ClandesTime 114 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: Ali Mohamed
What if I told you that the same man trained Meir Kahane’s killer, the World Trade Center bombers, the African embassy bombers and Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguards? What if this man was a member of the Egyptian Army unit that assassinated Anwar Sadat, and was a translator and close associate of Ayman Zawahiri? And what if he did all this while serving in the US Special Forces, as an FBI informant and working for the CIA? That man is Ali Mohamed, perhaps the most astonishing spy of recent times. This week we’re going to examine some of the key events in the story of Ali Mohamed and ask whether he was Bin Laden’s master spy in America, or the CIA’s master spy in Al Qaeda.
But first, a quick overview of his life. Ali Abdel Saoud Mohamed was born in Egypt in June 1952 and joined the army in 1971. He earned a degree in psychology and rose to the rank of Major in Egyptian intelligence. Ali learned four languages fluently: Arabic, Hebrew, English and French. He also became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually joined Ayman Zawahiri’s Egpytian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Members of his army unit carried out the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, but Ali was not directly involved because at the time he was on an officer exchange program at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
During the crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood following Sadat’s assassination, Mohamed was thrown out of the Egyptian army in 1984 due to his Islamic fundamentalist affiliations. For the next year and a half he worked as a security officer for EgyptAir, enabling him to obtain information about anti-hijacking protocols in use by the airline. During his time at EgyptAir he walked into the US embassy in Cairo and offered his services to the local CIA station. He was hired and sent to Hamburg to infiltrate a group associated with Hezbollah. Ali went to the Hamburg mosque, immediately infiltrated the group, then told them that he was working for the CIA, which got back to the Agency via another asset, and so they fired him.
Ali then flew to the United States in 1985. On the flight he met Linda Sanchez, a medical technician from Santa Clara. After a six-week courtship they married at the drive through Chapel of the Bells in Reno, Nevada. A year later Ali joined the US Army and in April 1987 he was posted to the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. He was encouraged to pursue a doctorate in Islamic studies and he lectured to US Special Forces soldiers. Meanwhile he got involved with the MAK office at the Al Kifah refugee centre in New York, running training sessions for the likes of El Sayyid Nosair, Mohammed Salameh and Mahmud Abouhalima. He also worked as a translator for Ayman Zawahiri when he toured the US raising money for the jihad.
Ali Mohamed was also a key trainer of numerous Al Qaeda members, other Islamic militants, and even Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguards in Sudan following an assassination attempt on the Saudi. He travelled to several countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, and passed on his military training to dozens of potential terrorists. He even wrote what is commonly know as the Al Qaeda training manual titled ‘Military Studies in Jihad Against the Tyrants’, which we will discuss in detail in the next episode. Though he left the US army in November 1989 he remained in the Army Reserve for another five years, and became a US citizen. During this period when Ali was in the reserve Nosair assassinated Meir Kahane and several of Ali’s trainees were involved in the bombing of the WTC.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mohamed then got a job as an informant for the FBI. Even though he admitted to being a member of a group called Al Qaeda as early as 1993, Ali worked for the Bureau practically up until his arrest in September 1998 following the Embassy bombings in East Africa. In the meantime he had failed to respond to a witness subpoena for the defence in the US vs Rahman et al trial in 1995 and had conducted surveillance in Kenya and helped set up the group there that carried out the bombing on the US embassy.
Ali even set up a meeting between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah so that the Iranians could provide explosives training to Bin Laden’s men. When he was finally arrested he stonewalled for months but eventually gave in, pleading guilty to numerous charges (including conspiracy to murder) and becoming a US government co-operator. Though he appeared in court in October 2000 to enter his guilty plea, he has never been sentenced for his crimes and to this day almost no one knows where he is. The online database of US prison inmates does not list him or any of his aliases, and his lawyers and the authorities refuse to discuss the case.
Thus, we are left with some relatively obvious but potentially devastating questions. Who exactly was Ali Mohamed? Who was he really working for? Where did his loyalties lie? There are deeply contrasting views on this issue. The most extensive text on Mohamed, Peter Lance’s Triple Cross, describes Ali in its subtitle as ‘Bin Laden’s Master Spy’ and the book follows accordingly. Similarly, US analyst Steve Emerson’s description is ‘Bin Laden’s Special Operations Man,’ though in American Jihad he wrote that, ‘Mohammed played the role of a triple agent and nearly got away with it.’ When discussing Ali’s motives Emerson offered his view that Mohamed, ‘appear[ed] to do it for the sake of the intrigue.’ Academic Rohan Gunaratna did his usual thing, referring to Ali as ‘Al Qaeda’s top instructor’, and not even mentioning his connections to the CIA and FBI.
