September 11, 2001. “Hi, Heather, how are you?” I was speaking on the phone from an office in the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa; Heather was in New York. We had finally been allowed to return to Yemen a week earlier, and I was busy with my colleagues reestablishing our operation against al-Qaeda members responsible for the USS Cole bombing.
As I asked that question, Joe Ennis —Alabama Joe—rushed into the room. “Ali, a plane hit the World Trade Center,” he said breathlessly. “We’re watching the news in the ambassador’s office. Come quickly!”
“You mean a helicopter?” I asked Joe.
“No, they said a plane,” he replied.
“Ali,” Heather said into my other ear, “the TV is showing smoke coming out of the World Trade Center.” I repeated that to Joe and he let out an expletive.
“Switch on the TV,” she replied. “One of the buildings is on fire.”
My gut told me that it was something bigger, but I didn’t want to alarm Heather. “I have to go and see what’s going on, and I’ll call you back. I love you.”
“I love you.”
I dialed John O’Neill’s number in New York. He had just started his new job in the World Trade Center. His phone rang and rang and then went to voicemail. Joe Ennis rushed into the office again, screaming: “Another plane just hit the World Trade Center!”
“It’s a passenger plane. Oh my God, a big plane.”
I tried calling John again. Once again the call went to voicemail, and again I hung up without leaving a message. I tried yet again and got his voicemail, but this time I left a message: “John, it’s Ali, I just heard what happened. I’m in Yemen, give me a call.”
I ran into the ambassador’s office. Ambassador Bodine had left the country, and the new ambassador, Edmund Hull, had not yet arrived, so the office was empty, but the television was on, and all the agents, the entire team from the New York field office, had gathered to watch the breaking news from New York. For about a minute we stood silently, in shock, unable to look away from the screen, as images of what had just happened were shown again and again: The first plane flying in . . . the burst of flames . . . and then the second plane.
Forcing myself to look away from the screen, I picked up the phone on the ambassador’s desk and tried calling the FBI’s New York office. The call wouldn’t go through. “Are you speaking to New York?” a colleague asked me, seeing the receiver in my hand.
“I’m trying,” I said. “Lines are tied up.” Being unable to reach headquarters only increased the tension and fear people felt. I kept trying to get through, but again and again I heard a busy signal. On the tenth attempt, my call went through to one of my colleagues in New York.
“We’ve just seen the images here,” I said. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“We’re trying to find out. At the moment, we’ve got about thirty agents who were in the vicinity missing. We’re treating this as a terrorist attack.”
After checking the embassy’s security and loading our own personal weapons, we all gathered in a secure conference room and waited for news from New York. More bad news reached us by television: bomb threats in DC, more planes allegedly hijacked, and finally the tragic news of United Airlines Flight 63 crashing over Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Tom Donlon waited on the phone for fifteen minutes and at last was patched through to headquarters. The call lasted only a couple of minutes, and Tom didn’t say much other than “yes, I understand.”
“Okay,” he said, putting the phone down, “the instructions are for everyone to evacuate Yemen immediately and get on the first plane back to New York. Yemen is deemed unsafe. We don’t yet know who was behind the attacks in New York and Washington, or if more attacks are coming. But given the problems we’ve had in Yemen in the past, we’re to get out. Pack up and be prepared to leave in a few hours.”
For once none of us disagreed with an order to return home. As important as our mission in Yemen was, it could wait. Thousands of Americans were reported killed, and our colleagues were missing. We wanted to get home to help. We packed our bags, shredded documents that we weren’t taking with us, and, the next day, September 12, we headed to the airport.
“Ali!” The CIA [3 words redacted] in Sanaa came up to me as I waited in the airport with the rest of the team to board the plane.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“FBI headquarters is trying to reach you. You need to speak to them.”
“Who at headquarters? What do they want?”
“I don’t know, but they’ve sent a number.” I asked Tom Donlon if he knew why I was wanted, but he was unaware that headquarters was trying to reach me.
Tom and I went to a quiet corner outside the airport terminal, where our team’s communication technician mounted a portable dish and established a secure satellite line. The number belonged to Dina Corsi, the FBI analyst in headquarters who had clashed with Steve Bongardt during the June 11, 2001, meeting in New York. “Ali, there has been a change of plans,” she said. “You and Bob McFadden need to stay in Yemen.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “We have been attacked back home; we need to figure out who did this. Whatever is going on here can wait.”
“We do need to figure out what just happened, which is why we need you to stay in Yemen. It’s about what happened here. Quso is our best lead at the moment.”
