In December 2001 I returned to the United States, where the FBI’s al-Qaeda team had gone through a reorganization: headquarters didn’t want the investigation into 9/11 and al-Qaeda to be run out of the New York field office anymore, despite the institutional knowledge base there, and created a new squad based in Washington, DC, known as the 9/11 Team.
My boss, Pat D’Amuro, was reassigned from New York to Washington to oversee it, and many agents from New York were temporarily moved with him. Later, all veteran terrorist investigators returned to New York. Many New York agents felt that their expertise was unwelcome in Washington, where a new leadership, mostly from the West Coast and appointed by Director Robert Mueller, was running the show. Excluding Pat, none of them had experience in dealing with al-Qaeda. The division was compared, within the FBI, to the East Coast/West Coast rap wars going on at the time. Pat’s deputy running the team, which was now responsible for operations against al-Qaeda around the world, was an assistant special agent in charge from Detroit named Andy Arena.
Prior to the Iraq war, when there was a lot of pressure on the FBI from the White House to produce a “link” between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the 9/11 Team’s assessment, again and again, was that there was no link. The White House didn’t like that answer, and told the bureau to look into it more and “come up with one.” Andy refused, and in an exchange (now famous among bureau agents), he told Robert Mueller: “Sir, in the FBI, we present facts. We don’t manufacture reasons for White House wars.” The director agreed, and the message went back that the assessment wouldn’t be changed.
I was temporarily reassigned to Washington, as were George Crouch, who had worked with me on the USS Cole; veteran FBI al-Qaeda expert Dan Coleman; and Debbie Doran, who was assigned to DocEx, a program that involved sorting through the thousands of documents that had been recovered from battlefields, guesthouses, and various facilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coordinating the organization and translation of all the documents was a complicated task, but Debbie had played a similar role in the East African embassy investigation. Boxes and boxes of evidence were shipped to Washington, and translation teams, made up of contractors with no background in al-Qaeda or terrorism, were set up to deal with them.
“Ali,” Pat said, calling me into his office. I had been assigned to help Pat. “DocEx is naturally going to be slow. The translation teams write up documents without knowing what is and isn’t important. You know al-Qaeda and you’ve got the language skills. Can you please look through the boxes of evidence that come in before they go to DocEx and flag anything you think is important? There might be some items we’ll need to follow up on immediately.”
I started searching. In one box, which consisted of evidence found in the rubble of the house where Abu Hafs had died, I found martyr videos and a video of what appeared to be a casing operation. From the license plates of the cars visible in the background, the latter seemed to have been in Singapore.
I recognized three of the people in the martyr videos: Ramzi Binalshibh; Muawiyah al-Medani, who was involved in the casing of the USS Cole and who Abu Jandal had told me was once a bodyguard for bin Laden; and Gharib al-Taezi, also identified by Abu Jandal as a one-time bodyguard for the al-Qaeda leader. None of them were known to have killed themselves in operations, which indicated that something they were involved in was likely to be under way.
In one of the tapes was a man I didn’t recognize. He was unsmiling and had a glassy look in his eyes, as if he were somewhere else. His long face was partially covered by a medium-sized beard.
Another tape had no sound, but the man in it didn’t look, or act, like the others: instead of exuding confidence and pride, he appeared to be in distress. The handwritten label on the tape said “Abdul Rahman.” We later learned that he had been accused by al-Qaeda of being a foreign intelligence agent sent to spy on the group. After al-Qaeda arrested him, they forced him to tape a confession.
In another box I found a letter, which seemed directed at the al-Qaeda leadership, in which the writer explained his reasons for getting involved in the organization and his desire to be part of a martyrdom operation. Attached to the letter was a passport-sized photo: it was of the operative I didn’t recognize. In the letter, he stated that he was a Tunisian who had immigrated to Canada, where he had gone to college. The letter was signed using a name and an alias: Abderraouf bin Habib bin Yousef Jdey and Farouk al-Tunisi.
