The Crystal Ball Memo
October 6, 2002. “Hello?” I said, answering the phone in my hotel room in Sanaa.
“Switch on your TV.” Col. Scott Duke, the marine in charge of the fusion cell in Yemen, was on the other end of the line. His voice was raised, and I could hear anger and emotion in his tone.
“They did it,” he replied. “An oil tanker is on fire off the coast of al-Mukalla. We could have stopped it if only they’d listened to us. If only they had listened to us . . .” I switched on the television and watched smoke billowing from an oil tanker at sea. Below the shot was a caption: “Breaking News: Explosion on Oil Tanker off the Coast of Yemen.”
We ended the call and I switched off the television and stared out the window for a few minutes. There is no way to describe the feeling of knowing you could have stopped a terrorist attack if only your government had supported you. It was that terrible feeling again.
Hours later my phone rang. This time it was Andy Arena, the senior FBI official who had refused to link Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. “Ali,” he said with panic in his voice, “I need to confirm something. How widely did [1 word redacted] distribute [1 word redacted] memo warning of an attack off the coast of Yemen?”
“It was distributed across all U.S. government agencies through the DoD channels,” I replied.
“I just got off the phone with Pat D’Amuro,” Andy said. “He’s sickened that the attack went ahead exactly as [1 word redacted] had predicted in the memo, right down to an oil tanker off the coast of al-Mukalla—sickened that the warning wasn’t listened to. He wanted to confirm that the memo had been widely distributed.”
The memo had been put together with the help of the joint military and fusion cell. In a meeting with representatives from all U.S. agencies in Yemen, as well as the U.S. ambassador, Edmund Hull, Colonel Duke had asked for permission to intervene to stop the plot. The CIA [3 words redacted] had opposed [1 word redacted] analysis.
One crew member was killed in the October 6 attack on the Limburg, a 332 x 58-meter oil tanker flying under a French flag off the coast of al-Mukalla. Twelve others were injured, and some 90,000 barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Aden.
After the phone calls with Duke and Andy, I went with Bob to the U.S. Embassy for a meeting in Ambassador Hull’s office. Members of the fusion cell, State Department officials, and the CIA [1 word redacted] were gathered. I noticed that the [1 word redacted] looked agitated as I walked into the meeting with Stephen Gaudin, who at the time served as a permanent detailee to the fusion cell.
“I just returned from a meeting with Yemeni officials,” the ambassador said, “and they told us that they believe the attack was an accident and not a terrorist attack.” We were told that at the moment we had to go along with the Yemenis’ verdict on the issue, and we were not to write reports saying it was a terrorist attack.
“On what basis are they saying that it’s an accident?” Stephen asked.
“They looked into it. That’s their position.”
Stephen and I left the meeting with Colonel Duke, who muttered, “Accident my ass” on the way out.
“Like they said the USS Cole was an accident?” I replied.
“This cover-up won’t work,” Duke said.
“The truth will come out soon. The direction of the explosions, residue, witnesses—exactly like the Cole. You can’t hide for long the fact that it was a terrorist attack,” I said.
For three days the official position was that it was not a terrorist attack. We could not call it one, nor could we refer to the memo [1 word redacted] had written before the attack, predicting it.
But on the third day a team from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service began testing the boat and found residue of TNT and other explosives. After an examination of the blast area, it was clear that the tanker had been attacked, and NCIS reported it up their chain of command. The director of the FBI assigned an FBI bomb team to investigate as well.
We investigated the attack with the Yemenis and found that what had happened conformed precisely to the information [1 word redacted] had given [1 word redacted]: two al-Qaeda suicide bombers, one of them [2 words redacted], whom [1 word redacted] had mentioned to [1 word redacted] by name, pulled up alongside the Limburg and detonated the explosives in their dinghy.
The memo [1 word redacted] had written became known in government circles as the “crystal ball memo,” because it was so utterly and unanswerably accurate.
The joint military-FBI fusion cell had worked out that there were two separate cells operating in Yemen: one sent by Nashiri specifically to attack the Limburg; and a local group, run by Abu Ali al-Harithi, the post-9/11 bin Laden appointee to Yemen. Harithi’s cell included Furqan al-Tajiki. Prevented from breaking up the Limburg cell, we had begun to focus on tracking the other operatives.
We learned that the local al-Qaeda cell had come up with a plan to target foreign embassies in Sanaa and planned to hit the U.S., British, German, French, and Cuban embassies. The Cuban Embassy was a target because of the detention of operatives at Guantánamo Bay. Apparently the al-Qaeda leadership wasn’t aware that the facility is owned and operated by the United States and has nothing to do with the Cuban government.
The local cell’s attack was to take place on August 13, 2002. Having cased the embassies, operatives had decided to hit the British and German with car bombs; the French and Cubans with explosives left nearby; and the U.S. with a missile, as it was deemed too well protected to be attacked with car bombs or bags of explosives. Three days before the operation, explosives expert Salman al-Taezi was adding to the missile’s capacity and asked Walid Ashibi, the chief operative for the Yemen cells, to hold it while he did some rewiring. Ashibi trudged across the carpeted room. As soon as he touched the missile, the static energy that had accumulated from his traverse of the carpet caused the missile to light, and it shot right through Taezi, killing him instantly. The ignition also sent a huge shock though Ashibi, and he ran out of the apartment screaming and collapsed in the hallway. He died moments later.
Furqan and his brother, another operative, had both been resting next door. When they heard the explosion, they ran barefoot out of the building and down the street, screaming hysterically. That was the end of the planned al-Qaeda attack on the embassies.
But Furqan and the other members of the cell were still operational in Yemen.
