ClandesTime 117 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: The 9/11 Intelligence ‘Failure’
In the five years running up to 9/11 the NSA were monitoring Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone and Al Qaeda’s communication hub, and the CIA were closely following their key operatives, including to the so-called ‘9/11 summit’ in Malaysia. So why didn’t they prevent the attacks? This week we look at the ‘failure’ of the NSA, CIA and FBI to share important information and ask whether these intelligence failures were the result of deliberate decisions on the part of those responsible for preventing terrorist attacks.
The Al Qaeda Communications Hub, Yemen
Following the World Trade Center bombing trials, the end of the war in Bosnia and the capture of Ramzi Yousef in 1995, a second phase of Al Qaeda began. Osama Bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan, aided by Ali Mohamed, and the group set up a communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. It was run by Ahmed Al-Hada, an associate of Bin Laden who had fought alongside him during the Soviet-Afghan War. Bin Laden regularly used his satellite phone to call this house in Yemen, where Al-Hada lived with his family, as did numerous other Al Qaeda members. This quickly led the NSA, who were monitoring the satellite phone, to the Yemen hub, which they also monitored from 1996 right up until 9/11. The NSA had previously tapped into the older satellite phone Bin Laden used while he was hiding out in Sudan, and possibly even tracked the new phone from the moment it was purchased.
Meanwhile, the CIA began tracking Bin Laden more closely and between February 1996 and May 1998 they repeatedly asked the NSA for verbatim transcripts of the calls being made both on the satellite phone and to and from the hub in Yemen. The NSA refused to hand them over to the Bin Laden unit and other CIA officers who asked, providing only reports on the calls, not the content of the calls themselves. Sometime after December 1996 the CIA built their own listening post on Madagascar, duplicating the NSA’s, but apparently this only gave them access to half of the calls – for the other halves of the conversations they needed a satellite. When they took these half-transcripts to the NSA to ask for the other halves, the NSA refused.
After Mohamed Al-Owhali’s arrest in the wake of the embassy bombings, he gave up the Al Qaeda communications hub to the FBI. He gave them the number and phone records showed him calling the house in the days running up to the bombings, and apparently after the bombings to say that he ‘had not travelled’ i.e. hadn’t died in the explosion as planned. So why didn’t the NSA know about the bombings ahead of time? Or if they did, why did they do nothing with the information?
Also following the embassy bombings in August 1998 the NSA did briefly start responding to the CIA’s requests for full transcripts, but then soon went back to the old system of keeping the information to themselves. The FBI picked up on Al-Owhali’s information and likewise asked the NSA for records of any calls between the Yemen hub and the US, though the NSA later didn’t bother to do this in the run-up to 9/11.
It has also been widely reported that following the 1998 bombings the CIA and NSA bugged the house itself, and used a spy satellite to watch all the comings and goings. They learned that it wasn’t simply a switchboard for people to talk to each other around the world, but also a operations centre through which attacks and other operations were planned.
In January 2000 Al Qaeda tried to bomb USS The Sullivans while it was in the port of Aden in Yemen. This was part of the so-called Millenium Plot, which either failed or was intercepted in all its different aspects. In Aden, the would-be bombers loaded their small boat with so many explosives that it sank before they could get to the US Navy ship and blow it up. However, months later in October 2000 the same group bombed the USS Cole while it was refueling in Aden, killing over a dozen people. The bombers floated up alongside the ship, waved at those on board, and then blew themselves up. The group responsible for both the Cole bombing and the attempt on The Sullivans – an Al Qaeda cell calling themselves the Islamic Army of Aden – were funded into existence by Jamal Khalifa – Osama’s brother in law and the financier behind the Bojinka plot in the Philippines.
