Commission reports reveal how close US intelligence was to thwarting the Al Qaeda plot
By Faye Bowers and Peter Grier | Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON – In January 2000, US intelligence tracked two suspected Islamic terrorists, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, to a terror summit of sorts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Agents knew that at least one of the men - Hazmi - had a visa that would allow him to enter the US.
Unsurprisingly, the CIA wanted both of them followed after they left the meeting and traveled to their next stop, Bangkok.
But the alert to Bangkok agents arrived too late, and the suspects disappeared into the teeming city. Days later the pair flew out unimpeded for Los Angeles. They lived quietly in southern California for more than a year, preparing for an upcoming role: hijackers in the Sept. 11 plot.
Would the worst terror attacks in the nation's history have been prevented if Messrs. Midhar and Hazmi hadn't slipped away in Bangkok? Maybe not. But in hindsight that moment in early 2000, and three others in the summer of 2001 when investigators came close to nailing down their connections with Al Qaeda, were perhaps the closest US intelligence ever came to disrupting Al Qaeda's impending US hits.
Such haunting "what-ifs" haven't necessarily been the focus of the Sept. 11 commission's work. The public hearings that have riveted Washington in recent weeks have instead been aimed at identifying systemic faults in the nation's intelligence apparatus. Commission members are likely to recommend soon some kind of sweeping bureaucratic change - possibly the establishment of a cabinet-level intelligence czar.
But from staff reports and bits of testimony it is possible to piece together a vivid picture of the pre-9/11 struggles of front-line agents against an enemy they only dimly understood. That struggle failed. But seeing how close agents came to thwarting the plot, it is possible to believe that victory is achievable - that another attack is not somehow fated to succeed.
"It is important that the 9/11 commission provide as complete a document as possible," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "These are the only people in the US who will ever have the opportunity to see all the documents and hear all the people testify firsthand."
Besides the missteps at the time of the Kuala Lumpur meetings, agents came close to cracking the case three additional times in 2001. After the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 US service members lost their lives, FBI investigators worked with Yemeni officials to identify the culprits.
The mysterious 'Khallads'
One of the conspirators of the Cole attack told an FBI investigator in January 2001 that his boss was "Khallad." That name, which means silver in Arabic, was familiar to the FBI investigator. He'd heard about Khallad from another source, who had told both the FBI and CIA that Khallad was close to Osama bin Laden. Khallad's name had also come up during the investigation into the 1998 bombings of the two US embassies in Africa.
The FBI investigator obtained a photograph of the boss and forwarded it to the FBI/CIA joint source, who confirmed that it was indeed Khallad bin Attash, a high-level Al Qaeda operative. As some of this information flowed into the CIA's bin Laden unit in the Counterterrorist Center, its officers began to wonder if Khallad wasn't the same person as Khalid al-Midhar, the possible Al Qaeda operative identified at the 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
They sent surveillance photos of that January meeting to the same joint source. The source was not able to identify Mr. Midhar, but said he was 90 percent certain the other person in the photos was Khallad bin Attash.
The CIA officers by now realized that Khallad and Midhar were not only different people, but that this higher-up Al Qaeda official and foot soldier were somehow linked. Even though the FBI and CIA used the same source to identify the men in the photos, the agencies did not talk with each other and find a way to fit their separate pieces together.
Besides the lack of communication, there were follow-through issues as well. In May 2001, for example, there was a huge uptick in "chatter," intelligence jargon for intercepted communications warning of an impending attack. A CIA official who had been assigned to work with FBI agents in their international terrorism department began to speculate about where such an Al Qaeda strike might take place.
The 9/11 commission calls this man John. He, too, recalled the January 2000 Kuala Lumpur meeting and decided to plumb the CIA's databases for more information. In mid-May, John and another CIA official examined several agency cables - the reports officers in the field send back to headquarters. He saw that Midhar had a US visa and that Hazmi had arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000.
John then held a lengthy back-and-forth with a CIA analyst to evaluate the cables. John saw the connections between the Khallads and concluded that "something bad was definitely up."
But, according to the report, he focused on Malaysia. This, the staff report concludes, is indicative of the way the two different cultures operate and why it is so difficult for them to marry up. The CIA was focused more broadly on overseas threats, while the FBI was busy trying to build a case against one person.
"The CIA's zone defense concentrated on where, not who," the staff report says. "Had its information been shared with the FBI, a combination of the CIA's zone defense and the FBI's man-to-man approach might have been far more productive."