We worked closely with our friends Colonel Yassir and Major Mahmoud, the two Yemeni PSO officials, to track down the local cell. Furqan often hid in the home of Abu Saif, Nibras’s uncle. The Yemenis raided the home of Abu Saif, who was killed in a gun battle resisting arrest. In his house was evidence related to al-Qaeda and the local cell. We also found the suicide will that Nibras had left.
After the static energy fiasco, Furqan and his brother Abu Bakr (another local operative) had visited Abu al-Shahid al-Sanani, one of the Limburg operatives, and had told him that Harithi wanted to hit a helicopter belonging to an oil company. This was not an operation approved by Nashiri, but since the request had come from Harithi, Sanani gave Furqan help, in the form of cash, an operative for casing, and someone to train the group in weapons. Furqan rented a house in Sanaa and stocked up on weapons and ammunition, including a missile launcher. The plan was that Furqan would fire a missile at the helicopter, and another operative would shoot at it with an AK-47. Other operatives were assigned to drive the two getaway cars and videotape the operation.
When they spotted the helicopter, Furqan fired the missile but missed. The operative with the machine gun fired his entire magazine of 250 bullets but only managed to hit the helicopter twice, not doing any serious damage. Realizing that the plot had failed, the group jumped into the two cars and drove off. Abu al-Layth threw his gun under the front passenger seat and climbed in, and his brother, Huzam, got into the driver’s seat. The AK-47 was not locked, and as they sped along a bumpy road, the gun went off and fired a round, hitting Abu al-Layth in the foot.
He cried out in pain and started screaming, “I’m shot, I’m shot.” Not knowing where the shots were coming from, Huzam pulled the car over to the side of the road and ducked, thinking that they were being attacked. Abu al-Layth jumped out of the car, screaming in agony. The other group of operatives, among them Furqan, had no idea what had happened. Eventually, the unlocked AK-47 was found under the passenger seat, and the operatives took Abu al-Layth to the hospital.
His slipper, which had fallen off in the confusion, was left at the side of the road.
We investigated the attack on the helicopter. A big breakthrough came on November 3, when the bloodied slipper was found after witnesses reported a shooting in the area. The Yemenis checked local hospital records to see if anyone had come in with a gun wound to the foot, and indeed someone had: a known al-Qaeda operative named Abu al-Layth, in Furqan’s cell. The Yemenis interrogated him and together we started tracking down the other members of the cell.
Entirely by coincidence, on November 5, analysts at the U.S. National Security Agency listening in on phone conversations got a location on Harithi, and a drone-launched missile was fired at his car. It killed him and the other five other al-Qaeda operatives riding with him. Among those in the car was his main assistant, a Yemeni-born U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, who had close ties to an al-Qaeda group in the United States nicknamed the Lackawanna Six. (The group had often gathered in Derwish’s apartment, near Buffalo, New York.)
Nashiri ordered the Limburg cell to assassinate the U.S. ambassador, Edmund Hull, in retaliation. After the Limburg attack the cell had gone into hiding, but once Nashiri ordered them to start planning a new attack, they reemerged and we were able to find and arrest them. They had mapped out the routes the ambassador took and were planning to fire missiles at his armored vehicle. We found the safe house they had rented and the weapons they had intended to use.
With operatives from both cells in custody, we worked with the Yemeni authorities to prosecute them. Yemeni prosecutor Saeed al-Aql was committed to justice and faced defense lawyers who tried promoting conspiracy theories, including the idea that al-Qaeda doesn’t exist and that the plots were American fabrications. The detainees, meanwhile, sang songs in the courtroom praising bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
On the first day in court, the suspects spat on the floor in front of us as they walked in. I told a colleague to go up to them, collect their spit on pieces of paper, and say to them: “Thanks, now we have your DNA.” He did, and they never spat in court again while we were there.
Qassim al-Rimi, one of Furqan’s junior operatives, shouted at Aql as he read the charges, “I am going to break your legs.”
“What did you say?” Aql replied. “You think someone like you can threaten me?” That same evening, a hand grenade was thrown at Aql’s house when he was out. Thankfully, his wife and children were unharmed.
There were two trials, one for the Cole suspects and the second for all the other plots. Each of the trials was a success; the detainees were given a mixture of death sentences, life imprisonment, and long-term prison sentences. They remained in jail until February 3, 2006, when a group of twenty-three prisoners escaped by digging a tunnel to the women’s bathroom of a mosque some 140 meters away. Among the escapees were Furqan and Qassim al-Rimi, once a low-level member of the Nashiri cell (at the time of this writing, he is one of the main leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and operatives convicted years earlier for their roles in the USS Cole bombing.
A few months after the members of the Yemeni cells were prosecuted, I received a phone call from a friend at the CTC. “Ali, this is important,” he said. “What’s your STU number?” STU stands for secure telephone unit. I gave it to him and he told me, “I’m going to fax you something.”
It was a memo from the [3 words redacted] to CTC headquarters, reporting that Ambassador Hull had suggested that I go to Yemen to help with the investigation of USS Cole subjects who had escaped from prison in April 2003. (Ten al-Qaeda members, including Jamal al-Badawi, had escaped. They were caught the following year.) Hull had made the recommendation based upon my close relationship with General Qamish and other senior Yemeni officials. The [1 word redacted] registered his disagreement, asking the ambassador to change his request. The Yemenis didn’t like me, the [1 word redacted] claimed, because I had “demanded access to people in al-Mukalla.” I had never been to al-Mukalla and knew that the [1 word redacted], the same person who had blocked us from breaking up the Limburg plot, was making up lies about me.
I gave the memo to my FBI superiors, who demanded an apology from the CIA and a retraction. No official apology came, and instead a CIA official went to the FBI representative at the CTC and said, “We made a mistake.”