Former CIA and State Department official Larry Chalmers Johnson did draw attention to Ali’s US government connections, calling Mohamed ‘a double agent’, saying that the FBI ‘did a lousy job of managing him.’ This has become the default position on the Ali Mohamed story, that he was a dangerous terrorist who infiltrated and betrayed US military/intelligence agencies. The idea that he was actually a spy for the Americans who infiltrated Al Qaeda is shrewdly avoided in the majority of the literature on Mohamed. It is only Peter Dale Scott’s books on 9/11 and to a much lesser extent Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower that explore this idea in any detail.
It is never even considered in the single high-budget documentary on the subject, National Geographic’s Triple Cross: Bin Laden’s Spy in America. As former Delta Force commander Pete Blaber summed it up, ‘the accepted version of the Ali Mohamed story: that of a terrorist double agent, most commonly referred to as bin Laden’s military mole, who infiltrated multiple US government agencies.’ Blaber concluded that ‘the reality behind the story of Ali Mohamed was quite different.’
After 9/11, when Ali had been in prison for three years and Blaber was serving in the US military’s counterterrorism unit, the Delta Force man obtained a guide to Al Qaeda that was handwritten by Mohamed. It contained detailed answers on how to find Al Qaeda, how to infiltrate them, and how to get to Bin Laden in the Afghan-Pak frontier. The guide ended with a statement by Ali saying, ‘I am willing to assist the effort in any way required. I do not believe in what Al Qaeda is doing, they are ruining the image of all Arabs… I can find Bin Laden for you. I am only asking for a chance.’ Blaber subsequently interviewed Mohamed, one of very few people to have done so since his arrest in 1998. According to Blaber’s assessment, Ali ‘was an adventurer, genetically addicted to both the thrill of the hunt and the thrill of the chase, and a maverick, someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action.’ Blaber’s view is that Mohamed’s most fundamental motivation was his dream of becoming a secret agent for a US intelligence service, and his involvement with Al Qaeda was just a means of enhancing his credentials.
A different view was offered by professor and former diplomat Peter Dale Scott. In a lengthy paper where Scott outlined numerous parallels between two ‘deep events’ (9/11 and the JFK assassination), he directly compared Ali Mohamed to Lee Harvey Oswald and named both as double agents. He says that in both cases there was evidence of a resistance to investigating them, though both would be quickly designated as culprits in the immediate aftermath of the violence. He argued that the more likely interpretation of this is that, ‘they were double agents being directed by those in power, even if they had no idea of the fate that had been determined for them. In this case the US deep state would have a motive for limiting the investigation, to prevent disclosure of the operation with which the double agents were involved.’ Scott suggested that the CIA maintained a relationship with Ali Mohamed beyond their brief connection in the mid 1980s.
Ali Mohamed and the Agency
According to the default version of the story, Ali Mohamed briefly worked for the CIA in 1984 as an informant, but numerous facts and sources indicate that the truth is longer and more complex. According the West Point Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), Ali was first approached by the CIA in 1981 during a four-month officer exchange program between Egpyt and the US. The Agency wanted to recruit him as a foreign intelligence asset, which is hardly surprising given that by 1981 the covert sponsorship of the mujahideen was well under way. It was around this time that Ali first joined Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. The CTC profile says regarding the CIA’s approach in 1981 that ‘the results of that meeting are unknown.’ If Blaber is right about Ali Mohamed and he always wanted to be a US secret agent, then why would he have turned them down in 1981? The implication is that Ali was actually recruited at that time.
This would, of course, make the publicly admitted walk-in recruitment through the Cairo embassy in 1984 a fake or bluff of some kind. This is an old tactic in intelligence services, going at least as far back as the creation of an early version of MI5 by the supposedly retired Special Branch officer William Melville. It is probably important that when Ali approached the Agency in 1984 they hired him without subjecting him to a polygraph. Similarly, an article in the Israeli intelligence journal DEBKAfile says that Ali was recruited in 1981, but that he was sacked after four years working for them, before he went to the US.
