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Complete 911 Timeline

Monitored Al-Qaeda Hub in Yemen

Project: Complete 911 Timeline
Open-Content project managed by matt, Derek, Paul, KJF, mtuck, paxvector

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Barbara McNamara.Barbara McNamara. [Source: National Security Agency]Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and other senior agency officers repeatedly ask the NSA to provide verbatim transcripts of intercepted calls between al-Qaeda members. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will explain, “[V]erbatim transcripts are operationally useful, summaries are much less so.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) According to PBS, Alec Station believes that “only by carefully studying each word will it be possible to understand [Osama] bin Laden’s intentions.” This is because al-Qaeda operatives sometimes talk in a simplistic code (see (October 1993-November 2001)). Scheuer will say: “Over time, if you read enough of these conversations, you first get clued in to the fact that maybe ‘bottle of milk’ doesn’t mean ‘bottle of milk.’ And if you follow it long enough, you develop a sense of what they’re really talking about. But it’s not possible to do unless you have the verbatim transcript.” (PBS 2/3/2009) Scheuer will also complain that the summaries “are usually not timely.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) Author James Bamford will say that the summaries are “brief” and come “once a week or something like that.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Alec Station’s desire for verbatim transcripts will intensify when it discovers the NSA is intercepting calls between bin Laden and his operations center in Yemen (see December 1996). However, the NSA constantly rejects its requests. Scheuer will later say: “We went to Fort Meade to ask then the NSA’s deputy director for operations [Barbara McNamara] for the transcripts, and she said, ‘We are not going to share that with you.’ And that was the end.” He will add that McNamara “said that the National Security Act of 1947 gave her agency control of ‘raw’ signals intelligence, and that she would not pass such material to CIA.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) McNamara will tell the 9/11 Commission that “She does not recall being personally [asked] to provide… transcripts or raw data” for counterterrorism, but if people wanted raw data, “then NSA would have provided it.” (9/11 Commission 12/15/2003, pp. 5)

A close-up of Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen.A close-up of Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS / Nova]Al-Qaeda begins using an important communications hub and operations center in Yemen. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 2-3, 16, 188) The hub is set up because al-Qaeda is headquartered in Afghanistan, but requires another location that has access to regular telephone services and major air links. It is located in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, in the neighbourhood of Madbah. Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of Osama bin Laden’s who fought in Afghanistan, runs the hub and lives there with his family. (Bamford 2008, pp. 7-8) Terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna will say that the hub is used as a switchboard to “divert and receive calls and messages from the [Middle East] region and beyond.” (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 2-3, 16, 188) FBI agent Mark Rossini will say, “That house was a focal point for operatives in the field to call in, that number would then contact bin Laden to pass along information and receive instruction back.” (PBS 2/3/2009) Author James Bamford will add: “[T]he house in Yemen became the epicenter of bin Laden’s war against America, a logistics base to coordinate attacks, a switchboard to pass on orders, and a safe house where his field commanders could meet to discuss and carry out operations.” Bin Laden himself places many calls to the house, and it is used to coordinate the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar also lives at the house at some point in the late 1990s with his wife Hoda, al-Hada’s daughter. (Bamford 2008, pp. 8)

The NSA discovers a communications hub al-Qaeda uses to coordinate its global operations. The hub was set up in May 1996 by Ahmed al-Hada, a close associate of Osama bin Laden (see May 1996), and is discovered at some time in the next six months. (Bamford 2008, pp. 16) According to a PBS documentary, the NSA discovers the hub by monitoring bin Laden’s calls from his satellite phone in Afghanistan (see November 1996-Late August 1998): “Once he starts dialing from Afghanistan, NSA’s listening posts quickly tap into his conversations.… By tracking all calls in and out of Afghanistan, the NSA quickly determines bin Laden’s number: 873-682505331.” According to CIA manager Michael Scheuer, bin Laden’s satellite phone is a “godsend,” because “[i]t gave us an idea, not only of where he was in Afghanistan, but where al-Qaeda, as an organization, was established, because there were calls to various places in the world.” As bin Laden’s phone calls are not encrypted, there is no code for the NSA to break. Instead, NSA voice interceptors and linguists translate, transcribe, and write summaries of the calls. In addition, human analysts plot out which numbers are being called from bin Laden’s phone and how frequently. (PBS 2/3/2009)

An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden.An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden. [Source: Inmarsat]During this period, Osama bin Laden uses a satellite phone to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The phone—a Compact M satellite phone, about the size of a laptop computer—was purchased by a student in Virginia named Ziyad Khaleel for $7,500 using the credit card of a British man named Saad al-Fagih. After purchasing the phone, Khaleel sent it to Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s unofficial press secretary in London (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998). Al-Fawwaz then shipped it to bin Laden in Afghanistan. (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001) It appears US intelligence actually tracks the purchase as it occurs (see November 1996-Late December 1999), probably because an older model satellite phone bin Laden has is already being monitored (see Early 1990s). Bin Laden’s phone (873682505331) is believed to be used by other top al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Atef. Al-Fawwaz also buys satellite phones for other top al-Qaeda leaders around the same time. Though the calls made on these phones are encrypted, the NSA is able to intercept and decrypt them. As one US official will put it in early 2001, “codes were broken.” (Sale 2/13/2001; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002) The Los Angeles Times will report that the monitoring of these phones “produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts over two years.” (Braun et al. 10/14/2001) Bin Laden’s satellite phone replaces an older model he used in Sudan that apparently was also monitored by the NSA (see Early 1990s). Billing records for his new phone are eventually released to the media in early 2002. Newsweek will note, “A country-by-country analysis of the bills provided US authorities with a virtual road map to important al-Qaeda cells around the world.” (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002) The countries called are:
bullet Britain (238 or 260). Twenty-seven different phone numbers are called in Britain. Accounts differ on the exact number of calls. Khalid al-Fawwaz, who helps publish statements by bin Laden, receives 143 of the calls, including the very first one bin Laden makes with this phone. Apparently most of the remaining calls are made to pay phones near him or to his associates. He also frequently calls Ibrahim Eidarous, who works with al-Fawwaz and lives near him. (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002; O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 111)
bullet Yemen (221). Dozens of calls go to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is run by the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see Late August 1998). (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; McDermott 9/1/2002; Bamford 2008, pp. 8)
bullet Sudan (131). Bin Laden lived in Sudan until 1996 (see May 18, 1996), and some important al-Qaeda operatives remained there after he left (see February 5, 1998). (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Iran (106). Newsweek will later report: “US officials had little explanation for the calls to Iran. A Bush administration official said that US intelligence has believed for years that hard-line anti-American factions inside Iran helped bin Laden’s organization operate an ‘underground railroad’ smuggling Islamic militants to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.” (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Azerbaijan (67). An important al-Qaeda operative appears to be based in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Loeb 5/2/2001) This is most likely Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who is very close to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda cell there. He kidnapped by the CIA in Baku in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998).
bullet Kenya (at least 56). In the embassy bombings trial, prosecutors introduce evidence showing 16 calls are made on this phone to some of the embassy bombers in Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), apparently all before a raid in August 1997 (see August 21, 1997). The defense introduces evidence showing at least 40 more calls are made after that time (see Late 1996-August 1998). (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001)
bullet Pakistan (59).
bullet Saudi Arabia (57).
bullet A ship in the Indian Ocean (13).
bullet The US (6).
bullet Italy (6).
bullet Malaysia (4).
bullet Senegal (2). (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Egypt (unknown). Newsweek reports that calls are made to Egypt but doesn’t say how many. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002)
bullet Iraq (0). Press reports note that the records indicate zero calls were made to Iraq. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002) 1,100 total calls are made on this phone. Adding up the above numbers means that the destination of over 100 calls is still unaccounted for. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002) The use of this phone stops two months after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. However, it appears bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to use other satellite phones occasionally after this time. Shortly after 9/11, James Bamford, an expert authority on the agency, says “About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him.… He may still use [satellite phones] occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing.” (Sieberg 9/21/2001) According to a different account, bin Laden will attempt to use a different phone communication method, but US intelligence will soon discover it and continue monitoring his calls (see Late 1998 and After).

Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, discovers that al-Qaeda has established a communications hub and operations center in Sana’a, Yemen, and that there are frequent calls between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see May 1996 and November 1996-Late August 1998). (Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) According to Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer, the CIA learns of this “communications conduit” through a CIA officer detailed to the NSA and stationed overseas. According to Scheuer, the NSA “refuse[s] to exploit the conduit and threaten[s] legal action against the agency officer who advised of its existence.” Despite the threat, the officer continues to supply the information. Scheuer asks senior CIA officials to intervene with the NSA, but this only leads to “a desultory interagency discussion without resolution.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) Author James Bamford will say: “Scheuer knew how important the house [the operations center in Yemen] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA,… Barbara McNamara, and asked for transcripts of the conversations coming into and going out of the house. And the best the NSA would do would be to give them brief summaries every… once a week or something like that, you know, just a report, not the actual transcripts or anything. And so he got very frustrated, he went back there and they still refused.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Because of the lack of information, the CIA will actually build its own listening post to get some of the information the NSA is concealing from it (see After December 1996).

