“You’ll Be Singing Like a Canary”
L’Houssaine Kherchtou, chosen by al-Qaeda’s leaders to serve as bin Laden’s personal pilot, returned to Sudan from flight school in Nairobi in 1995 to find his pregnant wife begging on the streets of Khartoum for money for a Cesarean section. Al-Qaeda’s security rules had prevented him from contacting her, and he was unaware that she had been reduced to begging. He told her tearfully that he would take care of the money, and checked her into the main hospital in Khartoum.
Kherchtou then went to see Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s financial chief, in the office the latter shared with bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. “I need money to pay the hospital bill for my wife’s Cesarean section,” he told Sa’eed al-Masri. “It’s five hundred dollars.”
“I’m sorry, there is no money. We can’t give you anything,” Sa’eed al-Masri said apologetically. After a pause he added: “Why don’t you take your wife to the Muslim hospital?”
The Muslim hospital offered free care to the poor; conditions were known to be terrible. Kherchtou would never take his wife there. He knew that al-Qaeda had been having financial difficulties since bin Laden’s loss of family funds following his expulsion from Saudi Arabia; Kherchtou had been told not to renew his pilot license, which also cost five hundred dollars. He also knew, however, that al-Qaeda still had money. He had seen fellow operatives purchasing fake passports and other items needed for missions. The health of his wife and future child should be a priority, too, he believed, and he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t spare the money, especially for someone who had been so loyal and long-serving. One of al-Qaeda’s first operatives, Kherchtou felt the sting of the rejection when he recalled his service to the organization in Afghanistan, Nairobi, and elsewhere.
“If it were your wife or your daughter who needed a Cesarean, would you take her there?” Kherchtou asked Sa’eed al-Masri.
“Well . . . ,” Sa’eed al-Masri replied. He found himself caught off-guard by Kherchtou’s challenge, and he knew, in his heart, that Kherchtou was right.
Kherchtou seized on Sa’eed al-Masri’s silence to press forward: “Why don’t you borrow money for me so I can pay for the procedure, and I will pay you back later?”
Sa’eed al-Masri shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything until bin Laden comes back.”
Bin Laden was out of the office, but Kherchtou knew that this was Sa’eed al-Masri’s decision. “I’ve been with al-Qaeda since 1991. Is this how you repay loyalty? Consider the health of my wife.” He stormed out of the office, fuming. Beyond the refusal to give him money, he also resented how Egyptians like Sa’eed al-Masri were running al-Qaeda. “I would have shot him if I had had a gun,” Kherchtou told friends when recounting the conversation. “All the money goes to Egyptians, and the rest of us they treat like second-class citizens.”
While Kherchtou remained on al-Qaeda’s payroll after that incident, continuing to run errands between Khartoum and Nairobi for bin Laden, he began to drift away from the organization. And when bin Laden announced, in 1996, that al-Qaeda was relocating to Afghanistan, Kherchtou didn’t follow him. Instead he sent his family back home to Morocco, telling al-Qaeda’s leaders that he wanted his children to get a decent education, and that there were no suitable schools in Afghanistan. He continued to work in Nairobi, but no longer saw the al-Qaeda leadership regularly and emotionally distanced himself from them.
“Ali, we’ve got a potentially important lead in understanding al-Qaeda,” Debbie Doran told me. It was a few weeks after the East African embassy bombings, and all our efforts were focused on tracking those responsible and deepening our understanding of the organization.
“What’s the lead?” I asked.
Debbie told me that her team had found a letter dated a few days before the bombing, signed by Mzungu, an alias Kherchtou used. They had also found that Kherchtou, like other al-Qaeda members, had been arrested by Kenyan authorities but then released from jail at the request of a Western intelligence agency—and that that intelligence agency had taken him out of the country.
“Was he involved in the bombing?” I asked Debbie.
“We don’t exactly know. He was in Nairobi at the time of the bombing, which makes it interesting. He interacted with the cell members.” After the Kenyans arrested him, the Western intelligence agency intervened—they had been working on using him as a source, and convinced the Kenyans to release him. The FBI nicknamed him Joe the Moroccan, a translation of one of his aliases, Yousef al-Maghrebi.