“Quso? What does he have to do with this?”
“The [1 word redacted] has some intelligence for you to look over.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to Bob. We’ll stay.”
“One final thing, your instructions from the top are to identify those behind the attacks, and I quote, ‘by any means necessary.’”
“We’ll find them,” I replied.
“One more thing, Ali,” Dina said.
I ran to Bob, who was waiting for me to board the plane, and repeated the instructions I had just received. “‘By any means necessary,’” I said, giving him the exact command I had been told. He nodded gravely. We assembled our FBI and NCIS colleagues who were also waiting to board and told them about our change of plan. Tom Donlon and Steve Corbett, the NCIS supervisor on the ground, decided to stay as well to help with the investigation, and two New York SWAT team agents also volunteered to stay and provide protection. Everyone else got on the plane, and we returned to the embassy.
“Let’s go to my office,” the [1 word redacted] said. He and I were alone, and he closed the door. He took out a file and silently handed it me.
Inside were three pictures of al-Qaeda operatives taken in Kuala Lumpur, [10 words redacted] and photos were all dated January 2000 and had been provided to the CIA by the Malaysian [6 words redacted] agency.
For about a minute I stared at the pictures and the report, not quite believing what I had in my hands. We had asked the CIA repeatedly during the USS Cole investigation if they knew anything about why Khallad had been in Malaysia and if they recognized the number of the pay phone in Kuala Lumpur that we suspected he had used. Each time we had asked—in November 2000, April 2001, and July 2001—they had said that they knew nothing.
But here in the file was a very different answer: they had in fact known since January 2000 that Khallad had met with other al-Qaeda operatives in Malaysia. They had pictures of them meeting and a detailed report of their comings and goings from Malaysian [1 word redacted].
As for the phone number, [2 words redacted] listed it as being assigned to a pay phone that the al-Qaeda operatives were using to communicate with colleagues everywhere. The phone booth was across from a condominium owned by an al-Qaeda sympathizer in Malaysia, which was where all the al-Qaeda members had stayed. Our deduction that Khallad had been using it was right.
The [3 words redacted] Khallad’s travels: [3 words redacted] he had attempted to fly to Singapore but had been rejected because he hadn’t had a visa. He had returned to the Kuala Lumpur condominium and then had traveled to Bangkok. The [3 words redacted] that Khallad had been using a fraudulent Yemeni passport, under the name Sa’eed bin Saleh.
[6 words redacted] given to the CIA by the Malaysians in January 2000. None of it had been passed to us, despite our specifically having asked about Khallad and the phone number and its relevance to the Cole investigation and to national security. I later found out that the three photos [3 words redacted] that the [1 word redacted] gave me were the three photos shown, with no explanation, to Steve and my Cole colleagues at the June 11, 2001, meeting in New York. The Cole team had asked about the photos—who the people were, why they were taken, and so on—but [1 word redacted], the CIA official present, said nothing.
Also in the file [3 words redacted] that Khallad had flown first class to Bangkok with Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. We soon would learn that they were listed as passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, which had hit the Pentagon. Based upon the chronology in the report, it was clear that the day after Quso and Nibras had met Khallad and given him the $36,000, Mihdhar and Hazmi had bought first-class tickets to the United States. Was that $36,000 used to buy their tickets? And had the rest of the money been intended for their use in the United States? My gut told me yes.
My hands started shaking. I didn’t know what to think. “They just sent these reports,” the [1 word redacted] said, seeing my reaction. I walked out of the room, sprinted down the corridor to the bathroom, and fell to the floor next to a stall. There I threw up.
I sat on the floor for a few minutes, although it felt like hours. What I had just seen went through my mind again and again. The same thought kept looping back: “If they had all this information since January 2000, why the hell didn’t they pass it on?” My whole body was shaking.
I heard one of the SWAT agents asking, “Ali, are you okay?” He had seen me run to the bathroom and had followed me in.
“I am fine.”
I got myself to the sink, washed out my mouth, and splashed some water on my face. I covered my face with a paper towel for a few moments. I was still trying to process the fact that the information I had requested about major al-Qaeda operatives, information the CIA had claimed they knew nothing about, had been in the agency’s hands since January 2000.
The SWAT agent asked, “What’s wrong, bud? What the hell did he tell you?”
“They knew, they knew.”
Another agent came in to check what was happening, and I told him what had just happened and why we had been ordered to stay in Yemen. We hugged and walked out.
