Operation Challenge and the Manchester Manual
July 1999. “We’ve got one more important order of business,” said Tom Donlon, the I-40 squad leader. We had finished reviewing some operations we were running. Everything from the agenda had been covered, so I turned to Tom, curious about what he might have to say.
“It’s Ali’s birthday today,” he continued, looking at me with a smile, and on cue the squad broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and cupcakes were pulled out from where they had been hidden under the table.
As we were about to start eating, there was a knock at the door, and Tom Lang, the supervisor of the I-49 squad, stuck his head into the room. “I need to speak to you, Ali,” he said quietly. I was still splitting my time between the two squads, and Tom Lang was my I-49 boss.
“Happy birthday, Ali,” Tom Donlon said with a grin. “It looks like we’ll have to have the party without you.”
I followed Tom Lang into the hallway. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve got a big problem. The British are about to release Khalid al-Fawwaz, Adel Abdel Bary, and Ibrahim Eidarous, the al-Qaeda and EIJ leaders in London.”
Well-known Islamists and members of EIJ’s shura council, Bary and Eidarous had moved to London in 1996–97, signaling the growing importance of the city as a base for the terrorist movement. Al-Qaeda and EIJ were working toward a merger, and the two groups shared personnel, office space, and equipment. But they still had separate command structures; the EIJ shura council had not yet approved the merger, something Zawahiri was pushing hard for. Bary, appointed by Zawahiri in May 1996 to lead EIJ’s London cell, had subsequently been demoted to deputy with the arrival, in September 1997, of Eidarous. Former head of EIJ in Europe, Eidarous had been stationed in Baku, Azerbaijan, before the move to London.
Fawwaz was living in London as a Saudi dissident, having claimed political asylum in the UK. London was the ideal place for Fawwaz to operate, bin Laden had decided: almost every news outlet in the world had representation there, and the British authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the activity of Islamist radicals as long as they didn’t pose an obvious threat. This unofficial policy had earned London the name “Londonistan” from frustrated French intelligence officials and had brought scorn from law enforcement and intelligence services around the world. The policy wasn’t even popular among many in the UK security services, especially within Scotland Yard. The Anti-Terrorism Branch of the police, SO13, had been monitoring al-Qaeda and EIJ operatives and understood the threat they posed. However, Scotland Yard was overruled.
Although we had urged the British to arrest Fawwaz, Bary, and Eidarous in 1996, they had refused. As the men had done nothing but communicate with people the United States found “problematic,” and as they were not directly connected to terrorist attacks, there had been no evidence to support arresting them at that point. They had finally been arrested following the East African embassy bombings, based upon evidence of their connection to the attacks provided by the FBI.
“The British just told us that a judge said they don’t have enough evidence to keep them locked up anymore,” Tom said to me.
“What do you mean? There are piles of evidence—enough to keep them locked up for life. I’ve spent the last couple of months decoding documents and sending files to London with evidence for them to use.”
“I know, I know,” Tom said, shaking his head, “the fault isn’t on our end, but somehow the ball has been dropped, and now the British are saying that we’ve got twenty-four hours to make the case for continuing to hold them or they’ll have to release them.” Tom explained that assistant U.S. attorneys Ken Karas and Pat Fitzgerald were expecting Dan Coleman, senior FBI agent Jack Cloonan, and me to meet them at the Southern District offices to put together a complaint to be filed in the UK requesting the extradition of the three men.
“I see. So we have to have them arrested again based on new evidence, and use that for the extradition case?”
“As long as they remain in jail, I don’t care how you manage it. But those guys are dangerous and can’t be released.”
It was an open secret that anyone who wanted to reach bin Laden could do so by going through Fawwaz. When Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett interviewed bin Laden for CNN in 1997—his first interview with a Western media outlet—they went through Fawwaz. Documents that we later found in Fawwaz’s office described the process of bringing the two journalists to meet bin Laden. They were taken to Afghanistan by an associate of Fawwaz’s, Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian known among jihadists as a prolific writer and strategist; his real name is Mustafa Setmariam. In Afghanistan, Abu Musab handed them over to Saif al-Adel, a member of al-Qaeda’s military committee, who ran a series of “security checks,” including scanning them with a handheld metal detector to check if they were carrying weapons or had any tracking devices. Abu Musab’s notes report that the scanner didn’t work but that Saif al-Adel thought it was important to make the CNN crew think it did. Saif al-Adel, bin Laden, and other al-Qaeda members later joked with each other about having fooled Bergen and Arnett.
The notes record that on this trip Abu Musab asked bin Laden for details about certain operations and that bin Laden was not forthcoming. “I can’t share this with you,” he said, “as you are in the enemy’s belly.” Later Abu Musab left Europe and returned to Afghanistan.
