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Osama Air


Bin Laden’s move to Sudan was not a hasty decision or one made strictly under duress. Years before 1991, he had begun to realize that the Saudi regime was growing increasingly frustrated with him, and he had started considering other locations. When the tipping point came and the Saudis tried to silence him by confiscating his passport, he already had a new base lined up.

One option had always been to return to Afghanistan, where he had flourished in the past; another was to set up a new base in Sudan. In 1989, when the National Islamic Front (NIF) took control of Sudan in a coup, declaring a desire to turn Khartoum into the center of an international Islamic network, the NIF sent an invitation to bin Laden to move his organization to the country. It was then that he began to consider Sudan seriously.

He sent operatives, led by Abu Hajer, to meet with the new Sudanese leaders and evaluate the country’s suitability as a base of operations. Abu Hajer came back with a positive report, telling bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members that the NIF leaders were devout Muslims and that al-Qaeda would have the necessary freedom to operate effectively from the country. Abu Hajer also brought back books written by NIF religious leader Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, whom al-Qaeda members tended to mistrust because he had studied at the Sorbonne. Abu Hajer said: “Studying in Europe doesn’t make someone a bad person. Turabi is a noted scholar. He has memorized the Quran, he knows a lot about Islamic law, and in fact for forty years he served da’wa”—the act of inviting others to study Islam, sometimes with the aim of converting them.

Bin Laden made a deal with Turabi and the Sudanese authorities whereby they would give al-Qaeda the freedom to operate, and in exchange he would invest in the country and help the regime fight Christian separatists in the south. Once the deal was finalized, bin Laden sent Jamal al-Fadl (then his secretary) and others to prepare for his arrival. It was in 1991 that the preparations were completed and the move accomplished.

Every Thursday after the sunset prayer, all al-Qaeda members in Khartoum gathered at one of the farms the organization owned to hear a lecture given by bin Laden or someone else on jihad and on the organization’s mission. At the first such meeting, bin Laden told his followers that their mission in Sudan would be to build al-Qaeda, eventually turning it into an international network that would not only support others waging jihad but which would be capable of launching its own operations. From 1992 to 1995, as events such as the first Gulf War and the conflict in Somalia shaped the narrative of the terror network, operatives undertook the large-scale procurement of equipment and supplies that began to mark al-Qaeda’s institutional and operational evolution.

Essam al-Ridi was at his home in Texas when the phone rang on a fall day in 1993.

“As-Salamu Alaykum, my brother.” He recognized the voice as belonging to Wadih el-Hage. El-Hage had offered the traditional greeting: Peace be upon you.

“Wa Alaykum as-Salam, Abu Abdallah Lubnani,” Ridi replied, returning the greeting. “How are you?”

“Alhamdu lelah,” el-Hage replied: Praise be to God. “And yourself?”

“Alhamdu lelah.”

“So why are you calling, my friend? What can I do for you?”

“I’ve got a message from the sheikh.”

“I guessed as much,” Ridi replied with a hearty laugh. It was usually with some request from bin Laden that his old friend el-Hage called him these days.

“So what can I do for Abu Abdullah?” Ridi continued, referring to bin Laden by one of his aliases: the father of Abdullah. Abdullah is the name of bin Laden’s eldest son, and referring to him thus was an expression of respect, as it’s considered a great honor in the Muslim world to have a son.

“He wants you to buy an airplane for him,” el-Hage replied. He explained that bin Laden had asked that the plane be delivered to Khartoum International Airport.

“An airplane?” As a trained pilot and flight instructor, Ridi knew how to go about purchasing a plane. “What type of plane does Abu Abdullah want, and how much is he willing to spend?”

“Something that has a range of more than two thousand miles,” el-Hage replied, “for no more than three hundred fifty thousand dollars.” He explained that bin Laden wanted to transport Stinger missiles from Peshawar to Khartoum.

