The Father of Death
September 17, 2001. It was dark outside as Bob and I walked into the interrogation room at PSO headquarters in Sanaa. We had agreed with the Yemenis that it was safest to conduct our interrogations at night. Under cover of darkness there was less of a chance that we would be spotted traveling to and from the prison.
The security threat was greater than ever before, as the new suspect we were about to interrogate, Nasser Ahmad Nasser al-Bahri—widely known as Abu Jandal—was Osama bin Laden’s former personal bodyguard. Al-Qaeda and its supporters certainly didn’t want him talking to us. He was a potential treasure trove of information on the enemy that had just six days earlier murdered so many Americans. The final tally was not yet known, as bodies were still being recovered, but among the dead were friends like my former boss John O’Neill. At the very least, Abu Jandal knew Marwan al-Shehhi, one of the suspected hijackers of United Airlines Flight 175.
Getting information on the hijackers and al-Qaeda in general was a top priority for the U.S. government. The U.S. military was preparing to invade Afghanistan to go after al-Qaeda, and the government was trying to build an international coalition to support its efforts. All U.S. intelligence, military, and law enforcement personnel were under pressure to learn as much as they could about the enemy’s capabilities, plans, locations, and numbers to help the military prepare for war. We were also asked to find evidence to show conclusively that al-Qaeda was behind the attack.
Several world leaders whom the United States wanted to include in its coalition, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Pakistan’s General Musharraf, were not convinced that al-Qaeda was responsible. Musharraf was particularly important given Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan. Abu Jandal was the best lead the United States had so far; we hoped to obtain information from him that might remove these leaders’ doubts and give our military information on the enemy we were about to attack.
We knew of Bahri—born in Saudi Arabia and of Yemeni descent—by his fearsome reputation. In a famous picture of bin Laden walking with his bodyguards, all of the bodyguards have their faces covered to protect their identities except Abu Jandal, who wanted to show he had no fear. Our anonymous source had spoken of Abu Jandal as someone fiercely dedicated to, and trusted by, bin Laden, and someone whom other al-Qaeda members both feared and respected.
He had been arrested by the Yemenis at Sanaa International Airport in February 2001 as he was trying to leave the country to return to Afghanistan. Initially the Yemenis wouldn’t let us question him; they were only letting us interrogate those we could prove were connected to the Cole attack. Although Abu Jandal was a known al-Qaeda member, nothing linked him to the Cole bombing. The Yemenis were holding him because they knew his connection to bin Laden and were suspicious as to why he had been traveling into and out of the country. It was only because Quso had provisionally linked Abu Jandal to 9/11 that we now had access to him.
Bob and I settled into chairs on one side of the table and waited for Abu Jandal to be brought in. We were glad that our usual Yemeni interrogation partners, Colonel Yassir and Major Mahmoud, were with us. We had been working well with them in the Cole investigation. They were talented law enforcement operatives, and we knew that they shared our commitment to justice.
About ten minutes later guards knocked on the door. The door opened and Abu Jandal walked in, very much at ease. He had a thick black beard, closely cropped black hair, balding on top, and piercing brown eyes—which at that moment were glaring at us, as if he wanted to know how we dared to interrogate him.
He wasn’t wearing shackles, handcuffs, or even a prison uniform. Instead he wore a blue thawb and slippers. He didn’t act or dress like a prisoner. He looked healthy and well-rested, and it was clear that he had been treated well during his several months in prison.
Abu Jandal held his head high, and his body language displayed confidence and control. Our Yemeni partners had asked that their names not be said out loud—they didn’t want Abu Jandal to know who they were. They were apparently afraid of him.
When he had taken his seat across the table from Bob and me, with Yassir and Mahmoud against the wall, we began the interrogation. “Hello, Nasser,” I said in Arabic, using his first name to emphasize my familiarity with him. “My name is Ali Soufan, and I’m with the FBI.” I took out my FBI credentials and placed them in front of him on the table.
I wanted to take him out of his comfort zone: he was used to being feared and having deferential Yemeni guards. I wanted him to know that things were different now: he was with Americans and we weren’t scared. “And this is my colleague Bob McFadden, from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” I continued, pointing to Bob, who nodded, “and we’d like to ask you some questions. But first I want to advise you of your rights, which I will now read to you.”
Before I could continue, in one quick movement Abu Jandal stood up, swung his chair so that it faced away from us, and sat back down. Now he had his back to us. He turned his head to the side toward Yassir and Mahmoud, and told them, his brown eyes still glaring: “I will not talk directly to them. If there are any questions, you ask me, not these Americans. They can’t talk to me. You know the rules.” For the next few minutes he lectured them about how they should not allow Americans to question him.
Abu Jandal apparently had been told by sympathetic PSO officials that the Yemenis were meant to be intermediaries between us and any Yemenis we questioned. It was what we had agreed to during the Cole investigation. But the practice had been dropped: to Yassir and Mahmoud and most of the other Yemenis we worked with, it was seen as a waste of time. Why have them repeat, in Arabic, what I had just asked in Arabic? It made little sense and even made them look foolish, and so they had begun to let us speak directly in Arabic to the suspects.
When Abu Jandal finished his rant, I turned to Mahmoud and said dismissively in Arabic, “Go ahead, repeat what I said. If Nasser wants to waste his own time by hearing the same thing twice, that’s fine with me.” I wanted to show Abu Jandal that I wasn’t intimidated; nor did it matter to me if Mahmoud or Yassir had to repeat things. If he was trying to score any psychological points, he had failed. Abu Jandal was silent.
“His name is Ali Soufan, and he’s with the FBI. He wants to ask you some questions, but first he will read you your rights,” Mahmoud said.
“Okay,” Abu Jandal replied, looking at Mahmoud.
“Right,” I said. “Nasser al-Bahri, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law . . .” I continued reading from the form in Arabic. After I had finished, I said: “Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” Silence from Abu Jandal. I nodded to Mahmoud.
“Nasser al-Bahri, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say . . . ,” Mahmoud began, and he repeated verbatim in Arabic what I had just said in Arabic.
“I don’t need a lawyer, I can answer any question. I’m not afraid. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ll answer your questions,” Abu Jandal replied, full of confidence.
“Will you sign a declaration saying you understand yours rights?” I asked.
Abu Jandal was silent. He still had his back to Bob and me and he stared at Mahmoud. Again Mahmoud repeated what I had said: “Will you sign a declaration saying that you understand your rights?”
“I won’t sign, but I verbally tell you it’s okay,” Abu Jandal replied.
“Okay,” I said. “So, Abu Jandal, how are you today?”
Silence. I nodded to Mahmoud. “How are you today?” Mahmoud repeated.
“Good,” Abu Jandal replied to him.
“Good,” Mahmoud told me. I noticed Abu Jandal smirking to himself; the skit amused him. “So you are Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s personal bodyguard?” I asked.
Silence. Mahmoud repeated the question.
“Yes,” he said, “I can’t deny that, because there is only one Abu Jandal, and I am Abu Jandal.” He couldn’t help grinning as he said this. Abu Jandal was clearly proud of his reputation and status in al-Qaeda.
“And you were bin Laden’s personal bodyguard?” I asked. Mahmoud repeated my question.
“Yes,” Abu Jandal replied, “I was, but I left al-Qaeda and am now being held for no reason.”
“How did you join al-Qaeda?” I asked. Mahmoud repeated the question.