When John Miller interviewed bin Laden in 1998—almost two months before the East African embassy bombings—he, too, first traveled to London to meet Fawwaz, who, with an associate, assisted the ABC team in traveling to Islamabad and from there to Afghanistan, where bin Laden awaited them. It was also from Fawwaz’s London office that bin Laden had sent missives denouncing the Saudi royal family for having allowed U.S. troops into the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Laden’s vitriolic statements targeted Sheikh bin Baz (Abd al-Aziz bin Baz), the official head of all Saudi clerics. Bin Laden denounced bin Baz’s 1990 fatwa, which specified that foreign troops should be permitted in the kingdom.
On August 6, 1998, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, which is distributed around the world, published a message from EIJ and Zawahiri: “We wish to inform the Americans that their message has been received, and we are preparing our answer, with the help of God, in the only language they will understand.” The following day, the East African embassies were blown up.
Zawahiri was referring to a raid a month earlier, in Albania, during which Albanian authorities, aided by the United States, had arrested members of an EIJ cell. The raid was conducted following intelligence reports that the cell was planning an attack on U.S. interests in Albania. The operatives were handed over to the Egyptian authorities, as they were wanted in Egypt for their involvement in a series of terrorist attacks, and tried along with others captured elsewhere. (Still others—such as Eidarous and Abdel Bary—were tried in absentia.) The case was named Returnees from Albania, given the country of origin of a large number of the detainees.
Albania had become a favorable location for EIJ and other Egyptian Islamist terrorists, as the chaos following the fall of the communist regime—and, subsequently, the Balkan war that had begun in 1991—created perfect conditions for their operations. Because of the disorder in the country, many legitimate Islamic organizations and NGOs opened offices to help the local population, and EIJ operatives could pretend to be part of that.
Our investigation into the East African embassy bombings uncovered a lot of evidence connecting Fawwaz, Abdel Bary, and Eidarous to the attack. The satellite phone that bin Laden had used to communicate with the cell responsible for the attack, and with other al-Qaeda members around the world, had been purchased through Fawwaz for bin Laden, for example; and Fawwaz, of course, had been the original head of the Kenya cell before his transfer to London.
FBI agents were sent to London on thirty-day rotations to work with the British on the case, which Scotland Yard called Operation Challenge. John O’Neill also asked for all evidence to be sent to New York for me and the other agents in I-49 to analyze. Pat D’Amuro and John asked me to take the lead on evaluating the evidence and sending reports to London, as my knowledge of al-Qaeda, coupled with my fluency in Arabic, meant that the usual laborious process of waiting weeks for documents to be translated and then analyzed could be avoided.
On the computer in Fawwaz’s residence, we found a file entitled “The Message,” which had been created on July 31, 1996. It was an early version of bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad, which Fawwaz had sent to media outlets on August 23, 1996. He had also sent a note to the media outlets vouching for the authenticity of the fatwa’s authorship.
His phone records revealed that on February 22, 1998, he had received calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone and had contacted the offices of the London-based paper al-Quds al-Arabi. The next day, a fatwa entitled “International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders,” calling for Muslims to kill Americans and signed by bin Laden and Zawahiri, had been published in al-Quds.
In a letter dated May 7, 1998, Abu Hafs, al-Qaeda’s number-two military leader, told Fawwaz about bin Laden’s support of a fatwa by the Ulema Union of Afghanistan, declaring jihad against the United States. In his letter Abu Hafs made recommendations to Fawwaz as to where the fatwa should be published. One week later, on May 14, Fawwaz had it published in al-Quds.
We also uncovered evidence highlighting the roles Abdel Bary and Eidarous played in the terrorist network, such as a copy of the August 6, 1998, threat from Zawahiri to retaliate for the arrests in Albania, which had been received by Abdel Bary before publication. There was correspondence between Eidarous and Zawahiri linking both of them to al-Qaeda. On October 29, 1997, for example, Eidarous had asked Zawahiri to call Abdel Bary’s cell phone. The next day, several calls to the same number had been made from bin Laden’s satellite phone.
There was a letter from June 1998, in which Zawahiri stated that Eidarous was the leader of EIJ in London, and a letter from July 1998, in which Abdel Bary affirmed his commitment to EIJ and accepted that he would follow orders. We understood that he had originally voiced unhappiness that Ediarous was coming to London and replacing him as head of the London cell.
In New York we focused on sorting the evidence and following up on leads that directed us elsewhere: to Albania, Sudan, Azerbaijan, and other places. We were never told about any deadlines on the British side, and we were under the impression that the British would continue to hold the men—as the evidence was so compelling—until we were ready to begin building a criminal case.
It was therefore a shock when Tom Lang told me that the members of the London cell were about to be released. The situation in London wasn’t being helped by the thirty-day rotation schedule. Agents spent much of their time getting up to speed on the investigation rather than moving the case forward.
But when the message came through that they were about to be released, we knew that we couldn’t allow that to happen: if they were released, they’d be on the first plane to Pakistan, and from there to Afghanistan, and it would be a long time before we’d see them again. Perhaps never.