Officially, the CIA and NSA didn’t know about the attempted attack on The Sullivans until sometime later, and had no opportunity to prevent the bombing of the USS Cole. But realistically, how is this possible? They were monitoring the Al Qaeda operations centre in Yemen, they knew about Jamal Khalifa. He was in US custody in late 1994-95, before being let go only after spending months in an unnamed ‘in transit facility’ which may well have been a US intelligence debriefing centre. They also knew about the on-the-ground operative Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, who one of the witnesses in the KENBOM investigation said was planning to hit US ships in the port of Aden. They definitely identified the right guy, because during his interrogation Al-Owhali recognised him from photographs. Al-Nashiri provided a fake passport for one of the embassy bombers, was in frequent contact with the Yemen hub, and was the principal manager of the USS Cole bombing and likely the attempt on The Sullivans as well. For several months after the bombing he was hiding out in a small town in Yemen, under the protection of the Yemeni government. He wasn’t caught until November 2002, and since then he’s been imprisoned in CIA black sites and subjected to torture.
Khalid Al-Mihdhar, Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Luai Sakra
Khalid Al-Mihdhar is perhaps the most important Al Qaeda operative in this second phase of the group’s development. He fought in Bosnia in the early to mid 1990s, possibly meeting the supposed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed while he was there. In 1997 both he and his close associate Nawaf Al Hazmi were watchlisted in their home country of Saudi Arabia due to their role in a gun-running scheme. However, they continued to move freely in and out of the country and would end up getting their visas to get into the US from embassies in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Mihdhar was probably involved in both the bombings on the US embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole bombing, as phone records show he called the communications hub frequently around the times of both attacks. In Kevin Fenton’s book Disconnecting the Dots he makes a strong case for Al-Mihdhar being involved in both bombings, and at the very least proves he knew about them ahead of time. This is unsurprising as he married the daughter of Ahmed Al-Hada, the guy running the communications hub in Yemen, and Al-Mihdhar sometimes lived there.
While some of these other elements are less certain, he reportedly fought in Chechnya and while he first entered the US in January 2000 he left in June, and didn’t return until over a year later after all the other hijackers had arrived in America. Some investigators believe he was one of the core 9/11 Al Qaeda operatives, responsible for recruiting and facilitating the travel of many of the others. At least according to the official version Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi were the main muscle hijackers on flight 77, which hit the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Al Hazmi was one of several supposed 9/11 hijackers who was trained in a camp in Turkey by Luai Sakra. Sakra was a triple agent who worked for Syrian and Turkish intelligence. And the CIA.
Sakra spent much of the 1990s involved in the Balkans, where he set up the local branch of the Services Office for the Mujahideen – the Maktab Al Khidemat organisation based at the Al Kifah in New York. Luai Sakra’s branch of this organisation was, like his training camp, in Turkey, and it helped provide jihadi recruits for the war in Bosnia and then into Kosovo, Albania and so on. He was then recruited by the CIA in late 1999 – early 2000, at the same time as he’s running this training camp in Turkey. The CIA then passed information to Turkish intelligence which led to him and this group of trainees being picked up and interrogated for a day, and then let go.
Sakra apparently knew about the 9/11 plot, and warned his Syrian handler the day before the attacks. According to media reports the Syrians didn’t pass this information onto the CIA – bear in mind at this point the Syrian government were quite friendly with the West. George Tenet, the director of the CIA throughout this period, even wrote in his book that, ‘[A] source we were jointly running with a Middle Eastern country went to see his foreign handler and basically told him that something big was about to go down.’
After 9/11 Sakra became a wanted man, and went to ground in Germany before escaping with the help of German intelligence, the BND. A parliamentary inquiry later exonerated the BND of any wrongdoing. Sakra went on to mastermind the 2003 Istanbul bombings which helped sell the Iraq war not particularly to the Turkish public who were very opposed to being involved in that war, but I think mainly to the British public because some of the bombings were on an HSBC bank and the British Consulate. Sakra still wasn’t caught for another two years and when he was finally brought to ground he started talking to interrogators about how ‘Al-Qaeda is the name of a secret service operation. The concept “fighting terror” is the background of the “low-intensity-warfare” conducted in the mono-polar world order.’ When he was eventually put on trial, reporters at the courthouse noted how they weren’t sure it was the same man who had been arrested.