The CIA builds a ground station to intercept calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations centre in Yemen. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) According to author James Bamford, the station is “in the Indian Ocean area, I think it was on Madagascar.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) The NSA is already intercepting the calls, but refuses to share the raw intelligence with the CIA (see February 1996-May 1998 and December 1996), which is why the agency has to build the station. However, the CIA is only able to get half the conversations, because its technology is not as good as the NSA’s. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) Bamford will add, “they were only picking up half of the conversations, apparently it was downlink, they weren’t able to get the uplink, you need a satellite.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Presumably, Bamford means the CIA is getting the half of the calls featuring the person talking to bin Laden, but cannot hear the Afghan end of the conversation. To get the other half of the Afghanistan-Yemen calls the CIA would need a satellite. (PBS 2/3/2009)

The CIA again asks the NSA for part of the transcripts of calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations center in Yemen. The NSA has been intercepting the calls for some time (see Between May and December 1996), but refuses to share the intelligence with Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, in usable form (see December 1996). During the calls, the al-Qaeda operatives talk in a simplistic code, but the NSA apparently does not decrypt the conversations, and only gives Alec Station meaningless summaries of the calls (see February 1996-May 1998). Without the transcripts, Alec Station cannot crack the code and figure out what the operatives are really talking about. As a result, the CIA built a duplicate ground station in the Indian Ocean, and is replicating half of the NSA’s intelligence take on the calls (see After December 1996). However, it cannot obtain the other end of the calls without a satellite. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will say, “We would collect it [one end of the calls], translate it, send it to NSA, and ask them for the other half of it, so we could better understand it, but we never got it.” Author James Bamford will comment: “And so the CIA, Mike Scheuer, went back to NSA and said look,… we’re able to get… half the conversations here, but we still need the other half, and NSA still wouldn’t give them the other half. I mean this is absurd, but this is what was going on.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009)

Some time after he is appointed CIA Director (see July 11, 1997), but before 9/11, George Tenet negotiates a series of agreements with telecommunications and financial institutions “to get access to certain telephone, Internet, and financial records related to ‘black’ intelligence operations.” The arrangements are made personally by the companies’ CEOs and Tenet, who plays “the patriot card” to get the information. The arrangement involves the CIA’s National Resources Division, which has at least a dozen offices in the US. The Division’s main aim is to recruit people in the US to spy abroad. However, in this case the Division makes arrangements so that other intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, can access the information and records the CEOs agree to provide. (Woodward 2006, pp. 323-5) There is a history of co-operation between the CIA’s National Resources Division and the NSA. For example, Monte Overacre, a CIA officer assigned to the Division’s San Diego office in the early 1990s, said that he worked with the NSA there, obtaining information about foreign telecommunications programs and passing it on to the Technology Management Office, a joint venture between the two agencies. (Dreyfuss 1/1998) One US official will say that the arrangements only give the CIA access to the companies’ passive databanks. However, reporter Bob Woodward will say that the programme raises “serious civil liberties questions and also demonstrate[d] that the laws had not kept pace with the technology.” (Woodward 2006, pp. 324-5) There will be an interagency argument about the program after 9/11 (see (2003 and After)).

Mohamed al-Owhali.Mohamed al-Owhali. [Source: CNN]Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali briefly stayed at the hub about three months before the bombings and made some calls from there. He then traveled to other locations, including Pakistan, and flew to Kenya on August 2. Beginning August 4, he makes a series of calls to al-Hada at the Yemen hub. The details of these calls have not been revealed, but they continue until about two hours before the embassy bombings take place. Al-Owhali is supposed to be martyred in the attack, but he runs away at the last minute and survives. Beginning on August 8, he repeatedly calls al-Hada, asking for help getting out of Kenya. He eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada is actually about to fly to Kenya to help al-Owhali get out when al-Owhali is arrested on August 12. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI allegedly trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan, to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a (however, it is likely that the NSA at least is already monitoring the hub phone number). Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. (United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23 3/27/2001; Burke 8/5/2001) The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/9/1998, pp. 1 pdf file) Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” (Wright 2006, pp. 275-8) The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. (Reeve 1999, pp. 48)

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar makes a series of calls to an al-Qaeda communications hub run by his father-in-law, Ahmed al-Hada. A Yemeni police official will later tell Agence France-Presse that Almihdhar “made a number of overseas calls to Ahmed al-Hada, who was then in Sana’a, before, during, and after” the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Hada is involved in the embassy bombings and the US intelligence community begins joint surveillance of his phone after the bombings (see Late August 1998), although the NSA may already have been monitoring it (see Before August 7, 1998). The calls made by Almihdhar are from overseas and the FBI learns of this, presumably during the investigation into the embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998) (Mounasser 2/15/2002) Around this time Almihdhar is also in contact with al-Hada’s son, Samir, who is his brother-in-law, and the Yemen Times will later report that these contacts are monitored. However, it is not clear whether this is just by local authorities in Yemen, or also by US intelligence. (Yemen Times 2/18/2002) British Prime Minister Tony Blair will later say that one of the 9/11 hijackers, presumably Almihdhar, played a key role in the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa (see October 4, 2001).

Calls are made using Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is involved in the embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). According to MSNBC, two of the calls from bin Laden’s phone are made “days before” the bombings. The NSA is intercepting calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone at this time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and his phone is used to make dozens of calls to the Yemen communications hub from 1996 to 1998, but it is unclear what is done with the intercepts, as the NSA is sometimes unwilling to share information with other US intelligence agencies (see Between 1996 and August 1998, December 1996, Between 1996 and September 11, 2001, and Before September 11, 2001). (Los Angeles Times 10/10/2001; MSNBC 2/14/2002; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; McDermott 9/1/2002) The communications hub is run by veteran mujaheddin Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of one of the embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Al-Owhali stays at the hub in the months before the bombing and obtains a fake passport in Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/9/1998 pdf file) The NSA continues to intercept calls to and from the hub after the embassy bombings (see Late August 1998 and August 4-25, 1998).

Samir al-Hada, who helped run an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen.Samir al-Hada, who helped run an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen. [Source: CNN]Yemeni al-Qaeda operative Samir al-Hada is questioned over the embassy bombings in East Africa. A communications hub run by him and his father, Ahmed al-Hada, facilitated the attacks (see Late August 1998) and will also apparently facilitate the attack on the USS Cole and 9/11 (see Before October 12, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Details of the questioning, such as the agency that performs it and what results are passed to US intelligence, are not known, but the communications hub the al-Hada family runs will subsequently be monitored and US intelligence will derive much useful information from it (see Late 1998-Early 2002) (Standora 2/14/2002) Samir al-Hada will die in an explosion in February 2002 (see February 13, 2002).

After the East African embassy bombings, al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri calls a number in Yemen to discuss attacking a US warship. Al-Nashiri will go on to have a prominent role in the attacks against the USS The Sullivans (see January 3, 2000) and USS Cole (see October 12, 2000) in Yemen. US authorities learn of this call no later than December 2000, although it is not clear how they do so. (CNN 12/20/2000) The number called by al-Nashiri is not disclosed by the media, but some of al-Nashiri’s associates lived at an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which began to be monitored by US authorities around this time (see Late 1998-Early 2002 and January 5-8, 2000).

Al-Qaeda operatives use a communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, to “put everything together” before the bombing of the USS Cole. The communications hub is run by Ahmed al-Hada, who US officials will later describe as “a prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing.” The hub is monitored by US intelligence from 1998, at least, (see Late August 1998) and information gleaned from it is used to thwart a number of plots (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The US monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it. The hub was also used before the 1998 embassy bombings and will be used to communicate with the 9/11 hijackers before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). (MSNBC 2/14/2002; Wigmore 6/9/2002; Windrem 5/2005) When the FBI arrives in Yemen to investigate the bombing, it finds that “telephone records show[…] that suspects in the Cole bombing had been in touch with suspects from the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.” (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 238) Calls between the hub and an al-Qaeda cell in Ireland that seems to have a connection to the Cole bombing are also intercepted during part of this period (see Late December 1999-October 12, 2000). It is unclear why the information does not allow the NSA to thwart the plot. Despite the scope of the monitoring, NSA Director Michael Hayden will later say there were no intercepts the NSA could have exploited to stop the bombing: “When the Cole disaster took place I had brought to my desk in, in this office, every stitch of NSA reporting on the—that could in any way be related to this. And I went thought it report by report and I sent a letter out to our entire work force, which was essentially, you performed well. Keep up the good work.” (Martin 6/19/2002)

Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen.Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS NOVA]The investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) led to the discovery of the phone number of an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). The hub is run by an al-Qaeda veteran named Ahmed al-Hada, who is helped by his son Samir and is related to many other al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and elsewhere. He is also the father in law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, whose wife, Hoda al-Hada, lives at the hub with their children. (Isikoff and Klaidman 6/2/2002; Schrom 10/1/2002; Myers 7/21/2004; Suskind 2006, pp. 94; Wright 2006, pp. 277, 309, 343, 378) Several of Ahmed al-Hada’s relatives die fighting for al-Qaeda before 9/11, a fact known to US intelligence. (Meyer 12/21/2005; al-Haj 2/15/2006) The NSA may already be aware of the phone number, as they have been intercepting Osama bin Laden’s communications for some time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and, according to Newsweek, “some” of bin Laden’s 221 calls to Yemen are to this phone number. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002; O'Connor 9/5/2006) The US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to monitor the number. The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. (Wigmore 6/9/2002; Wright 2006, pp. 343; Wright 7/10/2006 pdf file) US intelligence also learns that the communications hub is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. (Isikoff and Klaidman 6/2/2002) The joint effort enables the FBI to map al-Qaeda’s global organization (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and at least three of the hijackers use the number, enabling the NSA to intercept their communications and find out about an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999 and January 5-8, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until Samir al-Hada dies resisting arrest in early 2002 (see February 13, 2002).