The five of us in New York—Pat, Ken, Dan, Jack, and I—spent that night, the night of my birthday, in Pat’s office going through evidence. The operatives’ use of multiple aliases complicated the process of building the case, as we had to establish their identity each time. In the trunk of Eidarous’s car, which he seemed to have used as a sort of filing cabinet for EIJ material, we had found incriminating documents under the names Abbas and Daoud, which were clearly Abdel Bary and Eidarous, respectively. To prove this, we went through the group’s phone books and cross-referenced names, aliases, and numbers. One of Pat’s greatest skills is his memory, which is almost photographic. At one point we were missing a certain piece of linking evidence, and Pat remembered that the issue had come up in the trial of the Blind Sheikh. So he went to the evidence storage area of the Southern District and located a tape with the testimony we needed, thereby establishing the connection.
By the end of the night, we had finished putting together a complaint and sent it to London. It was filed, and the British agreed to hold Fawwaz, Abdel Bary, and Eidarous. Pat D’Amuro appointed me case agent for Operation Challenge and told me to head to London, with Ken Karas, to ensure that there were no more mistakes, and that we would win the upcoming legal battle to extradite the three men to the United States for trial.
Our time in London turned out to be an extended version of that all-nighter in the Southern District: Ken and I, working with Scotland Yard detectives, combed through thousands of documents, linking names, aliases, and terrorist activities in order to make the case against the three men. At first Ken struggled to find a barrister to represent us in court in England. Someone had been recommended, and she was the first candidate Ken approached. She told him: “I’m not going to embarrass myself by taking what clearly is a losing case.” That was a prevalent attitude, and he got told no a few more times until he secured someone.
The barrister we ended up with was a talented court performer, but he had no experience dealing with terrorist cases or al-Qaeda. We had to teach him about al-Qaeda and terrorism from scratch, and even had to coach him in how to pronounce operatives’ names. On our first day in court, after successfully pronouncing “Zawahiri,” he turned to Ken and me and gave us a big smile.
Up against us was a lawyer who had made a career of representing IRA terrorists and who was known for her hostility to the British authorities, earning herself the nickname “the wicked witch.” With the arrest of al-Qaeda and EIJ members, she had decided to take up their cause. One day during the trial, Ken and I walked through the court doors with a Scotland Yard detective at the same time as the defense lawyer, and Ken, being a gentleman, stepped aside and held open the door for her. “Haven’t you done enough damage?” she asked, glaring at him, before storming through. Ken and I looked at each other in shock, and the Scotland Yard detective said, shrugging, “See what we have to deal with.”
We won the case at the magistrate level. The defense then appealed the case to the Royal Court of Justice, where we won again. The defense then appealed to the House of Lords—the highest court in Britain—and we defeated them there, too. To many in the British government, the press, and academic circles, our victory came as a great surprise. They all apparently underestimated the evidence we had amassed.
To celebrate our victory in the House of Lords, Ken, Joe Hummel, and I went out to dinner with a bunch of guys from SO13: the head of the branch, Alan Fry; his deputy, John Bunn; and a few of their colleagues. Joe Hummel, a friend from I-40, is called Joey Hamas within the bureau because of the work he did cracking down on the Palestinian terrorist group.
Alan and John had invested time, resources, and personal capital in supporting us in our investigation and in the trial—and in convincing elements of the British government supportive of the Londonistan policy to back us. The Scotland Yard officials had been criticized in many quarters for wasting their time on a “failed” case—so it was a great vindication for them, and a testament to their skills, that we all won. We simply could not have done it without our British partners’ expertise, efforts, and support.
The night began at Shepherd’s, a restaurant frequented by Members of Parliament and owned by Michael Caine, who had just won a best supporting actor Oscar. We continued our celebration in John Bunn’s office. After months of hard work and virtually no sleep we felt we deserved it, and stayed till the early hours of the morning.
“Welcome back, Ali. Well done,” John O’Neill said to me a few days later. We had just sat down to dinner at Cité.
“Thanks, boss. It was tough, but it was worthwhile—obviously in terms of us winning the case, but also because of what I learned about al-Qaeda and its global network.”
“That’s very good,” John said. “Al-Qaeda is one of the greatest threats that we’ll face in the future—despite the fact that most in the U.S. government don’t, or won’t, recognize it yet. So I’m glad that you’re at least building up the skills that will be needed in the long fight ahead.”
The thousands of documents, letters, and pieces of communications that we had analyzed to build the case against the London cell had given me a deep understanding of how al-Qaeda and EIJ operated and of their internal dynamics. This would later prove to be an invaluable aid both in our investigations into the group and when conducting interviews and interrogations of its members.