I went back down the corridor to the [4 words redacted] office to get the file. “Ali?” he asked as I walked in. I looked him squarely in the face and saw that he was blushing and looked flustered. He clearly understood the significance of what the agency had not passed on.
I didn’t have time to play the blame game. New York and Washington were still burning, colleagues of ours were missing, and we all had to focus on catching those responsible. “Is there anything else you haven’t passed along?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything, and I walked out, file in hand.
I went to the room where Tom Donlon, Bob McFadden, and Steve Corbett were working and dropped the file on the table. “The [1 word redacted] just gave this to me,” I said.
Bob looked up and saw the anger on my face. He didn’t say anything, just took the file. Bob knew me well enough to know that something was very wrong. He looked through the contents and then turned to me in outrage. “I can’t believe this.” Those were his only words.
Tom and Steve’s faces also dropped once they looked through the file; it was too much for any of us to take. “Now they want us to question Quso,” Bob said, his voice rising in anger. “They should have given this to us eight months ago.”
FBI special agent Andre Khoury had been stationed elsewhere in the Middle East when the planes hit the twin towers. He was reassigned to join us in Yemen, and after he arrived and saw the file, he wanted to confront the [1 word redacted]. I held Andre back.
“They knew! Why didn’t they tell us?!” Andre said.
“You’re right,” I said, “and I’m just as angry. Believe me. But now is not the time to ask these questions. One day someone will ask the questions and find out, but right now we have to focus on the task at hand.”
In New York, a few hours after the attacks, Steve Bongardt and Kenny Maxwell joined a conference call with people in FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, including Dina Corsi and an FBI supervisor named Rod Middleton. Kenny asked if there were any names of suspected hijackers. Dina replied that they had some, and she began reading out names. The first few names didn’t mean anything, but when Dina read the name “Khalid al-Mihdhar,” Steve interrupted her.
“Khalid al-Mihdhar. Did you say Khalid al-Mihdhar?” he asked, his voice rising. “The same one you told us about? He’s on the list?”
“Steve, we did everything by the book,” Middleton interjected.
“I hope that makes you feel better,” Steve replied. “Tens of thousands are dead.” Kenny hit the mute button on the phone and said to Steve: “Now is not the time for this. There will be a time, but not now.”
A few days later, once regular communication with New York was established, Steve called me in Yemen and repeated the conversation. “I hope they’re fucking happy that they did everything by the book.”
Over the next few days, weeks, and months, information about what else the CIA had known before 9/11 and hadn’t told the FBI kept trickling out. In late 1999 the NSA had told the CIA that they had learned, from monitoring Ahmed al-Hada’s number, that several al-Qaeda members had made plans to travel to Kuala Lumpur in early January 2000. They knew them by the names “Nawaf,” “Khalid,” and “Salem.” Khalid had been identified by the CIA as Khalid al-Mihdhar, Hada’s son-in-law, and they had tracked him arriving in Kuala Lumpur on January 5, 2000.
After we had uncovered Hada’s switchboard during the 1998 investigation into the embassy bombings, we had made an operating agreement with the CIA under which they would monitor the number and share all intelligence with us. They hadn’t done that.
We also learned that en route to Kuala Lumpur, Mihdhar had stopped off in Dubai. [16 words redacted] In his passport he had a multi-entry U.S. visa. The CIA had passed this information on to foreign intelligence agencies but had not told the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the State Department.
Because no U.S. agency had been told, Mihdhar’s name had not been put on a terrorist watchlist. As a consequence, he had not been stopped from entering the United States, or even questioned. In March 2000 the CIA had learned that Nawaf al-Hazmi had also flown to Los Angeles International Airport on January 15, but, again they hadn’t told us, the State Department, or INS.
In June 2000 Mihdhar had left California and had gone back to Yemen to visit his family following the birth of a daughter. He had then traveled to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan before traveling again to Mecca in June 2001. He had returned to the United States on July 4, 2001. But because the CIA had not informed us, no one stopped him from entering.
It was on June 13, two days after the June 11 meeting in which [1 word redacted], the CIA supervisor, had refused to answer any questions from Steve and the Cole team about Mihdhar, that he was issued a new visa.
While they were in the United States, both Mihdhar and Hazmi had used their real names to get driver’s licenses and to open bank accounts. Hazmi had even registered his car and was listed in the San Diego phone book. He had used his debit card to buy tickets for American Airlines Flight 77 for himself and his brother, Salem.
It was not until August 23, 2001, that the FBI, Customs, and the State Department were told that Mihdhar was in the United States.