Following the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), CIA managers ask Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, what it most needs to improve the agency’s capabilities against al-Qaeda. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will later say that he raises “our dire need for verbatim reports derived from electronic collection.” This is a reference to his desire to get verbatim transcripts of calls to and from al-Qaeda’s operations hub in Yemen, in particular ones between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The NSA has the transcripts, but is refusing to provide them to the CIA, and the two agencies have been at loggerheads over the issue for nearly two years. Alec Station needs the transcripts, not the summaries the NSA provides, because the operatives talk in code on the phone and this code cannot be cracked based on the summaries, only using the transcripts (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, and After December 1996). Other senior CIA officers have similar trouble getting transcripts from the NSA. Higher officials order the NSA to comply, and they do, but only for less than 12 requests. Then the system returns to the way it was, with NSA only sharing summaries. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) The reason for the change back is unclear, although bin Laden stops using his satellite phone around this time (see Late August 1998).

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

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

Ahmed al-Hada, an operative who runs a communications hub for al-Qaeda in Yemen, travels to Afghanistan and attends a banquet, where, US intelligence learns, he sits next to Osama bin Laden. The communications hub run by al-Hada, who fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, helped coordinate the East African embassy bombings and has been under heavy surveillance by the NSA and other US agencies since at least late 1998 (see Late August 1998). (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002)

Salem Alhazmi.Salem Alhazmi. [Source: FBI]As the NSA continues to monitor an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see Late August 1998), they find references to Almihdhar and the hijacker brothers, Salem and Nawaf Alhazmi. They also learn that Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi are long time friends. (9/11 Commission 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004) In early 1999, the NSA intercepts communications mentioning the full name “Nawaf Alhazmi.” However, this information is not disseminated to the intelligence community, as it apparently does not meet NSA reporting thresholds. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say, “Those thresholds vary, depending on the judgement of the NSA analyst who is reviewing the intercept and the subject, location, and content of the intercept.” Another intelligence organisation intercepts the same or similar calls and reports this to the NSA. The Inquiry comments: “NSA’s practice was to review such reports and disseminate those responsive to US intelligence requirements. For an undetermined reason, NSA did not disseminate the […] report.” (Lumpkin 9/25/2002; US Congress 10/17/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file) The NSA continues to intercept such calls and finds more information a few months later (see Summer 1999 and Late Summer 1999). Near the end of 1999, there will be additional intercepts that give Khalid Almihdhar’s full name and the first names of the other two (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999). But while the NSA will provide some information about these new intercepts to the CIA and other agencies, they will not go back to the earlier intercepts to figure out Nawaf’s full name and close connection to Almihdhar (see December 29, 1999).

The NSA intercepts more calls (see Early 1999) involving Khalid Almihdhar, who is at an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, with his family (see Late August 1998). The identity of the person he is talking to and the content of the intercepts is so sensitive that the whole passage regarding these communications is redacted in the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry’s report. After the redacted passage, the Inquiry comments, “At about the same time, the name [of al-Qaeda leader] Khallad [bin Attash] came to the attention of the NSA for the first time,” so the calls may involve bin Attash in some way. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 155-6 pdf file) Almihdhar is staying at the communications hub at this time and will stay there later as well (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000) and Late October 2000-July 4, 2001).

A large group of Islamic Jihad operatives are sentenced in Cairo in what becomes known as the “Trial of the Albanian Returnees.” Various disclosures are made at the trial about the way Islamic Jihad operated and how it provided support to al-Qaeda by forging travel documents, transferring money, and arranging communications. One of the revelations is that al-Qaeda has a key communication hub in Yemen. Despite this revelation (see Late 1998-Early 2002), al-Qaeda will continue to use it through 2001 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The defendants were arrested not only in Egypt, but also in Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1995, the CIA arranged a deal with Egypt to capture Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt to be tortured and prosecuted (see Summer 1995). Eighty-seven of the defendants are convicted and ten are sentenced to death, including al-Zawahiri, who is tried in absentia. (Sachs 11/21/2001) One of the convicted is Khaled Abu el-Dahab, who was operating a sleeper cell in California with double agent Ali Mohamed throughout the 1990’s (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab is sentenced to fifteen years in prison (see September 10, 1998). There are credible reports that many of the defendants confessed after being tortured in Egypt and Albania. (Sachs 11/21/2001; Wright 2006, pp. 269) The trial nearly eradicates the remnants of Islamic Jihad in Egypt and, according to some of the defendants, leaves only about forty members outside of Egypt. Al-Zawahiri and the other remaining members end up allying even closer to al-Qaeda. The two organizations will formally merge in early 2001 (see June 2001). (Wright 2006, pp. 336)

The NSA intercepts more calls involving an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 1999 and Summer 1999). The names of Khaled, who turns out to be 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, and others are mentioned in the calls. However, the NSA reportedly does not think the intelligence gleaned from the calls is important and does not disseminate it. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 156 pdf file) However, the FBI regarded the hub as a key element in al-Qaeda’s communications network and after 9/11 a senior US counterterrorism official will say, “The NSA was well aware of how hot the number was… and how it was a logistical hub for al-Qaeda.” Several plots are stopped based on information obtained from listening to calls to and from the hub (see Late 1998-Early 2002). (Meyer 12/21/2005)

The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism and houses the I-49 squad that focuses on Osama bin Laden (see January 1996), receives information from the NSA about a wiretap on the phone of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. The information concerns travel by Almihdhar, fellow alleged hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, and other operatives to an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, Shortly Before December 29, 1999, and January 5-8, 2000), but the office, like the rest of the FBI, is not told Almihdhar has a US visa (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). However, the New York office apparently does not realize it has this information and when investigators become aware of its importance in June 2001 they will conduct a running argument with FBI headquarters and the CIA over whether they can receive it again (see June 11, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 293 pdf file)

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar returns from Afghanistan to Yemen, where he and his family live at an al-Qaeda communications hub that is being monitored by the US (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA listens in on calls to his number and finds that he and several al-Qaeda leaders are to meet in Malaysia for a terrorism summit (see December 29, 1999). The reason for his departure to Yemen is unclear, as he has already been selected for the 9/11 operation and his fellow operatives are undergoing training in Afghanistan at this point (see Late 1999 and Early December 1999). Detainees give varying accounts of the reasons for his departure, as well as the exact timing. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 157, 493) According to author James Bamford, Almihdhar returns to Yemen to be with his wife when he learns she is pregnant with their first child. (Bamford 2008, pp. 11) Whatever the reason for Almihdhar’s travel to Yemen, while he is there al-Qaeda mounts an abortive attack against the USS The Sullivans (see January 3, 2000).

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

The NSA has been monitoring a telephone in an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). According to Vanity Fair, “Amid the storm of pre-millennial ‘chatter,’ the [NSA] intercepted communications among three Arabic men, each of whom bore some connection to the East Africa bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) and to al-Qaeda.” The men are hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi. (Zeman et al. 11/2004) Apparently, the NSA listens in on a phone call between al-Qaeda figure Khallad bin Attash and hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, who is staying at the hub. Attash mentions Almihdhar’s full name, as well as the first names of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. He says he wants the three of them to come to an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see January 5-8, 2000). The NSA has already heard the names of the three hijackers mentioned repeatedly in 1999 while monitoring the Yemen hub (see Early 1999). Apparently, US intelligence does not yet know bin Attash’s full name or role in al-Qaeda and won’t figure it out until late 2000 (see Early December 2000). (Wright 2006, pp. 310) At the same time, US officials in Pakistan intercept Nawaf Alhazmi in Karachi calling Almihdhar at the Yemen hub. They learn Nawaf is planning a trip to Malaysia on January 4, 2000. The NSA is also monitoring Nawaf calling his brother Salem (the location of Salem at this time has not been revealed). (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 143-144 pdf file; John 3/19/2004) The NSA will share details of these calls with the CIA and other agencies on December 29, 1999 (see December 29, 1999) and the CIA will eventually track Almihdhar to the Malaysia summit (see January 2-5, 2000).

