almihdhar would not have been permitted to reenter the country. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] Authorities later believe that while in Germany, Almihdhar visited Ramzi Binalshibh and possibly Atta and other al-Qaeda members. Almihdhar knew Binalshibh long before their meeting in Malaysia—Binalshibh is the cousin of Almihdhar’s wife. But since the US failed to notify Germany about their suspicions of either Almihdhar or Binalshibh, German police failed to surveil them. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02]
Dumb and Dumber
In May 2000, Alhazmi and Almihdhar arrived at Sorbi’s Flying Club, a small school 20 miles north of San Diego, and announced that they wanted to learn to fly Boeing airliners. [Washington Post, 9/30/01] They were there with someone named “Hani”—presumably hijacker Hani Hanjour—but only the two of them went up in an airplane. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01] Instructor Rick Garza says the dream to fly big jets is the goal of practically every student who comes to the school, but what he noticed as unusual was their lack of any basic understanding of aircraft. Once, he asked Almihdhar to draw the aircraft. “He drew the wings on backwards,” he said. Both spoke English poorly, but Almihdhar in particular seemed impossible to communicate with. Rather than following the instructions he was given, he would vaguely reply, “Very good. Very nice.” [Chicago Tribune, 9/30/01]
Fred Sorbi (left), owner of Sorbi’s Flying Club, says the two flew on this Cessna 172 (right). [San Diego Channel 10]
The two offered extra money to Garza if he would teach them to fly multi-engine Boeing planes, but Garza had to decline. [Washington Post, 9/30/01] “I told them they had to learn a lot of other things first… It was like Dumb and Dumber. I mean, they were clueless. It was clear to me they weren’t going to make it as pilots.” [Observer, 10/7/01]
Investigators originally stated that Hani Hanjour moved to San Diego in February 2000 and lived there “for at least a year.” [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/21/01] During at least part of that time, he shared Apartment 127 of the Parkwood Apartments with Alhazmi and Almihdhar. [San Diego Channel 10, 9/18/01] Federal prosecutors claim that friend Mohdar Mohamed Abdoulah regularly dined and prayed with Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Hanjour. [San Diego Channel 10, 5/8/02, AP, 5/9/02] But interestingly, the recent Congressional inquiry reported that Hanjour was out of the country until December 2000, and that upon his return he moved to Arizona. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
There were other hijackers who came to the Parkwood Apartments. One resident said he was certain that the hijackers Ahmed Alhaznawi and Marwan Alshehhi were seen with a man living in apartment 136, which was rented at the time to a man named Al Abdula until August 2000 (who he may have shared the apartment with is unknown). [San Diego Channel 10, 9/20/01] Sorbi’s Flying Club instructor Rick Garza claims that one day Alhazmi and Almihdhar were accompanied by someone who looked resembled hijacker Ahmed Alghamdi, and a San Diego chauffeur claims to recognize Alghamdi as well. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/30/01] The Associated Press reported that “the [San Diego] ring may have been much larger” than just Alhazmi, Almihdhar, Hanjour and the “several others who may have helped them.” A State Department official said in a sworn statement filed in federal court in 2002 that San Diego had become a focus of the investigation “because of the high number of hijackers and associates who lived, worked and studied” in the area, but just how many and who they were were not stated. [AP, 5/14/02] The issue is of vital importance, because had Alhazmi and Almihdhar been trailed already as they should have been, their contacts with the other hijackers would have quickly led to the uncovering of the entire 9/11 al-Qaeda cell.Living with an FBI Informant
Abdussattar Shaikh would only allow his profile to be photographed by reporters. [San Diego Union-Tribune]
At a local mosque, Alhazmi and Almihdhar befriended Abdussattar Shaikh, a prominent member of the local Islamic community whose home has been a gathering spot for Middle Eastern men for two decades. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/01] In September 2000, they accepted Shaikh’s invitation to live at his home. [Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01] Alhazmi stayed there until December, although Almihdhar left to go overseas in October. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01, San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/16/01] But Shaikh also happened to be a “tested” undercover “asset” working with the local FBI. Newsweek reported that the connection between these two and the informant “stunned some top counter-terrorism officials.” While the official account maintains that Shaikh never told the FBI the names of the two Saudis, Newsweek reported that one source recounted an incident in which “the case agent called up [Abdussattar Shaikh]… and was told he couldn’t talk because Khalid a reference to Almihdhar was in the room.” [Newsweek, 9/9/02] Wouldn’t that imply that the FBI knew whom this Khalid being referred to was?