“They made a deal with Joe,” Debbie continued, “agreeing that they’d have him released so he could travel back to Khartoum. In exchange, he would meet with their intelligence operatives there and report on al-Qaeda’s activities. He agreed to the deal and returned to Khartoum, telling al-Qaeda members that he was released because he had convinced the Kenyans that he was a businessman with no connection to the terrorist plot. Once in Khartoum, he failed to make any contact with the Western intelligence agency.
“That’s where we come in,” Debbie concluded. “We need to go and find out about him, and then see if we can do a better job recruiting him. If he did live with the Nairobi cell members and was with al-Qaeda from the start, he could be an important source.”
I traveled with Debbie to the country whose intelligence agency had been working with Kherchtou, and at first the agency denied knowing anything about him. However, when we presented the evidence we had on their dealings with him, and explained that he could be an important source for us in tracking and prosecuting those responsible for the East African embassy bombings, they admitted that they had been trying to work with him. They agreed to turn over their files to us.
From the files we learned that they had been in contact with him directly after the embassy bombings and had learned about his connections to the al-Qaeda cell in Nairobi. The files contained a good deal of information on Kherchtou—on his background and some of his work for al-Qaeda. In addition, there was valuable personal information that I mentally noted would be useful when interviewing him, such as al-Qaeda’s refusal to give him money for his wife’s Cesarean.
Our next challenge was to work out how we could get hold of him, as Sudan was highly unlikely to agree to an extradition request, and any request we made was likely to tip Kherchtou off that we were looking for him. We discussed trying to apprehend him but ruled it out because it posed too many security risks, and, more importantly, because it reduced the likelihood that he would cooperate with us—which was our primary hope. Instead we contacted Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the Moroccan intelligence service, which agreed to help. Moroccan immigration officials sent a message to Kherchtou in Khartoum that there was an issue with the immigration status of his children and that he should return home to resolve it. Thinking that he just had to deal with a routine bureaucratic problem, he flew to Morocco. Upon landing, he was picked up by the intelligence agency, which took him to a safe house in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, where we were waiting.
“Hi, L’Houssaine. How are you?” I asked in Arabic. “Are you comfortable?”
“Yes,” he replied, staring at me with a puzzled expression. I guessed that he was trying to work out who I was, where we were, and what was going on.
“You speak English, right?” I asked.
“A little,” he replied in English.
“Well,” I said, switching to English, “let’s speak in English, but when it’s easier we can speak in Arabic.”
“Let me introduce myself,” I continued. “My name is Ali Soufan and I’m with the FBI. With me are my colleagues from the U.S. government, led by our boss, John O’Neill. The others here are Jack Cloonan and Pat Fitzgerald.”
He looked at me in surprise. He didn’t think that here in Morocco he’d be in the hands of the United States. The safe house was in a rural area about thirty minutes’ drive from Rabat. The scenery was beautiful, as was the house itself. The food was fresh and of the highest quality, and there was plenty to drink, creating a relaxed atmosphere. None of it made sense to him.
At first we just chatted with Kherchtou about himself, his family, and other harmless topics that he was comfortable talking about. He answered politely but was clearly nervous about being with Americans and suspicious of us. After a half-hour of small talk, I turned to him and said: “Now, look, L’Houssaine. We know all about you and your history with al-Qaeda. It is in your interest to cooperate fully with us. If you do, we in turn will treat you well.” He didn’t say anything. I continued: “Now we know al-Qaeda didn’t treat you like you deserved to be treated.” Kherchtou straightened up and looked directly at me. “You know what I’m referring to, don’t you?” I asked. He shook his head slowly.
“Remember when your wife needed a Cesarean section, and she was forced to beg on the streets of Khartoum for the money? Remember how angry you were when al-Qaeda refused to give you the five hundred dollars needed for that operation? That’s how al-Qaeda treats one of its most loyal members?” He again shook his head, and there was a pained expression on his face.
“That’s not the way you treat anyone who is in need of charity,” I continued. “We both know it’s not the way a good Muslim would treat a neighbor, let alone a devoted colleague. What’s clear to me is that al-Qaeda has no respect for you. It doesn’t care about you or the health of your wife, and you don’t owe them anything.”