Following a raid on suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Dublin, Ireland, on December 21, 1999 (see December 21, 1999), FBI investigators begin monitoring the al-Qaeda cell there. The cell is believed to specialize in providing travel and identity documents for others committing violent acts. It will later be reported that “further investigation led to the tracing of telephone calls between Dublin and the Yemen in the period before al-Qaeda launched” its attack on the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). (Cusack 7/31/2002) Additional details such as what was said in these calls have not been reported. The calls to Yemen may well have been to a Yemeni al-Qaeda communications hub that was under US surveillance since at least 1998 (see Late August 1998).

The CIA sends an officer from its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to the NSA to review raw transcripts of intercepted communications between terrorists. However, the officer is only there for a “brief period” and is subsequently withdrawn and not replaced, damaging the CIA’s ability to exploit the information gleaned from the intercepts. The CIA only previously received summaries of intercepted calls, not the transcripts themselves, and had been arguing for years that it needed the actual transcripts to better understand the material (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, After December 1996, and Late August 1998). After the single officer leaves the NSA, which intercepts calls between the US-based 9/11 hijackers and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen around this time (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), the reason the CIA gives for not replacing him is “resource constraints.” In 2005, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General will regard this failure as so serious that it will recommend an accountability board be convened to review the performance of the CTC managers responsible, and will suggest that officers should have been detailed to the NSA “on a consistent, full-time basis.” (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xxiii pdf file) The CIA and NSA are obtaining information about people in the US from phone companies to support “black ops” at this time (see After July 11, 1997).

A photocopy of Nawaf Alhazmi’s passport. No image of Khalid Almihdhar’s passport has been released, but it would have looked similar to this one.A photocopy of Nawaf Alhazmi’s passport. No image of Khalid Almihdhar’s passport has been released, but it would have looked similar to this one. [Source: FBI]The CIA is aware that hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is staying at a highly monitored al-Qaeda communication hub (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and is planning to travel to an al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. He is closely watched as leaves the hub and flies from Sana’a, Yemen, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on his way to Malaysia. Agents from eight CIA offices and six friendly foreign intelligence services are all asked to help track him, in the hopes he will lead them to bigger al-Qaeda figures. (Laabs 8/13/2003; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file) The CIA and local authorities are running an operation to track militants transiting Dubai airport (see 1999), and United Arab Emirates officials secretly make copies of his passport as he is passing through it, immediately reporting this to the CIA. (Bamford 2004, pp. 224) Another account suggests CIA agents break into Almihdhar’s Dubai hotel room and photocopy the passport there. Either way, the information is immediately faxed to Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. (Wright 2006, pp. 311) The CIA not only learns his full name, but also discovers the vital fact that he has a multiple entry visa to the US that is valid from April 1999 to April 2000. But even though the CIA now knows about this US visa which indicates he plans to go to New York City, they do not place him on a terror watch list and they fail to tell the FBI about the visa. (Bamford 2004, pp. 224; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file)

The CIA sends the NSA some information about 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, including information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000), which Almihdhar attended, as well as the name of a person who helped him in Kuala Lumpur, where the summit was held. The NSA is also told Almihdhar’s primary purpose for coming to Malaysia was to meet with other people. The CIA knows Almihdhar has a US visa (see January 2-5, 2000), but it is unclear whether the NSA is informed of this. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 156 pdf file) At this time, the NSA has some information about Almihdhar, whose calls it has been intercepting for at least a year (see Early 1999, Summer 1999, Late Summer 1999, and Shortly Before December 29, 1999), that has not been disseminated. In particular, the NSA seems to have overheard something in early 1999 that should have been disseminated, but was not. This new information from the CIA does not cause the NSA to re-examine its material on Almihdhar or disseminate any important information to other US agencies. However, Almihdhar is subsequently put on the NSA watchlist (see Mid-January 2000) and the NSA intercepts calls between his home in Yemen and him in the US (see Spring-Summer 2000), but fails to alert the FBI to his presence in the US (see (Spring 2000)).

Following a request by the CIA, the NSA puts hijacker 9/11 Khalid Almihdhar on its watch list. This means that the NSA should pass details of any new monitored communications involving him to the CIA. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file) The CIA is looking for Almihdhar and knows he has a US visa (see January 13, 2000), but fails to add him to the State Department’s watch list until 19 months later (see August 23, 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will later state: “In mid-January 2000, NSA queried its databases for information concerning Khaled [redacted]. These queries remained active until May 2000, but did not uncover any information.” In fact, the NSA intercepts eight of Almihdhar’s calls from San Diego to Yemen during this time and even gives some details about some of the calls to the FBI (see Spring-Summer 2000). However, they do not tell the CIA everything about them, despite the watch list requirement to provide the information. It is not clear why the NSA failed to share this with the CIA. It is also not known if or when Almihdhar was removed from the NSA watch list before 9/11. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file)

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

Around eight calls made by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar from San Diego to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by his father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada are intercepted by the NSA. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16-17, 157 pdf file; Meyer 12/21/2005; Wright 2006, pp. 343; Wright 7/10/2006 pdf file) At least one of the calls is made from a phone registered to hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in their San Diego apartment. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 251 pdf file) Other calls are made from a mobile phone registered to Alhazmi. (McDermott 2005, pp. 296) Calls may also be made from the communications hub to the US. (Myers 7/21/2004)
Dates of Calls - One of the calls takes place days after they move into their San Diego apartment in February (see January 15-February 2000). (Myers 7/21/2004) Another is on March 20, 2000 and lasts 16 minutes. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 10/2001, pp. 57 pdf file; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 251 pdf file)
Intercepted by NSA - Although NSA analysts pick up Almihdhar’s first name, “Khalid,” they do not connect it to his second name, even though the NSA has been intercepting communications to and from the hub involving him throughout 1999 (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and he is on the NSA watch list at this point (see Mid-January 2000). (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16, 157 pdf file; Kaplan and Whitelaw 3/15/2004) Some, or perhaps all, of these calls are between Almihdhar and his wife, who lives at the communications hub and reportedly gives birth to a daughter in early 2000 while Almihdhar is in the US. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind 2006, pp. 94; Wright 2006, pp. 343; Wright 7/10/2006 pdf file) However, the NSA analysts suspect that Khalid is part of an “operational cadre.” (Kaplan and Whitelaw 3/15/2004)
Dissemination and Content - According to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the NSA disseminates some of this information to the FBI, CIA, and other agencies, but not all of it, as it apparently does not meet reporting thresholds. It is unclear why it does not meet such thresholds, although some sources will suggest Almihdhar was just talking to his wife. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file; Kaplan and Whitelaw 3/15/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind 2006, pp. 94) Another source suggests operational information was passed on during the calls (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, two FBI agents who worked on al-Qaeda cases relating to Yemen, Dan Coleman and Ali Soufan, will later claim that they and other senior counterterrorism officials only learn about these calls after 9/11. (Meyer 12/21/2005; Suskind 2006, pp. 94; Wright 7/10/2006 pdf file)
Significance - Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “You know, this is the key. The NSA is all over this phone. And everybody, you know, that has any connection with it is drawing links from that phone. Now imagine eight lines from Yemen to San Diego. How obvious would it be that al-Qaeda is in America[?]” (Wright 10/5/2006)
Other Calls - The NSA also intercepts various other communications between the hijackers and the communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001).

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

According to the 2008 charge sheet at his military tribunal, 9/11 facilitator Ali Abdul Aziz Ali speaks on the telephone to 9/11 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, who is living in San Diego at this time. The call or calls are apparently made at the direction of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and are about a wire transfer from Ali to Alhazmi made in mid-April (see April 16-18, 2000). The source of the claim that the calls are made contained in the charge sheet is not specified, so it is unclear whether it is only based on statements made by detainees under interrogation, which may be unreliable (see June 16, 2004), or whether it is corroborated by other evidence, such as phone company records. (US Department of Defense 2/11/2008 pdf file) At least some calls between Alhazmi and his partner, hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen are being monitored by the NSA at this point (see Spring-Summer 2000). However, it is unclear whether the call or calls to Ali are picked up by the NSA, or a joint CIA-NSA program to support “black ops” in progress at this time (see After July 11, 1997).

When 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar leaves the US in June (see June 10, 2000), he flies to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Oman in the Middle East. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file) From there he returns to his family’s home in Sana’a, Yemen. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) His wife and children live at an al-Qaeda communications hub that is run by his father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. The hub is being monitored by the NSA and CIA. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should have been aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar was, but what exactly was known and who may have known it has not been made public. He will return to the hub in February 2001 and stay an unknown length of time (see February 2001).

After 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar returns to the Middle East (see June 10, 2000 and (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)), the NSA continues to intercept his telephone calls to and from an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, where his wife and children live. US intelligence understands that this is one of the most important al-Qaeda hot spots, and has been closely monitoring it since at least late 1998 (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). It also intercepts calls between hijacker Salem Alhazmi and the hub, as well as conversations between his brother, hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, in the US and the hub (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001). (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Wright 2006, pp. 343) The NSA had previously intercepted calls made by the hijackers to and from the communications hub, both when they were in the US and outside it (see Early 2000-Summer 2001).