“You have to be careful transporting weapons, you know,” Ridi said. “You need to make sure you get permission from the countries on both ends, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve got permission from the authorities in Peshawar and Khartoum. But that’s why we need the two thousand miles. We can’t risk running out of fuel and being forced to land elsewhere—it will be chaos.”

Ridi found a suitable plane; the seller even agreed to give him a 9 percent commission for arranging the purchase, a fact Ridi chose not to divulge to el-Hage. In any case, his profit was never realized; inexplicably, el-Hage dropped the allowance for the plane to $250,000. “This is the price that the sheik has decided on, so see what you can do,” he told Ridi.

Ridi argued that the terms were impossible. He knew what was out there; they would never be able to get what they wanted for $250,000. At last, however, he found a decommissioned military aircraft for $210,000 that had a range of 1,500 miles. “It’s in storage in Tucson, Arizona, and hasn’t been used in a while,” he told el-Hage, “so I need to get it checked and fixed.” When el-Hage asked him how he would get it to the airport, Ridi replied, “I’ll fly it there myself.”

El-Hage said that he had one final request to convey: bin Laden wanted Ridi to work for him as a pilot. Ridi demurred, suggesting that they discuss the offer in Khartoum. He had the plane refurbished and repainted, updated its equipment, and took off from Dallas–Fort Worth. Minus-65-degree weather while flying caused the plane to malfunction, and a window cracked on the way. It took him a week to get there.

El-Hage met him at the airport and inspected the plane. He was full of praise for Ridi. “It looks good. Well done.”

“For what it cost, it’s good,” Ridi shrugged. The journey had exhausted him.

El-Hage took him to his own home and later they dined with bin Laden, to whom Ridi presented the keys to the aircraft. They agreed to meet at the airport the following morning so that bin Laden could inspect the plane. Ridi rose early to clean it—the exterior was dirty from the flight—but bin Laden failed to show at the appointed time, and Ridi spent several idle hours before getting in touch with el-Hage, who apologized and summoned him to the office for a meeting.

Ridi arrived at a residential building in the Riyadh neighborhood of Khartoum. El-Hage, manning the front desk, greeted Ridi warmly. Besides performing the duties he had inherited from Ridi, he had taken over as bin Laden’s secretary following the departure of Jamal al-Fadl, one of the first members of al-Qaeda. Fadl, who was Sudanese, had spent several weeks training el-Hage in the management of the office. Beyond el-Hage’s desk was an office that belonged to Abu Jaffar (Abu Khadija al-Iraqi), bin Laden’s business manager; the interior office was bin Laden’s. Ridi was ushered into bin Laden’s office by el-Hage.

Bin Laden was wearing a white thawb (a traditional Arab garment) and had a black beard. “I’m sorry for not coming this morning,” he said to Ridi. He spoke quietly, with a Saudi accent, his voice seeming to betray a hint of shyness. “But I’ve got a new request for you now. I’d like you to stay here in Sudan and work for me. I’ll pay you twelve hundred dollars a month.”

“Before we discuss any job offer,” Ridi replied, “there’s something that I need to say to you on a personal level. You may know that when we were both in Afghanistan, I resented the fact that you were a rich man with no military background or experience trying to be a military leader. That was one of the reasons I left Afghanistan. Now that you have the experience, it’s a different situation, so my view has changed.”

Bin Laden thanked Ridi and explained the particulars of the job. “You will fly the plane for me personally. You will also use it for crop dusting.” Bin Laden owned farms that grew crops from which vegetable oil was produced. “And you’ll fly the crops to other countries to be sold.”

“That’s three jobs,” Ridi replied. “Which one is for twelve hundred dollars?”

“That’s for all three. This, you should know, is the highest I’m paying my officers.”

“It might be the highest, but I’ve heard that there’s high inflation here in Khartoum,” Ridi replied. “I’ve also heard that schools are expensive for expatriates. So is furniture. It’s not a healthy environment. Living here is going to cost me more than twelve hundred dollars a month. Even if you’re paying this salary to your top officers, it doesn’t mean I should be paid the same. I’m doing a different job, and have different expenses.”