Al-Mihdhar, the Malaysia Summit and the CIA
Around the same time that Sakra was recruited by the CIA there was a major Al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from January 5-8th 2000. The NSA intercepted calls about this summit in the weeks running up to it, though the Malaysian government also had moles within their local Islamist militant gangs. As a result both the CIA and the FBI knew about this ahead of time, and the CIA along with local intelligence monitored the meetings. There is some contradiction in different accounts as to whether the meetings themselves were bugged, but certainly photos were taken, some surveillance video too.
Attendees at the Malaysia summit included Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar, Hambali, who turns up in the Bojinka plot and is a major figure in Islamist militancy in South East Asia in this period, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Bin Attash, perhaps Bin Laden’s most senior intermediary, Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, the facilitator of the embassy bombings and the Cole bombing and Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh, the facilitator of the Hamburg cell that included supposed 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta.
So looking back it seems that this summit was a major planning meeting (or series of meeetings) that would lead to the bombings of the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks. While he was travelling to the summit the CIA broke into Al-Mihdhar’s hotel room and copied his passport, including his multiple-entry visa for the United States. After the summit several of the attendees, including Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi, flew to Bangkok. According to the CIA they lost track of Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi in the streets of Bangkok. A few days later the pair arrive in the US via Los Angeles international airport. Al Hazmi remains inside the US until 9/11, Al Mihdhar remains there until June 2000, after which he leaves the US, flies around the world including in and out of Saudi Arabia several times, before returning to America in early July 2001.
But no one bothers to tell the FBI. No one bothers to say that two men from the Malaysia summit have ready access to the US, let alone landed there. You might think this was a mistake, but it wasn’t. The CIA’s Bin Laden unit, Alec Station, knew all of this and deliberately withheld the information from the FBI.
Alec Station was the CIA’s first ‘virtual station’. Normal CIA stations are located around the world usually inside US embassies in different countries, but Alec Station was focused on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda so it was physically based in an obscure office in Langley with a remit that covered the whole world. In mid-1999 the unit got a new boss – Richard Blee, the son of the CIA legend David Blee, and most of the 9/11 intelligence problems happened on his watch. Others in this unit at the time included a supervisor named Tom Wilshire, known as ‘John’ in many of the official reports, Alfreda Frances Bikowsky and Michael Anne Casey, who was the basis for the redhead in Zero Dark Thirty, and FBI agents Mark Rossini and Doug Miller, who were detailed from the Bureau to the CIA. There were others – in total about 50 people worked in Alec Station at this time.
Naturally, the FBI agents realised that this high-level Al Qaeda operative with a multiple-entry visa for the US was something the Bureau needed to know about, so if Al-Mihdhar turned up in the US the FBI could follow him and see what he was up to. Doug Miller drafted a cable to the FBI outlining all this, but it was blocked by Wilshire and Casey, known as Michael or Michelle in the reports. Indeed, Casey then circulated a cable within the CIA saying that the information had been shared with the FBI, thereby discouraging anyone else from doing it.
This all begins in early January 2000, when they was plenty of time to do something about it, but instead the Bureau were kept in the dark. Likewise, a CIA cable in March detailing how Al-Hazmi and a companion (Al-Mihdhar) had arrived in the US also was not shared with the FBI. Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi went to San Diego and met up with Omar Al-Bayoumi, who pretty much everyone now accepts was working for Saudi intelligence. He gives them money, helps rent them an apartment from a guy who actually worked for a while as an FBI informant, basically sets them up in California. In the coming months they also get to know Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was also in San Diego at this time and among other things bought them plane tickets. When Al-Awlaki moved across the country to Virginia, so did Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar. It’s probably relevant that Awlaki was being investigated by the FBI throughout this period, and one of the last articles he wrote before being killed in a CIA drone strike said that he had been approached by the Agency.