Interestingly, the FBI has refused to allow the 9/11 Congressional inquiry to interview either Shaikh or his FBI contact. They say he would have nothing interesting to say, but the inquiry doesn’t agree. The Justice Department is also fighting the FBI to speak with him. [New York Times, 10/5/02]
Shaikh supposedly does not speak Arabic very well, and was unable to communicate with Almihdhar, who was considered a generally unfriendly person anyway. [Washington Post, 9/30/01, Newsweek, 6/2/02] But he could talk to Alhazmi, and he became quite friendly with him. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01] At one point Alhazmi confided to Shaikh that he wanted a Mexican bride. “So I taught him a few Spanish phrases, like que pasa,” Shaikh said. Alhazmi even posted a message on a lonely hearts Web site: “Saudi businessman looking for a bride who would like to live in this country and Saudi Arabia.” Shaikh said there were only two responses, both from Egyptian women, but nothing came of them. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/01]
Mohamed Atta, Hanjour and More Strange Visitors
Neighbor Denis Adair recalls that Shaikh once introduced him to a friend named Hani, a man he now believes was Hani Hanjour. [Chicago Tribune, 9/30/01] More shockingly, the Associated Press reported, “Neighbors of a man who rented rooms to two suspects in the 9/11 terror attacks say they saw Mohamed Atta… Marna Adair said… that the polite, clean-shaven Atta was frequently at the home of Abdussattar Shaikh between August and early December of 2000. Another neighbor, Deborah Fortner, remembered that Atta was the one that was scary. He’s got these piercing eyes. That’s something you never forget about him. Atta wore Western clothes and drove a red car, neighbors said. He was often cheerful and had no complaints when one neighbor briefly blocked the driveway one day while pouring concrete.” [AP, 9/29/01] Another article referred to Atta as a “regular visitor.” [Las Vegas Review Journal, 10/26/01] But these early reports (see also [San Diego Channel 10, 9/27/01, San Diego Channel 10, 10/11/01]) appear to have been forgotten by the media and the Congressional inquiry. Shaikh has denied Atta visited the house and said his neighbors are mistaken. [AP, 9/29/01]
Shaikh’s neighbors saw strange cars that closely matched the descriptions of the late night limousines spotted at the Parkwood Apartments. Neighbor Dave Eckler explained: “There was always a series of cars driving up to the house late at night. Sometimes they were nice cars. Sometimes they had darkened windows. They’d stay about 10 minutes.” At the time, Eckler guessed they were selling fake IDs. [Time, 9/24/01] “People come and go at all hours,” said neighbor Marna Adair. “We’ve always thought there was something strange going on there,” she explained. Her daughter, 32-year-old Denise Adair, added, “We thought it was a little weird, but we never thought this.” Shaikh told reporters he was shocked that his tenants were involved in the 9/11 attacks, but as the Associated Press reported, “neighbors had their doubts. He’s not a stupid man. He had to have a clue, Debbie Fortner said.” [AP, 9/16/01] Neighbors had their suspicions of Shaikh then—what do they think now that Shaikh has been revealed as an FBI informant?
Damage to the USS Cole. [US Navy]
The Frustrated USS Cole Investigation
On October 12, 2000, the destroyerUSS Cole, was bombed in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen American sailors died, and thirty-nine others were seriously wounded. [New Yorker, 1/14/02] In early October, Almihdhar left San Diego. Investigators claim not to know where he went. But Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, the Prime Minister of Yemen at the time of the Cole attack, offered the following: “Khalid Almihdhar was one of the Cole perpetrators, involved in preparations. He was in Yemen at the time and stayed after the Cole bombing for a while, then he left.” [Guardian, 10/15/01] The CIA Director has also noted that Almihdhar received special training in Afghanistan in 1999 with the other operatives who planned and executed the USS Cole attack. [Washington Post, 10/18/02]
Two days after the bombing, John O’Neill, the FBI’s New York chief of counter-terrorism, arrived in Aden with a support staff of 300. The country was in chaos, with heavily armed bandits and/or terrorists having de facto control over certain areas. Upon arrival, O’Neill told his fellow investigators, “This may be the most hostile environment the FBI has ever operated in.” [New Yorker, 1/14/02] He immediately ran into problems with Barbara Bodine, the US ambassador. Bodine, a career diplomat, didn’t want O’Neill and his men to carry weapons, because it would upset the government of Yemen. O’Neill insisted his men needed the guns to protect themselves.
John O’Neill (left) [FBI] and Barbara Bodine (right). In an ironic twist of fate, O’Neill would later die in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
O’Neill spent much of his time coaxing the Yemeni authorities to cooperate, but was largely unsuccessful. Agents rarely left their heavily guarded hotel or offshore naval ships, and after receiving a bomb threat, they evacuated the hotel and permission was needed just to come ashore. Relations between Bodine and O’Neill deteriorated to the point that Barry Mawn, chief of the FBI’s New York office, flew to Yemen to assess the situation. Upon his return to the US, Mawn reported that O’Neill was doing “an outstanding job” and added that Bodine was his “only detractor.” [New Yorker, 1/14/02] Nevertheless, after three weeks of personality battles, Bodine asked the State Department to recall O’Neill. Attorney General Janet Reno was considered a strong O’Neill supporter but nonetheless approved Bodine’s request, and he returned to the US about a month after arriving. [Sunday Times, 2/3/02] After the departure of O’Neill and his team, the remaining agents retreated to the US Embassy in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. In June 2001, there was a bomb threat against the embassy, and the entire team withdrew from Yemen shortly thereafter. [New Yorker, 1/14/02]
Commenting on the aborted investigation, the Sunday Times noted, “The failure in Yemen may have blocked off lines of investigation that could have led directly to the terrorists preparing for September 11.” The newspaper conjectured further: “If the [safe house telephone] number had been under surveillance or the Yemeni [who owned the safe house] fully investigated, then Almihdhar might have been unmasked before September 11.” [Sunday Times, 2/3/02] Khalid Almihdhar’s brother-in-law Sameer Mohammed Ahmed Al-Hada—the son of the Yemeni safe house’s owner—later blew himself up after being cornered by Yemeni security forces in February 2002. [CBS News, 2/13/02] Had John O’Neill’s operation in Yemen been allowed to proceed, is it possible that operations like that would have taken place before 9/11, and the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented?