We had learned that within EIJ there was opposition from members of the shura council to Zawahiri’s quest for EIJ to merge formally with al-Qaeda. Those members wanted EIJ to stick to its original aim of toppling the Egyptian regime, and not to take up bin Laden’s cause of global jihad. One member of the council, Hani al-Sibai, for example, wrote a letter to Zawahiri warning that if EIJ joined al-Qaeda and took bin Laden’s funding he would eventually control them. “He who owns my food owns my decisions,” Sibai wrote.
Our investigation had also uncovered leads pointing to EIJ and al-Qaeda operations in other countries. We had learned that the head of EIJ’s shura council was based in Yemen, and that there were cells in Italy, Albania, and Azerbaijan. (One letter we uncovered detailed an attempt by Eidarous to buy a farm in Azerbaijan, which was known to have a good weapons laboratory.) I had traveled to London thinking that there was one case to solve, but returned to New York with a host of new leads to follow up on.
During dinner John and I also discussed what it was like working with Scotland Yard. John knew the famous British law enforcement outfit well from the time he had spent in London. Like John, I returned from England with a favorable impression. I had bonded with the SO13 guys and had enjoyed working alongside them.
Often when we worked in foreign countries a challenge we faced was dealing with local officials whose methods of collecting evidence and conducting interrogations didn’t match our standards—which risked rendering evidence and confessions inadmissible in U.S. courts. Evidence needs to be logged as soon as it is recovered and a chain of custody maintained—that is, it must be established that the evidence has been in the custody of a trustworthy, identifiable person from the time of recovery, with a member of a law enforcement agency present. These individuals have to be prepared to testify in court—as such, they cannot be undercover agents—and it must be shown that there was no chance of the evidence’s having been tainted. The requirements are the same in the UK, so we faced no problems.
While we were in London I saw that Scotland Yard, with its focus on tracking, apprehending, and convicting terrorists, had problems with MI5, the British internal intelligence service. One day, after we had successfully wrapped up Operation Challenge, Joe Hummel arranged for Ken and me to brief MI5. Joe told us that they were especially interested in the al-Qaeda–EIJ network in the UK and how it connected with other cells around the world. SO13 officers accompanied us to MI5 headquarters, and we gave a thorough briefing. During the question-and-answer session that followed, an MI5 official told me: “What you’ve said about what’s going on the UK is very detailed. Much of it is new to us. How do you know about all of this?” His question and tone implied that he thought we were running our own operations in their backyard without coordinating with British authorities.
“Most of this information,” I said, “is from the great work that SO13 has been doing.”
The SO13 officers in the room couldn’t hide their smiles, and after we left they told us that all the intelligence from Operation Challenge had been given to MI5 but that they hadn’t even looked at it. They had assumed that, because it came from law enforcement, it wasn’t worth analyzing.
“That’s a problem between law enforcement and intelligence agencies across the world, to varying degrees,” John said after I’d described the exchange, “and I fear that it’s a growing problem here in the United States. I’ve been warning about it, but I’m not sure people are paying attention.”
“It’s a dangerous attitude,” I said. “Don’t they realize we’re all on the same side?”
John shook his head and said, “Some people don’t get it.”
A few months later I had a similar experience with the CIA after receiving a complaint from them that we hadn’t shared the intelligence on “al-Qaeda’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program.” We replied that all such information was contained in the Jamal al-Fadl and Operation Challenge files on the uranium fiasco, and that those files were in their possession. There was no real WMD program.
In 1999, a few weeks after I had returned from London, I was having lunch at my desk and Tom Lang, the I-49 supervisor, came and sat beside me. “Ali,” Tom said, “I need you to go to Albania. The CIA is running some operations there and they need your help, given your experience with al-Qaeda and EIJ’s European network.”
“When do I need to leave?”
“In a few hours.”
“Thank God I’m single. I’ll go pack my things.”
The East African embassy bombings had sharpened the U.S. government’s focus on Albania. Given the warning message from Zawahiri’s group that had appeared in al-Hayat the day before the bombing, we had thought, at first, that the bombings might have some links to Albania. Separate intelligence reports came in on possible plots against U.S. interests in Albania, so the renewed focus was maintained. Suspected EIJ members in Albania were put under surveillance. One day the head of the EIJ cell in Albania, Ashraf, was spotted carrying a letter. Guessing that it contained intelligence, the Albanian security services made a move to try to arrest him. He attempted to flee, throwing his letter into the bushes. He was stopped and the letter was retrieved. It was addressed to Eidarous, in his position as head of EIJ in London, and congratulated him on the group’s “weddings.” The term was used by al-Qaeda and EIJ to describe suicide bombers—believed to be in heaven, marrying virgins. The letter went on to state that preparations were under way for “our own weddings here.” Security at all U.S. institutions in Albania was stepped up, [1 word redacted] the [1 word redacted] and FBI intensified our monitoring and investigating.
There was no direct flight from New York to Albania, so I took what was then the best option: flying Austrian Airlines from New York to Vienna and from there to Tirana, the Albanian capital. The airport in Tirana was primitive: just a house and a basic runway that was really only suitable for landing in good weather. The captain warned, as we took off from Vienna, “If the weather is bad we won’t be able to land in Tirana, but the good news is that the weather is clear . . . for now.”