Contradicting that, the reasons given for the CIA’s sacking of Ali Mohamed do not make much sense. A CIA official told journalists that the Agency, ‘found out he was talking to known terrorists and had identified himself as a CIA agent. We felt him to be untrustworthy.’ The CIA then sacked him and put him on the State Department’s terrorist watchlist. Given that Ali was tasked with informing on a Hezbollah-affiliated group, sacking him for ‘talking to known terrorists’ is nonsensical. As Blaber asked rhetorically, ‘Isn’t that what we hired him for?’ Mohamed telling the targets that he was working for the Agency is a somewhat more risky (and therefore dubious) maneuver but still very much within the parameters of the CIA’s clandestine operations. A 1950s CIA report lists several types of double agent, including the ‘Provocation Agent’. It described how such an operative is used, saying, ‘The active provocateur is sent by Service A to Service B to tell B that he works for A but wants to switch sides. Or he may be a talk-in rather than a walk-in. In any event, the significant information that he is withholding, in compliance with A’s orders, is the fact that his offer is being made at A’s instigation.’
A year after the Cairo walk-in and Ali was on his way to the US, supposedly because Ayman Zawahiri told him to go to America and infiltrate American intelligence. That’s what Ali said in his one court appearance. On September 6th 1985 he boarded a TWA flight and flew to New York. It appears he must have had help getting a visa because his name was on the terrorist watchlist. Given the context of Operation Cyclone the obvious candidate for this assistance is the CIA. When Ali’s name eventually surfaced in the 1995 US vs Rahman trial the Boston Globe reported that the Agency had indeed given him help, quoting an official saying that, ‘His presence in the country is the result of an action initiated by Langley.’ The CIA has denied this but they would deny it regardless of whether it was true, particularly if the aim was to run Ali as a deniable agent. Of course, Ali could have had help from a different agency, maybe military intelligence. A 1998 newspaper report on the issue commented that, ‘Officials could not, however, rule out the possibility that some other Federal agency helped Mr. Mohamed.’ That said, in US law it is the CIA who are designated with responsibility for the ‘admission of a particular alien into the United States for permanent residence… in the interest of national security’.
After another year merrily living in the US, during which he got married, Ali approached the US Army and offered his services. Though at 34 he was a little old, he impressed the recruiters with his skills, experience and physical condition. After a few months of basic training he was transferred to the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This is where US Special Forces learn about ‘unconventional warfare’ including military intelligence, psychological operations and counter-insurgency. It is also where the elite counter-terrorism unit Delta Force train, and so if Ali was a terrorist penetration agent working for Ayman Zawahiri then he was taking a huge risk in accepting the posting. His commanding officer, Lt Col Robert Anderson offered a different view, saying, ‘I think you or I would have a better chance of winning the Powerball, than an Egyptian major in the unit that assassinated Sadat would have getting a visa, getting to California, getting into the Army and getting assigned to a Special Forces unit.’ He added, ‘That just doesn’t happen.’ Anderson elaborated that he believed Ali’s presence at Bragg was ‘sponsored’ by another agency, ‘I assumed the CIA.’
While at Fort Bragg, Ali was nominally a supply sergeant but he ended up teaching languages and Middle Eastern history. For a time he even presented an in-house TV panel discussion show where they argued about Middle Eastern policy. He also expressed an interest in doing intelligence work and asked to be introduced to a CIA official stationed at the base. The two had a meeting, after which the CIA agent and a US Army officer joked that Ali ‘might already be a spook.’ At the same time as they were making light of this idea, according to one of Ali’s friend in California he was working for the Agency as part of the Soviet-Afghan war. Dr Ali Zaki, an obstetrician from San Jose, told the Wall Street Journal that, ‘Everyone in the community knew he was working as a liaison between the CIA and the Afghan cause, and everyone was sympathetic.’
In 1988 Ali took part in a biennial training drill called Operation Bright Star, a joint exercise involving US and Egyptian troops. When Ali arrived back in his homeland in a US Army Sergeant’s uniform there was trouble as the Egyptians recognized Ali and knew his reputation as a fundamentalist. Mohamed was quickly sent back to the US before he jeopardized the exercise.
Ali even used his leave from the army to go to apparently go to Afghanistan to unofficially take part in the battle against the Soviets. He told his superiors of his intention in advance, and when news got up the line to Lt Col Anderson he called Ali into his office. Mohamed offered the story that he was going to use the time to go to Paris, though he did not explain how he, a low-paid soldier, could afford a four-week holiday in an expensive city. Despite his suspicions and reservations, Anderson didn’t stop Ali and off he went.
Mohamed returned a few weeks later and 25 pounds lighter, boasting of having carried out an assault against Soviet Spetznaz (Special Forces) in Afghanistan. He claimed to have killed several Russians, and brandished two belts that he said he had taken from his victims. He even tried to give one of the belts to Anderson as a memento. Anderson was troubled by the prospect of an active-duty soldier fighting in a foreign war in which the US were not officially involved. He ended up writing a lengthy report on the incident and recommending that Ali be court-martialed and deported. No disciplinary action was forthcoming. As Blaber notes in his book, ‘If he was a double agent, why would he tell his Special Forces commander what he had just done instead of laying low and keeping his Afghanistan war stories to himself?’ Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who interrogated Ali after his arrest, said of the Fort Bragg incidents, ‘When you think about it, he was remarkably transparent when he was there.’
