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The Hijackers We Let Escape
The CIA tracked two suspected terrorists to a Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000, then looked on as they re-entered America and began preparations for September 11.
Inside what may be the worst intelligence failure of all. A NEWSWEEK exclusive
By Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman
June 10 — Kuala Lumpur is an easy choice if you’re looking to lie low. Clean and modern, with reliable telephones, banks and Internet service, the Malaysian city is a painless flight from most world capitals—and Muslim visitors don’t need visas to enter the Islamic country. THAT MAY EXPLAIN WHY Al Qaeda chose the sprawling metropolis for a secret planning summit in early January 2000. Tucked away in a posh suburban condominium overlooking a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, nearly a dozen of Osama bin Laden’s trusted followers, posing as tourists, plotted future terrorist strikes against the United States.
At the time, the men had no idea that they were being closely watched—or that the CIA already knew some of their names. A few days earlier, U.S. intelligence had gotten wind of the Qaeda gathering. Special Branch, Malaysia’s security service, agreed to follow and photograph the suspected terrorists. They snapped pictures of the men sightseeing and ducking into cybercafes to check Arabic Web sites.
What happened next, some U.S. counterterrorism officials say, may be the most puzzling, and devastating, intelligence failure in the critical months before September 11. A few days after the Kuala Lumpur meeting, NEWSWEEK has learned, the CIA tracked one of the terrorists, Nawaf Alhazmi, as he flew from the meeting to Los Angeles. Agents discovered that another of the men, Khalid Almihdhar, had already obtained a multiple-entry visa that allowed him to enter and leave the United States as he pleased. (They later learned that he had in fact arrived in the United States on the same flight as Alhazmi.)
Yet astonishingly, the CIA did nothing with this information. Agency officials didn’t tell the INS, which could have turned them away at the border, nor did they notify the FBI, which could have covertly tracked them to find out their mission. Instead, during the year and nine months after the CIA identified them as terrorists, Alhazmi and Almihdhar lived openly in the United States, using their real names, obtaining driver’s licenses, opening bank accounts and enrolling in flight schools—until the morning of September 11, when they walked aboard American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon.
Until now, the many questions about intelligence shortcomings leading up to the attacks have focused on the FBI’s clear failure to connect various vague clues that might have put them on the trail of the terrorists. Last week, in the aftermath of Minnesota agent Coleen Rowley’s scathing letter ripping the FBI for ignoring warnings from the field, Director Robert Mueller announced a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the bureau.
All along, however, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center—base camp for the agency’s war on bin Laden—was sitting on information that could have led federal agents right to the terrorists’ doorstep. Almihdhar and Alhazmi, parading across America in plain sight, could not have been easier to find. NEWSWEEK has learned that when Almihdhar’s visa expired, the State Department, not knowing any better, simply issued him a new one in June 2001—even though by then the CIA had linked him to one of the suspected bombers of the USS Cole in October 2000. The two terrorists’ frequent meetings with the other September 11 perpetrators could have provided federal agents with a road map to the entire cast of 9-11 hijackers.
But the FBI didn’t know it was supposed to be looking for them until three weeks before the strikes, when CIA Director George Tenet, worried an attack was imminent, ordered agency analysts to review their files. It was only then, on Aug. 23, 2001, that the agency sent out an all-points bulletin, launching law-enforcement agents on a frantic and futile search for the two men. Why didn’t the CIA share its information sooner? “We could have done a lot better, that’s for sure,” one top intelligence official told NEWSWEEK.
The CIA’s belated and reluctant admission now makes it impossible to avoid the question that law-enforcement officials have tried to duck for weeks: could we have stopped them? Tenet has vigorously defended his agency’s performance in the months before the attacks. In February he told a Senate panel that he was “proud” of the CIA’s record. He insisted that the terrorist strikes were not due to a “failure of attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort—and the American people need to understand that.” Yet last week intelligence officials acknowledged that the agency made at least one mistake: failing to notify the State Department and the INS, so the men could have been stopped at the border.