The US intelligence community has been monitoring al-Qaeda telephone communications to and from a communications hub in Yemen since the late 1990s (see Late August 1998). The CIA intercepts an al-Qaeda operative say in a monitored phone call that bin Laden is planning a “Hiroshima-type event” against the US. Failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, who is arrested in late 1999 (see December 14, 1999), confirms at the time that al-Qaeda is preparing such an attack. (Risen and Engelberg 10/14/2001; PBS 10/3/2002) This sets off an immediate but unsuccessful search for further evidence. Shortly after 9/11, the New York Times will report that “intelligence officials now acknowledge that they never imagined that Mr. bin Laden’s organization had the ability to kill thousands of people in coordinated attacks on the American homeland. Looking back through the prism of Sept. 11, officials now say that the intercepted message was a telling sign of a drastic shift in the ambitions and global reach of al-Qaeda during the last three years.” (Risen and Engelberg 10/14/2001) There apparently is another intercepted message talking about a “Hiroshima” event in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001).

9/11 hijacker associate Ramzi bin al-Shibh spends four weeks in Yemen. The exact timing of his visit is unknown, except that he arrives in August 2000 and leaves in September. (Abuza 12/24/2002; US Department of Defense 12/8/2006)
Planning Cole Bombing? - While in Yemen, it seems probable bin al-Shibh is involved in preparations for the USS Cole bombing. There are reports that he takes part in the bombing, and he flies back to Yemen to be there in time for the bombing in early October (see October 10-21, 2000).
Does He Visit Monitored Yemen Hub? - While there, it is also possible that he visits the highly monitored al-Qaeda Yemen communications hub, which is in Sana’a. It will not be confirmed or denied that he visits the hub at this time. However, bin al-Shibh is Yemeni, and he is a cousin of future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s wife, and she lives at the house where the hub is located. (Finn 6/12/2002; Finn 9/11/2002) (Note that he also has other family in Sana’a, as this is where he grew up, so it seems probable he would spend at least some of his visit in Sana’a.) (McDermott 2005, pp. 41) Furthermore, at some point before the Cole bombing, bin al-Shibh meets with al-Qaeda operatives Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Ahmed al-Hada in Yemen. It is not known where the meeting takes place, but al-Hada runs the Yemen hub (and he is also related to bin al-Shibh) (see Before October 12, 2000). Also, al-Qaeda operatives use the hub to “put everything together” for the Cole bombing, and bin al-Shibh is probably involved in preparations for the bombing at this time. The bombers also call the hub as part of their preparations (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000).
Could Bin Al-Shibh Be Tracked? - If bin al-Shibh does visit (or even just call) the Yemen hub at this time, and/or during his later visit right at the time of the Cole bombing, he would be monitored by US intelligence. The US not only listens in on the hub’s phone, but it monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Although it is uncertain, US intelligence may already be aware of bin al-Shibh through his attendance at an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in early 2000 (see January 5-8, 2000).

The FBI and other US intelligence agencies have been monitoring an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, since the attacks on US embassies in East Africa, and have used it to map al-Qaeda’s global network (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). In the run-up to the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, the FBI notices that there is increased telephone activity to and from the Sana’a hub. One of the messages says that bin Laden is planning a “Hiroshima-type event” (see (August 2000)). (PBS 10/3/2002)

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an al-Qaeda leader involved in the attack on the USS Cole, is said to meet two associates, Ahmed al-Hada and al-Hada’s nephew Ramzi bin al-Shibh, in Yemen. (Schrom 10/1/2002; Hosenball 12/2/2002) Al-Hada, an operative who runs a communications hub for Osama bin Laden, has been under surveillance since 1998, at least (see August 4-25, 1998). The surveillance of al-Hada is reportedly so important that his house is monitored by spy satellites, to visually identify everyone coming and going (see Late August 1998), although it is unclear where the meeting with al-Nashiri takes place. The exact timing of this meeting and that with bin al-Shibh is not known, although bin al-Shibh stays in Yemen for about four weeks up until a month before the bombing (see August-September 2000), and then arrives in Yemen again one day before the bombing (see October 10-21, 2000). (Hosenball 12/2/2002) Bin al-Shibh is repeatedly denied a US visa. Although the earlier applications are denied on the grounds he may stay in the US, it will later be suggested that his presumed role in the Cole bombing may have influenced one or more later denials (see May 17, 2000-May 2001).

In the months after the USS Cole is bombed in autumn 2000 (see October 12, 2000), the NSA intercepts about half a dozen communications between hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. (Myers 7/21/2004; Meyer 12/21/2005; US President 12/26/2005 pdf file) The hub and people associated with it are thought to have played a support role in the Cole bombing (see also October 14-Late November, 2000 and October 4, 2001). (CNN 2/14/2002; Myers 7/21/2004) It was also involved in the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (see August 4-25, 1998). The NSA has been monitoring the number for at least two years (see Late August 1998) and the FBI has used it to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA had previously intercepted calls between hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and the hub (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001) and also intercepts a call between Alhazmi and the hub a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).

The FBI’s investigation of the USS Cole bombing in Aden, Yemen, connects the bombers to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, the country’s capital, which has been monitored by the US for at least two years (see Late August 1998 and Mid-August 1998-October 2000). It was also used in the East African embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998) and will be used by the 9/11 hijackers (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). It is not known when this connection is made. No apparent action is taken against Ahmed al-Hada, the operative who runs the communications hub, before 9/11. However, this may be due to the importance of intelligence generated from his phone (see Late 1998-Early 2002). In early 2001, al-Hada will be publicly identified as an al-Qaeda operative at the embassy bombings trial, when his phone number is disclosed openly in court and reported in the media (see February 2001 and After). Yet he still is not publicly indicted for either the embassy bombings or the Cole bombing, even though a number of other fugitives are publicly indicted. In 2002, US officials will describe al-Hada as a “prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing,” and say his phone was used by the bombers to relay messages and “put everything together” before the attack. (MSNBC 2/14/2002; Windrem 5/2005)

According to the 9/11 Commission, Khalid Almihdhar may take a flight from Syria to Iran and continue from there to a point near the Afghan border. The 9/11 Commission will mention this flight in a section dealing with possible co-operation between Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda on travel issues—Iran was allegedly allowing al-Qaeda operatives to pass through it on their way to and from Afghanistan without stamping their passports (see October 8-13, 2000, After October 12, 2000, and Mid-November, 2000)—but there are no direct links between this flight and Iranian operatives. The 9/11 Commission’s statement that Almihdhar entered Iran at this time will be based on intelligence reports from the NSA, mostly drafted shortly after 9/11. The NSA has been intercepting Almihdhar’s calls for some time, so it may have obtained this information from these intercepts (see and Late August 1998 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 241, 529; Shenon 2008, pp. 370-3) Almihdhar was at the Yemen hub earlier in February, which is closely monitored by US intelligence at the time, so the NSA would have had a good opportunity to track his movements from there (see February 2001).

Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar stays at al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen again. His father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada runs the hub in Sana’a, Yemen, where Almihdhar’s wife and other family live. Almihdhar stayed at the hub for around a month in June 2000 (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)) and then traveled around Asia until returning to it now. It is unclear how long he stays, except he goes to Afghanistan for an unknown amount of time and then is in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in June 2001. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) He may travel to Afghanistan via Iran later in February (see February 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 241, 529; Shenon 2008, pp. 370-3) He will fly from Sana’a to Saudi Arabia on May 26, 2001, and probably stays at the hub again while in Sana’a (see (May 26, 2001)). The CIA and NSA have been closely monitoring the hub for years. Phone calls to and from it, including ones made by Almihdhar and other 9/11 hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other 9/11 hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should be aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar is, but what exactly is known and who may know it will not be made public.

The CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, reduces the FBI’s access to NSA material tracking al-Qaeda members. The FBI had previously used such intercepts to map al-Qaeda’s global network (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA intercepts at least one call from the 9/11 hijackers in the US to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen after this (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and (August 2001)), but does not tell the FBI. Authors Joe and Susan Trento will comment that by doing this and withholding the hijackers’ identities from the FBI, “the CIA effectively ended any chance in the months leading up to 9/11 of discovering that [Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi] were actually al-Qaeda agents destined to play major roles in the 9/11 attacks.” The CIA repeatedly fails to tell the FBI what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, January 5, 2001 and After, and June 11, 2001). (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 194) There is a long history of the NSA not wanting other US government agencies to have access to NSA material about al-Qaeda (see December 1996, Late August 1998, Between 1996 and August 1998, and Before September 11, 2001).