Ali Mohamed: The Trainer of Al Qaeda
Ali was the most important trainer in the history of Al Qaeda. A 1998 affidavit cited how as part of his involvement with Al Qaeda in a wide-ranging conspiracy, he, ‘provided training in various areas, including Afghanistan and the Sudan.’ It also notes how in a meeting with the FBI in 1993, Ali told the Bureau that, ‘he had provided anti-hijackinq and intelligence training in Afghanistan.’ In Ali’s own words, ‘I conducted military and basic explosives training for al Qaeda in Afghanistan… I also conducted intelligence training for al Qaeda. I taught my trainees how to create cell structures that could be used for operations.’ Numerous witnesses testified in court to his role in providing training and writing terrorism manuals, leading academic Rohan Gunaratna to conclude that, ‘Ali Mohamed created the body of knowledge that would help Al Qaeda’s transformation from a guerrilla force into an urban terrorist organisation.’
Ali may even have been the originator and/or main progenitor of the plot that culminated in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. From the time of his final months at Fort Bragg he was a frequent visitor to New York, even before the Al Kifah center was taken over by the Blind Sheikh. Mohamed provided training and gave lectures, just as he was doing for US Special Forces in North Carolina. That this started before he left the US Army in November 1989 was testified to by one of his trainees at the US vs Rahman trial. Khaled Ibrahim was involved with Al Kifah and was present for Ali Mohamed’s training sessions.
Ibrahim explained that alongside sessions at shooting ranges organised by El Sayyid Nosair that Ali Mohamed (using the pseudonym Abu Omar) ran ‘military classes’. These classes included lessons on how to recognise weapons, how to navigate deserts and jungles and according to Ibrahim started ‘in the spring or early summer of 1989.’ Ibrahim went on to testify that various documents found in the raid on Nosair’s apartment in November 1990 started appearing at the Al Kifah only after Ali Mohamed begun giving his ‘military classes’ in the area. These documents included US military manuals, presumably from Fort Bragg, and independently-authored pamphlets on grenades, booby traps and improvised explosives.
Nearly identical documents, in particular the terrorist manuals on explosives, were found in Ahmed Ajaj’s luggage as he and Ramzi Yousef entered the US in September 1992. Did Ali Mohamed have a role in the 1993 WTC bombing? US terrorism analyst John Berger looked a variety of evidence, from Ali’s role in training several of Yousef’s co-conspirators in the WTC plot, to the manuals carried by Yousef’s companion Ajaj. He concluded that ‘the evidence for Mohamed’s role in the 1993 bombing is substantial.’ Berger also put together testimony from several trials showing that Mohamed was providing training in camps in Pakistan in the summer of 1992. At the exact same time Yousef and Ajaj were at the same camps receiving training and apparently putting together a plot to go the US on a bombing mission. Tantalisingly, during his interrogation by the FBI, Yousef did mention an additional ‘unidentified co-conspirator’, saying, ‘there is one guy, I’m surprised that you have never found out about him.’ But we have no way of confirming whether or not this was Ali Mohamed, as Yousef, ‘refused to elaborate or to further identify this individual.’
L’Houssaine Kherchtou was an early member of Al Qaeda who like Ali became a co-operator for the US government. Dubbed ‘Joe the Moroccan’, he also testified about what Ali had taught trainees in Pakistan. He recalled that over a two week period they were shown, ‘how to make surveillance of targets and how to collect information about these targets.’ He also testified that Ali taught them how to take covert surveillance photographs, ‘You take your camera without using the camera straight in your eyes. You just take it like this. And another guy came behind us to see if you are taking the target very well or not. Then he will say go down or up until you used to take the picture very well without using your eyes.’
Among the students was a young man who we discussed in the episode on the Manchester bombing – Anas Al Liby. Al Liby and Ali Mohamed carried out surveillance on various targets, including the US Embassy in Nairobi. According to Ali’s brief testimony in court, it was Bin Laden himself who looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber. Despite a falling-out with Al Qaeda, including some members openly not trusting him, it was Ali and Al-Liby’s photographs that were used to plan the bombing several years later.
How Islamic was Ali?