Bin Atash and the Trail Back to Almihdhar
Even though the Cole investigation was generally considered a failure, some useful evidence was collected. [New Yorker, 1/14/02] In early December, shortly after John O’Neill left Yemen, Fahad al-Quso was arrested by the Yemeni government. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02, PBS Frontline, 10/3/02] In addition to being involved in the Cole plot, al-Quso had attended the Malaysian meeting in January. O’Neill felt al-Quso was holding back important information and wanted him interrogated. But with O’Neill out of the country, his agents still there couldn’t convince the Yemeni government to permit an interrogation. Days after 9/11, he was finally interrogated, and admitted to being a financial “bag man” for al-Qaeda, and also admitted to meeting with Alhazmi and Almihdhar in Malaysia in January 2000. Frontline later reported that one investigator called al-Quso’s revelations staggering, and said it still gives him nightmares. “When asked what might have been discovered if they’d learned of al-Quso’s connections earlier, he responded, the possibilities are mind-boggling.” [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02]
On January 4, 2001, the FBI determined that Khallad bin Atash had been a principal planner in the Cole bombing, and that two other participants in the plan had delivered money to bin Atash at the time of the January 2000 Malaysia meeting. The FBI shared this information with the CIA, whose analysts took another look at the Malaysian meeting. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] Upon pulling out the file on bin Atash, they discovered pictures of him taken at the Malaysia meeting. In one of the shots, they recognized that he was standing next to Almihdhar,[Newsweek, 6/2/02] who had also been photographed with “top bin Laden operative” Fahad al-Quso. [Newsweek, 9/20/01] CNN observed, “At that point, the CIA—- or the FBI for that matter—- could have put Alhazmi and Almihdhar and all others who attended the meeting in Malaysia on a watch list to be kept out of this country. It was not done.” [CNN, 6/4/02] Even more incredibly, not even bin Atash himself was placed on the watch list at this time, despite being labeled the principal planner of the Cole bombing! [Los Angeles Times, 9/22/02]
Interestingly, it has been reported that in January 2001, Mohamed Atta began to be surveilled by the CIA in Hamburg, Germany. [Observer, 9/30/01, Berliner Zeitung, 9/24/01] It has never been explained why he was suspected at this time, since he had apparently not committed any crimes yet, nor associated with any known criminals. But given the revelation about bin Atash this month, could the CIA have rediscovered the picture of bin Atash with Ramzi Binalshibh, and then begun monitoring Binalshibh and his roommate Atta? The CIA denies knowing anything about Atta before 9/11. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
In the wake of these new revelations, John O’Neill applied to reenter Yemen to breathe new life into the Cole investigation, but his application was turned down by Ambassador Bodine. [New Yorker, 1/14/02] His boss Barry Mawn later said, “John kind of held [the Yemenis’ ] feet to the fire. And he had developed the relationship with the head of PSO [Yemen’s equivalent of the FBI]. By John not going back, we lost contact with the head of PSO.” Investigators finally returned to Yemen a few days before 9/11 (without O’Neill, who had been forced into retirement several weeks before), because Barbara Bodine had stepped down from her ambassador position a few days before that. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02]
Zacarias Moussaoui (left) [CNN] and Ahmed Ressam (right). [AP]
Missed Chances with Moussaoui
Meanwhile, in September and October 2000, Zacarias Moussaoui twice visited Malaysia, and stayed at the very same condominium where the January meeting had been held. [CNN, 8/30/02, Los Angeles Times, 2/2/02, Washington Post, 2/3/02] Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 while training to fly in Minnesota, is now on trial in the US for his role in the 9/11 attacks. Malaysian intelligence continued to watch the condominium at the request of the CIA, but at some point before Moussaoui’s visit the CIA lost interest and the surveillance came to an end. The Malaysians said they were surprised by the CIA’s lack of interest following the January meeting. “We couldn’t fathom it, really,” Rais Yatim, Malaysia’s Legal Affairs minister, told Newsweek. “There was no show of concern,” he said. [Newsweek, 6/2/02]
In October 2000, Yazid Sufaat, the owner of the condominium, signed letters identifying Zacarias Moussaoui as a representative of his wife’s company. [Reuters, 9/20/02, Washington Post, 2/3/02] These letters were essential in convincing the INS to allow Moussaoui into the US. On August 16, the day Moussaoui was arrested, FBI agents packed up all his possessions and took them into custody. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/24/02] Among these possessions were the letters tying Moussaoui to Sufaat and the meeting in his condominium. The papers also linked Alhazmi and Almihdhar to Moussaoui’s flight training efforts. [USA Today, 1/30/02] But the FBI agents pursuing the case were prevented by top officials at FBI headquarters from securing the needed search warrant to look through Moussaoui’s belongings. [Time, 5/21/02] Additionally, phone numbers found among his papers linked him to Ramzi Binalshibh, another participant in the January 2000 Malaysian meeting. The numbers would have also led investigators to Atta and the other hijackers Binalshibh was living with in Germany—had they been able to access Moussaoui’s possessions. [Associated Press, 12/12/01]
The story of the failure to search Moussaoui’s possessions before 9/11 is well known, but there was another path that could also have provided the FBI with the evidence needed to secure a search warrant. An al-Qaeda operative named Ahmed Ressam had been arrested in December 1999 for trying to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport. At some point before August 2001 he had begun cooperating with investigators. It turned out that Ressam had trained with Moussaoui in Afghanistan—but Ressam was only asked about what he knew on Moussaoui after 9/11. [Sunday Times, 2/3/02] On September 4, 2001, FBI headquarters dispatched a message to the entire US intelligence community about the Moussaoui investigation. The message “noted that Moussaoui was being held in custody but did not describe any particular threat that the FBI thought he posed, for example, whether he might be connected to a larger plot. The teletype also did not recommend that the addressees take any action or look for any additional indicators of a terrorist attack, nor did it provide any analysis of a possible hijacking threat or provide any specific warnings.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/24/02] The dispatch, with its notable lack of urgency and details, failed to prompt the agents in Seattle holding Ressam to inquire about Moussaoui.