During the trial of men accused of the 1998 East African embassy bombings, an FBI witness mentions that one of the defendants, Mohamed al-Owhali, told investigators that he had stayed in a Yemen-based al-Qaeda communications hub run by Ahmed al-Hada. He also revealed that he had called the hub before and after the Nairobi bombing. (Note: al-Hada’s surname is transliterated as “al-Hazza” during the trial.) The existence of the communications hub in Yemen is then reported by the US State Department, CNN, the Guardian, and UPI over the next few months. (Sale 2/13/2001; Aita 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14 3/7/2001; Hirschkorn 5/2/2001; Burke 8/5/2001) The hub was also previously mentioned at a big trial of Islamic Jihad operatives in Cairo (see 1999). The 9/11 hijackers have been calling the communications hub by phone since early 1999, at least (see, e.g., Early 1999). The calls are being intercepted by the NSA and some of them have originated from within the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Perhaps unaware that the hub’s existence has been disclosed, they will make at least one more call to the hub (see (August 2001)).

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

Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar probably visits the closely monitored al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen again. While it will not be reported that he is at the hub at this time, it is known that he flies from Sana’a, Yemen, to Saudi Arabia on May 26, 2001 (see May 26, 2001), and the Yemen hub is in Sana’a. (Bamford 2008, pp. 64) Furthermore, Almihdhar’s wife, his recently born baby, and other family members live in the hub (which is run by his father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada). It would seem highly likely he would not pass through Sana’a without visiting his family. Almihdhar stayed at the hub for around a month in June 2000 (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)) and then visited it again in February 2001 (see February 2001). Details of Almihdhar’s travels are unclear, but he may have traveled to Afghanistan via Iran later in February (see February 2001). He is in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in June 2001. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) Each time Almihdhar visits the hub presents a great opportunity for the CIA and NSA, because they have been closely monitoring the hub for years. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other 9/11 hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other 9/11 hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should be aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar is, but what exactly is known and who may know it will not be made public.

Associates of the 9/11 hijackers call a number in Yemen also called by the radicals who bombed two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The calls, which MSNBC says are made “in the weeks before the attacks,” are presumably to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of Nairobi embassy bomber Mohamed al-Owhali (see August 4-25, 1998). The number is monitored by US intelligence at this time and is also called by the hijackers themselves (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), at least one of the calls being around this time (see (August 2001)). But it is not clear what intelligence the NSA and CIA gleaned from these calls or which associates of the hijackers make the calls. (MSNBC 10/3/2001) However, it is thought that one of the hijackers’ associates, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, met with an associate of al-Hada’s in Yemen the year before (see Before October 12, 2000) and traveled to Yemen before the bombing of the USS Cole (see October 10-21, 2000).

The three authors of the book Germs, Judith Miller (left), Stephen Engelberg (top), and William Broad (bottom). This was the book Miller was working on before 9/11; it was published several weeks after 9/11.The three authors of the book Germs, Judith Miller (left), Stephen Engelberg (top), and William Broad (bottom). This was the book Miller was working on before 9/11; it was published several weeks after 9/11. [Source: Publicity photo]New York Times reporter Judith Miller learns her government counterterrorism sources are worried that al-Qaeda is going to attack a US target on the Fourth of July holiday. There has been an increase in chatter about an impending attack. In 2005, Miller will recall, “Everyone in Washington was very spun-up in the counterterrorism world at that time. I think everybody knew that an attack was coming—everyone who followed this.… I got the sense that part of the reason that I was being told of what was going on was that the people in counterterrorism were trying to get the word to the president or the senior officials through the press, because they were not able to get listened to themselves.”
Conversation Overheard - She has a conversation with a still-anonymous top-level White House source who reveals there is some concern about a top-secret NSA intercept between two al-Qaeda operatives. She explains, “They had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the [USS] Cole. And one al-Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, ‘Don’t worry; we’re planning something so big now that the US will have to respond.’ And I was obviously floored by that information. I thought it was a very good story: (1) the source was impeccable; (2) the information was specific, tying al-Qaeda operatives to, at least, knowledge of the attack on the Cole; and (3) they were warning that something big was coming, to which the United States would have to respond. This struck me as a major page one-potential story.”
Not Printed - Miller tells her editor Stephen Engelberg about the story the next day. But Engelberg says, “You have a great first and second paragraph. What’s your third?” Miller finds only one other source to confirm these details.
Yemen Connection - She later learns from her first source that the conversation occurred in Yemen. Though the telephone number is never disclosed, some circumstances suggest one of the parties taking part in the call may have been at the al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, that is monitored by US intelligence. One of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, lives there with his wife and children (see Late August 1998), and communicates there will be forthcoming attacks to at least one family member (see Late October 2000-July 4, 2001). The hijackers in the US apparently call the Yemen hub around this time (see (August 2001)). On July 3, the CIA will request the arrest of Djamel Beghal (see July 3, 2001), an al-Qaeda operative whose calls to the hub are apparently being monitored at this time (see Before July 3, 2001).
Regrets - Miller later regrets not following through more because she “had a book coming out” as well as other stories and that there wasn’t a “sense of immediacy” about the information. In 2005, Engelberg will confirm Miller’s story and agree that he wanted more specifics before running the story. Engelberg also later wonders “maybe I made the wrong call,” asking, “More than once I’ve wondered what would have happened if we’d run the piece?” The New York Times has yet to mention the warning in all of their post-9/11 reporting and the 9/11 Commission has never mentioned anything about the warning either. In 2005, Miller will spend 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal a source and then leave the New York Times after widespread criticism about her reporting. (McCollam 9/2005; O'Connor and Malone 5/18/2006; Strupp 5/18/2006)

The NSA monitors calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and one or more operatives involved in a plot to attack the US embassy in Paris. The communications hub in Yemen is run by Ahmed al-Hada, father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, who is also involved in the US embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998), the USS Cole bombing (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000), and 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The Paris plot is apparently foiled based on this information, although the details are sketchy. (Kaplan and Whitelaw 3/15/2004) The name of the operative or operatives who talk to the communications hub in Yemen is unknown. One candidate is Djamel Beghal, who will be arrested on July 28 (see July 24 or 28, 2001) based on a tip-off issued by the CIA to partner agencies on July 3 (see July 3, 2001). Another is Nizar Trabelsi, who will be arrested on September 13, although Trabelsi may be arrested based on information gleaned from Beghal. Both Beghal (see Spring 1998) and Trabelsi (see September 13, 2001) are connected to a plot to destroy an airliner with a shoe bomb, but this is not stopped (see December 22, 2001).

The NSA has been intercepting calls between at least two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by al-Qaeda operative Ahmed al-Hada over an approximately 18-month period before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). According to MSNBC, the final intercepted call comes “only weeks” before 9/11. (Myers 7/21/2004) Around the same time there is great alarm in the US intelligence community over a communications intercept in Yemen indicating there was going to be a major al-Qaeda attack against US interests (see June 30-July 1, 2001). Further, the investigation of the USS Cole bombing has reignited interest in Almihdhar and Alhazmi on the part of the US intelligence community since at least June 2001 (see June 11, 2001 and July 13, 2001). The two of them are placed on an international no-fly list in late August (see August 23, 2001).


The September 11, 2001 attacks. From left to right: The World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93 crash.
The September 11, 2001 attacks. From left to right: The World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93 crash. [Source: unknown] (click image to enlarge)The 9/11 attack: Four planes are hijacked, two crash into the WTC, one into the Pentagon, and one crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.

In a key speech about al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that one of the hijackers played a “key role” in the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Though he doesn’t specify which one, he does say the individual was one of the three hijackers who were quickly identified after 9/11 as known al-Qaeda associates (see 9:53 p.m. September 11, 2001) and someone who had also played an important role in the USS Cole attacks (see October 14-Late November, 2000). (UK Prime Minister 10/4/2001) Blair’s description of this hijacker as being involved in the USS Cole and African Embassy attacks strongly suggests the person he is referring to is Khalid Almihdhar. Almihdhar allegedly had a hand in the Cole attack (see Early October 2001) and had links to one of the captured embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Before the Cole attacks, al-Owhali stayed at an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen run by Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see February 2001 and After). Additionally, al-Owhali met an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan by the name of Khalid, although this may have been Khallad (aka Tawfiq bin Attash), or even Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. (United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14 3/7/2001; Borger, Fodden, and Norten-Taylor 10/5/2001; Hirschkorn 10/16/2001; Burke 2004, pp. 174; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Wright 2006, pp. 309) It is also possible that the person alluded to in Blair’s speech is Nawaf Alhazmi, who also had connections to the embassy bombings (see 1993-1999).