One final opportunity to impede the 9/11 attackers arose in the summer of 2001. John, the CIA official who'd been detailed to the FBI, asked a counterpart, called Mary, from the FBI who'd been assigned to the CIA to review the Kuala Lumpur material.
Mary began reviewing that cable traffic on July 24. She soon discovered a cable reporting that Midhar, too, had a US visa. A week later she found one reporting that Midhar's visa application listed New York City as his destination. Then, on Aug. 21, she found the March 2000 cable that "noted with interest" that Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles in January 2000. "She grasped the significance of this information," the staff report says.
Mary and Jane on the trail
Mary worked with another FBI analyst on the case, referred to as Jane. Together they met with an immigration official on Aug. 22, who told them that Midhar arrived in the US on Jan. 15, 2000, and again on July 4, 2001. They also learned there was no record that Hazmi had left since January 2001. The two decided that if the men were in the US, they must be found. They divided up the work: Mary worked with the CIA to place the two names on international watch lists, and Jane assumed responsibility for the hunt inside the US. Jane drafted a memo outlining why these two men should be found and questioned by the FBI's field office in New York, and called an agent there to give him a heads up. But her memo wasn't sent until Aug. 28, and it was labeled "routine."
The agents opened a case, but what ensued is tragic. Agents didn't share information because of "the wall" between criminal and intelligence cases.
"The result," the staff report says, "was that criminal agents who were knowledgeable about the Cole and experienced with criminal investigative techniques, including finding suspects and possible criminal charges, were excluded from the search."
The report wraps up the segment on these three missed opportunities with gut-wrenching conclusions. "Both Hazmi and Midhar could have been held for immigration violations or as material witnesses in the Cole bombing case," it concludes. "Investigation or interrogation of these individuals, and their travel and financial activities, also may have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot."
What's sad is that it wouldn't have necessarily required all this cloak&dagger stuff if the FBI and INS computers talked, if the immigration laws regarding visa abuse were actually enforced and if the fedral computers and databases linked to local law enforcement. Several of these guys had brushes with the law-violations of traffic laws, an incident at an airport. Any one of those should have set off bells. It's clear they weren't students as there visas indicated, and there was zero followup on that. 3 or 4 of these guys lived and worked in the same community in Patterson, New Jersey where the 1993 bombers lived. And there was no long-term surveillance of that community.
In 1993 and 1994, bombings of the tunnels and subway system in NYC were avoided mostly by informants who turned very much on their own rather than as a result ofany FBI action. We were lucky.
All of your post may be true. The simple grunt work of law enforcement could have stopped 9/11. But there wasn't any coherent linkage among federal and local law enforcement. when these guys got stopped for speeding ot leaving airplanes on runways, nothing happened to them. And the INS is a joke. Worse, not much has changed. Who's to say the same thing isn't being planned in out midst.
WASHINGTON -- The FBI is questioning a French Algerian man, detained since last month in Minnesota on suspicion of illegally entering the United States, to determine if he was supposed to join 19 hijackers in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, intelligence and law enforcement officials said Sunday.
Habib Zacarias Moussaoui was picked up by immigration officials outside St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 17, after the staff at a flight school that he attended grew suspicious and reported him. Moussaoui offered to pay thousands of dollars in cash for lessons on a jumbo jet flight simulator, but "he just wanted to learn steering, not landing," a U.S. official said Sunday.
U.S. officials alerted French authorities to Moussaoui's detention, and were told that he was an operative of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.
Moussaoui was in the Sherburne County Jail awaiting deportation proceedings when the hijackings took place on Tuesday in a well-orchestrated plot that authorities now blame on Bin Laden's organization.
Moussaoui stood and "cheered" when he watched the planes smash into the World Trade Center on television, a jail supervisor said.
The FBI moved him to New York three days later. "He is being interrogated," an official said.
Investigators cautioned that they still don't know whether Moussaoui is directly tied to the terrorist plot, or simply acted in a way that raised suspicions. He refused to talk to investigators after he was initially detained, officials said.
The disclosure comes at a time when U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies are under scrutiny over whether they missed crucial signs or opportunities that could have provided a warning of the impending attacks.
The CIA had warned the FBI in late August that two other suspected Bin Laden associates were in the United States, but agents failed to find them. The two are suspected of ramming an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon. Hijackers flew two other passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York and a fourth hijacked jet crashed in Pennsylvania.
Suspect Taken Away After Attacks
Congress and the Bush administration are both planning investigations of the failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect the terrorist conspiracy and prevent the catastrophic assaults.