Flying in Arizona
There are several reports that Alhazmi traveled to Arizona in January 2001, where he met up with 9/11 plotter Hani Hanjour to resume his flight training. For example, Newsweek reported that after “having flunked out of two California flight schools, [Alhazmi] decided to try his luck in Phoenix” where the magazine said he stayed until April 2001. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] The Los Angeles Times also reported that Alhazmi had renewed his flight training in Arizona but failed to mention for how long. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02] Another piece of evidence suggesting that Alhazmi had continued his training in Arizona included a cashier’s check for a Phoenix-area flight school that was found in his car by FBI agents shortly after the attacks as well as evidence that he and Hanjour had flown from Phoenix to Las Vegas in June 2001. [Arizona Republic, 9/28/01] It is also possible that at some point Almihdhar had been in Arizona learning to fly as well. [Arizona Republic, 9/28/01]
A rarely seen photo of Hani Hanjour in Arizona, probably taken some years before 9/11. [Arizona Star]
On July 10, 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams wrote a memo to FBI headquarters, warning of the possibility that bin Laden’s followers were attending US flight schools in preparation for terrorist attacks. [New York Times, 6/3/02] His fears were based on his own observations at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona where he believed some of the students had ties to al-Qaeda. [New York Times, 5/21/02] While the memo did not mention any of the hijackers, it did refer to someone who was closely associated with Hanjour. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/24/02] Williams suggested investigating flight schools more closely, but this was not done, not even in Arizona. [New York Times, 5/04/02] Had the FBI followed through on this advice, it is almost certain that the name Nawaf Alhazmi would have been noticed by FBI criminal investigators after the “all points bulletin” was issued on August 23. Furthermore, it is now known that shortly after Almihdhar reentered the US on July 4, 2001, he flew from New York to Arizona to meet with Hanjour and Alhazmi. Had Almihdhar’s movements been tracked, the plot involving flight training would have been exposed almost immediately, at about the same time Ken Williams released his memo. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02]
Contacts with Hijackers Outside San Diego
Even if the government had started tracking Alhazmi and Almihdhar at a fairly late date, they should have been able to connect them to the remaining hijackers. The FBI even prepared a chart detailing how the entire plot could have been uncovered had they learned about Alhazmi and Almihdhar sooner. An FBI official told Newsweek, “It’s like three degrees of separation,” and claimed, “There’s no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together.” [Newsweek, 6/2/02]
Since that Newsweek article was written, further revelations have surfaced suggesting that it may actually have been a “one degree of separation”—Alhazmi and Almihdhar may have communicated directly with all of the other 17 hijackers. FBI Director Mueller stated that Alhazmi met with “ringleader” Mohamed Atta to discuss preparations “on a monthly basis” during the summer of 2001. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/27/02] These meetings most likely took place in Las Vegas, where according to numerous reports, Atta made at least six trips from May 2001 onwards. Almihdhar, Alhazmi, Marwan Alshehhi, Ziad Jarrah, Hani Hanjour, and perhaps others as well, attended these meetings. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/4/01, Newsweek, 10/15/01] Mueller also disclosed that Almihdhar may have been responsible for coordinating the movements of all the non-pilot hijackers. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/27/02] So it is conceivable that Almihdhar’s phone calls could have led investigators to the 13 or so hijackers not at the Las Vegas meetings—had the calls been monitored.
The CIA Concealed Information from the FBI
In May 2001, the CIA gave photos taken during the January Malaysian meeting to an Intelligence Operations Specialist (IOS) at FBI headquarters. The CIA asked the specialist to look over the photographs and determine whether a person, who had been detained for his suspected involvement in the USS Cole bombing, could be identified in any of the pictures. One of the photos was of Almihdhar. The CIA agent apparently informed the specialist about Almihdhar’s attendance at the meeting and his subsequent travel to another foreign country, but said nothing about his potential travel to the US. Nor did the agent mention that the photos were from a meeting the agency suspected Khallad bin Atash had attended. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
On June 11, FBI agents from the New York office and Washington headquarters met with CIA officials to discuss the Cole investigation. The FBI agents were shown photographs from Malaysia, but not given copies. One FBI agent later recalled that Almihdhar was mentioned during the meeting, and said he had asked the CIA why the people in the photographs were being followed. “The New York agents were advised they could not be told why Almihdhar and the others were being followed,” the Joint Inquiry Staff report revealed. [New York Times, 9/21/02] “The FBI agents recognized the men from the Cole investigation, but when they asked the CIA what they knew about the men, they were told that they didn’t have clearance to share that information. It ended up in a shouting match.” [ABC News, 8/16/02] The FBI agents didn’t receive the information they wanted until after 9/11. A CIA agent later admitted that he knew more about Alhazmi and Almihdhar than he told the FBI, but said he couldn’t share that information unless he had the explicit authority to do so at a meeting specifically convened for that purpose. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the CIA Director continued a pattern of denial, later claiming that this CIA agent told him the complete opposite of what the agent told the Congressional committee. [New York Times, 10/17/02]
Two days later, Khalid Almihdhar obtained a new US multiple entry visa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Just weeks earlier, the US had introduced the “Visa Express” program in Saudi Arabia, which allowed any Saudi Arabian to obtain visas through their travel agent instead of appearing at a consulate in person. [US News and World Report, 12/12/01, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] At the time, warnings of an attack against the US by bin Laden’s organization were higher than they had ever been before—“off the charts” as one senator put it. [Los Angeles Times, 5/18/02, Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02] On July 4, Almihdhar, whose name was still not on the watch list, reentered the US without a problem. [ABC News, 6/4/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
Around July 13, 2001, a CIA officer assigned to the FBI accessed the CIA’s electronic database and discovered a CIA cable for which he had been looking that contained information acquired in January 2001 indicating that Khallad bin Atash had attended the meeting in Malaysia. “The presence of [bin Atash] in Malaysia deeply troubled the CIA officer,” and he immediately e-mailed the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC), saying bin Atash “is a major league killer, who orchestrated the Cole attack and possibly the Africa bombings.” An FBI analyst assigned to the CTC was given the task of reviewing all prior CIA cables about the Malaysian meeting. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] Yet, bin Atash was still not added to the watch list, much less Almihdhar or Alhazmi.