AT A LOSS
CIA officials, who have been preparing for the start of Senate intelligence committee hearings this week, seem at a loss to explain how this could have happened. The CIA is usually loath to share information with other government agencies, for fear of compromising “sources and methods.”
CIA officials also say that at the time Almihdhar and Alhazmi entered the country in January 2000, they hadn’t yet been identified as bin Laden terrorists—despite their attendance at the Malaysia meeting. “It wasn’t known for sure that they were Al Qaeda bad-guy operators,” says one official.
CIA officials also pointout that FBI agents assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center were at least informed about the Malaysia meeting and the presence of Almihdhar and Alhazmi at the time it occurred. But FBI officials protest that they only recently learned about the most crucial piece of information: that the CIA knew Alhazmi was in the country, and that Almihdhar could enter at will. “That was unforgivable,” said one senior FBI official. This led to a series of intense and angry encounters among U.S. officials in the weeks after September 11. At one White House meeting last fall, Wayne Griffith, a top State Department consular official, was so furious that his office hadn’t been told about the two men that he blew up at a CIA agent.
(Griffith declined to comment.)
To bolster their case, FBI officials have now prepared a detailed chart showing how agents could have uncovered the terrorist plot if they had learned about Almihdhar and Alhazmi sooner, given their frequent contact with at least five of the other hijackers. “There’s no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together,” the official said.
GETTING A BREAK
It was old-fashioned interrogation and eavesdropping that first led U.S. intelligence agents to the Qaeda plotters. In the summer of 1998, only a couple of weeks after bin Laden operatives truck-bombed two U.S. Embassies in Africa, the FBI got a break: one of the Nairobi bombers had been caught. Muhammad Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, a young Saudi from a wealthy family who became a fierce bin Laden loyalist, was supposed to have killed himself in the blast. Instead, he got out of the truck at the last moment and fled. He was arrested in a seedy Nairobi hotel, waiting for his compatriots to smuggle him out of the country.
Questioned by the FBI, al-Owhali made a detailed confession. Among the information he gave agents was the telephone number of a Qaeda safe house in Yemen, owned by a Yemeni bin Laden loyalist named Ahmed Al-Hada (who, it turns out, was also Almihdhar’s father-in-law).
U.S. intelligence began listening in on the telephone line of the Yemen house, described in government documents as a Qaeda “logistics center,” where terrorist strikes—including the Africa bombings and later the Cole attack in Yemen—were planned. Operatives around the world phoned Al-Hada with information, which was then relayed to bin Laden in the Afghan mountains.
In late December 1999, intercepted conversations on the Yemen phone tipped off agents to the January 2000 Kuala Lumpur summit, and to the names of at least two of its participants: Almihdhar and Alhazmi. The condo where the meeting took place was a weekend getaway owned by Yazid Sufaat, a U.S.-educated microbiologist who had become a radical Islamist and bin Laden follower. He was arrested last December when he returned from Afghanistan, where he had served as a field medic for the Taliban.
Sufaat’s lawyer says his client let the men stay at his place because “he believes in allowing his property to be used for charitable purposes.” But he claims Sufaat had no idea that they were terrorists.
‘THERE WAS NO SHOW OF CONCERN’
After the meeting, Malaysian intelligence continued to watch the condo at the CIA’s request, but after a while the agency lost interest. Had agents kept up the surveillance, they might have observed another beneficiary of Sufaat’s charity: Zacarias Moussaoui, who stayed there on his way to the United States later that year. The Malaysians say they were surprised by the CIA’s lack of interest following the Kuala Lumpur meeting. “We couldn’t fathom it, really,” Rais Yatim, Malaysia’s Legal Affairs minister, told NEWSWEEK. “There was no show of concern.”
Immediately after the meeting, Alhazmi boarded a plane to Bangkok, where he met a connecting flight to Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. Since the CIA hadn’t told the State Department to put his name on the watch list of suspected terrorists, or told the INS to be on the lookout for him, he breezed through the airport and into America. Almihdhar was also on the plane, though CIA agents did not know it at the time.