A few tears rolled down Kherchtou’s face. “You’re right,” he said, wiping away the tears. There was some anger in his eyes, too. “There was no excuse for that,” he told me, and he began to talk about the outrage he felt at the time. “They couldn’t spare five hundred dollars for my wife after everything I’d done!”
“They broke their covenant to you,” I said, “and they showed you their true nature.”
I stopped speaking, letting what I’d said sink in. We were all silent for about a minute. I then asked, “Would you like some tea?” He nodded. I poured some into a cup for him. He took a sip and placed his cup back on the table.
“Now, L’Houssaine, here’s your choice,” I said. “You can cooperate with us, work with us, and we will treat you well. You see how respectfully we’ve treated you so far; that’s what we’re like. Or you can refuse to cooperate, in which case you’ll spend your life in jail. I know what you’re going to choose. I believe by the time you’ve finished with us you’ll be singing like a canary.”
The conversation was in Arabic, and the Moroccan intelligence agents in the room, who followed every word, couldn’t believe what I had said. They told me afterward that they were shocked that I had spoken to him so directly and had made such a bold prediction. Years after this encounter, a fellow FBI agent, Andre Khoury, was serving in the FBI Legat (the legal attaché office within the U.S. Embassy) in Rabat. Local intelligence agents asked him, “Do you know Ali Soufan? Did you hear about the time he told L’Houssaine Kherchtou that he’d end up ‘singing like a canary’?”
Andre laughed when he told me the story a few years later.
John spent time bonding with Moroccan officials to ensure we got their continued cooperation. One evening we went out to dinner with the heads of DST, and John raised his glass and declared: “A long time ago the king of Morocco asked my country for help against pirates. The United States agreed, and Morocco was one of the first countries to ever make a treaty with the United States, and we’ve had a proud friendship since. Today the United States is asking Morocco for help, and it’s been nice to see how warmly you’ve returned the favor.”
The toast was cheered by the Moroccans, who seemed touched by the reminder of the friendship. I was sitting next to Debbie and said, “No one knows how to make toasts and win friends like John.”
After that first conversation Kherchtou began opening up more. To continue to make him feel comfortable, we stayed away from asking for sensitive information about al-Qaeda and instead focused on his life, his family, his travels, and his aspirations, building a relationship with him. He was naturally talkative, and on safe topics he engaged well. Pat Fitzgerald, for his part, expertly established rapport with him and reeled him in.
After a few hours of conversation, we took Kherchtou out to a pizza place in Rabat for a change of scenery. He was interested in the United States and we told him what it was like living there. We gently broached the subject of his going into the Witness Protection Program if he cooperated with us, and we explained the benefits to him. He was especially interested in hearing about the satellite television options in America after I told him about the availability of channels in Arabic.
As we were leaving the pizza place, he seemed to be deep in thought and had a confused look on his face. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He shook his head. I could tell from his eyes that he was nervous. “Look,” I told him, “I can tell you’re nervous being with us. But let me tell you something: I’m nervous, too.”
His eyes opened wide. “Why?” he asked.
“Well, I can’t believe that I was just sitting and eating pizza with an al-Qaeda guy.”
He laughed. “Not anymore. I’m not an al-Qaeda guy anymore.”
“That makes me feel better,” I told him with a smile, “and that means you’ll be happy to work with us.” I put my arm around him and we both laughed.
Back at the safe house, Kherchtou began discussing terms for cooperating. “Will I go to jail?” he asked.
“We can’t make any promises,” Pat told him, “but here’s what you need to do. You will fly to the United States and plead guilty to being a member of an organization dedicated to killing Americans, but you will become a cooperating witness, and a judge may decide to not sentence you. I will ask the judge to show you leniency because you’re helping us.”
Pat did some questioning to ascertain whether Kherchtou would be a good cooperating witness. I paid close attention and learned many techniques, such as how to play your cards close to your chest and lull someone into a false sense of security and then trap him on small details. While interrogation techniques are taught at the FBI Academy, being in a classroom is very different from being in an interrogation room and seeing an expert questioner at work. With Pat I saw, firsthand, how to use what you know to your advantage. We told Kherchtou that under the Witness Protection Program he would be given a new identity to ensure that no al-Qaeda agents or sympathizers could find him. And in the program he could lead a new life, enjoying all the good things America had to offer.