“I first went to Bosnia to protect Muslims from Serb brutality, then I went to Afghanistan, where I met bin Laden,” he told Mahmoud, who repeated it to me. We went through a series of basic questions—covering his identity and his role in al-Qaeda—and he answered all our questions, through Mahmoud and Yassir.
While it appeared that Abu Jandal was cooperating, he was in fact practicing a classic counterinterrogation technique. He knew that we were fully aware of who he was, his position in al-Qaeda, and other basic information about him. He knew there was no point denying it, so he readily admitted it in order to appear to be cooperating. But in reality he wasn’t giving us any new information, only basic stuff that he assumed we knew. This made it difficult for us to accuse him of not cooperating.
To get Abu Jandal to cooperate properly and gain new intelligence, we first had to get him to talk directly to us, rather than through the Yemenis. A key to a successful interrogation is to establish rapport with the detainee—a nearly impossible task if he won’t even talk to you. Bob and I began to ask Abu Jandal a series of seemingly irrelevant questions. While they wouldn’t necessarily give us any actual intelligence, they would, importantly, encourage him to open up and talk.
“Why would someone join al-Qaeda?” I asked. Mahmoud repeated the question. It was an open-ended question designed to give Abu Jandal a chance to lecture. Abu Jandal responded by talking about the Islamic tradition of fighting injustice and tyranny, and linked that to the American “occupation” of Muslims lands and Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. I guessed he had spoken about the subject countless times, probably to motivate new al-Qaeda recruits.
We followed up with a series of similar soft questions, ones that Abu Jandal wouldn’t see as problematic to address—ones he would want to respond to. At the same time, the questions made him more emotional, as these were matters close to his heart, and as a result he lost some of his control and deliberation. I asked him about the “injustices” he referred to, and about what he had seen in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
As he got increasingly involved in replying—thinking perhaps that he was convincing me, given the earnestness and respectful tone of my questioning—at times he forgot to wait for Mahmoud to repeat the question and responded directly to me.
We broke in the early hours of the morning, happy to have succeded in getting Abu Jandal to speak and look directly at us. Our first objective had been achieved.
Bob and I returned to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa (then our home and office) and started reviewing our conversation with Abu Jandal and preparing for the next evening’s interview. After a few hours we took a break and went to a nearby local supermarket for some food. As we passed the bakery section, Bob pointed to some sugarless cookies and said to me, with a twinkle in his eye: “Let’s get them for him. We’ll give him the message that Americans are good. Habibi, we are good.” “Habibi” is an Arabic word that literally means “my beloved” but is used as a term of friendship and endearment. Bob was being sarcastic.
During the interrogation we had put some cookies on the table for Abu Jandal, but he hadn’t touched them. We’d asked Yassir why, and he had told us it was because Abu Jandal was diabetic. While I asked more of the questions, Bob focused on manipulating the atmosphere of the interview. Even while taking a break from preparation, he was thinking about how to establish rapport with Abu Jandal.
The next evening, we returned to PSO headquarters and went back into the interrogation room with Mahmoud and Yassir. As Abu Jandal was escorted into the room by his guards, before he had a chance to sit down I greeted him: “As-Salamu Alaykum.”
He shook his head and then slowly replied, “Wa Alaykum as-Salam.” In Islamic culture, if someone says “peace be upon you,” you need to respond in kind. Knowing the culture, we used it to our advantage and got him to start off that evening as he had finished the previous one: speaking directly to us.
I then read Abu Jandal the Miranda warning (we did this every day): “You have the right . . .” Abu Jandal was silent, and he turned his head and glared at Mahmoud, clearly trying to reestablish the boundaries he had had the previous night before he had engaged with us. I nodded to Mahmoud, who repeated the Miranda warning. Abu Jandal again verbally waived his rights, saying he had nothing to hide.
“How are you today?” I asked him. He was silent and looked at Mahmoud.
I nodded to Mahmoud and he repeated my question.
“Good,” Abu Jandal replied.
“Good,” Mahmoud told me.
“We know you didn’t eat the cookies we put out for you yesterday because you have a sugar problem. So today we brought you some sugarless cookies that you can eat.”
Abu Jandal’s face registered surprise. He had been taught to expect cruelty from Americans, not kindness. He seemed at a loss for how to respond.
“Shukran,” he said slowly, looking at me and again shaking his head. Under Islamic traditions, you need to thank someone for a kindness, and Abu Jandal was well versed in Islamic etiquette. Now he looked at me, rather than Mahmoud, waiting for the next question.
We started off by asking him light personal questions, ones he’d have no problem answering. The aim was to warm him up. Every detainee is different. Abu Jandal was by nature talkative. He liked to lecture and liked being listened to. He was intelligent and well read, unlike many other al-Qaeda terrorists I had interrogated, so we used leverage on his personality and engaged him intellectually.
“So you left al-Qaeda in 2000?” I asked, accepting his claim from the previous evening that when he returned to Yemen in 2000 it was because he was leaving al-Qaeda.
“Yes,” he replied directly to me. “Although the fact that I’m here talking to you shows that you can’t really leave,” he said in a sarcastic tone.
“In fact,” he continued, “Abu Mohammed al-Masri told me, ‘If you think by leaving Afghanistan they [the Americans] will leave you alone, you are wrong. This is a war. Either we will win or die. There is no place for turning back.’” He had used an alias for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the al-Qaeda shura council member and mastermind of the East African embassy bombings. He paused, as if for effect, and then continued with a shrug and a half-smile, “And he’s right, here I am with you, even though I left.”
“Why did you leave al-Qaeda?” I asked, ignoring Abu Jandal’s comment and sticking to our plan of having him talk about comfortable topics.
“For many reasons,” he replied. “First of all, because of my wife and children . . .” He explained that his son Habib had a bone condition and that they couldn’t get adequate treatment in Afghanistan. Another reason for leaving, he told us, was because his wife was unhappy in Afghanistan.
“Why was she unhappy?” I asked.
“Because Bin Laden had given me money to bring to someone in Yemen, which turned out to be for a new bride for bin Laden himself. She was very young, and the other wives resented me for bringing her, and in turn were mean to my wife.” Abu Jandal told us that he thought he was being sent with the funds for what he termed a “martyrdom operation” and was upset to learn that he was simply being used as a courier for wedding arrangements.
“So it was only for those personal reasons that you left al-Qaeda?” I asked. “There were no ideological reasons?” If there were ideological differences, it would be a good basis upon which to tease information out of Abu Jandal, Bob and I had calculated.
“No, there were,” he replied. “I also didn’t agree with some things bin Laden did.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like when he pledged bayat to Mullah Omar.”
“Why did you object to that?” I asked. Our conversation was a steady back-and-forth at this point.
“It meant that all al-Qaeda members who had pledged bayat to bin Laden were obligated to follow Mullah Omar. To me that’s not what al-Qaeda is meant to be, and not what I signed up for. I didn’t sign up to join the Taliban.”
“What is al-Qaeda meant to be?” I asked. Abu Jandal gave his views, which were based on bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war and liberating the holy lands and the Arabian Peninsula from the presence of crusaders and Jews. From this topic, Bob and I steered the conversation toward his religious justifications for joining al-Qaeda. I gently challenged those religious justifications, citing passages from the Quran that appeared not to square with his view. I wanted to test Abu Jandal’s knowledge and see how firmly committed he was to his religious views, and to impress on him that I, too, was well versed in Islamic theology.
