An FBI informant knew that one of the 9/11 hijackers breached the terms of his visa by working illegally, according to a 9/11 Commission document released by the National Archives at the start of the year. The document, a memo on the interview of the informer, Abdussattar Shaikh, was found in the archives by History Commons contributor paxvector and posted to the History Commons site at Scribd.
The memo shows that:
- Shaikh knew that one of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi, worked illegally in the US. According to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the job was at a gas station run by people who the FBI had investigated over terrorism links.
- He knew Alhazmi was interested in news about the war in Chechnya, and became angry when the Russians did well.
- Instead of using the apartment phone, Alhazmi and Almihdhar would drive to another neighbourhood to use a pay phone, apparently a vain attempt to avoid NSA surveillance.
- Alhazmi correctly figured out that one of their acquaintances, Omar al-Bayoumi, was a Saudi spy who kept tabs on the local community.
Despite this, the information Shaikh provided to the FBI about Alhazmi and his partner Khalid Almihdhar before 9/11 was cursory, not even stretching to their last names. This new information raises questions over whether he should have suspected more and told his handler more about them.
Shaikh rented a room to Alhazmi and Almihdhar in San Diego from late April or early May 2000 until 10 June. Almihdhar left at that time to go back to Yemen, where he may have played a role in the bombing of the USS Cole, but Alhazmi remained in California at Shaikh’s house until December.
Shaikh’s role was discussed by the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report, the Justice Department inspector general’s report, and the 9/11 Commission report. None of them used his real name, although he was named in numerous media reports beginning in September 2001.
According to the Congressional Inquiry report, when Shaikh was interviewed by the FBI after the attacks, he told them that he “observed no signs that they [Alhazmi and Almihdhar] were involved in terrorist activity,” and that they “did not act in a peculiar manner and did nothing to arouse the informant’s suspicions.”
Shaikh’s control agent, Steve Butler, told the inquiry, “[D]uring…a debriefing in the summer of 2000 the informant told me that the informant met two individuals the informant described as good Muslim Saudi youths who were legally in the United States to visit and attend school. According to the informant, they were religious and not involved in criminal or political activities.”
This may have been true at the time Shaikh said it to Butler, but the 9/11 Commission memo makes it clear Shaikh later learned Alhazmi had breached the terms of his visa.
After Alhazmi got a job at the Texaco gas station Sam’s Star Mart in the autumn of 2000, according to the memo, Shaikh became “disturbed” because he knew Alhazmi did not have a work permit. He was worried that the INS would find out, and that this would “reflect negatively” on him. Shaikh therefore warned Alhazmi, but he was unconcerned because several illegal workers were already employed at the gas station. In the end, Shaikh simply told Alhazmi not to discuss his employment at the gas station with him.
This invalidated Shaikh’s original reason for not telling the FBI more about Alhazmi–that Alhazmi was in the US legally–but there is no record of it spurring him to tell Butler more.
The gas station was owned by Osama Mustafa and run by Ed Salamah, both of whom were investigated by the FBI over suspected terrorism links, although it is unclear what Shaikh knew of this at the time. Shaikh also later told the bureau that Alhazmi and Almihdhar associated with other persons of interest for counterterrorism reasons, including Saudi spy al-Bayoumi, Saudi religious leader Fahad al-Thumairy, and an imam named Anwar Aulaqi. The Congressional Inquiry report points out that, “Four of the persons had been the subject of FBI investigations; three of them had been under active FBI investigation during the time that the future hijackers were in San Diego.”
Implications for FBI
Had the FBI known of the visa infringement, it would have been able to arrest Alhazmi before the attacks and possibly deport him. After the CIA finally informed the bureau in late August 2001 that Alhazmi and Almihdhar, known al-Qaeda operatives, had entered the US, the FBI realised the two men were linked to the USS Cole bombing and began to look for them, but the search was assigned a low priority because it was incorrectly opened as an intelligence case. If the bureau had known of the visa infringement, this would have been another reason to run it as a criminal case, and the two men possibly found and the attacks prevented.
One of the hijackers’ associates, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested by the FBI’s Minneapolis office in mid-August on an immigration violation, possibly depriving the plot of one member. Several of the other hijackers broke the law in the US. For example, Satam al Suqami overstayed his one-month business visa and alleged plot-leader Mohamed Atta was cited for driving without a valid license; a warrant for his arrest was issued when he failed to show up in court.
Perhaps more importantly, if the FBI had been made aware of Alhazmi’s presence in San Diego, it could have demanded information from the CIA and NSA more aggressively. These two agencies had been monitoring Alhazmi and Almihdhar since at least early 1999, but withheld almost everything they learned from the bureau.