A Sherburne County, Minn., jail supervisor, who gave his name only as Sgt. Olson, said federal authorities called on Tuesday, immediately after the attacks, and asked that Moussaoui be placed in protective custody "in an isolated cell" until they could come get him. Olson said a large group of FBI and immigration agents arrived on Friday and took him away.
During his four-week stay at the jail, Olson said, Moussaoui repeatedly asked to speak to an immigration official "so he could go back to France. He was desperate to get out of there, like a lot of other guys."
Olson said Moussaoui was well-behaved and did not stand out or cause problems. But, he added, Moussaoui was watching television when the hijackers first hit the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and pictures of flaming wreckage filled the screen.
"As soon as he saw it, he stood up, cheered, walked to his cell and closed the door," Olson said, citing accounts by several jail officials. "On that same day, federal agents called and asked us to isolate him away from the other inmates."
French police said Moussaoui had "a similar profile to the kamikaze bombers" who carried out the U.S. attacks, according to an unidentified police source quoted in Liberation, a Paris newspaper. It said French intelligence knew of Moussaoui because he had made numerous trips to Afghanistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be based, and had contacts in Chechnya, where Bin Laden is supporting Islamic rebels.
As a result, French intelligence designated Moussaoui as a target for surveillance, according to French media accounts. They said he was born in the southern French town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, had lived for a while in Britain, and is 31 years old.
Officials said Moussaoui enrolled last February at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., and obtained a student pilot license on March 2. He underwent three months of entry-level training in a single-engine Cessna 152 but left abruptly in May before he had won his pilot's license. School officials there could not be reached Sunday.
He studied during the summer at a Pan Am International Flight Academy facility in Eagan, Minn. But school officials became suspicious and called authorities when Moussaoui, who only had a student pilot license, wanted time on a Northwest Airlines flight simulator. The flight simulators can be programmed to show flight patterns and visual guides for airborne approaches to various U.S. cities, including Washington.
Cheney Says U.S. Unsure of Bin Laden's Location
Todd Huvard, a spokesman for the Pan Am International Flight Academy, a Miami-based chain of 16 facilities around the country, said the FBI had asked the school not to disclose any details of its investigation.
"We are cooperating fully with the FBI," he said. FBI and immigration officials in Minneapolis did not return repeated telephone calls.
In other developments Sunday:
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an NBC television interview, conceded that the United States does not know for sure that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan. "We don't know" that he is there, the vice president said.
Cheney said the U.S. is convinced Bin Laden and his Al Queda organization had help from other terrorist groups, specifically the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and another "movement" in Uzbekistan.
"People oftentimes move around and sometimes share common ideologies that operate on a worldwide basis," he said. "And what we have to do is take down those networks."
Even if Bin Laden were taken out, Cheney said, even "if we had his head on a platter today," that would not necessarily put a stop to his followers.
In San Diego, Fereidoun "Fred" Sorbi, president of Sorbi's Flying Club, said he met two of the hijacking suspects, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, in May 2000.
"The first day they came in here, they said they want to fly Boeings," said Sorbi, 52. "We said you have to start slower. You can't just jump right into Boeings."
Sorbi said he gave them introductory lessons in one of his small Cessna or Piper planes. "We took them up to show them how the airplane flies," he said.
During the approach to the runway, Sorbi said, one of the men appeared frightened and began praying loudly to Allah as his friend piloted the small plane toward Montgomery Field, north of downtown San Diego.
"We told them to go to college and learn to speak English if they wanted to become pilots," Sorbi said. "They said they were."
Also Sunday, Abdussattar Shaikh, who rented a room last year to Al-Midhar and Alhamzi, said that FBI agents searched his home for five hours Friday night and early Saturday after he called the agency. They took away his computer, which had been used by Alhamzi to communicate in Arabic in various chat rooms.
Bill Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego field office, said investigators do not view Shaikh as a suspect or an accomplice.
Sorbi said Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were accompanied to the flying session by two other men, both of whom went by a first name that sounded like "Hani."
A man named Hani Hanjour, who federal authorities believe is a pilot, is listed as one of the hijackers on the flight that hit the Pentagon.
Records and interviews show that the 29-year-old Hanjour lived in Phoenix before moving to San Diego last year.
Duncan K. Hastie, owner of the CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that a Hani Hanjoor attended the school for a "very brief period" several years ago.
Hastie said Hanjoor accomplished very little at the school.
"One of the first accomplishments of someone in flight school is to fly a plane without an instructor," he said. "It is a confidence-building procedure. He managed to do that. That is like being able to pull a car out and drive down the street. It is not driving on the freeway."