Abu Jandal countered by citing Islamic scholars who supported his position, and I replied by citing scholars who disagreed with his scholars. We had a spirited yet friendly debate, quoting authorities and passages from the Quran between us. Abu Jandal seemed to be enjoying himself, and enjoying the challenge. He voiced his wonder at one point, saying: “It’s fascinating to me how you can be a Muslim, know so much about Islam, and yet have such a radically different view from mine about America, al-Qaeda, and jihad.”
“I hope this leads you to rethink some of your stands,” I told him with a smile.
Our conversation veered into revolutions, which we had learned, the night before, was a favorite topic of Abu Jandal’s. After telling us about the Islamic tradition of revolutions for the sake of justice, he told us, “Revolutions don’t only happen in the Islamic world because of injustice. Non-Muslims also have revolutions.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“It’s true. In fact a revolution in Scotland started because the British general ruling the country insisted on sleeping with every woman before she got married, and one man refused. As a punishment they killed his wife, and in response he declared war on the British and . . .”
“Hold on,” I said, interrupting him, “are you talking about a movie? It’s Braveheart, right?” I recognized his description of the Mel Gibson movie.
“Yes, yes,” he said excitedly, grinning broadly. When he smiles, Abu Jandal’s face lights up, and the gaps in his front teeth become visible. “I saw it with my wife. I loved that film.” We agreed that it was a great movie, and for a few minutes we discussed it and compared our favorite scenes.
“You know, Abu Jandal,” I told him, ending the Braveheart conversation, “I know about the revolutionary tradition in Islam, and you’re clearly very well read in it. But did you know that America also has a revolutionary past?” He shook his head and leaned in. He was curious. He liked learning new things, especially on his favorite topics.
“It’s true,” I continued. “We Americans understand revolutions. We had our own revolution. America used to be ruled by the British. But in 1776 Americans had enough of British cruelty and taxes, and under George Washington, who was then a general but later became the first American president, we revolted against the British and defeated them. Only then did America become a country.” Abu Jandal was fascinated and asked me questions about the American Revolution.
He was now speaking directly to us, and Bob and I moved to the second stage of the interrogation: asking him more detailed questions about himself and al-Qaeda. While he continued answering our questions directly, he was still practicing the classic counterinterrogation technique of admitting to what he knew we knew and to things that were of no value, so as to appear cooperative.
We needed to snap him out of this counterinterrogation technique. “We’re going to do something different now.” I reached into my briefcase and took out one of our al-Qaeda photo-books, placing it on the table and sliding it toward him. “This is filled with people you know,” I said. “I’d like you to confirm who you know.”
“Sure,” Abu Jandal said. “I’ll take a look.” He picked up the book and began looking through it.
While he appeared to earnestly study each photo—his eyebrows furrowed and his forehead wrinkled, a few seconds allotted to each—he kept shaking his head and said he knew almost none of the people. There were about sixty photos. By the end, he had only identified Osama bin Laden, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Ayman Zawahiri, and few other known operatives. Those were people he couldn’t deny knowing, given his admission that he had been Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. Abu Hafs was, at the time of Abu Jandal’s service, bin Laden’s anointed successor.
“That’s all you recognize?” I asked, deliberately adding surprise to my voice.
“Yes, I don’t recognize anyone else, sorry,” he responded.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Please look again, my friend. Do you think I ask without knowing that you know many of these people? I’m confident you know more people. Look again.”
“Okay, I’ll look again,” he said, again trying to show that he was cooperating, and maintaining the friendly relationship we had built.
He looked slowly through the book, spending a few more seconds than before on each photo. “Sorry, there’s no one else I know.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“Well, for friendship’s sake, would you look one more time?”
“Okay, for you I will,” he said with a smile.
He looked at picture after picture, shaking his head after examining each one. As he got about halfway through, I laughed and turned to Bob. “See?”
“What?” Abu Jandal asked somewhat nervously, trying to work out what was going on. He didn’t like being on the outside of a joke.
“I knew you wouldn’t be straight with us,” I told him. “I told Bob you wouldn’t admit to knowing people.”
“What do you mean?” Abu Jandal asked, his voice sounding a bit less confident than usual.
“Come on,” I said, “take this picture.” I pointed to a photo on the page he had been looking at. “Are you claiming you don’t know al-Sharqi?” Sharqi was an al-Qaeda alias for Shehhi, the hijacker who Quso had told us had stayed in Abu Jandal’s guesthouse.
Abu Jandal was silent, with a poker face. “Do you think I don’t know about your relationship with him?” I continued. “Remember Ramadan 1999, when he was sick in your guesthouse? And as his emir you cared for him and gave him soup and nursed him back to health?” Abu Jandal began to blush. “So do you really not know him?” I asked.
“Yes, I do know him,” he admitted sheepishly. After a pause, as if calculating the situation, he added, “Sorry.” We didn’t mention anything about Shehhi being one of the 9/11 hijackers; and Shehhi’s name had not yet been released to the press as a suspected hijacker.
“When I ask you a question, I most probably know the answer,” I told him. “I am just testing you to see if you are cooperating and being honest, as you claim you are. Now, if you don’t want to cooperate, just say so, but please don’t lie to me and waste my time by pretending that you don’t know these people.” Abu Jandal looked down, embarrassed. He had been caught lying, undermining not only his claims of cooperating but, more importantly in his book, of being a religious person—in Islam, as in other religions, lying is a sin. “Look,” I continued, “I thought you were an honest guy. Feeding someone soup is very personal. How do you think I know about it? I know about your relationships with many in this book. I didn’t fly all the way from America to interview you knowing nothing. You don’t know how many of your friends I have in my custody, or who worked for me, and how many have spoken about you. So please let’s not play games, and let’s go through this honestly.”
“Okay, okay,” Abu Jandal said.
“Let’s start at the beginning of the book,” I replied. He went through and identified one al-Qaeda operative after another. We never let on that the only person we knew he knew for certain was Shehhi. He identified, as al-Qaeda members, seven of those who were later identified as 9/11 hijackers, including hijacker leader Mohammed Atta, whom he had met in the bin Laden compound in Kandahar, and whom he identified as Abu Abdul Rahman al-Masri. Abu Jandal said he thought he had met Nawaf al-Hazmi in bin Laden’s main Kabul guesthouse. He also recognized Salem al-Hazmi, whom he had seen on the front lines in Kabul. He went on to recount where he had seen Ahmed al-Ghamdi and Mohand al-Shehri. He gave us all the nationalities and al-Qaeda aliases of the hijackers, something we hadn’t known at the time.
When shown a picture of Khalid al-Mihdhar, Abu Jandal recognized him by the alias Sinan al-Maki. “Now, Sinan,” Abu Jandal told us, “is married to the sister of Abu Jaffar al-Yemeni, who died in 1997. Abu Jaffar was the son of Ahmed al-Hada. Abu Jaffar was a good friend of mine, and he wanted me to marry one of his sisters, but she changed her mind.”
Ahmed al-Hada was the Yemeni whose phone number was used as an al-Qaeda switchboard. “Is Hada a member of al-Qaeda?”
“Yes, and he even fought on the front lines.”
“What did you think of him?”
“Sinan told me that Hada was known to be very cheap, and that his family in Saudi Arabia didn’t approve of him marrying into a lowly Yemeni family.”
We continued the discussion along these lines, still not saying anything to Abu Jandal about the men being 9/11 hijackers. To him they were just people he had met in safe houses and training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, no different from the other al-Qaeda operatives he had identified. Abu Jandal was unaware that al-Qaeda was behind 9/11. The terrorists whose pictures we had shown him were also those involved in the USS Cole and East African embassy attacks, and he assumed that our questions were related to those incidents.