Qamish, who was with his chief of staff, Nabil Sanabani, came straight up to me and gave me a hug. In his eyes there was a look of genuine concern and sadness. “It’s terrible news,” he said, after releasing me. “Is everyone okay?” He was referring to the many Americans he had met as part of the Cole investigation.
I shook my head. His question made me choke up, and it took me a few seconds to pull myself together. “John—” My throat swelled up. “Brother John is missing,” I finished, “as are other colleagues.” Qamish’s face now registered unmistakable grief.
We updated him on the news from New York and Washington. At the time, reports were that more than fifty thousand people had been killed, and we thought that that number included many of our colleagues who were in the vicinity, and with whom we had lost contact. As we spoke, emotion overcame us each one by one. Nabil handed us tissues to wipe our tears.
“How can we help, Brother Ali?” Qamish asked me after we had finished briefing him.
“We need to speak to Quso,” I said. “I believe that he has information on the attacks, and I need to interview him.”
“I’ll get him for you,” Qamish replied immediately.
He picked up the phone and called the PSO office in Aden and was patched through to Ansi, whom we knew well from the Cole investigation.
“Put Quso on the next plane to Sanaa,” Qamish told Ansi. “Ali needs to interview him.”
An argument ensued, and Qamish’s voice rose, his tone turning angry. “I don’t care. The plane can’t leave without him. You listen to me—”
When he had finished, Qamish turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Quso is brought here.” It wasn’t a surprise to us that Ansi was trying to stop us from interviewing Quso. He had made his sympathies clear during the Cole investigation.
Qamish next called the airport and issued an order to a PSO official based there. “Go find the pilot of the last plane from Aden to Sanaa and have him call me immediately.” A few minutes later Qamish’s phone rang. The PSO official at the airport had the pilot on the line.
“I have a prisoner that I want on your plane,” Qamish told the pilot. “Don’t leave without him. If he’s late, the plane must wait.”
It was clear Qamish thought that Ansi might deliberately bring Quso to the airport late so he would miss the plane. He was right—Ansi did bring Quso late. To Ansi’s surprise, the plane was waiting.
During the late evening of September 12, Bob and I went to a PSO facility to meet Quso. He was brought straight from the airport, and as soon as he saw us waiting for him he started yelling. “What is this? So if anything happens in New York or Washington you blame me?”
“Hold on,” I said. “How did you know we were going to ask you about that?” Quso was silent. My question caught him off-guard. “I was actually just going to ask you about the Cole, but since you bring it up, what do you know?” Quso slumped down in his chair.
We read Quso the Miranda warning; he waived his rights, and then we started questioning him. “So what do you know about what happened?”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Okay,” I told him, “but you do know about al-Qaeda, right?”
“Yes, we’ve been through that.”
“Okay, so we’ll return to the Cole.”
I asked Quso a series of questions about his having delivered the money to Khallad in Bangkok. I showed him the three pictures I had been given by the [1 word redacted], one of which was of Khalid al-Mihdhar, taken in Malaysia. Quso didn’t identify him as Mihdhar but said he thought he looked like Khallad.
It took a lot of self-control for us to remain calm while questioning Quso. The $36,000 he had delivered to Khallad from Yemen had in all likelihood been used for the 9/11 attack, probably paying for tickets for two of the hijackers, Hazmi and Mihdhar. We had only just learned from the CIA that they knew that the two had been with Khallad in Bangkok, and from there had flown to Los Angeles. Next we showed Quso pictures of al-Qaeda operatives and asked him to identify those he knew. Some of the analysts in Washington were convinced that Quso was in the photos, though Bob and I, who had spent many hours with him, knew it wasn’t the case. Nonetheless, the analysts requested that we get Quso to identify himself. After going over the photos, we dwelled on the individual they thought was Quso. He noticed and told us, “I know what you’re thinking. It’s not me. It looks like me, but it’s not me.” Included were pictures of the men we suspected of being the hijackers, although we didn’t tell him the significance of those photos. Quso identified numerous al-Qaeda members but didn’t recognize any of the suspected hijackers’ photos except one. “That’s Marwan al-Shehhi,” he said. Shehhi had been on United Airlines Flight 175. We suspected that Shehhi was a hijacker, but at this stage we had no proof. Quso helped provide proof by identifying him as an al-Qaeda member.
“Okay,” I said nonchalantly, “how do you know him?”
“I once stayed at the same guesthouse as him in Afghanistan.”