On August 21, over five weeks later, the FBI analyst determined what the CIA had known for almost seventeen months—that Alhazmi and Almihdhar had entered the US on January 15, 2000. He also learned that Almihdhar had reentered the country on July 4, 2001 with a visa allowing him to stay in the US until August 22. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] He further expressed concern that the two were in Los Angeles when Ahmed Ressam was planning his terrorist attacks, i.e., January 1, 2000 (incidentally showing they knew the two were in the US before the Malaysian meeting). [AP, 9/21/02 (B)]
The Warning from Mossad
The Mossad’s emblem. The motto states, “By way of deception, thou shalt do war”
At the same time that the FBI was getting close to investigating Alhazmi and Almihdhar, the Mossad, Israel’s feared secret service, gave the US an urgent warning, according to recent reports from Germany. These reports say that on August 23, 2001, the Mossad gave the CIA a list of terrorists living in the US and said that they appeared to be planning to carry out an attack in the near future. The list of terrorists contained 19 names. It is unknown if these are the same exact 19 names as the actual hijackers or if the number is a coincidence. However, four names on the list are known and were names of the 9/11 hijackers: Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Marwan Alshehhi, and Mohamed Atta. It appears that a spy ring run by the Mossad had been closely following these terrorists for many months. In December 2000, Mossad agents rented an apartment in Hollywood, Florida, close to where Atta and Alshehhi were staying and attending flight school. They were closely spied upon until at least April 2001, when many of the Israeli agents were thrown out of the country. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02, Der Spiegel, 10/1/02, BBC, 10/2/02, Haaretz, 10/3/02] It has not been stated how the Mossad knew of Alhazmi and Almihdhar, but a Drug Enforcement Administration report on the Israeli spy ring internally released in June 2001 (and leaked after 9/11) noted the presence of Israeli spies in San Diego, California and Phoenix, Arizona at times when Alhazmi and Almihdhar would have been in those cities. [DEA Report, 6/01] Yet, apparently this warning and list were not treated as particularly urgent by the CIA and also not passed on to the FBI. [Der Spiegel, 10/1/02]
The Israeli Ambassador to the US reacted to these reports by denying there were any Mossad agents in the US, [Haaretz, 10/3/02] despite widespread reports saying there were (see for instance, [Fox News, 12/12/01, Le Monde, 3/5/02, Reuters, 3/5/02, Jane’s Intelligence Digest, 3/15/02,Forward, 3/15/02, Salon, 5/7/02, ABC News, 6/21/02]). Die Zeit, however, claims that the Congressional inquiry on 9/11 has learned about these Mossad agents and warnings, and presumably will discuss them in a future session about warnings from foreign governments. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02] Up until now, the inquiry claims no evidence has surfaced that any US intelligence agency knew the names of any of the hijackers before 9/11, except for Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf’s brother. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
The “All-Points Bulletin”
On August 23, 2001, perhaps goaded by the Mossad warning given on the same day, the CIA sent out what Newsweek later called an “all-points bulletin” to the State Department, Customs, INS and FBI, instructing them to put Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar on the terrorist watch list “due to their confirmed links to Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives and suspicious activities while traveling in East Asia.” [Newsweek, 6/2/02, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] If the Mossad warning is true, it is very curious that Atta and Alshehhi’s names were not also added to the watch list at the same time, especially given media reports that Atta was already under surveillance in Germany in early 2001. [Observer, 9/30/01, Berliner Zeitung, 9/24/01]
Strangely, the FAA and the airlines were not notified about anyone at this time, even though procedures were in place for law enforcement agencies to share watch list information with the airlines and airports and despite the fact that such sharing was commonplace.[Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01]As a result, two days later, no flags were raised when Almihdhar booked a reservation in his real name over the American Airlines web site for his 9/11 flight. [Washington Post, 9/16/01] On September 27, two days after that, Alhazmi purchased two airline tickets with his credit card, also using his real name.[Newsweek, 6/2/02, MSNBC, 12/11/01] An official later stated, “Had we had information that those two individuals presented a threat to aviation or posed a great danger, we would have put them on the list and they should have been picked up in the reservation process.” [Washington Post, 10/2/02]
The CIA claimed the bulletin was labeled “immediate,” the second most urgent category. An intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times that the label meant, “It’s an emergency,” adding, “It’s rare you would get a cable anything higher. This is the upper end of the scale.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/01] But the FBI denied that the warning was marked “immediate.” Nor did Congress’s Joint Inquiry Staff report indicate that the label had been used either. In fact, it seems that most agencies treated the alert as a routine matter. [Los Angeles Times, 10/18/01, Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
The bulletin also requested that Khallad bin Atash be added to the watch list—eight months after he was determined to have been the main planner of the Cole bombing. One other person from the Malaysian meeting was also included, but that name remains confidential (could it be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11?). [New York Times, 9/21/02]
Interestingly, the CIA’s warning to the FBI came exactly one day after John O’Neill had been forced out of the FBI. Because he had fallen out of favor a few months earlier, he was never told about Ken Williams’s flight school memo, nor the internal conflict over Zacarias Moussaoui. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02] Nor was he at a meeting in June when the CIA revealed some of what they knew about Alhazmi and Almihdhar. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02] One can only wonder what the government’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists” would have done with the watch list warning. [New Yorker, 1/14/02]