“That’s the highest, so consider it,” bin Laden said. “And just so you know, in case you do still have any of your concerns, this is not jihad, this is strictly business.”

Ridi later confirmed, with el-Hage, that the proposed salary was one of the highest bin Laden paid. Nonetheless, he turned it down. But he assured bin Laden that he was still prepared to “help you as usual whenever you need it.” After getting reimbursed for his expenses, Ridi flew to Peshawar, where he spent time catching up with old friends from his days in Afghanistan, and then returned to the United States.

True to his word, Ridi continued to run missions for bin Laden when asked. Sometimes it involved flying the plane; at one point, he traveled to Khartoum to take five Arabs to Nairobi. Their job was to join cells being set up in Somalia. Other times, Ridi helped purchase weapons and matériel.

About a year and a half went by with no calls to fly the plane. Ridi took a job in Egypt with an airline but soon was summoned, once again, by el-Hage. “Brother, can you come to Sudan to fix up the plane and make it workable so it can be used for business?” When Ridi asked what had happened, el-Hage explained that the plane simply hadn’t been used for a while and was languishing at the airport. “We haven’t been able to get it to work since last time you used it.”

Ridi pointed out that flying directly from Egypt to Sudan to meet with bin Laden was likely to raise government suspicion. Bin Laden was involved in weapons smuggling through Egypt; he had been sending caravans with weapons to meet Egyptian terrorists in the desert. Intelligence operatives were closely monitoring anyone with ties to bin Laden, and Ridi didn’t want to come to their attention. “That’s fine, meet me in Nairobi,” el-Hage suggested. “That’s where I’m now based.”

“Why are you here now?” Ridi asked el-Hage in Nairobi.

“I’m working for a charity called Help Africa People.” The improbable name gave Ridi an indication of what was going on.

“A charity?”

“It’s really a cover for our efforts in Somalia and here,” el-Hage replied with a smile.

Ridi laughed. “I guessed as much.”

Their discussion turned to the plane. Ridi said that in order to get it ready to be used for business, he would need a copilot.

“Okay, Ali Nawawi will help you. He’ll meet you in Khartoum.”

Ridi flew to Khartoum, checked into the Hilton hotel near the airport, and then met Nawawi at the airport. The two men examined the plane and found that it had a flat tire, and that some of the other tires had melted from the heat. The engine was full of sand, and the batteries were dead. Parts of the plane were rusty from disuse, and the craft was filthy. They also couldn’t find the keys. A few al-Qaeda operatives had met them at the airport; they, too, didn’t know where the keys were.

Nawawi went off to hunt for the keys, and Ridi stayed to work on the plane. The keys were eventually located, and after the two men had finished making the necessary repairs and had checked the hydraulics and run a series of tests, they decided that they were ready to see how the plane handled. It took off without incident. After touching down on the runway a few times and going back up into the air without slowing down, Ridi decided that the plane was operational and that it was time to land properly. They touched down successfully, but when Ridi tried applying the brakes, nothing happened.

“We’ve lost the main hydraulic or the main brake system,” he told Nawawi. “I’m going to try the alternate brake system.” As the more experienced pilot, he was in control. The alternate brakes failed to work, and he tried the hand brakes. When this, too, failed, he shut down the engine. The plane continued to speed along the runway.

Ridi was sweating, but his voice was calm and his hands steady; his professional training had kicked in. They were still traveling fast—about sixty knots—and he found himself quickly explaining the obvious to Nawawi: that they would soon run out of runway space. He aimed the plane at a sand dune. “When we crash into the dune, take off your seat belt and get out of the plane—because it might explode,” he told Nawawi.