“It was during Ramadan, and Shehhi had apparently had some kind of stomach operation to help him lose weight, so really it was dangerous for him to fast, but he decided to fast anyway. As a result he got very sick, and the emir of the guesthouse had to look after him.”
“Anything else happen with him?”
“I remember he had arrived in Afghanistan with a friend whose alias was Abas, but he was killed during a training exercise. Apparently he didn’t realize the gun he was using had real bullets in it, and he shot himself.” Quso laughed to himself.
“And in the guesthouse where you met Shehhi,” I asked, “who was the emir?” Although I of course knew the answer, I wanted him to say the name for the benefit of the PSO officials present.
“Abu Jandal,” he replied.
I asked Quso a couple more questions about other people, because I didn’t want him to know the significance of what he had just told me, and then I suggested to the Yemenis that we all take a break.
From our anonymous source in Afghanistan we knew Abu Jandal’s importance to bin Laden. We also knew that the Yemenis had him in custody. They had refused to give us access to him in the Cole investigation because they had said we had no evidence that he had anything to do with the attack on the destroyer. But now we had Quso linking him to one of the 9/11 hijackers.
“We need to talk to Abu Jandal,” I told one of the Yemeni intelligence officers in the room. “Quickly!”
While we waited for Abu Jandal, we continued questioning Quso and in total spent about four days talking to him, going through all his interactions with other al-Qaeda members. We questioned him during the night and spent the days preparing for the next interview. At one point I collapsed from exhaustion and was taken to the emergency room, but as soon as I was revived I checked myself out and returned to work.
We took breaks from the interrogation to write up the information we had gained and file it with Washington. When we informed headquarters that we had shown Quso the three pictures and that he had misidentified the picture of Mihdhar as being Khallad, they told us that the CIA had just come up with a [1 word redacted] picture.
“What [1 word redacted] picture?” I asked in frustration. “Look, how many pictures are there?”
“As far as the CIA told us, that’s it. There are only [1 word redacted] pictures, but we are still pushing. We’ll let you know.”
Headquarters sent us the [1 word redacted] picture—it was of Khallad, talking in a phone booth. The Malaysian [2 words redacted] had listed, in its [1 word redacted], the phone number assigned to the booth. It was the number that we had explicitly asked the CIA if they had recognized, to which they had replied no. Quso positively identified the man in the [1 word redacted] photo as Khallad.
This [1 word redacted] picture had been in the CIA’s possession when Steve Bongardt and the Cole team had been shown the [1 word redacted] three pictures on June 11, 2001. If it had been shown to the Cole team, Steve and the other agents at the meeting would have identified the man in the picture as Khallad. We knew exactly what Khallad looked like from the Cole investigation. And if we had learned that the CIA had had a picture of Khallad in June 2001, and had been monitoring him, we would have gone straight to headquarters saying that the CIA had lied about not knowing about Khallad, and we would have demanded that they hand over the information.
If that had happened, at a minimum, Khalid al-Mihdhar would not have been allowed to just walk into the United States on July 4, 2001, and Nawaf al-Hazmi, Atta’s deputy, would have been arrested. At a minimum.
What really upset Bob and me now was that it was only Quso’s misidentification of Mihdhar as possibly Khallad that had caused the CIA to share the [1 word redacted] photo. Even now, after 9/11, they weren’t properly sharing information with us. We wondered if there were other photographs from the Malaysia meeting that were still being kept from us.
August 2003. “Watch it, Ali, they seem to want your head,” Kevin Cruise said, walking up to my desk. He’d just finished meeting investigators from the 9/11 Commission.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re asking a lot of questions about you. It seems our friends at Langley have been talking about you. Just be careful when you see them tomorrow.” It was clear that the CIA officials behind the withholding of information pre-9/11 were nervous about what I would say and were trying to discredit me. It was unfortunate that this was how they were spending their time: rather than addressing mistakes and working out how to ensure that errors weren’t repeated, they wanted to cover it up and fight the FBI instead.
“Thanks, Kevin, will do.”
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was set up in late 2002 by an act of Congress, with the mandate “to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, attacks.” When the investigators arrived in New York, they spoke first to senior FBI officials like Kevin Cruise, who was one of two supervisors overseeing the 9/11 investigations. The next day they spoke to field agents.
The first agent they called was me. After introducing themselves and asking some basic background questions, one of the investigators asked me: “So, Agent Soufan, why does the CIA hate you?” I was taken aback by the question, and paused as I debated how to answer it.
“You must be talking to the wrong crowd down there. Hate is a big term,” I replied. “But to answer your question, I think you’d have to ask them.” The commission team started laughing.