“Okay,” he replied simply. And with that he began telling us all about al-Qaeda, how it operated, how they recruited, training camps they used, what bin Laden did daily, and so on. We started debriefing him by asking him to tell us about his path to al-Qaeda, which would teach us about their recruitment as well as their training process. He told us that after high school he had gone to a catering school and had worked in France and Italy. In Milan he had attended an Islamic center, where he was encouraged to travel to Afghanistan. He trained for combat, met bin Laden, and joined the organization.
“What happens in al-Qaeda guesthouses?” I asked.
“On entering the guesthouse you give in all your valuables—your money, passport, and all forms of ID—and they give you a nickname, usually linked to where you’re from. They tell you that you’re giving in all your valuables and ID so that if you’re killed or caught, your captors won’t know who you are.” He said that his nickname was Abu Zaid Maghrebi and that he had also picked up the alias Abu Talal.
“What camp did you train in?”
“Al-Farouq.” The camp turned out many of al-Qaeda’s premier fighters.
“What did you learn there?”
“How to use regular firearms, antiaircraft weapons, and other basic guerrilla warfare skills.”
“Who were your trainers?” I asked, and thus the debriefing went. After al-Farouq, Kherchtou had attended the Abu Bakr Sadeek camp, also located near Khost. It was run by Khalid al-Fawwaz—we were very familiar with him from Operation Challenge. With Kherchtou at Abu Bakr Sadeek was Odeh, operating under the alias Marwan.
Kherchtou went on to tell us about how he was trained, at one point, by Ali Mohamed, Zawahiri’s man in the U.S. Army. Abu Hafs had told him in advance that “Abu Mohamed al-Amriki is very strict, and you have to be patient with him. He often uses bad words and is not an observent Muslim, but he’s very skilled.”
Kherchtou was later sent to Kenya to learn how to fly, so that one day he could become bin Laden’s personal pilot. While in Nairobi attending flight school, he helped operatives who were passing through Kenya on their way to Somalia and other locations. Sometimes on trips between Nairobi and Khartoum he was given money to take to operatives in Kenya; the largest sum was ten thousand dollars.
Kherchtou filled in for us where Junior had left off. This was 1999, and Junior had left in 1996. Those were important years for al-Qaeda, so the information Kherchtou gave us was priceless.
On September 21, 1999, we flew with Kherchtou to the United States, and other agents were waiting for us at the airport. We took Kherchtou to an undisclosed location, and I went home, exhausted. As soon as I got there, the phone rang. An FBI agent was calling from the site. “Ali, Joe wants to speak to you—he’s insisting.”
“Okay, put him through.”
“Hi. Ali?” I heard Kherchtou’s voice.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m good, but where are you?”
“I’m at my home, resting.”
“But these people are asking me questions and talking about plans for me, and I want you to be here to advise me.”
“My friend, I need to get some rest and see my family tonight. I’ve been away from them for a while. But tomorrow I will come and see you.”
The next day I drove to the safe house. As I walked through the door Kherchtou jumped up and greeted me with a big hug. He was clearly nervous about being in the United States and was unsure how things would work out. I was a friendly face he had come to trust.
We chatted and discussed the trials for the East African embassy bombings, for which he would serve as a witness. I also gave him a copy of the writings of the Lebanese American poet and writer Kahlil Gibran, whom we had discussed a few days earlier. His face lit up. “Thank you, Ali, so much.”
Kherchtou went on to serve, alongside Junior, as a star witness in the East African embassy trials, ensuring the conviction of four al-Qaeda terrorists—men he had previously worked with. Because of his cooperation, he was not sentenced; as we had promised, he was indeed put in the Witness Protection Program.
The last time I saw him was immediately after the USS Cole was bombed, on October 12, 2000. We had debriefed him before we headed to Yemen to see if he knew anyone who might be involved. “I wish I could come with you to help investigate,” he told me as we parted.
“I know, but you can help from here,” I told him. “Keep telling us anything you think of.”