About five seconds later the plane veered off the runway and crashed into the dune, which brought them to an abrupt halt. The impact jerked their heads forward, but their seat belts prevented their bodies from following. Ridi unbuckled his belt and jumped out of his seat. He switched off the hydraulic system and the plane’s electric system to try to avoid an explosion, and opened the door. As he was about to jump out, he saw that Nawawi, in a state of shock, had remained in his seat, belt still buckled. He rushed to release Nawawi’s seat belt and dragged him out of the plane.

Everyone in the airport was staring at them. “I’ve got to get out of here quick,” Ridi told Nawawi, who had started to come to his senses.

“It’s not our fault. Bin Laden won’t blame you,” Nawawi said.

“That’s not what I’m worried about. Khartoum is full of Egyptian intelligence tracking bin Laden and people working with him. Everyone knows this is bin Laden’s plane. It’s the only private plane in the airport. I don’t want Egyptian intelligence associating me with him. That will cause me a lot of problems.”

They reached a security guard on the runway. “Are you okay?” the guard asked the two men.

“I’m fine, but I need you to drop me at the terminal,” Ridi told him. The guard agreed to do so, and, leaving Nawawi to fend for himself, Ridi went straight from the terminal to the Hilton, packed his bags, and returned to the airport. He booked himself on the first flight out of Khartoum—it happened to be going to Addis Ababa—and from there caught a flight to Cairo.

That was the end of what was later nicknamed, by a few of us in the bureau, “Osama Air.”

On the surface it looked as if bin Laden was in fact engaged in legitimate business in Sudan. He established companies such as Ladin International, an investment company; Wadi al-Aqiq, a holding company; al-Hijra, a construction business; al-Themar al-Mubaraka, an agricultural company; Taba Investments, an investment company; Khartoum Tannery, a leather company; and Qudarat Transport Company, a transportation company, which all seemed to perform legitimate work. The construction company, for example, built a highway from Khartoum to Port Sudan. At the same time, operatives used the businesses as a means of traveling around the world to purchase weapons, explosives, and equipment and to aid foreign fighters. The businesses were the perfect cover to avoid attracting attention from intelligence services.

Bin Laden began to create a worldwide network for helping fellow jihadist groups, establishing an Islamic Army shura to coordinate efforts. On the council were representatives from, among other groups, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and EIJ, the latter represented by Zawahiri. Bin Laden sent funds, weapons, trainers, and fighters to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group, both in the Philippines, and Jemaah Islamiah, which was based in Indonesia but was spread across Southeast Asia. Trainers were sent to Kashmir and Tajikistan, and a guesthouse was opened in Yemen—a central point for the entire region. Simultaneously, al-Qaeda members were sent to these groups to learn from their experiences and to pick up skills. Al-Qaeda members even went to the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, where they received training from the Shiite group Hezbollah. While al-Qaeda is a radical Sunni group that views Shiites as heretics, for the purpose of learning terrorist tactics they were prepared to put their religious differences aside.

In late 1992, once the basic network was set up, bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders plotted where they might begin striking U.S. targets. They settled on the Horn of Africa. American troops were in Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope—an international United Nations–sanctioned humanitarian and famine relief mission in the south of the country, which the United States had begun leading in December of 1992. Abu Hafs al-Masri was sent to Somalia to evaluate precisely what the United States was doing in Somalia; in the resulting report, he termed the U.S. presence an invasion of Muslim lands but conceded that, because of the different tribal groups in the country, it would be tough for al-Qaeda to operate there. Based upon Abu Hafs al-Masri’s report, al-Qaeda’s leaders issued a fatwa demanding that the United States leave Somalia.

Al-Qaeda trainers were on the ground during the Battle of Mogadishu (also known as Black Hawk Down), on October 3–4, 1993, when two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during an operation. After a chaotic rescue mission, 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somali fighters were killed. The world saw the lifeless bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets, and President Clinton soon afterward ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia. Bin Laden celebrated the withdrawal as a major victory and often told his followers that this episode showed how America was weak, and how al-Qaeda could beat the superpower by inflicting pain.

