This is the second part of a summary of the 9/11 Timeline’s embassy bombings category, the first section of which can be found here. This part looks at the investigation of the bombings by the US, and the missed opportunities to focus on operatives who would later go on to be involved in the 2000 USS Cole bombing and 9/11.
Botched Missile Strikes
The FBI and CIA arrived at the sites of the bombings soon after they occurred, but the investigation was hampered by political considerations about how to respond. The Sudanese had arrested two apparent al-Qaeda operatives before the attacks, but the Clinton administration wanted to bomb a chemicals factory in Sudan it thought was linked to bin Laden in response to the attacks, so it refused their extradition. The CIA learned bin Laden’s travel plans before the missile strike, but failed to launch an aircraft to guide the missiles based on tracking of bin Laden’s satellite phone, and the missiles missed bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
Following the missile strikes against Afghanistan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar called the State Department, and the US warned him about bin Laden, but failed to provide the Taliban with any evidence bin Laden was involved in terrorism. The Taliban put bin Laden on trial for his role in the embassy bombings anyway, but, when the US continued to refuse to provide evidence, the proceedings collapsed and bin Laden was acquitted. However, he did later take credit for instigating the attacks.
FBI Discovers Al-Qaeda’s Global Communications Hub
Perhaps the most important piece of information obtained by the FBI was a phone number, which was given up by Mohamed al-Owhali, the bomber who was photographed at bin Laden’s press conference, during an FBI interview. The number was for al-Qaeda’s main global communications hub in Yemen, and one of the al-Qaeda operatives connected to it was questioned in Yemen shortly after.
The US intelligence community began joint surveillance of the hub using a variety of means and the FBI was able to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation based on intercepts of phone calls to and from the hub. The monitoring of this number led to the discovery by the US of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. The hijackers called the number from the US, even though US knowledge of the hub’s operations was revealed in open court in February 2001.
Investigation Led to Cole Bombing Mastermind, Possibly Zacarias Moussaoui
Other information turned up during the investigation indicated that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was identified by al-Owhali as an operative that had arranged a false passport for him and went on to command the attack on the USS Cole, intended to bomb a US ship in Aden. Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed, who had alerted the US to the bombing plot, again came forward with key information. In addition, the flat of Zacarias Moussaoui, later arrested in flight training in the US shortly before 9/11, was searched by British police, and the British intelligence service obtained information from L’Houssaine Kherchtou, one of its assets connected to the bombers, but withheld this information from the FBI.
Ali Mohamed, Others Arrested
Questioned in the US, Ali Mohamed said he knew who the perpetrators were, but refused to tell the FBI. He was tipped off that he could be in trouble by Anas al-Liby, who had helped him with surveillance before the bombings. Two other operatives involved in the bombings disappeared from Canada without being arrested, although one was captured a month later by coincidence.
Meanwhile Ali Mohamed’s US apartment was searched, and he was finally arrested in September 1998. Wadih El-Hage was also arrested, as was Florida-based al-Qaeda operative Ihab Ali Nawawi, and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a top al-Qaeda operative taken in Germany.
KSM, 9/11 Hijackers Linked to Bombings
The CIA also learned that future alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was involved in the bombings, but when an FBI field agent found Saudi multimillionaire Yassin al-Qadi and BMI were tied to the attacks, FBI headquarters prevented a criminal investigation into this. In addition, some of the surveillance of al-Qaeda based operatives discovered in the embassy bombings investigation was curtailed in the summer of 2000 because of false statements by FBI agents.
The Saudi authorities later said that they watchlisted two 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, partly for their connection to the bombings, in which, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Almihdhar played a key role.
Information from Defectors
The FBI was able to interview some al-Qaeda defectors, such as L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who was involved in the plot and agreed to give evidence against the other defendants at the trial. Kherchtou told the FBI about his flight training, flight training by other operatives in the US and that al-Qaeda was interested in air traffic control procedures.
Ali Mohamed pleaded guilty, but disappeared before sentencing, whereas four other defendants received life shortly after 9/11. Some of the alleged bombers are now being held in Guantanamo, where they have been declared enemy combatants, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Khallad bin Attash are to be tried for their alleged involvement in 9/11.