After the USS Cole bombing in October that year the FBI agent in charge of the investigation Ali Soufan asked the CIA – repeatedly – for information stemming from the Malaysia summit. Every single time his requests were refused, even when he gave them the number of the payphone outside the building where the meetings were, which the CIA monitored the participants using. Soufan asked if they had anything on that phone number, and even though they did, they still told him ‘no’.
In May 2001 Tom Wilshire was detailed to the FBI’s International Terrorism Center (ITOS) as a deputy chief, though he says he wasn’t actually managing people and describes himself as a ‘consultant’, though he appears to have also functioned as a liaison with the CIA’s Alec Station. He still doesn’t bother to tell anyone about Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi being in the US. He accesses all the cables again at this time – the CIA’s records system makes that much clear – but doesn’t bother to pass on the information or check to see if the two are still in the US.
Instead, he instigates a review of the material relating to the Malaysia summit because he apparently thinks it might be important somehow. Even though he’s just reviewed the material himself he thinks it’s necessary for someone else to do it too. He doesn’t give the job to anyone at the FBI International Terrorism centre but instead gives it to Margaret Gillespie, another FBI agent working in the CIA’s Bin Laden unit. He tells her not to make it a priority and to just do it when she has some free time. Wilshire doesn’t give her copies of the cables he’s just accessed, so Gillespie apparently doesn’t find these for another three months, in August 2001, just weeks before 9/11. There are other examples, such as photos of the Malaysia summit not being shared, that add up to an obvious, concerted effort to withhold this information about Al-Mihdhar from the FBI.
The run-up to 9/11
However, we should not forget the NSA in all this. Remember, the FBI found out about the Yemen communications hub in 1998 from Al-Owhali, and they used information they gleaned from telephone records in the US vs Bin Laden trial in early 2001. In the 1999 trial in Egypt of the men kidnapped and rendered from Albania that I mentioned in the last episode, they also referred to the Yemen hub. So Al Qaeda should have known by early 2001 at the latest that their communications hub was busted, and probably being spied on by Western intelligence. Which of course, it was.
But for reasons I cannot figure out, they continued using it. In the run-up to the Millenium Plot and the Cole bombing and on into 2001-2. In fact, multiple calls were placed to the Yemen hub from within the United States, by the people now identified as the hijackers. Did the NSA tell the FBI that these calls they’d been tracking through the Al Qaeda main communications hub now included people inside the US? Of course not.
While all this is going on, Al-Mihdhar arrives back in the US, on July 4th 2001. The following day Wilshire starts writing emails to the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center all about Al-Mihdhar and how he thinks Al-Mihdhar is going to be involved in the next big attack. But Wilshire still doesn’t bother to say any of this to the FBI. Bizarrely, in at least one of these emails he asked for permission to share the Al-Mihdhar information with the FBI, even though his junior, Michael Anne Casey, had circulated a cable over 18 months earlier saying that the information had already been shared with the Bureau.
This is where Wilshire’s story starts to fall apart, and with it the entire 9/11 intelligence failure in Alec Station. For some reason, throughout July 2001 he has a complete change of heart on the whole Al-Mihdhar question. The papertrail shows that Casey blocked Doug Miller’s cable to the FBI in January 2000 on the orders of Wilshire, deputy head of the unit. Wilshire had multiple opportunities, including when he reviewed all the Al-Mihdhar cables in mid 2001, to tell the FBI himself. After all, according to Casey’s cable the FBI had already been told, so he wasn’t really telling them anything they didn’t already know, more reminding them of its significance.
Instead, he commissions an FBI agent detailed to the CIA to conduct a review of materials he has just reviewed himself, but doesn’t give her the materials to review. Then, a month later just after Al-Mihdhar arrives back in the US, he starts sending emails to senior CIA colleagues talking about the importance of Al-Mihdhar and the next attack. To the CIA people he says Al-Mihdhar is of great interest, but he continues to say nothing to the FBI about the need to find this guy.