“When you land in Tirana, stay next to the plane,” Tom Lang had told me in a briefing before I’d left New York. “Whatever you do, don’t go anywhere and don’t give your passport to anyone. Just wait by the plane. The CIA guys will pick you up.”
While everyone else from the flight filed into the house next to the runaway that served as the baggage and customs hall, I stayed next to the plane. “Excuse me, sir, you need to head into the customs hall,” a stewardess told me. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m waiting for someone here.” Shrugging, she walked off. A few Albanians security officials approached me. They wore civilians clothes but carried weapons and walkie-talkies.
“Please go into the customs area,” one of the officials said to me. “You can’t stand here.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been told to wait here.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m waiting for someone to pick me up from [2 words redacted].” (I didn’t mention which [1 word redacted].) They conferred with each other in Albanian, took another look at me, and walked off. For the next ten minutes I stood there, waiting, my only companion a stray dog that had wandered over to stare at me.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, I spotted two 4x4 vehicles speeding down the runway, heading toward me. The vehicles came to an abrupt stop right next to me, and a door was flung open. Several men were inside each 4x4. From the vehicle closest to me, an American voice shouted, “Jump in.”
I wasn’t just going to jump into any car in Albania, so I looked in and asked, “Who are you?”
I noticed that the 4x4s were American-made, typically the kind the U.S. government uses; and the men inside looked like Americans. “We’re the people you’re waiting for,” one of the men replied, “and if you’re Ali Soufan, we’re here to pick you up.”
“That works for me,” I said, and climbed in.
“Do I need to do anything about Customs?” I asked as the car started moving.
“Not here,” the man replied with a grin. “Welcome to Albania.”
“The entire area is pretty much a ghost town,” a CIA colleague told me, as he drove me through the part of Tirana where diplomatic missions used to be based. “Entire compounds have been evacuated. No one wants to be here now,” he continued. “But then again, it’s not like people would want to be here anyway.”
“So, how bad is it?” I asked.
“Not as bad as it was then, of course,” he said, referring to the early 1990s and the Balkan war, “but you still have remnants of groups up to no good, and the Iranians are doing their part to keep this area unstable. For ten dollars you can easily buy a used AK-47.”
“From what I’ve heard, there’s also a problem with Russian and criminal gangs?”
“The Russian mafia is especially influential, and other criminal gangs are trying to take advantage of the lawlessness here.”
The U.S. Embassy in Albania was closed following the uncovering of a plot by EIJ to bomb the building, and all nonessential personnel had been sent back to the United States. The embassy was deserted except for the U.S. ambassador, security personnel, and a few other officials. The CIA [1 word redacted] had moved to a remote covert location. We checked in with them, and the chief [3 words redacted] briefed me on the operations the organization was running and the missions they needed my support on.
“Who else is here besides you working on this?” I asked.
“There’s only a few of us [2 words redacted] here, so we’re spread pretty thin. We get others in to help, but they’re in for short stints, so we lack the continuity I would ideally want.”
At a local hotel, all of us had rooms on the same floor, and I went upstairs around midnight, exhausted from traveling. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. At around 3:00 AM I was awakened by gunfire. I recognized the sound of AK-47s being fired and rolled off the bed, grabbing my gun from my bedside table. I crouched on the floor, trying to get a sense of where the gunfire was coming from.
I opened my door and went into the corridor. Other U.S. personnel had already gathered. “What’s going on?” I asked no one in particular.
“Don’t worry,” an officer told me. From his tone I guessed that he had been in the country for a while. “The presidential palace is not far from here, and often at night stray dogs run in packs on the grounds there. The guards fire rounds from their machine guns to scare the dogs off. Go get some sleep.”
I spent the next few weeks working with the [1 word redacted] CIA officers on identifying terrorists, gathering intelligence, and disrupting threats. The [1 word redacted] and his men treated me like one of their team, and we developed a good relationship. It helped that we were a small group, which encourages closeness. Operating under a threat also brings people together. We knew Iranian agents were monitoring us, as were al-Qaeda and EIJ members—all of whom had reason not to want us in the country. We always had to be vigilant and rely on each other for backup.
Sometimes the best of precautions were frustrated by the fact that we were in Albania, which was very backward in those years. One evening I went out to eat with two CIA officers, both temporarily assigned [4 words redacted]. When we returned to our car, it wouldn’t start. The battery had died.
It was late, the electricity had been cut off, and the neighborhood was deserted—we had been the only patrons in the restaurant. We had no choice but to push the car to try to restart it. One guy sat behind the wheel, and the other guy and I pushed the car.
“Ahh,” the guy with me yelled, and then I didn’t see him anymore.