But for us, this was the first time we had definite confirmation that seven of the suspected hijackers were in fact al-Qaeda members. We now knew for certain that al-Qaeda was behind 9/11.
After he had finished identifying people, I closed the book and said, “Thank you for looking at this. Let’s switch to other topics.” We started talking about the operatives he had identified who were part of the 1998 East African embassy bombings.
I asked Abu Jandal, “Where does Islam allow suicide bombers? Suicide is forbidden in the Quran.”
“Generally that’s true,” he conceded, “but it’s different in war, which is what we’re in. These are our weapons against the missiles of the other side. And so it’s allowed.”
“What about the women and the children that your suicide bombers kill?” I countered. “Where does the Quran justify killing innocents?”
“Like who?” he asked.
“In the East Africa bombings,” I replied, “women and children were killed, and many of them were Muslims.”
“In war there are casualties,” he countered. “If they were good Muslims then God will accept them as martyrs.”
“Hold on,” I said. “I worked the East African bombing. I remember, for example, that we found the remains of a woman and her baby in a bus in front of the Nairobi embassy. Both were incinerated. The mother’s arms were wrapped around the baby, as if trying to protect it. Tell me, what crime did the baby commit? What’s the justification for killing that baby?”
Abu Jandal had a ready reply: “The baby’s reward will come in heaven. Those deaths were a small sacrifice for the wound the bombing inflicted on our enemy and for the inspiration it gave to hundreds of others to become martyrs. Any innocent Muslims killed will be rewarded for their sacrifice in heaven.” A classic attempt to explain away the murder of innocent bystanders, often given by al-Qaeda’s alleged theologians.
Abu Jandal then quoted bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of jihad and told us, “God chooses a contractor [referring to bin Laden] and high school students to defend his religion and launch jihad against his enemies.” This was the first time Abu Jandal had mentioned bin Laden launching attacks. “High school students” referred to the young age of al-Qaeda fighters.
“So this is why there are attacks like what happened recently in New York and Washington?” I asked, seizing on his comment.
“The reason for such attacks and the reason for your [pointing to us] presence here [pointing to the ground] is America’s foreign policies—your occupation of the Arabian Peninsula, the continuous blockade and attacks on Iraq, and the support of Israel in killing and occupying the land of the Palestinians.” He added, “For every action there is a reaction.”
“So were you guys behind the attacks last week?” I asked.
“I am not aware who did it,” he replied.
“I think you guys did it,” I said. Our voices were rising.
“No, this is just a plan for you to attack Afghanistan. And if you do, the mujahideen will rebel, and operations will happen in America itself.” He paused and then said: “The war has not started yet, but if we can hit more, we will.”
Coincidentally, Bob pointed out a Yemeni newspaper from that day, which had been lying on Mahmoud’s desk, with a headline reporting that two hundred Yemenis had been killed in the World Trade Center. (This figure later turned out to be a mistake.) I read the headline out loud—“Two Hundred Yemenis Die in New York Attack”—and showed Abu Jandal the newspaper.
“God help us,” Abu Jandal said, clearly shocked by the number of Yemenis killed.
“Is this justifiable?” I asked.
“No, it’s a horrible crime,” he replied.
“So what do you say to the families of these Yemenis killed in the World Trade Center on behalf of al-Qaeda?” I asked. “What type of Muslim would do this?”
“Bin Laden didn’t do this,” he countered. He waved his hand as if to dismiss my comment. “The sheikh is not crazy,” he added.
“I know al-Qaeda did this attack.” I was staring hard at him.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Someone told me.”
“Who told you?”
“You did. You identified the hijackers of the planes as being al-Qaeda members.” As I completed the sentence, I placed on the table the photos of the seven hijackers he had identified, including Mohammed Atta, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Marwan al-Shehhi. “These are the hijackers,” I said, pointing to them. “They killed the two hundred Yemenis.”
Abu Jandal slouched back in his chair as if he had been punched in the stomach. His face registered complete shock. After looking blankly ahead in disbelief, his head dropped and he rested it between his hands, with his elbows propped on his knees. He was silent.
About a minute later I repeated: “These are the hijackers. These are the men who murdered thousands of innocent people.”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Can I have five minutes, please?”
“Okay,” I said, and signaled to Bob that we should walk out. Yassir walked out with us.
“What just happened? Why did you walk out?” Yassir asked. “You had him.” He didn’t understand why we’d let the moment pass. “Why did you agree to give him five minutes?”
“Let him compose himself,” I said. “He knows he has just identified al-Qaeda as being behind the attacks. It’s a big admission. We need it to sink in to his mind, too. The moment isn’t lost. We’ve got him now.”
We walked back in two minutes later. Abu Jandal still had his head between his hands. “What do you think now?” I asked. He was quiet for a few moments, then looked up and stared directly at me.
“I think the sheikh went crazy. I know these guys. They are all bin Laden’s followers. We used to hang out together.” He shook his head and paused. “I don’t know what to say,” he continued. “This is not what I believe in. I will cooperate fully. What do you need?”
We started off by asking Abu Jandal to tell us everything he knew about the hijackers he had identified. True to his word, he cooperated fully. This was a different person from the Abu Jandal we had first met. He gave us details and valuable information. Among the terrorists he spoke about was Zacarias Moussaoui, who had been arrested on August 16, 2001, by the FBI for suspicious activities related to airplanes. In Abu Jandal’s estimation, Moussaoui was a simpleton.
After discussing the hijackers we turned to members of al-Qaeda’s leadership. Many of the names he supplied were new to us, as was a lot of the organizational structure. The U.S. government’s knowledge of al-Qaeda’s day-to-day operations was dated to when the group was in Sudan.
The 1998 East African embassy bombings had put al-Qaeda on the international terrorism map and had increased the group’s size and funding. This, and the move to Afghanistan, had changed the way it operated. (Neither Junior nor Kherchtou had moved back to Afghanistan with bin Laden.) Abu Jandal filled in the gaps and gave us a more complete picture of the enemy we were now facing.
He outlined the al-Qaeda shura council, and described the personal habits of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, Saif al-Adel, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Assim al-Maghrebi, whose real name was Abdullah Tabarak. We knew that Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (a Mauritian, as his alias indicated) was the only person in al-Qaeda with religious training; he headed the theology, or fatwa, committee. Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, an Egyptian, had taken over the finances and administration of al-Qaeda from Madani al-Tayyib. Abu Assim al-Maghrebi was an old colleague of bin Laden’s who had fought with him against the Soviets and who had gone with him to Sudan; it was after the East African embassy bombings that bin Laden had asked him to head the bodyguard detachment.
Abu Jandal explained how and when the operatives and the leadership held meetings. “Abu Hafs and some of the others would regularly meet with bin Laden. But when they all met, the brothers would joke, ‘Al-Shiba [the old men] are meeting, may God help us.’ Because they knew it meant a big operation was coming.” Abu Jandal grinned at the memory.
“Then there’s the military committee, headed by Abu Hafs al-Masri,” Abu Jandal continued. “He also heads the special operations committee, in which Saif al-Adel is involved, and Saif, too, is a senior member of al-Qaeda. He heads the security committee.”
“Is this Abu Hafs?” I asked, showing a picture.
“Yes.” After Abu Jandal had identified Abu Hafs, he laughed.