A Halfhearted Search Gets Blocked
At the time the bulletin was issued, the CIA believed that Almihdhar was probably already in the US. While the inclusion of his name on the watch list would have prevented him from leaving the country, it couldn’t help find him inside the US. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] So a search for them was needed. But, as the Wall Street Journal explained, the search “consisted of little more than entering their names in a nationwide law enforcement database that would have triggered red flags if they were taken into custody for some other reason.” [Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01] It apparently did little good—not even a speeding ticket that had been issued to Alhazmi the previous April was detected. [Daily Oklahoman, 1/20/02] Nor was a recorded interaction between Alhazmi and local police in Fairfax, Virginia in May that could have led investigators to Alhazmi’s East Coast apartment. [San Diego Union-Tribune,9/27/02]
Despite the presumed urgency of the alert, the FBI field offices in Southern California were not notified of the status of the two men on the watch list, even though the two had entered the US through the Los Angeles International Airport. [Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01] The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the FBIs “aggressive action” did not even include checking California drivers license records or VISA card records (the VISA cards were used to buy 9/11 tickets), both of which contained the names of Almihdhar and Alhazmi. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/01]
FBI and CIA officials talk about the Alhazmi and Almihdhar case behind screens to shield their identities from the general public. [New York Times]
On August 28, a report was sent to the FBI’s New York office recommending that an investigation be launched “to determine if Almihdhar is still in the United States.” The New York office tried to convince FBI headquarters to open a criminal investigation, but they were immediately turned down, the reason being that Almihdhar could not be tied to the Cole investigation without the inclusion of sensitive intelligence information. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] The reason for this had to do with the barrier, or so-called “wall,” that allowed the CIA to withhold information from its domestic counterpart when the former had cause to believe that a criminal investigation could disclose the “methods” and “sources” of its intelligence.
Instead of a criminal case, the New York office was forced to open an “intelligence case,” thus excluding all the “criminal case” investigators from the manhunt for Almihdhar and Alhazmi. As such, all “criminal case” agents were prohibited from taking part in the search for the two Saudis. [FBI Agent Testimony, 9/20/02]
Expressing his frustration at the impasse, one FBI agent wrote in an e-mail on August 29, “Whatever has happened to this—someday someone will die—and wall or not—the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems. Let’s hope the [FBI’s] National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, UBL [Usama bin Laden], is getting the most protection.” [New York Times, 9/21/02, FBI Agent Testimony, 9/20/02]
On August 28, the FBI contacted both the State Department and INS in an effort to determine where Almihdhar had entered the US. However, neither agency was asked “to assist in locating the individuals, nor was any other information provided [that] would have indicated either a high priority or imminent danger,” explained the Joint Inquiry Staff report. Even more disturbing was the revelation that the INS felt that “if it had been asked to locate the two suspected terrorists, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, in late August on an urgent, emergency basis, it would have been able to run those names through its extensive database system and might have been able to locate them.” Similarly, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the State Department said, “that it ha[d] extensive means of locating individuals who are involved in visa fraud or visa violations and also contend[ed] that it might have been able to locate the two suspected terrorists if it had been asked to do so.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02]
The next day, August 29, the FBI learned that when Almihdhar arrived in the US on July 4, 2001, he had indicated that he would be staying at a Marriott hotel in New York City. But by September 5, the records of all New York area Marriott hotels had been investigated and not one contained any reference to the wanted Saudi. Then on September 10, the FBI New York office asked the FBI Los Angeles office to check registration records for all Sheraton Hotels in Los Angeles (where Almihdhar said he would be staying when he had entered the country in January 2000). [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] The Los Angeles office did not receive the request until shortly after the attacks. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02] The search was conducted after 9/11 with negative results. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] The San Diego office wasn’t notified about the two Saudis wanted status until September 12, and even then they were only provided with “sketchy” information. [Los Angeles Times, 9/16/01]
To the dismay of several distraught investigators, after 9/11 it was discovered that Alhazmi and Almihdhar had actually lived remarkably open lives—so open in fact that had the FBI searched the public records in San Diego, they would have quickly come across their names. Alhazmi’s name in particular was quite visible. It was everywhere—he had used it to register a car, get a drivers’ license, a credit card, [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01] open a bank account- it was even in the phone book. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] It is even possible that the FBI—had they located these records—would have found them at their official residences. According to some accounts, Alhazmi and Almihdhar, were living in San Diego until the very week of the attacks.