A safe house in Sana’a, Yemen, where Samir al-Hada was hiding.A safe house in Sana’a, Yemen, where Samir al-Hada was hiding. [Source: CNN]Samir al-Hada, an al-Qaeda operative who helped run a vital al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Late 1998-Early 2002), dies while being pursued by Yemeni police. The Yemeni police were tipped off by Samir’s landlord that he was planning to flee the country when he failed to produce identity documents to renew his lease. The police stake out his hideout for a week but he escapes and, during the chase, a grenade explodes in his hand and kills him. He was the brother-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. (BBC 2/13/2002; Whitaker 2/14/2002; CNN 2/14/2002; Arrabyee 2/21/2002) After the attack, the police search the house where al-Hada had been staying and seize weapons, documents, books, a mobile phone, and a piece of paper containing phone numbers. (CBS News 2/13/2002; BBC 2/15/2002) The al-Hada hub was used in planning the embassy bombings in 1998 (see August 4-25, 1998 and October 4, 2001), the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (see October 14-Late November, 2000), and 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). It had been monitored by the NSA since the late 1990s (see Late August 1998 and Early 1999). Ahmed al-Hada is in Yemeni custody by 2006; it has not been stated when or how he was captured. (Wright 2006, pp. 378) It appears that the communications hub is no longer functional after al-Hada’s death, as there are no more references to it operating, several of the al-Hada clan are rounded up, the hub is again discussed by the media (see February 2001 and After), and the clan’s patriarch, Ahmed al-Hada, is again named in the media. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2/14/2002; CNN 2/14/2002; Arrabyee 2/21/2002)

Ahmed al-Hada, an operative who ran an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen that was monitored by US intelligence, is said to be arrested by authorities in Yemen, though it is not known exactly when this happened. The hub was involved in the East African embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998), the attack on the USS Cole (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000) and 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). His son, who helped run the hub, died while being pursued by security forces in February 2002 (see February 13, 2002). Details such as whether he is questioned by the US, whether he is charged, and the place he is being held are unknown. (Agence France Presse 5/11/2002) According to author Lawrence Wright, he will still be in custody in 2006. (Wright 2006, pp. 378) However, an undated MSNBC article apparently written around 2005 will list him as still being at large. (Windrem 5/2005)

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

NSA Director Michael Hayden.
NSA Director Michael Hayden. [Source: NSA]NSA Director Michael Hayden testifies before the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that the “NSA had no [indications] that al-Qaeda was specifically targeting New York and Washington… or even that it was planning an attack on US soil.” Before 9/11, the “NSA had no knowledge… that any of the attackers were in the United States.” Supposedly, a post-9/11 NSA review found no intercepts of calls involving any of the 19 hijackers. (Reuters 10/17/2002; US Congress 10/17/2002; Diamond 10/18/2002) Yet, in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), the NSA intercepted communications between Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and hijacker Mohamed Atta, when he was in charge of operations in the US. (Gumbel 6/6/2002; Buncombe 9/15/2002) What was said between the two has not been revealed. The NSA also intercepted multiple phone calls from al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida to the US in the days before 9/11 (see Early September 2001). But who was called or what was said has not been revealed. (ABC News 2/18/2002) In addition, Hayden testified three times in secret on June 18, June 19, and July 18, but little is known about what he said, as not much information is disclosed in the media and many sections of the Inquiry’s final report about the NSA are heavily redacted. The main revelations at the time of the summer hearings are that the NSA intercepted two messages apparently pertaining to the forthcoming attack one day before 9/11, and this sparks a controversial leak inquiry by the FBI (see August 2, 2002). (Snow and Bash 6/18/2002; Martin 6/19/2002; Bash, Ensor, and Snow 6/20/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003 pdf file)

Joe Trento.Joe Trento. [Source: Canal+]After 9/11, an unnamed former CIA officer who worked in Saudi Arabia will tell investigative journalist Joe Trento that hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar were allowed to operate in the US unchecked (see, e.g., February 4-Mid-May 2000 and Mid-May-December 2000) because they were agents of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. “We had been unable to penetrate al-Qaeda. The Saudis claimed that they had done it successfully. Both Alhazmi and Almihdhar were Saudi agents. We thought they had been screened. It turned out the man responsible for recruiting them had been loyal to Osama bin Laden. The truth is bin Laden himself was a Saudi agent at one time. He successfully penetrated Saudi intelligence and created his own operation inside. The CIA relied on the Saudis vetting their own agents. It was a huge mistake. The reason the FBI was not given any information about either man is because they were Saudi assets operating with CIA knowledge in the United States.” (Trento 8/6/2003) In a 2006 book the Trentos will add: “Saudi intelligence had sent agents Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to spy on a meeting of top associates of al-Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 5-8, 2000. ‘The CIA/Saudi hope was that the Saudis would learn details of bin Laden’s future plans. Instead plans were finalized and the Saudis learned nothing,’ says a terrorism expert who asks that his identity be withheld… Under normal circumstances, the names of Almihdhar and Alhazmi should have been placed on the State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and US Customs watch lists. The two men would have been automatically denied entry into the US. Because they were perceived as working for a friendly intelligence service, however, the CIA did not pass along the names.” (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 8)

The 9/11 Commission’s cursory review of NSA material related to the attacks and al-Qaeda in general does not find any reports about NSA intercepts of communications between the hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Neither does it find any reports about calls intercepted by the NSA between alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). Author Philip Shenon will write about the commission’s review of the NSA files in a 2008 book and will discuss what Commission staffers found there, but will not mention these intercepts, some of which were mentioned in declassified portions of the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004). The review is only conducted by a few staffers (see January 2004, June 2004, and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004) and is not comprehensive, so it is unclear whether the NSA does not provide the reports to the 9/11 Commission, or the commission simply fails to find them in the large number of files the NSA made available to it. However, the staffers do find material possibly linking some of the hijackers to Iran and Hezbollah (see January-June 2004). (Shenon 2008, pp. 87-8, 155-7, 370-3) In its final report, the commission will make passing references to some of the calls the NSA intercepted without pointing out that the NSA actually intercepted them. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 87-88, 222) However, the endnotes that indicate the sources of these sections will not contain any references to NSA reports, but instead refer to an interview with NSA Director Michael Hayden and an FBI timeline of the hijackers’ activities. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 477, 518)

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

After an NSA program to intercept telephone calls where one party is in the US and the other party is abroad is revealed (see December 15, 2005), President George Bush defends the program in a radio address. He justifies the program by implying that, if it had been in place before 9/11, it may have prevented the attacks: “As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, it was clear that terrorists inside the United States were communicating with terrorists abroad before the September the 11th attacks, and the commission criticized our nation’s inability to uncover links between terrorists here at home and terrorists abroad. Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al-Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn’t know they were here until it was too late.” There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances of the hijackers’ calls and the NSA actually intercepted them, so it is unclear why they were not exploited to prevent the attacks (see Early 2000-Summer 2001, (Spring 2000), Summer 2002-Summer 2004, and March 15, 2004 and After). (Bush 12/17/2005; US President 12/26/2005 pdf file) It is unclear which statements of the 9/11 Commission the president thinks he is referring to. The Commission’s final report touches on the NSA intercepts of the hijackers’ calls from the US in two places; in one it says: “[T]he NSA was supposed to let the FBI know of any indication of crime, espionage, or ‘terrorist enterprise’ so that the FBI could obtain the appropriate warrant. Later in this story, we will learn that while the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA Court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role,” (note: we do not actually learn this later in the 9/11 Commission report, this is the only mention). The second passage refers to Almihdhar’s time in San Diego and does not actually mention that the NSA intercepted the relevant calls, “Almihdhar’s mind seems to have been with his family in Yemen, as evidenced by calls he made from the apartment telephone.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 87-8, 222)

After 9/11 there was much discussion about how hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar were able to participate in an operation like 9/11, even though they were well known to US intelligence (see, for example, January 5-8, 2000, Early 2000-Summer 2001, and 9:53 p.m. September 11, 2001).
FBI Theory - Based on conversations with FBI agents, author Lawrence Wright speculates on why the CIA withheld information it should have given the FBI: “Some… members of the [FBI’s] I-49 squad would later come to believe that the [CIA] was shielding Almihdhar and Alhazmi because it hoped to recruit them.… [They] must have seemed like attractive opportunities; however, once they entered the United States they were the province of the FBI. The CIA has no legal authority to operate inside the country, although in fact, the bureau often caught the agency running backdoor operations in the United States.… It is also possible, as some FBI investigators suspect, the CIA was running a joint venture with Saudi intelligence in order to get around that restriction. Of course, it is also illegal for foreign intelligence services to operate in the United States, but they do so routinely.” (Wright 2006, pp. 312-313)
Explanation of Acquired Visas - This theory offers a possible explanation, for example, of how Almihdhar and Alhazmi managed to move in and out of Saudi Arabia and obtain US visas there even though they were supposedly on the Saudi watch list (see 1997 and April 3-7, 1999), and why a Saudi agent in the US associated with them (see January 15-February 2000). Wright points out that “these are only theories” but still notes that “[h]alf the guys in the Bureau think CIA was trying to turn them to get inside al-Qaeda.” (Wright 2006, pp. 313; O'Connor 9/5/2006)
Participant Does Not Know - Doug Miller, an FBI agent loaned to the CIA who was part of a plot to withhold the information from the FBI (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000), will indicate he does not know why he was ordered to withhold the information, but that his superiors may have had a good reason for keeping it from the FBI. Another intelligence source will claim that the CIA withheld the information to keep the FBI away from a sensitive operation to penetrate al-Qaeda. (Stein 10/1/2008)
CIA Wanted to Keep FBI Off Case - Another unnamed FBI agent loaned to Alec Station before 9/11 will say: “They didn’t want the bureau meddling in their business—that’s why they didn’t tell the FBI. Alec Station… purposely hid from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau that they were following a man in Malaysia who had a visa to come to America. The thing was, they didn’t want… the FBI running over their case.” (Bamford 2008, pp. 20)
Similar Explanation - Wright is not the first to have made the suggestion that Alhazmi and Almihdhar were protected for recruitment purposes. Investigative journalist Joe Trento reported in 2003 that a former US intelligence official had told him that Alhazmi and Almihdhar were already Saudi Arabian intelligence agents when they entered the US (see August 6, 2003).