“I’m just remembering the story of when, during the battle of Jaji, Abu Hafs killed a Russian soldier, and then called up bin Laden while standing on the soldier and told him, ‘I’ve got a Russian officer under my shoe.’”
When we showed him a picture of Saif al-Adel, Abu Jandal said, “It’s out of date.”
“Well, Saif has a scar under his right eye from when a bullet ricocheted and hit him.”
“Do you like him?”
“Members from the Arabian Peninsula don’t usually like his rough manner,” Abu Jandal replied with a grin.
We showed him a series of pictures and he identified everyone he knew in the movement, though often he knew them only by their aliases. “This is Yaqoub al-Dusari, who assists Abu Hafs in the military committee,” he told us, studying one picture. We knew the person in the photograph as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, alias Harun Fazul, from the East African embassy bombings.
“What are the other committees?” Bob asked.
“The public relations committee is headed by Abu Hussein al-Masri and Abu Annas al-Yemeni,” he said. (Ayman Zawahiri had taken over the committee sometime after Abu Jandal was put in jail.) “And the finance committee is headed by Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, who is director of funds, and al-Fateh al-Masri, emir of salaries. Finally, there is the theology committee, headed by Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. That is the senior leadership.” Abu Hussein al-Masri was a son-in-law of Zawahiri’s; Abu Annas al-Yemeni was Ali al-Bahlul, the operative who had created the al-Qaeda propaganda video following the Cole attack.
Below those people, Abu Jandal explained that there were key operatives like Khallad, whose job was to help and motivate the operatives carrying out the attacks. Khallad didn’t plan, but he was assigned tasks outside Afghanistan, such as distributing money, providing fake passports, giving instructions to operatives from bin Laden, and relaying their replies. Abu Jandal seemed to admire him.
“Although Khallad is young, his influence is very notable,” Abu Jandal told us. Khallad was in his twenties. Abu Jandal’s only criticism of him—and this was echoed by other al-Qaeda members we interrogated—was his neglect of his younger brothers, Omayer and al-Bara, after the death of their elder brother, Muhannad. Abu Jandal told us that at one point he had confronted Khallad because Omayer was living with takfiris. Takfiris’ enemies are the near enemy, the governments of their own countries; they don’t believe in the global enemy that al-Qaeda believes in. While al-Qaeda adopts some takfir ideology, it isn’t overwhelmingly takfiri; and takfiris disliked bin Laden because he took their operatives and distracted them from the near enemy to his global jihad. “You’re not acting like Muhannad would have,” Abu Jandal had lectured Khallad, which had prompted Khallad to set his brother straight.
These stories about al-Qaeda members were useful both in helping us to understand the personalities of the people we were up against and in terms of future interrogations. We could show suspects that we were intimately familiar with their lives and that denial would be pointless. So we encouraged Abu Jandal to tell us as much about operatives as he could. And he did. Saif al-Adel, for example, according to Abu Jandal, had a “notorious temper and quick tongue and is known to make threats against al-Qaeda members who anger him.”
Our conversation moved on to bin Laden’s personal security detail, something with which Abu Jandal was intimately familiar. “The sheikh’s bodyguards are personally selected by him. They are then trained by Saif al-Adel and Abu Hafs al-Masri, who teach security procedures.”
Abu Jandal explained that bin Laden’s bodyguards were trusted and important members of al-Qaeda, even sleeping in the same room as the al-Qaeda leader. Abu Jandal had his own room, however, because he was a noisy sleeper, a source of some embarrassment to him: he made “noises” with his “teeth” and didn’t want to awaken bin Laden. He detailed the weapons the bodyguards carried. Their arsenal included SAM-7 and Stinger missiles, AK-47s, RPGs, and PK machine guns (similar to an M60).
Of particular importance, Abu Jandal said, was Abu Assim al-Maghrebi (Abdullah Tabarak), appointed head of the bodyguard detachment after the East African embassy bombings. According to Abu Jandal, Tabarak was on the al-Qaeda shura council. (Documents we found later indicated that he wasn’t, but often sat in on meetings because he was close to bin Laden.) Tabarak was at one point in U.S. custody in Guantánamo Bay, but was handed over to the Moroccans, who later freed him. As of this writing, he is a free man in Morocco.
To Abu Jandal, al-Qaeda was an extended family. He told us that the way bin Laden structured the organization was as one big tribe, with himself as sheikh. It was a way to create loyalty and bonds among members, and bin Laden encouraged not only Abu Jandal and Saqr but other members to intermarry. When speaking about Hamdan, Abu Jandal told us that when his own son, Habib, was born, minutes after he came out of the womb, Saqr quickly took the newborn and ran to bin Laden before Abu Jandal could stop him. “Sheikh, Sheikh, here’s Abu Jandal’s son, Habib,” Saqr cried. The al-Qaeda leader took the baby, chewed some dates in his mouth, and removed a piece or two and put them on Habib’s lips, reciting adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, in both of his ears. Both Abu Jandal and Saqr were proud that the first taste Habib experienced was from bin Laden’s lips.
Despite learning that bin Laden was behind 9/11, from our conversation it was clear that Abu Jandal still cherished his connection to the al-Qaeda leader and was somewhat enthralled by him. Bin Laden’s daily routine was to rise before dawn, pray at the mosque, and then return home. He spent time with his family (he had four wives and many children) and went back to the mosque for more prayers. Afterward, he met with his followers and dealt with al-Qaeda affairs. Abu Jandal described bin Laden’s house as “very simple, with not even a carpet on the floor.” He smiled, as this had triggered a memory. At one point when Abu Jandal was sick, bin Laden came to visit him. When the al-Qaeda leader saw furniture, a bookshelf, and a carpet in Abu Jandal’s home, he told him with a smile: “Look at all this, and you call yourself a mujahid.” Abu Jandal relished the visit.
Even when recalling bin Laden’s nonreligious or non–al-Qaeda-related actions, Abu Jandal was in awe. He told us that often they would play soccer, and that bin Laden was a good player. “Everybody wants Abu Abdullah on their team because he scores goals,” Abu Jandal said.
We spent time talking about al-Qaeda’s different training camps and compounds—all important information for our military. The emir of each camp and each housing complex filed reports on activities and members, and bin Laden himself met with the various emirs. The security reports and personnel data were retained by Saif al-Adel.
We turned to the equipment the group used, starting with their communication system. “To communicate with each other,” Abu Jandal said, “al-Qaeda uses the Yaesu brand radio system, which is solar-powered. Messages are encrypted through a small Casio computer, and an operator reads numbers through the radio. An operator on the other end takes numbers and puts them into the computer to decipher them. Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi implemented the system. The sheikh doesn’t use it himself, but Sa’eed al-Masri does it for him.”
For transportation, al-Qaeda used Toyota pickup trucks (the Hilux model), along with fourteen passenger buses. Bin Laden got the Toyotas from the United Arab Emirates and liked them because of their “maneuverability.” When bin Laden traveled, his security team followed certain procedures to secure the areas, including looking for buried land mines.
Abu Jandal outlined for us the weapons al-Qaeda used, from the air defense weapons and radars (and how they were stored and transported) to the handguns bodyguards carried. He also told us everything he knew about the weapons and capabilities of al-Qaeda’s Taliban hosts. When we asked Abu Jandal if he thought the Taliban would remain supportive of al-Qaeda if the United States attacked, he told us that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, once said, “Only if the whole country of Afghanistan was burned and every Afghani killed would we be permitted to surrender a Muslim to the infidels.”