As with many supposedly Islamic fundamentalists, much of Ali’s behaviour was not consistent with those beliefs. According to the Peter Lance’s book Triple Cross, citing an interview with FBI agent Jack Cloonan, Ali’s first turn towards radicalism came when he was fourteen, in 1966. Ali was helping his uncle herd goats in the Sinai peninsula when a few of the animals surged over the border into Israeli territory. The Israeli border guards responded by shooting some of the goats and then scalding Ali’s uncle’s feet with boiling water. While this story may well be true, it places Ali in the same group as Ramzi Yousef – terrorists motivated not by religious conviction but by a sense of political injustice. Rather than hating the West per se, this sort of Islamism only hates the West’s role in brutalising the people in Islamic countries.
Indeed, Ali married an American woman, and a Californian to boot. Lance interpreted and portrayed this as a marriage of convenience, to help Ali gain US citizenship and go undetected as an Al Qaeda infiltrator, but his own interview with Linda Sanchez suggested otherwise. She described Ali as ‘very good to me and he was very kind. He was always a gentleman.’ There is no evidence that they were (and remain) anything but a loyally married couple, and as of Lance’s 2006 interview with her, Linda still visited Ali regularly. Lance asks, ‘Was Linda Sanchez hopelessly naïve? Did she have blinkers on her marriage from the start?’ before concluding that Ali had just duped her about his real agenda. Nonetheless, he admits that Linda Sanchez told him that she knew that Ali was regularly meeting with the FBI, and that he knew Bin Laden. As such, when Ali entered his guilty plea, admitting to his involvement in Al Qaeda, she said, ‘it wasn’t a shock, but it was a big disappointment.’
There is no doubt Ali was a Muslim, and practised some of its tenets rigidly. He did not allow Linda to keep pork in the house, ‘I’d have to get my bacon fix somewhere else,’ she joked. Though Lance claimed that Ali was a ‘fervently religious Islamic fundamentalist who performed the daily Islamic prayer cycle,’ according to the CTC’s profile of Ali, ‘[FBI] Agent [Dan] Coleman never knew him to pray or seek any special arrangements to accommodate Muslim practice (i.e., orientations for the five daily prayers, dietary restrictions, etc.)’ Sanchez admits that she can’t talk about many aspects of the case until Mohamed is sentenced, which has not yet happened, and has perhaps been deferred indefinitely. However, she does believe that he will one day be released, saying, ‘He’s done a lot for the government. Someday you’ll know it all, but I can’t discuss it.’
During his time at Fort Bragg Ali’s superiors recognised him as a knowledgeable and intelligent man and put him to work lecturing on foreign languages and the Middle East. He even presented a set of video panel discussions called The Middle East Focus Series where they discussed geopolitics and foreign policy. On one of these tapes Mohamed explained that in his view there is no such thing as an Islamic fundamentalist, but rather, ‘we do not have moderate, we do not have extremist, we do not have people between. You have one line. You accept the one line or not. So the word of fundamentalist, it doesn’t mean extremist, extremism. It means that just ordinary Muslim. I accept everything, and this is my way.’
Other statements have led some to believe that Ali was what we call a fundamentalist, such as, ‘Islam cannot survive in an area without political domination… I cannot consider Islam as a religion without political domination.’ This is perhaps the common Western mistake of seeing Islam as being just another religion, rather than a whole tradition of banking, culture and law that extends beyond mere worship. The National Geographic documentary ignored this. Instead, they opted for using the video clip of Ali talking about political domination (along with aggressive flash-cutting) as a means to terrify the watching audience and paint him as a fanatic. Nonetheless, these beliefs didn’t appear to bother his commanding officer Colonel Norvell De Atkine, who was happy for Ali to give the lectures on Islam. De Atkine has worked with Daniel Pipes, a relatively harsh neo-conservative and Zionist, yet in his assessment of Ali, ‘I don’t think he was anti-American. He was what I would call a Muslim fundamentalist, which isn’t a bomb thrower.’
Lt Col Anderson recalled a conversation with Ali Mohamed about Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president assassinated by members of Ali’s army unit. Anderson said to Ali that, ‘Anwar Sadat was a great patriot for Egypt.’ Anderson reports how Ali looked back at him with ‘a very cold stare’ and said, ‘No, he was a traitor, and he had to die.’ Anderson commented that, ‘at that point I realised he was a religious fanatic.’ Linda Sanchez recalled that on the plane to America where she and Ali met that she got a less aggressive response about Sadat. She said to Ali, ‘Oh that’s too bad about Sadat,’ and recalls him laughing at her and responding, ‘You only hear the good things. People think he was such a good guy but he was really very oppressive.’ Rather than the ‘religious fanatic’ Anderson describes, it appears Ali was simply being more forthright and blunt with the military man than he was with a civilian woman that he had just met on a plane.
