One of the main arguments used by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a key speech on 4 October 2001 that held al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 was that one of the 19 hijackers “has also been identified as playing key roles in both the East African Embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack.”
Two days later, the New York Times identified the mystery hijacker “as Mr. Almihdhar. United States investigators said they had clearly linked Mr. Almihdhar to the Cole attack and ‘possibly’ to the embassy bombings, senior American government officials said today.”
So what was Khalid Almihdhar’s role in the USS Cole bombing? Was it a “key” role, as Tony Blair claimed? And how come a known al-Qaeda operative managed to evade surveillance, help blow up a destroyer, then enter the US and fly a plane into the Pentagon?
This is all the more interesting in the light of recent revelations (original here) that the CIA had protected Almihdhar and his partner Nawaf Alhazmi from the FBI in January 2000. There are some very pertinent questions that need to be asked here: If he had not been protected by the CIA, would the Cole bombing have occurred? Was he still being protected at the time of the bombing? And were any of the other Cole bombers protected by the CIA (as well as by the Yemenis)?
Despite these numerous questions, here I would only like to focus on evidence of Almihdhar’s involvement in the Cole bombing and other ship-bombing operations planned by al-Qaeda. There is quite a lot of evidence indicating his involvement.
(1) A largely redacted passage in the 9/11 Congressional inquiry report indicates that Almihdhar spoke on the phone to Khallad bin Attash, one of the Cole bombing masterminds, in mid-1999. This call was monitored by the NSA.
(2) According to a detainee, Almihdhar was aware of a ship bombing operation by December 1999 and knew the plan had been conceived by Cole bombing mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The 9/11 Commission Report says, “A detainee says that 9/11 hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar told him about the maritime operation sometime in late 1999 and credited Nashiri as its originator.” Obviously, the plot at this point was not to attack the Cole, but the USS Sullivans. This attack was attempted in early January 2000 and failed. The 9/11 Commission credits this information to “Intelligence report, interrogation of detainee, Dec. 2, 2001.” Concerns have been raised about the methods used to extract information from detainees, and it should be borne in mind that this may make the information unreliable.
(3) In late 1999, Almihdhar attended, or at least began to attend a training course for al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. The course was also attended by fellow Pentagon hijacker Alhazmi, bin Attash and one of the eventual Cole bombers, Ibrahim al-Thawar. Although the caveat on detainee information applies, the existence of the course was confirmed by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), bin Attash and Abu Jandal, a militant held by the authorities in Yemen, where he was questioned by the FBI.
(4) Perhaps a month before the failed attack on the Sullivans in Aden, Yemen, Almihdhar travelled to Yemen. Although Almihdhar was a Saudi national, he lived in Yemen with his family, so there may be an innocent explanation for this. However, when detainees were asked to explain why Almihdhar went to Yemen at this time instead of attending/finishing the scheduled training course in Afghanistan they gave differing explanations. According to endnote 50 on page 493 of the 9/11 Commission Report, KSM claimed that Almihdhar couldn’t take the course and quit after a week, bin Attash claimed that Almihdhar was both pulled out early by Osama bin Laden and completed the course, and Abu Jandal claimed that Almihdhar completed the course. These differing explanations may be because the operatives are trying to hide something. It is possible that they are aware that Almihdhar’s participation in the attack on the Sullivans would implicate someone else and they want to protect that someone else.
(5) While in Yemen, Almihdhar spent some time with his family in San’a, the capital. His family included Ahmed al-Hada, his father-in-law and a top al-Qaeda operative. Al-Hada ran a communications hub for bin Laden and facilitated the passing of messages to and from operatives in various parts of the world (this communications hub had been under NSA surveillance since the mid-1990s). An investigator later told MSNBC that the hub’s phone was used to “put everything together” before the Cole bombing, and US News and World Report also reported it was used as a “planning center” for the Cole attack. It is therefore possible that the hub was used by the conspirators before the Sullivans bombing, as it was by the African embassy bombers.
(6) Bin Attash, an alleged mastermind of the operation, telephoned Almihdhar shortly before the attempted bombing of the Sullivans. They talked about meeting early in the New Year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The NSA monitored this call.
(8) Almihdhar then met numerous other al-Qaeda operatives involved in the failed attack on the Sullivans and the subsequent attack on the Cole at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. The summit’s attendees included bin Attash and al-Nashiri, the two operatives credited with being the operation’s masterminds. Three other operatives involved in the operation are also said to have been present: KSM, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Fahad al-Quso.
(11) In June 2000, Almihdhar left the US and returned to the communications hub in Yemen. According to the 9/11 Commission, this was because he wanted to see his second child, of which he had been informed by his wife in calls made from the hub (it is unclear how the 9/11 Commission would know this; the calls were intercepted by the NSA, but there is no record of the 9/11 Commission viewing any documents related to these NSA intercepts or talking to anybody about them).
(12) Almihdhar then received a call from bin Attash and went to see KSM. This is based on detainee information, so the caveat about such information applies, although there is other information to suggest Almihdhar was travelling in Asia at this time.
(13) When the Cole was bombed, Almihdhar was in Yemen, and left shortly after.
(14) Almihdhar visited Malaysia in October 2000 to discuss a third ship bombing operation, to be carried out in Singapore, with a local operative.
(15) He visited Malaysia again for the same purpose in June 2001.
The CIA was obviously highly aware of his links to the bombing, see for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. There is more, but too much to list, check the Alhazmi and Almihdhar category from May 2000 on.
Does this constitute smoking gun proof of Almihdhar’s involvement in the attack on the Cole? I guess that depends on your definition of “smoking gun,” but, at the very least, it is an impressive list of circumstantial evidence.