I shouted his name and heard a muffled response: “I’m down here.” He had fallen into an uncovered manhole in the road. Realizing it was nothing serious, we started laughing, and helped him out of the hole. We could not stop laughing. Finally we were able to restart the car, and hours later we got back to the hotel, exhausted and covered in dirt but happy to have arrived safely.
[141 words redacted]
As a result, the prosecutors declined to bring cases against a few of the EIJ operatives, including Hani al-Sibai. As of this writing, Sibai is still living freely as a political refugee in London, where he runs an Islamic organization. The Egyptians, however, using the evidence we collected, convicted him in absentia of being a member of EIJ’s shura council and of involvement in terrorist acts.
There were also several EIJ members who were able to escape from the country and thereby from the investigation into the East African embassy bombings. For instance, we discovered that an operative who used the alias Abdul Rahman al-Masri and who had connections to Yemen had found his way to Italy, where he was staying with Sibai’s brother-in-law in Turin. Because of the alias, we thought at first that he might be the bomb maker Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir, and that he had helped build the bombs detonated in 1998. We knew that Muhajir used a fake Yemeni passport and was Egyptian.
I traveled to Italy, along with other FBI agents and assistant U.S. attorney Pat Fitzgerald, to determine if Muhajir and Abdul Rahman al-Masri were indeed the same person. We were assisted in Turin by members of the Italian Division of General Investigations and Special Operations, or Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali (DIGOS). The team was headed by Giuseppe Petronzi, from the counterterrorism department. The Turin police arrested the individual; however, upon questioning we found that he wasn’t Muhajir but another EIJ operative from Albania (with the same alias). We found weapons and wigs where he was staying, along with correspondence between him and Hani al-Sibai in which Sibai, working from London, had tried to arrange fake passports. While we hadn’t found Muhajir, we had broken up an EIJ plot in Italy.
The challenge in working with the Italians was one of language. Although much later in the process we worked with Massimo De Benedittis, a DIGOS officer who was fluent in English (and whose nickname was “Kaiser”—all Italian officers in the division had what they called “war names”), when we first arrived not a single officer spoke English fluently, and none of us spoke Italian. The FBI representative who spoke Italian, and who would normally have handled the assignment, was out of the country on personal matters. We communicated through an interpreter who spoke Italian and Arabic. She translated from Italian to Arabic, and I then translated from Arabic to English for my colleagues.
During one conversation, in broken English, Petronzi kept referring to “Louis.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Louis, Louis,” he said, pointing at the suspect. The suspect wasn’t named Louis, so I thought perhaps there was someone else involved whom we didn’t know about. If not that, I jokingly speculated, he might be talking about Louis Freeh, the director the FBI.
Eventually, through the translator, I discovered that he wasn’t saying the name Louis but lui, the word for “him.” This became a running joke between Petronzi and us—happily, he always saw the funny side of things. We became good friends with him and Kaiser and other members of their team, and their assistance and hospitality created a lasting bond between us.
While we were tracing leads and striving to disrupt possible threats by al-Qaeda, other agents and analysts from I-49 were also tracking terrorists connected to the East African embassy bombings. Their efforts uncovered Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Ruqai’i—the real name of Anas al-Liby, the Libyan al-Qaeda member who had cased the Nairobi embassy with Ali Mohamed. He was found to be residing in Manchester, England.
John O’Neill assembled a team to accompany him to the UK. We were met in London by SO13 detectives, and together we boarded a train to Manchester. There we were met by local police detectives assigned to assist us, and John asked me to brief the team on Liby. “Anas al-Liby is a senior al-Qaeda operative,” I told them. “He’s a computer expert and was part of the team that did surveillance on the embassy in Nairobi. This is potentially a big win for us.”
“What are we looking for?” a detective asked.
“We’re looking for any notes, pictures, or documents, anything related to al-Qaeda, the embassy bombings, or the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which he’s also a member of, as well as being a member of al-Qaeda. We need to find in his possession evidence linking him to the bombings, or we won’t be able to hold him.”
Liby’s location was raided, and he was caught before he could escape. He was brought down to the police station for preliminary questioning, and in the meantime his property was searched and all potential evidence was brought into the office. In his interview with the British police he didn’t cooperate and denied involvement in terrorism.
As the detectives searched through Liby’s computer files and possessions, it soon became apparent that in this case, unlike raids on other operatives, there was no “smoking gun” evidence that would tie Liby to the attacks and allow us to hold him. He was one of the more intelligent al-Qaeda operatives and had closely observed how we’d arrested other operatives: beyond going into hiding, he had destroyed as much evidence as he could. His computer hard drive had been cleared, and no incriminating files were found.
“Sorry, we’re going to have to release him,” a Manchester police detective told us. “Under British law we can’t continue holding him just on suspicion. We need concrete evidence. And in his interview he denied everything.”
“But if you release him, you can be certain he’ll skip town before we have time to sort through all the evidence and find something—which I’m sure is there,” John said.