“Let’s move on and focus on al-Qaeda,” said one of the investigators, Douglas J. MacEachin, a thirty-year CIA veteran. “Here’s my question: if you want to look at al-Qaeda and understand what happened, where would you start?”
“Nineteen seventy-nine is where I’d start,” I answered.
Doug’s face lit up. “I must tell you,” he said, “I’m very pleased you said that. Everyone else we’ve spoken to answers by starting just before 9/11, or with the East African embassy bombings or the USS Cole. But in my opinion, you are right. Tell me, why 1979?”
I explained to him what I had told John years earlier, explaining why 1979—with events like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution—was an important year.
“That’s the best explanation we’ve heard, thank you,” one of the staffers said. “Why don’t you now take us through what has happened since 1979 and the cases you’ve been involved in investigating.”
I talked them through a series of cases, including the East African embassy bombings, Operation Challenge, the thwarted millennium attacks in Jordan, and the USS Cole bombing. During this discussion, I sensed that the relationship between us was changing. While they had clearly been briefed negatively about me by some in the CIA, they saw I knew my material, and they were reevaluating me in their minds.
I finished off by mentioning that, as part of the Cole investigation, we had asked the CIA about Khallad and other al-Qaeda operatives being in Malaysia, and that they had denied any knowledge of it. I also mentioned that the CIA had known in January that hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar had a U.S. visa, and that they had known in March that he was in the United States—but that they hadn’t shared this information with the FBI until August 2001.
“The CIA told us,” one investigator interjected, “that as they told the congressional Joint Inquiry, the FBI was told about Khallad being in Malaysia, and the FBI was told about Khalid al-Midhar and Hazmi being here.” (The Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, or JIICATAS911, was conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence between February 2002 and December 2002, and it was widely seen as a failure. This is why the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission was set up.)
“That’s not true,” I replied, “and you can look through all the files we have to see that that information was never passed along. As you know, if information was passed along, it would be in these files. The government works electronically, and there’s a record of everything. In the USS Cole files you’ll see all the requests we made, and their responses saying they didn’t have any information.”
“We want to see all the USS Cole files.”
“Sure. We have lots of files. It could take days.”
“That’s not a problem. We have lots of people to go through them.”
I called in one of my FBI colleagues and asked that all the files for the USS Cole be brought to the investigators. We had files on every individual involved, every witness we had questioned, and every scene we had investigated. Included among the material were thick files with information we had sent to the CIA. A separate file contained information the CIA had passed to us, and that was very thin.
As the files were being brought in, we took a break and I went to speak to Pat D’Amuro. He was with Joe Valiquette, the FBI’s spokesman. “How’s it going, Ali?” Pat asked.
“The challenge I’m facing is that they are claiming the CIA gave us the information on Mihdhar and Khallad being in Malaysia.”
“But they didn’t,” Pat replied.
“Exactly, boss, and in the USS Cole files we’ve got all the documents proving that. What I want to know is whether it’s okay with the bureau that I point out to the investigators exactly where to look. Otherwise they’re just searching through hundreds of files.”
“Absolutely, give them everything they want and need,” Pat replied.
This was a marked change from how the bureau approached the Joint Inquiry, where agents were told that the FBI leadership was just going to accept the “blame” for 9/11 in order not to upset anyone in the CIA and rock the boat. This decision outraged the agents who were on the front lines against al-Qaeda and who knew that the truth was very different. As I walked back into the room the commission investigators were using, I felt liberated.
At one point during my discussions with the 9/11 Commission investigators, I was called into the office of my assistant special agent in charge, Amy Jo Lyons. “Ali, we’ve been getting complaints from the CIA about things you’re saying to the commission,” she said. It seemed that the investigators were going back and asking the CIA new questions based on the information I had given them. And the CIA had complained to FBI headquarters.
“That’s okay with me,” I replied to Amy, “but if people in headquarters are unhappy with me telling the commission what really happened, they can tell me in writing not to cooperate, and I won’t cooperate.”
“No, no,” Amy said, “I just want to know what’s happening here.”
“It’s simple,” I told her. “The commission started asking questions about the Cole and 9/11, and I quickly realized they had been told a series of lies. With Pat’s approval I went through actual documents with them and showed them what really happened.”
“If that’s the case,” Amy replied, “you didn’t do anything wrong. You did exactly what needed to be done.”