Vice President Cheney mentioned NSA intercepts of the 9/11 hijackers’ calls in a speech to the Heritage Foundation.Vice President Cheney mentioned NSA intercepts of the 9/11 hijackers’ calls in a speech to the Heritage Foundation. [Source: David Bohrer / White House]Vice President Dick Cheney uses calls between the 9/11 hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen that were intercepted by the NSA (see Early 2000-Summer 2001) to justify the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). Cheney points out that, “There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al-Qaeda that have one end in the United States,” and says that if the NSA’s warrantless program had been implemented before 9/11, “we might have been able to pick up on two hijackers [Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar] who subsequently flew a jet into the Pentagon.” He adds: “They were in the United States, communicating with al-Qaeda associates overseas. But we did not know they were here plotting until it was too late.” (Cheney 1/4/2006) Other administration officials make similar claims about the calls by Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the years after the program is revealed by the New York Times (see December 17, 2005).

Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former NSA Director Michael Hayden says that if the NSA’s recently revealed warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) had been in place before 9/11, “it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.” Hayden will later say the NSA would have detected calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in San Diego (see May 18, 2006). Hayden adds: “You know, the 9/11 Commission criticized our ability to link things happening in the United States with things that were happening elsewhere. In that light, there are no communications more important to the safety of this country than those affiliated with al-Qaeda with one end in the United States.” Before the attacks, the NSA intercepted a series of calls between two of the 9/11 hijackers and a known al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), but failed to notify the FBI about them (see (Spring 2000)). (Hayden 1/23/2006) Other administration officials make similar claims about the calls by Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the years after the NSA’s warrantless program is revealed by the New York Times (see December 17, 2005).

President Bush at the National Security Agency.President Bush at the National Security Agency. [Source: Eric Draper / White House]President George Bush uses calls between the 9/11 hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen that were intercepted by the NSA (see Early 2000-Summer 2001) to justify the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). Bush says: “We know that two of the hijackers who struck the Pentagon [Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar] were inside the United States communicating with al-Qaeda operatives overseas. But we didn’t realize they were here plotting the attack until it was too late.” Bush also quotes former NSA Director Michael Hayden, who previously said, “Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11… we would have detected some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such” (see January 23, 2006). Bush and other administration officials make similar claims about the calls by Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the years after the program is revealed by the New York Times (see December 17, 2005). (Bush 1/25/2006) Bush made similar remarks at Kansas State University two days previously. (Bush 1/23/2006)

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

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

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

Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell write to Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, about their desire to see the Protect America Act renewed. In the letter, they mention the failure to exploit NSA intercepts of calls between the 9/11 hijackers in the US and al-Qaeda’s main global communications hub, which apparently had the potential to thwart the 9/11 plot (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). They write: “[O]ne of the September 11th hijackers communicated with a known overseas terrorist facility while he was living in the United States. Because that collection was conducted under Executive Order 12333, the intelligence community could not identify the domestic end of the communication prior to September 11, 2001, when it could have stopped that attack.” (US Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2/28/2008 pdf file) Executive Order 12333 became law in 1981 and governed general activities by the US intelligence community. (US President 12/4/1981) The order did allow the NSA to disseminate information about US persons to law enforcement officials in the event of an impending terrorist act. (US Congress: House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence 4/12/2000) The letter does not give more detailed reasons why Mukasey and McConnell think the NSA could not have traced the calls and informed the FBI of the two hijackers’ presence in the US (see (Spring 2000)). (US Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2/28/2008 pdf file) Similar incorrect statements have been made by numerous intelligence officials since December 2005, when the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was revealed (see December 17, 2005).

Attorney General Michael Mukasey makes an apparent reference to the intercepts of the 9/11 hijackers’ calls by the NSA before the attacks in a speech pleading for extra surveillance powers. Mukasey says: “[Officials] shouldn’t need a warrant when somebody with a phone in Iraq picks up a phone and calls somebody in the United States because that’s the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that’s the call that we didn’t know about. We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn’t know precisely where it went.” (Mukasey 3/27/2008; New York Sun 3/28/2008) According to a Justice Department response to a query about the speech, this appears to be a reference to the Yemen hub, an al-Qaeda communications facility previously alluded to by Mukasey in a similar context (see February 22, 2008). (Greenwald 4/4/2008) However, the hub was in Yemen, not Afghanistan and, although it acted as a safe house, it was primarily a communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). In addition, the NSA did not intercept one call between it and the 9/11 hijackers in the US, but several, involving both Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, not just one of the hijackers (see Spring-Summer 2000, Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001, and (August 2001)). Nevertheless, the NSA failed to inform the FBI the hub was calling the US (see (Spring 2000)). (Note: it is possible Mukasey is not talking about the Yemen hub in this speech, but some other intercept genuinely from an al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan—for example a call between lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in the US and alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who may have been in Afghanistan when such call was intercepted by the NSA (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). However, several administration officials have made references similar to Mukasey’s about the Yemen hub since the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was revealed (see December 17, 2005).)

Some media outlets pick up on a claim made by Attorney General Michael Mukasey on March 27, 2008, when he said that the US intercepted a call to a 9/11 hijacker in the US from an al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan (see March 27, 2008). This was possibly a garbled reference to an al-Qaeda hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001) mentioned by several administration officials since the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping story was exposed (see December 17, 2005). The San Francisco Chronicle notes that Mukasey “did not explain why the government, if it knew of telephone calls from suspected foreign terrorists, hadn’t sought a wiretapping warrant from a court established by Congress to authorize terrorist surveillance, or hadn’t monitored all such calls without a warrant for 72 hours as allowed by law.” (Egelko 3/28/2008) Salon commentator and former civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald will attack Mukasey over the story, commenting, “These are multiple falsehoods here, and independently, this whole claim makes no sense.” (Greenwald 3/29/2008; Greenwald 4/4/2008)
9/11 Commission Comment - In response to a query from Greenwald, former 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow comments: “Not sure of course what [Mukasey] had in mind, although the most important signals intelligence leads related to our report… was not of this character. If, as he says, the [US government] didn’t know where the call went in the US, neither did we.” (Greewald 4/3/2008) (Note: the 9/11 Commission report may actually contain two cryptic references to what Mukasey is talking about (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004).) (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 87-88, 222) Former 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton initially refuses to comment, but later says: “I am unfamiliar with the telephone call that Attorney General Mukasey cited in his appearance in San Francisco on March 27. The 9/11 Commission did not receive any information pertaining to its occurrence.” (Greewald 4/3/2008; Greenwald 4/8/2008)
Other Media - The topic will also be covered by Raw Story and mentioned by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who also attacks Mukasey: “What? The government knew about some phone call from a safe house in Afghanistan into the US about 9/11? Before 9/11?” He adds: “Either the attorney general just admitted that the government for which he works is guilty of malfeasant complicity in the 9/11 attacks, or he’s lying. I’m betting on lying.” (Edwards and Kane 4/1/2008; MSNBC 4/1/2008; Kane 4/3/2008) The story is also picked up by CBS commentator Kevin Drum, who appears to be unaware that information about some NSA intercepts of the hijackers’ calls was first made public by the Congressional Inquiry five years previously. However, Drum comments: “[T]his deserves some followup from the press. Mukasey has spoken about this in public, so if he’s claiming that FISA prevented us from intercepting a key call before 9/11 he also needs to defend that in public.” (Drum 4/3/2008; Drum 4/4/2008) A group of Congressmen also formally asks the Justice Department for an explanation of the matter (see April 3, 2008).

A group of congressmen led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) asks for an explanation of a recent statement by Attorney General Michael Mukasey about a pre-9/11 NSA intercept of a call to the 9/11 hijackers in the US (see March 27, 2008 and March 29, 2008). The group calls Mukasey’s statement “disturbing” and says it “appears to suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal government’s existing surveillance authority to combat terrorism, as well as possible malfeasance by the government prior to 9/11.” Mukasey had implied that the law prior to 9/11 did not allow the call to be traced, but the congressmen state: “[I]f the administration had known of such communications from suspected terrorists, they could and should have been intercepted based on existing FISA law.… [A]s of 9/11 FISA specifically authorized such surveillance on an emergency basis without a warrant for a 48 hour period.” They ask Mukasey to clarify his comments. The congressmen also ask about a secret Justice Department memo regarding the president’s powers in wartime in the US (see April 1, 2008). (Kane 4/3/2008)


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