Then in mid-late August the FBI agent conducting the review finds all the cables and puts it together that Al-Mihdhar was in the US. She checks INS records and finds that he has recently arrived back in the US a few weeks earlier and doesn’t appear to have left yet. She takes this to Dina Corsi, an FBI agent working in their Bin Laden/Al Qaeda unit who was close to Wilshire. However, they don’t open a criminal investigation, which would allow them to trace credit cards and the like, they open an intelligence investigation. This is three weeks before 9/11.
Why did they open an intelligence investigation and not a criminal one? Because they didn’t think Al-Mihdhar was going to be involved in an imminent attack. But they liased directly with Tom Wilshire, him being the CIA liaison who ordered the review in the first place that took three months to find half a dozen cables and put all this together. Why didn’t Wilshire tell them what he’d told his CIA colleagues in emails a few weeks earlier, that Al-Mihdhar was going to be involved in the next big attack?
Nothing about Wilshire’s behaviour, or the behaviour of his immediate superior Rich Blee, makes any sense. If their superior Cofer Black, head of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center, and his superior CIA director George Tenet also knew this information, which by July 2001 they definitely did because Wilshire was writing these emails, then their behaviour makes no sense either.
Unless something like the scenario Richard Clarke describes is accurate. Richard Clarke was the former Counter-Terrorism Tsar in the Clinton White House, and in the early period of the Bush White House. This is the guy who went before the 9/11 Commission and apologised, saying the government and he himself had failed everyone. As far as anyone comes out of 9/11 with any credit, it’s Richard Clarke. So it’s no surprise that the producers of the Secrecy Kills: Who is Rich Blee? Podcast, who previously made the film 9/11 Press For Truth, got perhaps their most telling interview from Clarke.
In it he offers the idea that the CIA didn’t tell the FBI because after Cofer Black came in at Counter-Terrorism and Blee was made head of Alec Station, their ‘new strategy’ was to finally get a source inside Al Qaeda. So they were trying to recruit Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hamzi and didn’t want the FBI anywhere near that. Eventually they realised they were being double-crossed or their recruitment wasn’t working, so they gave the pair up to the FBI, but it was a bit too late to stop 9/11.
It’s a compelling narrative. But it’s almost certainly wrong. Much as I respect Clarke for being the only senior official to talk about this sort of thing in an explicit, critical way, I just don’t find this plausible. For one thing, US intelligence had sources inside Al Qaeda throughout the years – from the Blind Sheikh to Ali Mohamed, probably Ramzi Yousef and Jamal Khalifa. Then there’s the likes of Emad Salem, the FBI informant who became an entrapment operative after the WTC bombing, and Edwin Angeles, the Phillipines deep-cover spy inside the Bojinka plot. This is along with co-operators like Jamal Al-Fadl, and Ahmed Ressam, who was caught trying to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border into the US as part of the Millenium Plot. Admittedly, most of these people were now blown and either in prison or in witness protection but it’s hardly like US intelligence found it really difficult to get human sources inside Al Qaeda. That just isn’t true.
The other problem with this version is that even if they recruited Al-Mihdhar shortly after the Malaysia summit (or maybe before it?), and he then entered the US, left that summer and spent a year flying around the world informing on Al Qaeda but secretly still working for Al Qaeda, then why was Wilshire so convinced he would be involved in the next attack? Why would he only tell the CIA about these fears if the plan was to let the FBI pick him up weeks later? Why wouldn’t he get in touch with Gillespie and tell her to hurry up her review of the materials he forgot to give her? Why wouldn’t he insist they started a criminal investigation to immediately find Al-Mihdhar, if he or Rich Blee or whoever started to suspect a double-cross? Once you’ve decided to burn your spy and arrest him, you do it as fast as possible. You don’t sit on your ass for 6 weeks sending emails to the CIA talking about how urgent this is while continuing to tell the FBI absolutely nothing.