“Sorry, it’s British law.”
Liby was released and evaded the team that was sent to follow him. We didn’t know where he had disappeared to, but we were pretty certain he was on his way to Afghanistan. While he fled, our British partners gave us access to all evidence recovered from his residence. We searched through his computer files and other property, consoling ourselves with the thought that, though we had lost the man, we would find something of use against al-Qaeda.
Searching through one pile of files, documents, and books in Arabic, I saw what looked like a log or journal. I pulled it out from the pile and flicked through; it was full of photocopied handwritten pages. I turned to the first page, and on it was a note saying: “It is forbidden to take this out of the guesthouse.” I started reading and saw that it was full of “lessons” (as the book termed it) for terrorist operatives, covering everything from “necessary qualifications” to espionage techniques, to “torture methods.” It was written by an EIJ instructor based on his experiences in Egypt fighting the Mubarak regime.
Once I had skimmed a substantial portion of it, I told the team that it looked to be something of considerable interest.
“What is it?” asked Jack Cloonan, the senior agent on the team.
“It’s the training manual that operatives, I’m guessing al-Qaeda operatives, use. It lists everything from how they should conceal themselves to the importance of conducting special operations.”
“But does that actually lead us to any terrorists?” an officer asked.
“Not directly, but it will. This teaches us exactly how the terrorists are taught to think and prepare themselves for operations and interrogations. It offers insight into their mind-set, and behavior patterns we need to watch for. So it should help us catch them and, when we catch them, understand how to interrogate them successfully.”
“Can you give an example of what the book says?” John asked.
“Sure. For example, this chapter contains instructions on how covert operatives should act. They’re told not to reveal their real names, even to other members. They are told to remove anything that indicates they are Islamists. For example, beards, long shirts, copies of the Quran, or greetings such as ‘May God reward you’ are to be avoided.
“They’re also told to avoid visiting public spaces such as libraries and mosques. They should avoid attracting any attention to themselves. It even says here that they need to be careful where they park. And they’re warned not to speak to their wives about what they’re doing.
“Another chapter here,” I said, reading as I spoke, “is on the cell model they use, which is the cluster model—where cell members don’t know members of other cells.”
“Why is that?” John asked.
“It says so that if one part of the cell is caught, everyone else won’t be compromised. They don’t even know the communication methods that members of other cells use. And cell members are told not to recognize one another in public.”
“That’s amazing,” declared an FBI colleague.
“It is. Look at this section here on safe houses. The manual says that ground-floor facilities are preferred, as they offer more escape options. All safe houses must have contingency plans for speedy evacuation, as well as secure areas to hide documents. And anyone going into a safe house needs to have sufficient cover—so as to avoid attention. No two safe houses should be rented from the same office, or in the same area—they’re very careful.”
“What does the section on interrogations tell them to do if caught?” John asked.
“Hold on,” I said, and I went to that section and sped through its pages. “What’s interesting is that it warns operatives that they’ll be subjected to torture when caught. It tells them to hold off as much as they can, especially for the first forty-eight hours.”
“Why forty-eight hours?” another colleague asked.
“It says because that will give fellow cell members enough time to reorganize, rendering information less valuable.”
“And it tells them to expect to be tortured?”
“Yes, this manual is actually written warning them what would happen if the Egyptian or another Middle Eastern government arrests them. It says their sisters and mothers will be raped in front of them and they themselves will be sodomized by dogs.”
“And they have to bear it?”
“They’re told that their reward will come in heaven, but that they can pretend to cooperate in order to trick the interrogator.”
“Meaning what?” John asked.
“It says they should give information to the interrogator, so the interrogator thinks the terrorist is cooperating, but really the information he gives up isn’t valuable.”
Later translated into English, the Manchester Manual, as it came to be known, was used by CIA contractors to justify the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) authorized by the administration of President George W. Bush. To anyone who understood the point of the manual, this is ironic, as the manual teaches terrorists to expect and endure far worse. It is no surprise that these harsh techniques failed to work.
“Ali, I want you to head to Pakistan. We’ve got a potentially very important source who has come in, and I want you to evaluate him,” John O’Neill told me a few weeks later. It was early in 2000.
“Sure, boss, what’s the backstory?”
“It’s an [1 word redacted] man who approached an agent from the [4 words redacted] in [1 word redacted] saying that he had been working with [3 words redacted] in [3 words redacted] and didn’t like them, so he wanted to work with the U.S. against them.”
“That’s pretty convenient for us,” I said.
“You’d think, but the [8 words redacted]—the source didn’t have anything on drug trafficking, so he was out of their area of interest. But when the source met with the agency, he was told that they weren’t interested and they sent him away.”
“Apparently they think he is full of it and lying, but our FBI guy there, Chris Reimann, called me to say he thinks this guy is the real deal. Go to [1 word redacted],” John continued, “and meet him and evaluate him. And if he’s credible, get information and arrange a permanent way of contacting him.”