Abu Jandal outlined the al-Qaeda training process and the facilities they had available for use. “When trainees arrive they first go through an orientation at the guesthouse, usually given by the public relations emir. He emphasizes the heavenly rewards bestowed on those who are patient and disciplined during training, and he also stresses the importance of morals and Islamic behavior.”
Next they would go to a training camp, where they studied military discipline, administrative issues, and military formations. The trainees were taught to use light weapons, and they took courses in artillery, topography, first aid, and basic explosives, finally advancing to guerrilla warfare. Training concluded with military exercises in which targets were attacked.
“That’s regular training,” Abu Jandal continued. “But some trainees, because of their dedication, morals, and discipline, are selected to attend advanced and specialized training. Saif al-Adel gives an advanced security session. It teaches trainees how to select a target for an operation, gather information on the target, take photographs, and anything else that’s necessary.” Advanced training in explosives and electronics was provided by Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir and Tariq al-Tunisi, but only if authorized by bin Laden himself, and usually for operatives tasked with a mission.
Saif al-Adel also put out regular security announcements, warning brothers not to speak about official business, and instructed them in what to do before traveling outside Afghanistan, such as having a barber cut their hair and beard so they would blend in. Abu Jandal then listed some more of the advice operatives received before traveling.
“Is bin Laden involved in the training?” I asked.
“Yes,” Abu Jandal replied, “the sheikh often helps with training. I remember once we went into the desert and he gave us a training session he called Desert Fox, on how to maneuver at night in the dessert. At another point, he took us to the desert on a very hot day and told us to run to the top of one hill in the sand and back. When we returned, he told us, ‘Your path is as difficult and hard as running, but at the end, as on the peak of the hill after conquering it, it is God’s paradise.’ The men were all inspired.”
There were exercises where trainees learned how to hijack planes and were taught assassination techniques. In one exercise they built a skeleton base behind the Khaldan camp and raised an American flag on one of the buildings. Trainees were told to imagine that the base was an American base and to attack it.
Another topic we covered was how al-Qaeda planned an attack, including who would be involved and what the different stages would be. Usually bin Laden met with his military committee—its head, Mohammed Atef, and others, including Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Saif al-Adel. He also met with the consultative committee, which included Sa’eed al-Masri, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Abu Jandal added that if there was to be a major operation, senior members had to be informed of the justification. Before the East African embassy bombings, they were told, as justification for bombing the embassies, that U.S. Operation Restore Hope had killed thirty thousand Muslims and that the embassies were centers of U.S. intelligence in East Africa.
While on the subject of the embassy bombings, we asked Abu Jandal what he knew about them. He confessed that he had asked bin Laden if he could be a suicide bomber for the attack—a contradiction of his earlier claim of opposing suicide attacks. Bin Laden told him, “This isn’t your time,” and counseled patience.
He told us what he knew about those involved, including Owhali. Abu Jandal remembered seeing Owhali’s picture in the paper under a fake name after the bombing. “I think the alias was Khalid Salem,” he said.
“What do you think we should do with him?” I asked.
“The best thing you can do is execute him,” Abu Jandal said.
“He wants to be a martyr and doesn’t want to live,” Abu Jandal said sincerely, in consideration of Owhali’s interests.
After discussing East Africa, Abu Jandal also told us what he knew about al-Qaeda’s London cell, headed by Fawwaz, former head of the Kenyan cell. When the news came that Fawwaz had been arrested, bin Laden was upset. “He told us that he had told Fawwaz to leave London and come to Afghanistan, but he didn’t listen,” Abu Jandal said, recounting what bin Laden had told him. Bin Laden went on to praise Fawwaz, according to Abu Jandal, and told him that Fawwaz was “a good example and had a capacity that we hope God will compensate us for in return.”
We moved on to other al-Qaeda operations, including the USS Cole bombing. The conversation started after we showed Abu Jandal a picture of Hassan al-Khamiri, one of the suicide bombers. He said he knew him: “This is Hassan, may God bless his soul.”
“How do you know he is dead?” I asked.
Abu Jandal replied, “A feeling inside me tells me he is.” He then admitted that he had seen Khamiri’s photo in a newspaper, identifying him as one of the Cole suicide bombers. Abu Jandal told us that Khamiri had been the emir of the al-Farouq training camp, hit by U.S. missiles in response to the East African embassy bombings. The experience had a devastating effect on Khamiri. Abu Jandal took us through the other operatives he knew who were involved in the Cole, such as Nashiri.
We discussed Americans he had met who had converted to Islam and had gone to Afghanistan. The conversation segued into a discussion of attempts by outside intelligence agencies to try to infiltrate al-Qaeda. Abu Jandal told us that one operative had been recruited by a foreign intelligence agency after being taken to a hotel room, shown pornographic movies, sodomized, and then blackmailed. He folded after Saif al-Adel accused him of being a spy, confessing that in fact that was the case. There were similar stories involving the intelligence of other countries.
The interview with Abu Jandal lasted the entire night. We wanted to get everything we could in that session, in case he changed his mind later about cooperating. When we eventually finished, he seemed relieved and said to me, “Can I ask you a favor?”
“Please,” he said, “please send my condolences to the American people from a terrorist who used to be part of al-Qaeda.”
At the start of the next evening’s session, I greeted Abu Jandal and said, “Remember what I told you about America’s revolutionary history?”
“Yes,” he replied eagerly.
“Well, here’s a book on that topic. I think you’ll enjoy it.” I handed him a book (in Arabic) about George Washington and the history of the American Revolution that I had found in the U.S. Embassy.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the book gratefully.
We spent that session and every evening for the next week and a half speaking to Abu Jandal and following up on matters raised in the second night’s session that we wanted more information on. Abu Jandal came to enjoy our conversations, and would give us all the information we wanted as we joked and drank tea together. Much later, when we bade him farewell and left Yemen, he hugged Bob and me and invited us to visit his house in Yemen “when I am free and out of jail.”
Abu Jandal talked to us about his path to al-Qaeda. Though he was born in Jeddah, his family later moved to Yemen. His strong religious devotion surfaced around 1988. He started attending a mosque in Sanaa and began studying theology and the Quran. As the war in Bosnia raged, inspired by his teachers and provoked by images and stories of massacres and the rape of Muslim women and children by marauding Serbs, he traveled to Bosnia to help the Muslims fight back.
Back then you couldn’t travel to Bosnia from Yemen directly, so he took a roundabout route. From Sanaa he flew to Damascus, Syria; from there, he drove to Istanbul, Turkey; and from the Turkish capital he flew to Zagreb, Croatia. From Zagreb he drove to Zenitsa, Bosnia, where he was received by the Mujahideen Brigade, the name given to the Arab mujahideen, mostly veterans from Afghanistan, who fought in Bosnia. He gave them his passport and valuables to look after, so that if he was killed in battle no one could identify him as a foreign fighter, and he trained in a camp for forty-five days.
He learned how to use Kalashnikov machine guns, PK machine guns, and RPGs, and also learned topography and combat tactics. After completing the training course, Abu Jandal went to the front lines and engaged in combat against Serb forces. He didn’t fight for long, however, because soon after he went to the front, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, and Abu Jandal, along with other foreign fighters, was deported. Abu Jandal said that leaders of the foreign fighters, including Abu al-Hareth al-Liby, Abu Hamza al-Jaza’eri, Abu Ziad al-Najdi, and Abu Hammam al-Najaji, were assassinated during this period, after which Abu Jandal and his group were told that they had to leave the country and were no longer needed.