On the morning of 9/11, Alhazmi and Almihdhar raised no special alarms or special security screening when they arrived at Dulles Airport before the scheduled 8:10 a.m. departure of the flight they would help hijack. [Cox News, 10/21/01]
Two Places at Once?
The current historical record provides a very ambiguous and problematic account of Hani Hanjour, Alhamzi and Almihdhar’s whereabouts and activities in the days and weeks preceding 9/11.
The official story has them on the East Coast during all of August and September. The Wall Street Journal reported that on August 1, Almihdhar, along with Hanjour, was in Falls Church, Virginia, using an illegal scheme to obtain Virginia driver’s licenses. [Wall Street Journal, 10/16/01] On August 10, Alhazmi and Hanjour, and perhaps others, flew to Las Vegas. [New York Times, 11/6/01] where they met with Atta and other hijackers until August 14. They then returned to Baltimore [New York Times, 11/6/01] and on August 20, Alhazmi and Hanjour rented a car in New Jersey for the next ten days. [CNN, 9/26/01, New York Times, 9/21/01, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01] On September 1, Alhazmi stayed at the Pin-Del hotel in Laurel, Maryland [Newsday, 9/23/01] and then joined others at another hotel in Valencia, Maryland where they stayed until 9/11. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/27/01, Newsday, 9/23/01] During this time, from September 2 through 6, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, as well as Salem Alhazmi, Majed Moqed, and Hani Hanjour, were all seen working out at Gold’s Gym in Greenbelt, Maryland. [AP, 9/21/01, Newsday, 9/23/01] Credit card receipts revealed that Nawaf Alhazmi shopped at a Macy’s and a Champs store at a mall in Wayne, New Jersey on September 9. [CNN, 9/26/01]
However, neighbors at the Parkwood Apartments in San Diego were clear in their assertions that Alhazmi, Almihdhar and even Hanjour had all stayed in San Diego until days before 9/11. One report suggested they left Parkwood Apartments around September 1. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/16/01] But most other accounts placed their departure later. One report stated, “Authorities believe Almihdhar, Hanjour and Alhazmi… moved out a couple of days before the East Coast attacks.” [San Diego Channel 10, 11/1/01] Ed Murray, a resident at the complex, said that all three “started moving out Saturday night—- and Sunday [September 9] they were gone.” (This is the same day that Alhazmi was shopping in New Jersey!)[San Diego Channel 10, 9/14/01, San Diego Channel 10, 9/20/01] These accounts corroborate a neighbor’s recollection of seeing them get into a limousine late one night only a few days before 9/11. These neighbors had seen them on other occasions in previous months, and gave no indications to suggest they’d been gone for long stretches of time. [Time, 9/24/01] Yet supposedly, Alhazmi and Hanjour leased an apartment in Paterson, New Jersey during the six-month period preceding the attacks. [ABC News, 9/23/01]
One might argue that they had multiple addresses and that these inconsistencies can be explained by frequent cross-country flights and inaccurate eyewitness testimonies. This may be. However, one should also allow for the possibility that there were multiple people using the same names at the same time. Could one set of hijackers using the names of Almihdhar, Alhazmi and possibly Hanjour have been living in San Diego, while another set with the same names were living on the East Coast?
In late September 2001, the Chicago Tribune said of Alhazmi, Almihdhar and Hanjour: “Even now, as details of their San Diego lives emerge, more is unknown than known. The most basic of facts—the very names of the men—are uncertain. The FBI has said each used at least three aliases. It’s not going to be a terrible surprise down the line if these are not their true names, said Jeff Thurman, an FBI spokesman in San Diego.” [Chicago Tribune, 9/30/01] The Washington Post reported, “Investigators have found that the hijackers and some of their suspected accomplices have freely swapped names, credit cards, e-mail accounts and other identifying information. For example, Badr Mohammed H. Hazmi, a San Antonio radiologist under arrest as a material witness, has used the alias of Khalid Almihdhar.” [Washington Post, 9/20/01] A terrorism expert told Newsday, “These people are clever. This is another world of changing identities and false identities. We may not ever know who some of these people were after all the name changes, the transliterations, the spelling differences.” [Newsday, 9/21/01] Little more is known a year later.
The media has shown these three pictures of Almihdhar. Could the man in the far right picture be the “other” Khalid Almihdhar?
Could Almihdhar and Other Hijackers Still Be Alive?