I took the letter to Pat and told him about the video featuring the same unknown operative. “We might have a big problem on our hands,” I said.“If this guy is a Canadian, it will be very easy for him to enter the United States.” Pat contacted the liaison to our Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), who was based in the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. A few hours later he came to our headquarters with a fellow CSIS officer. They told us that they were aware of Jdey’s terrorist connections and knew he was somewhere in Canada but that they had lost track of him. He had disappeared with another Tunisian Canadian they had been monitoring named Faker Boussora.
We put this information together, and Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference announcing the first Most Wanted Terrorists Seeking Information list.
On November 12, 2001, shortly after American Airlines Flight 587 took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, it crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens. A total of 265 people were killed, 260 on board and 5 on the ground.
In May 2002 Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, a Canadian active in both al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, was arrested by Omani authorities and sent to Canada, whereupon authorities delivered him to the United States. He said that one of KSM’s lieutenants, Abu Abdelraham, had told him that both Richard Reid and Jdey had been designated shoe bombers, and that Jdey had succeeded on Flight 587.
In 2004, al-Qaeda released a list of eighteen attacks they claimed to have successfully perpetrated against the United States. Of those listed, seventeen were known to the U.S. government, and the other was Flight 587. To date, Jdey has not been found. The U.S. government has denied that Flight 587 was a terrorist attack, and it is possible that Jdey was killed somewhere else and that al-Qaeda, to boost morale and recruitment, instead claimed that he bombed Flight 587.
We recovered al-Qaeda propaganda material praising Jdey for the attack, but there was no indication that he or any other suspects were on the plane; and all passengers were accounted for. In addition, after a lengthy and thorough investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the crash was caused by the first officer’s overuse of rudder controls.
In one of the boxes directed to DocEx, I found a handwritten note. The writing was later identified as Khallad’s; the note was addressed to someone called Mokhtar (who we later learned was KSM). Khallad described some surveillance he had done for the 9/11 plot. [38 words redacted]
Also in the boxes were hundreds of applications and contact sheets filled out by recruits who had just arrived in Afghanistan. On the forms, the new recruits listed their sponsors (those who had recommended them to al-Qaeda), expertise, specialties, and personal data and aliases. Listed with the personal data was the name of the person who should be notified if anything happened to them.
One of the applications was Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir’s. He listed his expertise as carpentry. His alias didn’t mean anything to us until [1 word redacted] interrogated Abu Zubaydah, who informed [1 word redacted] that Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir was actually an American named Jose Padilla.
I also came across a short letter from an operative indicating that he was going on a mission in Yemen. It was signed Furqan al-Tajiki. The alias al-Tajiki usually would indicate that the operative was from Tajikistan. However, I recognized this alias as belonging to one of the al-Qaeda operatives who had been arrested in the Bayt Habra car theft incident. Furqan’s real name was Fawaz al-Rabeiee, and he was a Yemeni national born in Saudi Arabia. “If Furqan did head to Yemen from Afghanistan,” I told Pat, “he most probably reconnected with his old friends from Bayt Habra, and my guess is that they’ll all be planning an operation together.”
On February 11, 2002, the FBI added Furqan’s name, along with those of sixteen others connected to the car thefts, to the Seeking Information list. Those of us involved in the Cole investigation pointed out that several of those terrorists were still locked up in Yemen, so on February 14, six of the names were removed.
The others were considered dangerous threats, and there were indications that a major operation was planned for Yemen, the site of al-Qaeda’s big attack prior to 9/11, the October 12, 2000, bombing of the USS Cole. A fusion team comprised of U.S. officials from many different agencies (except the CIA, which didn’t want to take part) was put together and sent to Yemen, under the leadership of Marine colonel Scott Duke. Stephen Gaudin was the FBI’s permanent representative on the fusion team and he was joined by a Washington field office agent, who was working on other, related investigations. Bob McFadden and I reconnected with General Qamish, the head of Yemeni intelligence, with whom I had developed a good relationship during the Cole investigation. Colonel Yassir and Major Mahmoud, the two Yemeni intelligence officers who had sat in on our interrogation of Abu Jandal, were to work alongside us.