To conceal their identities from spies of their home governments and other intelligence entities, all fighters were given aliases. Abu Jandal had originally picked “Abu Hamza” but was told that it was too common. An Egyptian acquaintance suggested that “Abu Jandal,” with its implication that the bearer of the name could be an agent of death, would be fitting.
In 1996 Abu Jandal traveled to Somalia to help Muslim fighters who were trying to take over the country. They were battling invading Ethiopian forces who opposed their taking control. However, the Somalis, he discovered, were selective with regard to who could fight. From among the group that Abu Jandal had arrived with, only he was accepted—because his dark complexion allowed him to blend in easily. To “avoid complications,” the Somalis declined to use anyone who was patently foreign-born: they wished to maintain the appearance of a native force. Abu Jandal’s description of his route to Somalia matched the route that L’Houssaine Kherchtou had told us al-Qaeda used to transport fighters.
After being accepted, Abu Jandal was approached by ministers from the Islamic Union Movement, or Itihad Islami (his hosts), and asked if he had money to give them “for our cause.” This put Abu Jandal over the edge. “We are not here for the jihad of money, nor the jihad of color,” he angrily told them. He didn’t like their attitude toward fighting and toward fellow Muslims. Without having fought a battle in Somalia, he returned to Yemen.
Later that year he met Muhannad bin Attash, Khallad’s elder brother, at the al-Qaeda guesthouse on October Street in Sanaa. Muhannad, an inspiring figure, convinced Abu Jandal to go to Tajikistan with him to wage jihad. They traveled to Karachi first and met up with other foreign fighters, and this group became known, unofficially, as the Northern Group. Abu Jandal was among the members of the group who in 1996 pledged bayat to bin Laden. He identified the members of the group for us.
Abu Jandal went to the front lines to fight alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. During a battle he injured the bottom of his foot and was evacuated to Khost. He spent three months recovering, and then went to Kandahar to join bin Laden. He served as one of the guards—along with Khallad, Hamdan, and others—during the May 1998 press conference of bin Laden’s following the ABC interview.
After the East African bombings, bin Laden enlisted Abu Jandal, Saqr al-Jadawi, Fayadh al-Madani, and Mu’awiya al-Madani as his bodyguards. Bin Laden gave Abu Jandal a gun with two bullets and told him, “If I am ever about to be captured, kill me first.” The gun and those bullets became Abu Jandal’s most prized possessions.
After a trip to Yemen, Abu Mohammed al-Masri recommended that Abu Jandal be made emir of the Kabul guesthouse. There had been a dispute between al-Qaeda operatives from Egypt and al-Qaeda members from the Arabian Peninsula as to who should be in charge of it. Bin Laden realized that he needed someone who was respected by both groups—and he felt that Abu Jandal fit that bill. Abu Jandal was honored to be appointed.
As emir, his job was to interview people who came to stay, find out why they had come to Afghanistan, and test them to see if they were suitable candidates for membership in al-Qaeda. For this duty he was paid $64 a month by bin Laden. Abu Jandal also traveled around to different training camps, meeting recruits and advocating jihad against America and the importance of al-Qaeda.
Later he moved from Kabul to Kandahar, where he stayed in the bin Laden compound and was paid $94 a month by bin Laden to help protect him. At this point he was recognized as a central figure in the entourage.
Abu Jandal treasured the book on George Washington. (Attorneys who years later interviewed him for the Hamdan trial told me that he still had it and showed it to them.) He read it immediately, devoting an entire day to it, and discussed it with us that evening. He excitedly told me: “Bin Laden is like George Washington. They’re both revolutionaries.”
“No, they’re not,” I replied with a smile.
The intelligence Abu Jandal gave was disseminated across the intelligence and military communities. It was celebrated as a major success. Edmund Hull, Barbara Bodine’s replacement as ambassador to Yemen, called Bob and me into his office and told us: “Congratulations. The Abu Jandal interrogation has caused General Musharraf to accept that al-Qaeda is behind 9/11, and to join the coalition. Well done. That’s a huge success.”
The Abu Jandal 302 to this day is viewed as the most successful interrogation of any al-Qaeda operative. It was immensely valuable in the war in Afghanistan; it was crucial to successful interrogations of many future al-Qaeda operatives that we apprehended; and it provided much of the basis for our knowledge of al-Qaeda. It is still used in interrogating and prosecuting al-Qaeda operatives. (I can talk about Abu Jandal in greater detail than I can about other detainees because his 302 was declassified by the Senate Judiciary Committee.)
The information gained about al-Qaeda’s capabilities, communication systems, and training was eagerly digested by the military community. The war against Afghanistan was delayed so that the information could be best used. Our team was brought to Bahrain to brief military officials, most prominent among them Vice Adm. Charles “Willy” Moore, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. We briefed the admiral on everything Abu Jandal had revealed to us. Our briefing ended late in the day, and we had to spend the night in Bahrain. We intended to fly back to Yemen the next morning. It was the first free evening we’d had in weeks, so we went to a restaurant for dinner.
As we walked out of the restaurant, a group of young men who had congregated in a parking lot nearby started to yell at Bob and another FBI colleague who were walking ahead of the rest of us. The young men grew more and more belligerent, finally grabbing Bob and trying to push him into one of their cars. He resisted, and my friend and FBI colleague Carlos Fernandez and I tried fighting back. But they outnumbered us, and we weren’t carrying any weapons.
From what they were shouting to each other in Arabic, I realized that they were disgruntled Shiite youths who were wannabe Bahraini Hezbollah operatives. They apparently did not like Bob; with his fair skin and blue eyes, he was the most Western-looking of all of us. Bahrain had experienced significant problems with the Shiite segment of their population.
“What are you doing, you fools?” I shouted at them.
“We are terrorists. We are Hezbollah.”
I knew then for sure that they were just bored kids with nothing to do. A real member of Hezbollah won’t call himself a terrorist.
I approached the one who appeared to be the gang leader. “I am Lebanese. I am the real Hezbollah from Lebanon. You’re interfering in my business. Go away.”
He froze, then tried to give me a hug. “Brother, you are one of us, we want to help you,” he said excitedly.
“No, you’re not. I appreciate your sentiment, but get out of here and take your buddies with you before you get into trouble.”
They let go of Bob, apologized, and started embracing me: “We are your Bahraini Hezbollah allies. Long live Hezbollah!” They were drunk.
“Okay, okay, go home now,” I shouted, pushing them off me. They ran to their cars, saluted, and drove off.
We flew back to Yemen the next morning.
“Now can we speak to Ahmed al-Hada?” I asked Qamish.
“Why? He’s just an old man. He’s got no direct connection to terrorism,” Qamish replied. “We’ve been through this before.”
“We have been through this before, but now is different.”
The Yemenis had been giving us the “he’s just an old man” line since the East African embassy bombings. The surviving Nairobi bomber, Owhali, had confessed to FBI interrogators that he had called Hada’s number in Yemen after the attack to let al-Qaeda know what had happened to him and to request a fake passport and money. Still, the Yemenis maintained that Hada was just an old man whose home was used.
“He’s not just an old man, my friend,” I said to Qamish. “Abu Jandal just told us that not only is Hada a member of al-Qaeda, but he is the father-in-law of Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.”
Hada was brought into the interrogation room in Sanaa and seated before us. Andre Khoury, Bob, and I introduced ourselves and read him the Miranda warning, explaining it to him. He waived his right to a lawyer and signed the Miranda document using a thumbprint, as he was illiterate and didn’t know how to write his name.