On September 19, 2001, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. distributed a “special alert” to its member banks asking for information about the attackers. The list included the entry: “Al-Midhar, Khalid. Alive.” The Justice Department later called this a “typo.” [Cox News, 10/21/01] But the BBC reported, “There are suggestions that another suspect, Khalid Almihdhar, may also be alive.” [BBC, 9/23/01] The Guardian said he was believed to be alive, but investigators were looking into three possibilities. Either his name was stolen for a hijacker alias, he allowed his name to be used so that US officials would think he died, or he died in the crash. [Guardian, 9/21/01] The Observer said, “Intelligence agencies… are not even certain that his name is really Khalid Almihdhar.” [Observer, 10/7/01]
There is also confusion about whether the two hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi, had used real or fraudulent names. Even more interesting, some accounts have suggested the possibility that they are still alive. Their father was reportedly unsure if the photos he saw were of his sons. [Arab News, 9/22/01] The Nawaf Alhazmi that checked into hotels in Maryland gave a false New York address and false New York driver’s license, even though he had previously been driving with a legal California license with that name. [Newsday, 9/21/01, Daily Oklahoman, 1/20/02] He also somehow obtained a Florida driver’s license a few months before 9/11, even though he was never known to have been in Florida. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/27/01] In another case of unclear identities, it was widely reported that hijacker Salem Alhazmi was still alive after the attacks, and working at a petrochemical complex in the town of Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. [Los Angeles Times, 9/21/01, Guardian, 9/21/01, Telegraph, 9/23/01, Washington Post, 9/20/01] He told authorities that his passport was stolen by a pickpocket in Cairo three years before. [Guardian, 9/21/01] “The Hazmi we have is 26 years old and has never been to the United States,” explained a Saudi official. A picture of the Yanbu man, still used by the FBI, was published in a Saudi newspaper. [Washington Post, 9/20/01] Similar confusion reigns for many of the other hijackers (see the essay The Two Ziad Jarrahs, for instance).
The Salem Alhazmi on the left [Saudi Gazette, 9/23/01] claims that the FBI pictures of a Salem Alhazmi such as this one on the right [FBI] are of him, from when his passport was stolen, as are other details like date of birth. [Washington Post, 9/20/01]
Given all this confusion and the possibility that more than one person may have used a hijacker’s name, who really boarded the hijacked Flight 77? The Observer reported that “eyewitness reports and surveillance tapes have placed [Almihdhar] at Dulles airport.” [Observer, 10/7/01] But the government has never released the surveillance tapes from Dulles, even though they have released tapes of Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari passing through Portland, Maine airport security.
The Truth Must Come Out
The recent Congressional Intelligence Committee report on who knew what and when about Alhazmi and Almihdhar resembles more a whitewash than a true investigation. The FBI, CIA and others are taken at their word, even though they are known to have lied about this very issue in the past.
For instance, up until June 2002, the CIA maintained that it had not learned of Almihdhar’s connections to al-Qaeda or his visits to the US until August 2001. [New York Times, 6/3/02] But as is well-known now, these links had been established by US intelligence before the January 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. If it had not been for leaks and the diligent work of investigative journalists, this information would never have made it to the public. Another example of their tendency to misrepresent the truth was made apparent when the FBI claimed it had begun “an aggressive, full field investigation” immediately after the August 23 bulletin. But to the embarrassment of the FBI, it was discovered that the agency did not conduct even the simplest and most basic of searches, neglecting to check national databases of bank records, credit card records, and so on. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] The CIA and FBI’s inability to concur on whether or not the August 23 warning was labeled “immediate” is another case in point.
Another curious inconsistency is that the Congressional inquiry failed to mention that both Alhazmi and Almihdhar lived in California with FBI informant Abdussattar Shaikh from September until December 2000. The Congressional report stated that while Alhazmi had lived in the informant’s home until December, “official records have Almihdhar leaving the US on June 10, 2000, and not returning until July 4, 2001.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] But this is in complete contradiction to all previous media reports, the accounts from neighbors, and quotes from Abdussattar Shaikh himself! [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/01, Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/01, San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/16/01, Newsweek, 9/9/02] There is a similar unwillingness to admit that Hanjour was in the US in the year 2000 before December, again because that would contradict immigration records. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] With actions like this, the investigation is further obscuring the truth, not uncovering it.
The Congressional committee, the mainstream media, and major US officials have all repeatedly stated that there was no “smoking gun”—no single thing they could have done differently to stop the attacks. For instance, on June 7, 2002, President Bush purported, “Based on everything I’ve seen, I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of September the 11th.” [Sydney Morning Herald, 6/8/02] This is clearly wrong. Alhazmi and Almihdhar were the smoking gun—many times over. The Wall Street Journal claimed that even if the FBI knew the two had entered the US early on, “more-vigilant law enforcement is unlikely to have caught all of them.” Then they alleged, “it’s difficult to imagine how to prevent [terrorists] from operating here in the future without making the nation less free, less open and less tolerant of outsiders.” [Wall Street Journal, 9/17/01] But with what we now know of the connections between Alhazmi and Almihdhar and the other hijackers, it is clear all of them could have been caught, as FBI agents themselves have conceded. The gross failures and even crimes of intelligence officials should not be used as an excuse to destroy our freedoms.
The most serious questions have not even been asked by the Congressional committee. What does FBI informant Abdussattar Shaikh really know? Why does he contradict neighbors’ claims that Mohamed Atta was a frequent visitor to his house? Who do phone records show Alhazmi and Almihdhar called so frequently? Was there a deliberate sabotage of John O’Neill’s investigation in Yemen? Why did the CIA fail to share information on Alhazmi and Almihdhar? Why were even well known, top level terrorists like Khallad bin Atash not put on watch lists, much less investigated? Could the meetings in late night limousines have been the communication link between the hijackers and some group outside of al-Qaeda? Do we really know the true identities of the hijackers? Why can’t we see the video footage of them passing through airport security? Why does the FBI still use a photo of an innocent man for Salem Alhazmi? Is there any reason to believe Khalid Almihdhar is still alive?
Most importantly, at what point do incompetence and bureaucratic barriers cease to be reasonable explanations for so many failures surrounding Alhazmi and Almihdhar? Could the US government have been protecting these two for some reason? When will investigators and the media start asking these difficult questions?
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