When Ali was first indicted the affidavit against him detailed several of his contacts with the FBI prior to his arrest. During an interview in 1997 Mohamed apparently told the Bureau about having helped Bin Laden move from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1991. He explained that he did this because, ‘he loved Bin Laden and believed in him.’ Mohamed elaborated that ‘one did not need a fatwah to go against the United States because it was “obvious” that the United States was the enemy.’ During his guilty plea where Ali admitted to being a member of both Zawahiri’s ‘Islamic Jihad organisation’ and Al Qaeda he explained that, ‘the objective of all this, just to attack any Western target in the Middle East, to force the government of the Western countries just to pull out from the Middle East, not interfere in the –.’ The judge interrupted him before he could elaborate. However, Ali had told the FBI as early as 1993 that he had joined Al Qaeda, and according to Blaber’s account had undergone a complete u-turn and was offering full and absolute cooperation shortly after 9/11. If his aim was to force Western governments out of the Middle East then why be so consistently open and co-operative?
On the other side of the coin, some of Ali’s trainees and other associates within Al Qaeda had reservations about him. L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who pleaded guilty to his involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings and became a prosecution witness, testified in 2001 that Ali was ‘a severe man, not very observant… He is very strict and very – you have to just be patient with him. He is very, very strict and not gentle.’ By ‘not very observant’ Kherchtou meant, ‘he is not a good practitioner of Islam. You can hear from him some bad words, which we weren’t telling each other.’ Perhaps even more significantly, some members of the group did not trust Mohamed, and suspected that he was a spy. Mohammed Atef, the military commander of Al Qaeda, did not want Mohamed seeing his passport or knowing what name he was travelling under ‘because he was afraid that maybe he is working with United States or other governments.’
This suspicion clearly spread at least to some other members of Al Qaeda, as related by Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali, another of the conspirators in the embassy bombings case. He was meant to be the second man in the suicide truck bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, but ran away just before the explosion. He was later captured, and confessed to his role in the plot. According to both the testimony of an FBI agent and a summary of Al-Owhali’s interrogation, by 1998 Ali was ‘no longer a part of Bin Laden’s training camps because he had been labelled untrustworthy.’ This distrust didn’t extend to everyone within the group. Even after the ‘falling out’ the group still used surveillance photos provided by Mohamed to determine how to attack the Nairobi embassy. The truck that blew up there in August 1998 was on more or less the exact spot that Bin Laden pointed to on Ali’s photograph.
Ali Mohamed – Off the Hook
Despite Ali Mohamed’s role in the 1990 assassination of Meir Kahane, the 1993 WTC bombing and the 1998 African embassy bombings, he was only arrested in September 1998, a month after the embassy bombings. Though he had been repeatedly interviewed by the FBI throughout the 1990s, and worked as an informant for them, the Bureau maintains it took them almost a decade to put two and two together. The list of opportunities for the Feds to have interdicted Ali is long and complex and it will leave any critical listener with the lingering suspicion that they were intentionally letting him go free, or being told to.
In July 1989, while Ali was working for the US Army and simultaneously providing ‘military classes’ to the Blind Sheikh’s followers, the FBI had surveillance on the group in New York/New Jersey. Over four weekends they photographed Ali’s trainees at a shooting range in Calverton on Long Island, using semi-automatic and automatic weapons in shooting sessions. Each week the group left the Al Kifah and drove to Calverton and each time they were followed by Bureau agents. Even though the group were observed using illegal weapons, such as AK-47 machine guns, it appears the Feds never followed up on this surveillance.
Following the assassination of Meir Kahane and Sayyid Nosair’s arrest they raided his apartment and found all kind of incriminating evidence including bomb recipes in Arabic, lots of ammunition, and top secret US military training manuals from Fort Bragg. The FBI maintain that they never followed up on this haul of evidence because they didn’t translate it until two years later. Even if we believe this, the Fort Bragg manuals didn’t need to be translated. But they never asked Nosair where he got them from or looked into who at the Al Kifah had a background in the US Special Forces.
Likewise, following the 1993 WTC bombing it was only the handful who were directly involved who got arrested and put on trial. The remainder of the gang at the Al Kifah, including the Blind Sheikh, were picked up later that year after the Emad Salem entrapment scam known as the Day of Terror plot. But still, Ali was never questioned. Also in 1993 he was arrested in Canada trying to smuggle people over the border into the US, but by this time Ali had signed up as an FBI informant in California and his handler called up the RCMP and told them to let Ali go.