When the 9/11 Commission published their findings, everything I said was confirmed by their investigation. On page 355 of the report, they list “Operational Opportunities.” Included in that summary list are:
1. January 2000: the CIA does not watchlist Khalid al-Mihdhar or notify the FBI when it learned Mihdhar possessed a valid U.S. visa.
2. January 2000: the CIA does not develop a transnational plan for tracking Mihdhar and his associates so that they could be followed to Bangkok and onward, including the United States.
3. March 2000: the CIA does not watchlist Nawaf al-Hazmi or notify the FBI when it learned that he possessed a U.S. visa and had flown to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000.
4. January 2001: the CIA does not inform the FBI that a source had identified Khallad, or Tawfiq bin Attash, a major figure in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, as having attended the meeting in Kuala Lumpur with Khalid al-Mihdhar.
5. May 2001: a CIA official does not notify the FBI about Mihdhar’s U.S. visa, Hazmi’s U.S. travel, or Khallad’s having attended the Kuala Lumpur meeting (identified when he reviewed all the relevant traffic because of the high level of threats).
6. June 2001: FBI and CIA officials do not ensure that all relevant information regarding the Kuala Lumpur meeting was shared with the Cole investigators at the June 11 meeting.
The CIA’s own inspector general’s report into 9/11 came to the same conclusions regarding CIA shortcomings and its failure to share intelligence. The report states: “Earlier watchlisting of Mihdhar could have prevented his reentry into the United States in July 2001. Informing the FBI and good operational follow-through by CIA and FBI might have resulted in surveillance of both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. Surveillance, in turn, would have the potential to yield information on flight training, financing, and links to others who were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.” The report goes on to say: “That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systematic breakdown.” The inspector general recommended that an “accountability board review the performance of the CTC chiefs.” (This never happened.)
My discussions with the 9/11 Commission investigators resumed, and we started discussing the “source” in Afghanistan.
“He’s an FBI source developed in Afghanistan before 9/11. We agreed to share him with the CIA. Our agreement with them on the source was that anything gained from the source—he was a criminal investigation source—had to be shared with us.”
“And what happened?”
“After 9/11 we learned that the CIA went behind our backs and showed the pictures of the Malaysia summit meeting—the pictures they wouldn’t share with us—to the source. They didn’t tell us that they had shown him the pictures, nor did they share with us what he told them about the pictures. He didn’t know that the CIA wasn’t sharing information with the FBI; nor was he told why these pictures were important. When the source was shown the pictures from Malaysia in January 2001, he told them he didn’t recognize who Mihdhar was, but he was 90 percent certain that the other person was Khallad.
“We were not told this. This shows that the CIA knew the significance of Malaysia, Khallad, and Mihdhar but actively went out of their way to withhold the information from us. It’s not a case of just not passing on information. This is information the FBI representative working with the source should have been told about. It was a legal requirement. Instead we were deliberately kept out of the loop.”
“We were told by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center that they shared all their information with the FBI from the source and that nothing was hidden,” a commission member responded.
I paused and, thinking out loud, asked, “Did you check all the regular cables?”
“Did you check operational traffic?”
“That must be it,” Doug said, smiling broadly. At first only he understood the point I was making, and he received puzzled looks from other staffers. But then he explained it to them.
Operational traffic refers to cables sent during an operation. The officer will list procedures, leaving a record in case something goes wrong or something needs to be referred to. Because these cables are strictly procedural and not related to intelligence, they would not be sent to the FBI. If someone wanted to hide something from the FBI, that’s where he would put it. Because Doug had worked for the CIA, he knew what operational cables were, while other members of the team might not have.
After investigating the episode, the 9/11 Commission found that this intelligence was indeed hidden in operational traffic.
When an FBI colleague from New York, Frank Pellegrino, briefed the commission after me, a staffer commented about investigators being “unable to connect the dots.”
“What dots?” Frank angrily replied. “There are no dots to connect! It was all there, written in front of them.”
Later I was asked by the 9/11 Commission to travel to Washington with Dan Coleman, Debbie Doran, and a few senior FBI officials to deliver a briefing about al-Qaeda to the full commission. The CIA was represented by some analysts, and the meeting was chaired by the executive director of the commission, Philip Zelikow.
Doug MacEachin, the former CIA official who had become a supporter of mine after our meeting in New York, told me beforehand to give the same briefing I had given them, which I did. The CIA analysts then gave a presentation about the structure of al-Qaeda.
“Is that accurate?” a commission team member asked me.
“No, unfortunately, there is a series of errors in what they think is the structure of al-Qaeda.”