The CIA is forbidden from spying on people inside the United States. Had it followed standard procedure and passed the baton to the FBI once they crossed the border, agents would have discovered that Almihdhar and Alhazmi weren’t just visiting California, they were already living there. The men had moved into an apartment in San Diego two months before the Kuala Lumpur meeting.
The CIA’s reluctance to divulge what it knew is especially odd because, as 2000 dawned, U.S. law-enforcement agencies were on red alert, certain that a bin Laden strike somewhere in the world could come at any moment. There was certainly reason to believe bin Laden was sending men here to do grave harm. Just a few weeks before, an alert Customs inspector had caught another Qaeda terrorist, Ahmed Ressam, as he tried to cross the Canadian border in a rental car packed with explosives. His mission: to blow up Los Angeles airport. Perhaps agency officials let down their guard after warnings about a Millennium Eve attack never materialized. Whatever the reason, Alhazmi and Almihdhar fell off their radar screen.
FAST FOOD AND STRIP CLUBS
Free to do as they pleased, the 25-year-old Alhazmi and 26-year-old Almihdhar went about their terrorist training in southern California. They told people they were buddies from Saudi Arabia hoping to learn English and become commercial airline pilots. The cleanshaven Alhazmi and Almihdhar played soccer in the park with other Muslim men and prayed the required five times a day at the area mosque. They bought season passes to Sea World and dined on fast food, leaving the burger wrappers strewn around their sparsely furnished apartment. And, despite their religious convictions, the men frequented area strip clubs. Neighbors found it odd that the men would rarely use the telephones in their apartment. Instead, they routinely went outside to make calls on mobile phones.
People who knew the men recall that they couldn’t have been more different. Alhazmi was outgoing and cheerful, making friends easily. He once posted an ad online seeking a Mexican mail-order bride, and worked diligently to improve his English. By contrast, Almihdhar was dark and brooding, and expressed disgust with American culture. One evening, he chided a Muslim acquaintance for watching “immoral” American television. “If you’re so religious, why don’t you have facial hair?” the friend shot back. Almihdhar patted him condescendingly on the knee. “You’ll know someday, brother,” he said.
Neither man lost sight of the primary mission: learning to fly airplanes. Almihdhar and Alhazmi took their flight lessons seriously, but they were impossible to teach.
Instructor Rick Garza at Sorbi’s Flying Club gave both men a half-dozen classes on the ground before taking them up in a single-engine Cessna in May. “They were only interested in flying big jets,” Garza recalls. But Garza soon gave up on his hapless students. “I just thought they didn’t have the aptitude,” he says. “They were like Dumb and Dumber.”
Had law-enforcement agents been looking for Alhazmi and Almihdhar at the time, they could have easily tracked them through bank records. In September 2000, Alhazmi opened a $3,000 checking account at a Bank of America branch. The men also used their real names on driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and credit cards. When Almihdhar bought a dark blue 1988 Toyota Corolla for $3,000 cash, he registered it in his name. (He later signed the registration over to Alhazmi, whose name was on the papers when the car was found at Dulles International Airport on September 11.) Of course, agents might have used another resource to pinpoint their location: the phone book. Page 13 of the 2000-2001 Pacific Bell White Pages contains a listing for “ALHAZMI Nawaf M 6401 Mount Ada Rd. 858-279-5919.”
LOST IN THE FILES
By then, though, the case seems to have gotten lost deep in the CIA’s files. But Almihdhar’s name and face surfaced yet again, in the aftermath of the October 2000 bombing of the Cole. Within days of the attack, a team of FBI agents flew to Yemen to investigate. They soon began closing in on suspects. One was a man called Tawfiq bin Attash, a.k.a. Khallad, a fierce, one-legged Qaeda fighter.
When analysts at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Va., pulled out the file on Khallad, they discovered pictures of him taken at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. In one of the shots, he is standing next to Almihdhar. If, as the CIA now claims, it wasn’t certain that Almihdhar had terrorist connections, it certainly knew it now. And yet the agency still did nothing and notified no one.