Ali was also called as a witness in the 1995 US vs Rahman trial. While Sayyid Nosair wasn’t convicted of murder at his original trial, they effectively put him on trial again as an alleged co-conspirator in the Blind Sheikh’s supposed ‘seditious conspiracy’. Nosair’s lawyer Roger Stavis found out about Ali Mohamed and his role providing training at the Al Kifah and his background in the Special Forces. I read about this and contacted Stavis to confirm and he told me his intention was to put Ali on the stand, get him to tell his story, and then argue that whatever Ali was doing it had to be with the blessing of the government. As such, any consequences resulting from that were part of a government operation, including Nosair’s assassination of Kahane.
But he couldn’t find Ali. The prosecution, led by Patrick Fitzgerald, knew where he was. Fitzgerald prosecuted most of these Al Qaeda trials and was involved in Ali’s ‘defection’ following his arrest in 1998. They refused to tell Stavis where Ali was, and when the defence lawyer eventually tracked him down and served him with a witness subpoena, Ali wrote to Fitzgerald asking him what he should do. While we don’t know what Fitzgerald wrote back to Ali, or said to him, it must have done the trick because Ali failed to show up in court and Stavis lost the case.
What is especially insane about this is that Ali Mohamed’s name appears on a Department of Justice list of unindicted co-conspirators for the trial. Fitzgerald knew that Ali was a conspirator, top people at the Justice Department knew. So why was he never arrested and interrogated about his role in the WTC bombing? It was around this time, when everyone else at the Al Kifah had been arrested or fled to other countries, that other Al Qaeda members started to suspect Ali was an American spy. What makes this even more than especially insane is that somehow Ali obtained a copy of this DOJ list of unindicted co-conspirators and showed it to the doubters as proof that he wasn’t working for the government.
Ali Mohamed and 9/11
One of the most problematic aspects to the Ali Mohamed story is his reported foreknowledge of and providing of training for the 9/11 attacks. Immediately after 9/11 Ali was put in lock-down, as were other terrorist inmates. This isolated them from media reports and other outside influences that might compromise their value to intelligence agencies trying to find out what they knew. FBI agent Jack Cloonan interrogated Ali a week after 9/11 and said ‘tell me how they did it.’ Cloonan explained, ‘What he laid out was the attack as if he knew every detail… This is how you position yourself, I taught people how to sit in first class… This is how you get a box cutter on board… He wrote the whole thing out.’ The specific details of hijackers sitting in first class and the use of box cutters has been used as evidence that Ali knew about the 9/11 plot. As is so often the case with the Ali Mohamed tale, the details suggest something different to the default story that is told.
As Cloonan himself noted, Ali Mohamed was in US custody at the time the 9/11 Commission has the plot being developed. Cloonan said, ‘I think he probably understood that the World Trade Center was a target at some point, but he wouldn’t have known of the plot as it unfolded. Remember he was basically in our custody since 1998.’ Ali was arrested on the night of his grand jury testimony on September 10th, only a few weeks after the African embassy bombings. According to the 9/11 Commission, ‘Bin Ladin, apparently at Atef’s urging, finally decided to give KSM the green light for the 9/11 operation sometime in late 1998 or early 1999.’ Either the 9/11 Commission is wrong about when the plan for the attacks was developed, or Ali Mohamed had little to do with it.
The conclusion that Ali wasn’t involved in 9/11 is substantiated by the two specific details reported by Cloonan. The first is that Ali claimed to have told Al Qaeda trainee hijackers to sit in first class. This did not form an essential part of the tactics adopted by the 9/11 hijackers. The particulars of the seats occupied by the nineteen men are contained in a staff report filed for the 9/11 Commission and an exhibit entered as prosecution evidence in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial. On Flight 11 only two out of the five hijackers were I firs tclass seats. Mohammad Atta, reported leader of not just the Flight 11 hijacker gang but the entire 9/11 plot, was content to sit in business class. Following an identical pattern, on Flight 175 Fayez Banihammad and Mohand al Shehri were sat in first class, the other three including supposed hijacker pilot Marwan al-Shehhi were in business class. The details for Flight 77 have Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al Hazmi and Salem al Hazmi in first class, but Khalid al Mihdhar and Majed Moqed in economy class seats. The latter two in particular took seats next to the window, with no knowledge that the aisle seat adjacent to them would be empty. This makes no sense if their aim was to quickly seize control of the aircraft. To be sure, all four of the alleged hijackers on Flight 93 were in first class, but this only raises the question of why, if this was due to advice imparted by Ali Mohamed, only one of the four hijacker gangs adhered to it.