This discrepancy in Shaikh’s story is not mentioned in any of three reports that discuss him. It is unclear whether the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Congressional Inquiry knew of it, as he declined interview requests and their information about him was drawn from previous FBI interviews. However, the commission clearly did know of it. It not only failed to mention Shaikh knew of the visa infringement in its final report, but, judging by the memo, neither of the investigators present at the interview, team leader Dieter Snell and staffer Thomas Tamm, raised the issue with Shaikh.
The interview was also attended by three minders, two lawyers acting for Shaikh named Charles G. La Bella and George C. loannide, as well as an FBI special agent whose name is redacted in the memo.
Attempt to Avoid NSA Surveillance
Shaikh’s curiosity was further aroused at the start of their stay by the two hijackers’ telephone usage. The memo says:
[Shaikh] did notice that neither Alhazmi nor Almihdhar ever made telephone calls from his ([Shaikh’s]) telephone. When he asked both of them if they ever called home, they said that they did but that they used pay telephones. Alhazmi stated, “We go outside to use the telephone.” [Shaikh] noted that they would have to drive from the neighborhood to use a pay telephone.
This was presumably an attempt to evade surveillance by the NSA, which had been monitoring the two men since at least early 1999, possibly as far back as 1996. It was an NSA intercept of a call to Almihdhar, who lived with his family at al-Qaeda’s global operations centre in Yemen, that sparked CIA-led surveillance of the two men and assorted al-Qaeda leaders in Malaysia around the Millennium.
The hijackers’ calls to the operations centre in Yemen were intercepted by the NSA, although it failed to trace the US end and break up the plot, for which shifting explanations have been offered. This failure was later repeatedly cited by former President Bush and other leading officials as the justification for the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping programme after the story broke in late 2005.
The calls to the operations centre would have been intercepted no matter whether they were made from Shaikh’s apartment or a pay phone outside. However, if different payphones were used, then this would have prevented the NSA from mapping the two men’s other contacts, or at least made this more difficult.
The operations centre played a central role in the 1998 African embassy bombings and, according to former FBI director Louis Freeh, an “integral role” in the bureau’s investigation of the attack on the USS Cole, which occurred in Yemen in October 2000.
Before moving in with Shaikh, the two men did use their apartment phone for a call to the operations hub on at least one occasion. On 20 March the phone, which was registered to Alhazmi under his real name, was used to place a call to the hub that lasted over 16 minutes.
One of the hijackers’ associates in San Diego was Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who appears to have been linked to Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus. Al-Bayoumi was investigated by the FBI over his Saudi links, but the bureau dropped the inquiry in July 1999 for reasons the Congressional Inquiry called “unclear.”
The memo makes it clear that both Shaikh and Alhazmi shared the FBI’s suspicions:
Alhazmi did not like al-Bayoumi and told [Shaikh] that al-Bayoumi was “an agent for the Saudis.” Alhazmi complained to [Shaikh] that al-Bayoumi video taped people associated with the ICSD [a San Diego mosque] constantly. [Shaikh] noted that was his experience when he attended events at the ICSD. [Shaikh] said that al-Bayoumi always had his videotape recorder and sought comment to the open mike on the videotape recorder. [Shaikh] stated that, “I have heard that al-Bayoumi is an agent (of the Saudis).”
Later on, it adds:
[Shaikh] knows that al-Bayoumi asked [redacted] to help him obtain a “Green Card.” [Shaikh] cautioned [redacted] against helping al-Bayoumi because [Shaikh] believed that he (al-Bayoumi) was an intelligence agent.
The relationship between Saudi intelligence and the hijackers remains murky. Former ambassador to the US Prince Bandar said in 2007 that the Saudis followed some of the hijackers “with precision.” According to author James Bamford’s latest book, The Shadow Factory, one method the Saudis used was the surreptitious placement of markers of terrorist affiliation in their passports, which allowed them to be tracked. The 9/11 Commission found that Almihdhar and fellow Flight 77 hijacker Salem Alhazmi had such markers, and there was “reason to believe” three more, including Nawaf Alhazmi and two Flight 93 hijackers, also did.
Interest in Chechnya
In addition, the memo points out other reasons Shaikh was suspicious of the two hijackers:
- According to Shaikh, Alhazmi was especially interested in news when it related to Chechnya and he said Alhazmi became visibly upset when there was news of Russian victories. Alhazmi and Almihdhar had both fought in Bosnia, and also possibly Chechnya.
- Shaikh mentioned to the commission that “Alhazmi and Almihdhar seemed ‘secretive’ on occasion.”
- Although the two hijackers said they were from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Shaikh suspected Almihdhar was from Yemen, “because he had the ethnic characteristics of a Yemeni.”
- They did not tell Shaikh the history of their friendship, although this was “customary among Arabs.”
Coupled with what was already known, the fact that Shaikh knew Alhazmi was working illegally raises questions about whether Shaikh should have alerted Butler to Alhazmi in the autumn of 2000, and whether he was entitled to the $100,000 the FBI paid him in July 2003 for services he originally agreed to perform free of charge.