“One more thing. Make sure you thank him and let him know we’re appreciative.”
Mike Dorris, who was assigned to the FBI office in Islamabad and [7 words redacted] explained the situation to me in more detail. “The CIA asked the source a series of questions about bin Laden. He didn’t know much about the main target [bin Laden], as he dealt with midlevel al-Qaeda guys, not the leadership. [11 words redacted]”
“That’s pretty bad,” I said, shaking my head.
“It gets worse. The source then came back to [3 words redacted], again saying he wanted to share information. The first time, the [2 words redacted] passed him to the [1 word redacted] official, who again turned him away. But the second time, thankfully, the [1 word redacted] agent included me. I realized this source could be of use, so I sent you guys a message through Chris Reimann.”
In Pakistan the DEA agent arranged for us and another FBI agent, Jennifer Keenan, from I-49, to meet the man. When the CIA got wind of the meeting, a different officer from the agency came. As we had flown all the way from New York to meet the source, the officer guessed that he was probably more valuable than his colleague had thought.
Unlike Junior, the man didn’t know much about the top-level al-Qaeda operatives, [10 words redacted]—and other radical terrorists whom we had never heard about. [13 words redacted] It was clear he disliked al-Qaeda, both from a personal and an ideological point of view, [10 words redacted]. We tilted the questions toward what we thought would be of use, and [5 words redacted].
“I don’t know bin Laden, [9 words redacted], you know a lot about bin Laden,” he told me during one conversation.
[3 words redacted]
[77 words redacted]
I didn’t tell him that I had heard the name [1 word redacted] before. It had come up during the questioning of Owhali, the failed suicide bomber from the East African embassy bombing. Owhali had said that when he and Jihad Ali made their martyrdom videos, [37 words redacted]—and that he was someone important we should be on the lookout for.
“Who [1 word redacted] is very valuable to bin Laden?” I later asked the source.
[10 words redacted]
“Who are they?”
[137 words redacted]
[7 words redacted]
[10 words redacted]
We wrote up all the information the source had given us, and it was deemed both credible and significant by FBI analysts back in the United States. We thanked the man and arranged a method to maintain contact. We also briefed the [1 word redacted] CIA [3 words redacted] on our evaluation of the information that had been supplied.
When I returned to the United States I found that the CIA was now interested in our man. I traveled with my supervisor at the time, John Liguori, and my partner, Steve Bongardt, to Langley (CIA headquarters) to brief the agency. There we found that there was an internal CIA disagreement—between the CTC and the Near East Division—about who from their side would handle him. [15 words redacted]
As far as shared access with the CIA was concerned, we didn’t mind it at all; the source could be useful to us both. The agency had expertise in safely handling sources. Nevertheless, in the past—in the East African embassy bombings investigation, in Albania, and in other cases—evidence had been tainted and made unusable for prosecutions because CIA officers had, in fact, mishandled the chain of custody; or there were discrepancies between information that went through CIA channels and what was reported in FBI channels. This can cause considerable problems during the prosecution phase; one doesn’t know which to trust. To make matters clear this time, John Liguori spelled out the terms. “One thing needs to be clear,” he told the CIA, “the source is our source. He’s a criminal source who is providing information on the fugitives from the East African embassy bombings. The intelligence we gain might be used for investigations and prosecutions. You are welcome to use him as well, but all meetings need to be done jointly and we have to be included in the reporting. All information needs to be coordinated because it will one day be used in a court of law.”
“Absolutely,” a senior CIA officer told us. “We respect that.”
“Good,” John said. “Remember, any intelligence gained has to be exactly the same in your reports as in our 302 reports, so that when it comes to court, there are no contradictions.” The 302 is a form used for reporting information that is likely to become testimony. It contains a digest of the interview conducted.
They readily agreed to our terms.
I traveled a few times with Steve Bongardt to Pakistan to meet the source. We made efforts to protect him; we didn’t want Pakistani or other intelligence agents knowing about our meetings with him. Whenever we were in the country, Pakistani agents tried to tail us. They weren’t very efficient, which made it easy to lose them. Sometimes, however, we enjoyed playing games with them to show them how ridiculous the situation was. One time, after we had finished our mission and were ready to go home the next morning, Steve and I walked out of our rooms, went to the elevator, and spotted a man who had been following us for a few days. While he claimed to be a receptionist on our floor, he repeatedly popped up wherever we were, and he didn’t wear a hotel uniform or seem to do any administrative work. As the elevator doors opened, we stepped in, and he followed us in.
“Oh, excuse me,” I said out loud. “I forgot something.” Steve and I stepped out of the elevator, and the “receptionist” jumped out.
“Actually, I have it,” Steve said, playing along, and we both stepped back in—as did the man.
We jumped out, and he jumped out. “You’re burned,” I told him with a big smile. “Tell them they need to send someone else to follow us.” His face went red, and he walked off.