“Well, they said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed runs al-Qaeda’s media committee. This is under the control of Ayman Zawahiri. KSM runs the media office, a cover for their operational planning unit.”
“Can you support your claim?”
“Yes. We found some documents in Afghanistan explaining the structure.”
“Then there’s what they said about Khallad,” I replied. “They said Khallad has never been to the United States. Debbie can tell you that’s false.”
“Yes,” Debbie interjected, “we found that Salah bin Saeed bin Yousef—this is the alias Khallad traveled under—was listed as having traveled to LAX during the millennium.”
“We have Khallad in our custody,” a CIA analyst said, [11 words redacted]
“You may be right, but if he wasn’t there, why is his alias on the flight manifest?”
These are a few of the points we raised, among many others. Some are classified; others I simply cannot recall after all these years. As we walked out of the room at the conclusion of the meeting, one commission staffer came up to us and said: “I have a feeling that between the three of you, you forget more things than they will ever know.”
Years later, on April 23, 2009, Philip Zelikow commented, in a piece on foreignpolicy.com: “I met and interviewed Soufan in the course of my work at the 9/11 Commission, while he was still doing important work at the FBI. . . . My fellow staffers and I considered Soufan to be credible. Indeed, Soufan is fluent in Arabic, and he seemed to us to be one of the more impressive intelligence agents—from any agency—that we encountered in our work.”
Until Debbie, Dan, myself, and other agents briefed the commission, senior FBI managers in Washington didn’t understand the situation. Part of the problem was that the FBI leadership had changed in August 2001. There was a new director, Robert Mueller, with a new senior team, and very few of them had been involved with the significant terrorist cases of the preceding years.
The leadership of the FBI didn’t know that we had been requesting information and that the CIA hadn’t shared it; and they just wanted to move on and start fresh. President George W. Bush had told the FBI and the CIA that he wanted everyone to get along. Again, the implication was that the FBI should just take the criticism and blame for 9/11.
But those of us who knew the truth stated exactly what had happened when we were asked about events under oath before the 9/11 Commission. And when senior FBI officials heard about our performance before the commission, they were surprised. At one point I was asked to brief John Pistole, one of Director Mueller’s chief deputies, prior to his testifying publicly before the 9/11 Commission, but at the last minute the briefing was canceled, as the leadership didn’t want to cause problems for the CIA.
Later, when John Miller, the former ABC journalist who had interviewed bin Laden in 1998, was appointed assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs, he understood the need to correct the narrative. When Lawrence Wright asked for access to people, John told the director: “We need to do this for history. It isn’t about CIA or FBI. We need to tell the American people the truth about an important era.” The director agreed, and the bureau gave Larry access. He then wrote the best-seller The Looming Tower, and he later profiled me in the New Yorker. Between his book and the 9/11 Commission, the truth began to come out.
Those in the CIA who were responsible for not passing on information did their best to ensure that the truth didn’t come out. With approval from the bureau, around the same time we spoke to Wright, Joe Valiquette arranged for Dan Coleman and me to brief a senior journalist from one of the major newspapers. After he spoke to us in New York, he went to the CIA with a bunch of questions.
“What you were told by the FBI is completely false,” a CIA official told him. The journalist asked to see evidence, whereupon the CIA official pointed to a stack of documents, describing the files as consisting of “information disproving everything the FBI said, but it’s all classified, so I can’t show it to you.” The journalist decided to tone down the story. Wright was told the same thing, and veiled threats were made (with reference to his daughter). But he’s a courageous reporter who could read through bluffs, and he had done enough research to be confident in what the truth was, and he wouldn’t be pressured by threats. He wrote his book, and won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
After The 9/11 Commission Report was published and everything I had told the journalist was verified, the journalist contacted Joe Valiquette, told him what the CIA had said, and apologized for not running with the truth. “I was duped. I trusted them,” the journalist told Joe.
What really upset a few people on the seventh floor of Langley—the executive floor—was that the 9/11 Commission flatly contradicted the CIA’s claims about sharing intelligence. The commission showed the American people that if information had been shared, 9/11 might have been prevented.
The most damning passage in The 9/11 Commission Report is found on page 267: “DCI Tenet and Cofer Black testified before Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 that the FBI had access to this identification [of Khallad in Kuala Lumpur] from the beginning. But drawing on an extensive record, including documents that were not available to the CIA personnel who drafted that testimony, we conclude this was not the case.”
In a footnote to that line, one of the sources is “Al. S.” Those in the CIA who had not shared the intelligence knew that this referred to “Ali Soufan,” and they hated me for it.