“As-Salamu Alaykum,” I began, and told him that we were investigating the terrorist attack on America.
“I don’t know anything about terrorism,” he replied, “I’m just an old man.”
“You don’t know anything about al-Qaeda?” I asked.
“Okay, then, tell us about your son-in-law Khalid al-Mihdhar.”
“I don’t know anything about my son-in-law. I didn’t even know that that’s his name.”
“You don’t know your own son-in-law’s name? So how did your daughter get married?”
“One day men came to the mosque and asked about my daughter and said they wanted their friend to marry her.”
“And you agreed?”
“And you never met or spoke to your daughter’s husband?”
“You’re a disgrace,” one of the Yemeni officers present shouted at Hada, unable to contain himself. “How can you be a son of a tribe, how can you be an Arab? How do you claim to be Yemeni and say something like this? This is your daughter you are talking about. Your own flesh and blood. This is your honor.” Hada went red.
Andre chimed in: “No self-respecting Arab would do such a thing. What’s wrong with you?” Hada shrugged and didn’t say anything. It was very telling that protecting al-Qaeda was more important to him than his own reputation.
For several hours Hada maintained that he knew nothing. In order to catch him out, Andre and I began testing him about what we knew about him. We would ask him about a specific fact, acting as if we didn’t know the answer. He would reply, denying that he knew the answer. We would demonstrate that he did know the fact. Because Hada was extremely embarrassed to be caught lying, he would then concede that he did indeed know the information, and admit more details. For example, when he claimed not to know the identity and names of his sons-in-law, we showed him photographs of them. Only then did he acknowledge that he knew them and give us information about them. Sometimes we’d ask a question, not knowing the answer, but he’d think we were trying to embarrass and test him again, and so he would tell us what we wanted to know. We slowly built up information this way.
Ahmed al-Hada was originally from Thamar, Yemen. His brothers were well respected in the community, but he was considered the black sheep of the family, which was not financially well off. Hada’s son Abu Jaffar went to Afghanistan and joined al-Qaeda soon after bin Laden returned there from Sudan in 1996; he was a member of the Northern Group.
Around 1997, Abu Jaffar arranged the marriage of two of his sisters to two al-Qaeda operatives he had befriended in Afghanistan: Khalid al-Mihdhar and Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi. Both Darbi and Mihdhar traveled to Yemen to meet their future brides and got married in a double wedding ceremony attended by other al-Qaeda operatives. A few months later they returned to Afghanistan with their wives.
Hada’s other daughters also married al-Qaeda fighters. One of these sons-in-law was Mustafah al-Ansari, who used the alias Abed al-Kareem al-Maki. Mihdhar had introduced the family to Ansari. Like Darbi and Mihdhar himself, Ansari was a Saudi of Yemeni descent. We knew of him because he had been imprisoned in the Bayt Habra car theft incident, but we were not aware that he was related to Hada. Ansari was later killed while conducting an attack in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, against Western workers at an oil installation. The other of Hada’s al-Qaeda sons-in-law was Abed al-Wahab al-Maki, who was killed in 1999 in Juzor al-Molluk, Indonesia.
Hada was a cog in al-Qaeda’s operations in Yemen. Bashir al-Shadadi was the organization’s main travel facilitator in the country; he had also participated in the jihad in Bosnia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. His role was to move recruits from Yemen to camps in Afghanistan. The person who helped him organize this movement of mujahideen was Abdul Razaq Saleh al-Nijjar, who was married to Shadadi’s sister. Yemeni recruits were received at the Kandahar guesthouse by Abu al-Kholoud, who was married to Shadadi’s other sister. The operative tasked with training recruits in the al-Farouq training camp was another brother-in law of Shadadi’s named Husam al-Deen al-Himyari. It was felt that blood loyalty would extend beyond ideology, making infiltration of the group less likely. Bin Laden’s son Mohammed, considered by al-Qaeda members to be most like his father, married the daughter of al-Qaeda’s then military commander, Abu Hafs al-Masri.
With his children all being al-Qaeda members, or married to them, Hada’s house in Sanaa naturally became a place where al-Qaeda operatives would meet. On most days someone was there having meetings or just stopping by for a chat. This is what led to his number’s becoming the al-Qaeda switchboard in Yemen. At one point Hada became upset at how high his telephone bill was, prompting Mihdhar to joke that Hada was a “penny-pincher.”
Tragedy struck Hada’s family when Abu Jaffar was electrocuted in 1999 while fishing in Duranta Lake in Afghanistan. He was in a boat with another al-Qaeda member while a third was on shore operating an electric transformer. They communicated by reflecting sun rays, using a mirror. The person on shore misinterpreted the movement of the mirror on the boat as a signal and flipped the switch while Abu Jaffar was still in the water collecting fish. He died instantly. Hada traveled to Afghanistan to visit his son’s grave and stayed with his then-pregnant daughter and her husband, Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi, who at the time was a trainer at al-Farouq.
Hada decided to join al-Qaeda. He underwent military training at Loghar. Bin Laden met him there and honored him because of his age and known loyalty. Other operatives took to calling him Am Ahmed (Uncle Ahmed). At the end of the training, a thirty-kilometer march was required, and the instructors at first excused Hada because of his age. He became upset, and they responded by appointing him leader of the march. He was proud of leading the formation and carrying its flag. The fighters referred to him as “Umda,” an Egyptian term that translates to “Mayor.”
After training, he wanted to participate in jihad. He was dispatched to the front lines to fight against the Northern Alliance troops of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Due to his age, he was kept in the rear, next to the artillery. Another of his sons, Samir (alias Abed Al-Rahman), joined him in Afghanistan and attended an al-Qaeda training camp. Samir was later killed when he blew himself up with a hand grenade after being cornered by Yemeni security during an al-Qaeda operation in Yemen.
Hada stayed in Afghanistan for about five months. On his way back to Yemen, he stopped in Kandahar, where bin Laden was hosting a dinner. Hada was honored by being seated next to bin Laden. After his return to Yemen, Hada encouraged his third son, Abu Khalil, to travel to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda.
By the time we had finished, the Yemenis realized that Hada wasn’t just an ignorant old man.
One of the operatives Abu Jandal and Hada had mentioned was Abdul Aziz al-Janoubi, an alias of Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi. We didn’t know his real name at the time, so we referred to him as Abdul Aziz. Because of the information we already had about him, including the fact that he had been in the same close combat class from which Mihdhar had been selected as a hijacker, we initially thought that Darbi might be among the 9/11 hijackers, but no one fitting his description was registered on any of the flights.
After ruling out that possibility, I had asked Abu Jandal: “Do you think Abdul Aziz is operational?”
“He is in the special operations division,” Abu Jandal had replied, “but to know for sure if he is operational right now, you should check where his family is. If he sent his wife back to her family, that means he’s probably on a mission.” We now asked Hada, the wife’s father, and confirmed that Darbi’s family was back in Yemen staying with him at his house.
From the descriptions Abu Jandal and Hada had given us of Darbi, we were able to further identify him, and we got a picture of him from the Yemenis—he had applied for a Yemeni passport under a different name. We sent out a worldwide alert to police forces and intelligence agencies; a few months later, when I was back in the United States, I stopped at a grocery store in Manhattan and did a double-take when I saw an NYPD Wanted poster for him behind the cash register. Eventually Darbi was captured while attempting to visit his mistress in Azerbaijan.