In mid- to late 2000, Almihdhar left San Diego for good. It appears that he spent the next several months bouncing around the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
While he was away, his visa expired—a potentially big problem. Yet since the CIA was still not sharing information about Almihdhar’s Qaeda connections, the State Department’s Consular Office in Saudi Arabia simply rubber-stamped him a new one.
Almihdhar returned to the United States on July 4, 2001, flying into New York. He spent at least some of the time leading up to September traveling around the East Coast and, at least once, meeting with Mohamed Atta and other September 11 plotters in Las Vegas.
A TICKET FOR SPEEDING
Meanwhile, Alhazmi, having flunked out of two California flight schools, decided to try his luck in Phoenix in early 2001. There he hooked up with another Qaeda terrorist in training, Hani Hanjour, who eventually piloted Flight 77. In April 2001 Alhazmi headed east, and was pulled over for speeding. Oklahoma State Trooper C. L. Parkins ran Alhazmi’s California driver’s license through the computer, checked to see if the car was stolen and made sure there wasn’t a warrant out for Alhazmi’s arrest. When nothing came up, he issued the terrorist two tickets, totaling $138, and sent him on his way. (The tickets were not discovered until after 9-11.) Like Almihdhar, Alhazmi eventually went east, spending time in New Jersey and Maryland. On Aug. 25, he used his credit card to purchase two tickets for Flight 77.
Two days earlier, CIA officials finally, and frantically, awoke to their mistake. That summer, as U.S. intelligence picked up repeated signals that bin Laden was about to launch a major assault, Tenet ordered his staff to scrub the agency’s files, looking for anything that might help them thwart whatever was coming. It didn’t take long to discover the file on Almihdhar and Alhazmi. CIA officials checked with the INS, only to discover that Almihdhar had traveled out of the country, and was allowed back in on his new visa. On Aug. 23, the CIA sent out an urgent cable, labeled IMMEDIATE, to the State Department, Customs, INS and FBI, telling them to put the two men on the terrorism watch list.
The FBI began an aggressive, “full field” investigation. Agents searched all nine Marriott hotels in New York City, the place Almihdhar had listed as his “destination” on his immigration forms in July. They also searched hotels in Los Angeles, where the two men originally entered the country back in 1999. But it’s unclear whether agents scoured public records for driver’s licenses and phone numbers or tried to track plane-ticket purchases. In preparation for their mission, the men had gone to ground.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT
Now, amid the escalating blame wars in Washington, federal agents are left to wonder how different things might have been if they’d started that search nearly two years before. The FBI’s claim that it could have unraveled the plot by watching Alhazmi and Almihdhar, and connecting the dots between them and the other terrorists, seems compelling.
The links would not have been difficult to make:
Alhazmi met up with Hanjour, the Flight 77 pilot, in Phoenix in late 2000; six months later, in May 2001, the two men showed up in New Jersey and opened shared bank accounts with two other plotters, Ahmed Alghamdi and Majed Moqed. The next month, Alhazmi helped two other hijackers, Salem Alhazmi (his brother) and Abdulaziz Alomari, open their own bank accounts. Two months after that, in August 2001, the trail would have led to the plot’s ringleader, Mohamed Atta, who had bought plane tickets for Moqed and Alomari. What’s more, at least several of the hijackers had traveled to Las Vegas for a meeting in summer 2001, just weeks before the attacks. “It’s like three degrees of separation,” insists an FBI official.
But would even that have been enough? There’s no doubt that Alhazmi and Almihdhar could have been stopped from coming into the country if the CIA had shared its information with other agencies. But then two other hijackers could have been sent to take their place. And given how little the FBI understood Al Qaeda’s way of operating—and how it managed to mishandle the key clues it did have—it’s possible that agents could have identified all 19 hijackers and still not figured out what they were up to.
That, one former FBI official suggests, could have led to the cruelest September 11 scenario of all: “We would have had the FBI watching them get on the plane in Boston and calling Los Angeles,” he says. ” ‘Could you pick them up on the other end?’ ”
With Mark Hosenball, Tamara Lipper and Eleanor Clift in Washington, Andrew Murr and Jamie Reno in San Diego
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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