The question of box cutters only provides a more complex controversy. It is widely reported that the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters (or Stanley knives, as they are known in the UK), to help them take over the four planes. While this story is somewhat implausible as it involves relatively small, lightly-built Arab hijackers successfully ousting the well-built former US military men who largely made up the 9/11 flight crews, it is commonly accepted as fact. The main problem for this is that the only evidence for the use of box cutters are phone calls supposedly made by Barbara Olsen from Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, to her husband, then US Solicitor General Ted Olsen.
Without getting into all the ins and outs the problem is that the FBI 302s recording interviews with Ted Olson, the staff in his office, and an operator at AT&T who handled the calls all contradict one another. They also contradict an FBI exhibit at the Zacharias Moussaoui trial detailing calls from the four planes. But because Ted Olson lost his wife that day, the story of some final, brief, tearful phonecalls tugs at the heartstrings and means lots of people will believe whatever detail is then injected into the narrative. But scratch the surface, read the actual sources cited by the 9/11 Commission and other investigations, and the whole thing looks very suspicious. To be clear, I’m sure Barbara Olson is dead, and obviously for her husband and loved ones that’s very sad. But it appears somewhere along the line this idea of boxcutters entered the story in a very convenient way.
As such, how are we to view Ali Mohamed’s apparent detailed foreknowledge of 9/11? However factually inaccurate they are, the memes of hijackers sitting in first class and using box cutters to overcome the flight crews are part of the official 9/11 story, and so having ‘Bin Laden’s master spy’ repeating the same details helps to propagate that story. Susceptible minds in the FBI and the general public have had their belief in the 9/11 legend reinforced by this information. If Ali Mohamed always was an American intelligence asset then the most logical interpretation of this controversy is that it was part of a cunning deception operation, carried out to lend credibility to the official story.
Before we try to draw some conclusions we should address the question of the 9/11 Commission. Because surely they studied this guy, right? They knew all about him, recognised his importance to the whole story of what led up to 9/11 and made him a central figure in their report, right?
Of course they fucking didn’t. They did gather files on him including his main file from the FBI, and read books that detail much of the story I’ve outlined. This much is clear from the available 9/11 Commission documents. But somehow he got written out of the story, relegated to a brief mention or two as though a man who was a close associate of Bin Laden, Zawahiri and the Blind Sheikh, who trained a whole generation of Al Qaeda terrorists, was not relevant. Naturally, they never spoke to him even though he was fully cooperating and offering his help. It is probably relevant that the guy running the Commission Team who dealt with most of this material was Michael Hurley, a former CIA officer who had been involved in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Who was Ali Mohamed?
That is not an easy question to answer, but all the signs point to him being a secret agent, either working for the CIA or military intelligence or possibly for a private network encompassing people from multiple agencies. He was definitely protected from on high by someone, and someone who knew what he up to. The string of failures by the FBI and the Justice Department strain credulity, even if we take into account how incompetent those agencies are. All the available evidence point to him being recruited by the CIA years before they say he approached them, and for years afterwards. The fact that almost everyone he touched wound up dead or in jail, yet he skated away into witness protection and virtual anonymity, tells its own story.
Put another way, the list of people who think Ali Mohamed wasn’t a deep cover agent for the government or a covert network includes a range of authors of dubious repute and a bunch of current or former government officials. The list of people who think he was a spy includes his wife, his commanding officer at Fort Bragg, the CIA liaison at Fort Bragg, his friends in California and other members of Al Qaeda. And possibly Pete Blaber, the last person to speak to Ali and write about him in a book. So, in fact, most of the people who would be in a position to know, or at least plausibly suspect, that Ali was a spy. Frankly, even without all the biographical information and institutional ‘failures’ I’ve outlined for you, that list of people should give you serious pause for thought.
One final question – why? Why do this? In answering that, I’d like to flip it round. Ali Mohamed was a highly trained, well educated, physically very fit man with great language skills who could operate in a variety of countries and situations. He was able to recruit and train others, in some cases even helping turn them into suicide bombers. Why wouldn’t the CIA want someone like that? In what way would he not be useful to them? Whether he was recruited with all of this in mind I somewhat doubt, but once he was in place doing what they needed him to do they kept him there for a long time. Indeed, it was only after he was told he was no longer welcome at Al Qaeda training camps because too many people thought he was a spy that he was caught and arrested. Only when his usefulness had been consumed was he finally brought back inside the machine.
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