Agents returned Sunday to CRM flight school to to collect records on a second pilot, who took flight lessons on the same four days in December 1997 as Hanjour.
13 People Taken Into Custody in New Jersey
In New Jersey, 13 people have been taken into custody, the latest identified as Matt Mehmeti of New Jersey, who turned himself in to New York police on Sunday.
FBI Special Agent Sandra Carroll said Mehmeti "voluntarily surrendered in New York."
Federal authorities also confirmed that they have detained a 34-year-old Texas man, Albader Al-Hazmi of San Antonio, and sent him to New York in connection with the investigation.
Authorities would not say why Al-Hazmi was detained, or whether he was a witness or someone implicated in the terrorist plot--but said they planned to question him about it.
A man named Abader Al-Hazmi of San Antonio is among the more than 100 people the FBI says it wants to talk to in connection with the terrorist plot. That list was released to 18,000 local law enforcement agents and airline officials.
In Vero Beach, Fla., where dozens of FBI agents spent hours last week, they have quietly determined that none of the Saudi pilots they wanted for questioning had anything to do with the deadly terrorist attacks, a law enforcement source said Sunday.
The confusion began when the flight manifest for American Airlines Flight 11 listed a passenger named Abdul Alomari. That led the FBI to Vero Beach, where a Saudi pilot named Abdulrahman Alomari lived with his wife and children.
But that pilot, who is now in Saudi Arabia, was not the man on Flight 11. The FBI now believes the hijacker's name was Abdulaziz Alomari, who claimed to be either 22 or 29 and may have lived in Hollywood, Fla.
The FBI also questioned Adnan Zakana Bukhari, a Saudi pilot who lived next door to the Vero Beach man named Alomari. Bukhari's family had gone back to the Middle East several weeks ago so the children could start school.
Schools for Aviation Mechanics Checked
While much of the attention has focused on terrorists becoming pilots, the FBI also is investigating whether any suspects attended aviation mechanics schools.
"They are going to look at anyone who might have any information about aviation and jet aircraft," said the source.
In Houston, for instance, two FBI agents on Friday collected enrollment records for the last three years at the Westwood College of Aviation Technology, according to company spokesman Mike Gray.
"They asked for a variety of enrollment records," he said.
people the following is it - the biggest reason im against the war:
[b]to fight terrorists you need INTEL not INFANTRY! - also you need to WANT to win[/b]
we need to be quick and nimble not slow and lumbering - what would those CIA agents have done to "stop" these guys from entering america? Shot em dead or file a f-ckin form for comittee to decide what to do -
if America was a force that you never knew was watching and killed under the silence of nightfall - then you could scare behavior out of these heathens. Tanks and Artillery are just targets for the baddies.
they need Ninjas not Marines.
understand that and you will understand why the War on Terror is being mismanaged.
if the US policy was enforced and whimsical silent assassination of Militant targets i would support the candidate REGARDLESS of PARTY!!! :o honest
you think im some sort of anti_bush lefty but i just want to win - do you want to win or do you want to lose?
maybe Kerry doesn't do as good a Job as bush? Ok maybe, but he also couldn't do any worse at this point.
this country needs an intelligent 3rd party candidate in the worst way - i know many of you off the board and we might knock heads on the boards along party lines but if a McCain or Clark came along and had support like Teddy Roosevelt did at the turn of the century - SMALL business, SMALL gov't type of guy - actually did the right thing for the people - i bet you'd jump after it in a second.
[quote][i]Originally posted by bitonti[/i]@Apr 18 2004, 09:43 PM
this country needs an intelligent 3rd party candidate in the worst way - i know many of you off the board and we might knock heads on the boards along party lines but if a McCain or Clark came along and had support like Teddy Roosevelt did at the turn of the century - SMALL business, SMALL gov't type of guy - actually did the right thing for the people - i bet you'd jump after it in a second. [/b][/quote]
agreed. If a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, hawkish candidate emerged, I'd vote for him or her in a second, regardless of party. However, none exist.
Also - I agree that intel is a huge factor. You should consider Kerry's career-long attitude and voting record regarding our intelligence community, however. I realize that you have a strong case of A.B.B., but still, that is a legitimate and important critique of Kerry's, IMO.
[quote][i]Originally posted by Bugg[/i]@Apr 18 2004, 08:25 PM
[b] Worse, not much has changed. Who's to say the same thing isn't being planned in out midst. [/b][/quote]
Yeah, I felt the same way after reading this article...