Likewise, the notion that these two guy were hands-off because they were Saudi intelligence assets is similarly absurd. The FBI are responsible for monitoring foreign intelligence activities inside the US. They don’t just let foreign governments operate spies in America without keeping an eye on what they’re up to.
So we’re left with a different set of possibilities. Did these CIA officials – Wilshire, Blee, Casey for certain but likely others as well – actually recruit Al-Mihdhar and maybe Al-Hazmi too? Was the aim to have them help facilitate the 9/11 attacks, or at least the hijacking element of those attacks? If so, then Wilshire’s sudden realisation in July 2001 that Al-Mihdhar, who had just arrived back in the US the day before, might be really important, but then his total failure to do anything productive with that realisation until it was too late, looks like a cover story. It’s a way of him covering his ass so the story becomes more about the FBI failure than what on earth the CIA officers were up to, just as with WTC93. However it’s quite plausible that it wasn’t the CIA as such who were ultimately behind this, but a semi-private network including former CIA officers and people in other agencies as well. It’s the sort of thing that even if the CIA found out a bunch of their former officers had done it, they would keep it a secret.
The same is true if, rather than making 9/11 happen they were allowing it to take place. If the aim was to secretly monitor these guys inside the US without the FBI knowing, then that fits most of the facts that we have and again makes Wilshire’s behaviour in the summer of 2001 make a lot more sense. Taking this story in isolation, without getting distracted by arguments about the physical nature of the attacks and the events of the day itself, it’s difficult to split these two interpretations. They both fit what we know, at least a lot better than most of the other explanations that have been offered, but there’s no piece of information or reasoning that supports one over the other.
In many ways perhaps it makes no difference if you help develop a terrorist gang and then sit back and watch them do something, or if you provoke and help them to do it. Legally there’s not much difference, morally too. Sadly, on both counts, they’ve got away with it. Most of this is the fault of the investigations and the general culture within these government institutions, whereby they simply don’t know how to deal with criminals inside the government. There are few precedents, no formal structure, no specialist investigators – dealing with this is a very difficult one.
But I will take a few seconds to say that the 9/11 Truth Movement played its part in this cover-up. I followed the movement for years while doing my own research into the topic – much of which formed the basis for this series. I watched as it devolved into endless, petty arguments about holographic planes and precisely which sort of thermite was used to take down the WTC and, most misleading and pointless of all, the five dancing Israelis. Or should I say Jews, since that’s one of the reasons so many people fixate on that detail. After all, if they were five dancing Indonesians or five dancing Nigerians, no one would make a big deal out of it.
One final question – what happened to these people? Well, most of them were promoted in one way or another. Richard Blee was made the CIA’s head of station in Kabul shortly after 9/11. Alfreda Bikowsky was made head of the CIA’s Global Jihad Unit, which presumably put her in overall charge of managing’s the CIA’s Global Jihad. Michael Anne Casey along with Bikowsky became the basis for the lionising portrait of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Cofer Black moved to the State Department after 9/11 and then became Vice-Chairman of Blackwater. I’m not sure what happened to Wilshire.
On the Al Qaeda side Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi are dead, probably on the plane that hit the Pentagon but regardless, they’re not going to tell us what was going on. Bin Laden is dead, Al-Nashiri is still awaiting trial, 15 years after being captured, as is Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh. Anwar Al-Awlaki is dead, killed in a drone strike. Which leaves Ahmed Al-Hada, the guy running the Yemen communication hub. The hub was shut down in early 2002 after a shootout with Yemeni security forces during which Al-Hada’s son, Samir Al-Hada, died when he blew himself up with a grenade, apparently by accident. Al-Hada senior was reported captured in 2005-6, but it seems no one is sure whether he’s still in prison or if not, where he might be. It seems that US authorities have completely forgotten about him, or at least are no longer pursuing him despite his key role in the second phase of Al Qaeda.
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