After al-Qaeda was set up in Sudan, the leadership decided that the group needed a presence in Somalia. Nairobi was deemed the perfect entry point. Operatives, claiming to be aid workers, would fly to Nairobi and then take a small plane to the border; from there they would drive. Bin Laden sent his trusted lieutenant Khalid al-Fawwaz to lead the Nairobi cell. Fawwaz opened several businesses, the first in precious gems, and formed NGOs that purportedly helped Africans but which were actually a cover for al-Qaeda operatives who passed through on their way to Mogadishu. Once the cell was operational, bin Laden sent Fawwaz to London to run al-Qaeda operations focusing on logistics and public relations. Fawwaz worked under cover of the Advice and Reformation Committee, an NGO established on July 11, 1994, that advocated reforms in Saudi Arabia. Wadih el-Hage was sent by bin Laden to replace Fawwaz in Kenya.

El-Hage’s secretary in Nairobi was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of whose aliases was Harun Fazul. Born in the Comoros Islands, Harun Fazul attended a radical Wahhabi school and then went to Afghanistan, where he got involved with al-Qaeda. (He was eventually killed, on June 10, 2011.) The Nairobi cell helped operations in Somalia and also began planning al-Qaeda’s first solo mission and announcement of their presence on the world stage: they intended to simultaneously bomb the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

In late 1993 or early 1994, al-Qaeda’s financial chief, Madani al-Tayyib, who was also known in al-Qaeda circles as Abu Fadhl al-Makkee, summoned Jamal al-Fadl. “We’ve heard that someone in Khartoum has got uranium, and we need you to find out if it is true. If it is, we want to buy it.” Al-Qaeda was constantly looking for weapons and chemicals to use in their operations against the United States.

“How should I find out?” Fadl asked.

“Go to Abu Dijana. He knows more about it.” Abu Dijana was a senior al-Qaeda operative from Yemen.

Fadl met with him and was told that there was a Sudanese official named Moqadem Salah Abdel al-Mobruk who knew about buying and selling uranium.

“Do you know how I can reach him?” he asked Abu Dijana.

“No, but you’re Sudanese—use your contacts to find out.”

Fadl asked around and eventually found someone who said that he knew the official. “Why do you want to meet him?” the man asked.

“I’m told he knows how we can get uranium, and if he does, we’d like to buy it.”

Within a week the man had arranged the introduction, and Fadl found himself face-to-face with Salah Abdel al-Mobruk. Fadl was soon to become involved in the kind of negotiation that characterized many of al-Qaeda’s early dealings: the banal graft, mind-numbingly tedious phone calls, and cordial middlemen—which both obscured and amplified the nature of the transactions and the magnitude of what was being accomplished.

“I do know about the uranium,” Mobruk told Fadl. “There’s a guy called Basheer who will help you.”

Mobruk arranged a meeting between Fadl and Basheer, whose reaction to the request for uranium was one of surprise and almost stupefaction, though whether his response was genuine or a pose was impossible to tell. “Are you serious? You want to buy uranium?” he asked Fadl.

“Yes, I am. I know people who are serious and want it.”

“Do they have money?”

“They do, but they first want more information about the uranium, such as the quality of it and what country it’s made in. After that they’ll talk about the price.”

Basheer quickly warmed to the task. “I will give you the information,” he said. “The price will be a million and a half dollars, and we need the money given to us outside Sudan. I’ll also need a commission, as will Salah Abdel al-Mobruk. And tell me this: how will you check the uranium?”

“I don’t know, but I have to go to my people and tell them what you told me, and I’ll get you an answer.”

Fadl met with Abu Rida al-Suri, an al-Qaeda financier. Like Jamal al-Fadl, Abu Rida was one of al-Qaeda’s original members. Born Mohammed Loay Baizid in Syria, he had spent a considerable amount of time in the United States, including several years studying engineering in Kansas City. “It sounds good,” Abu Rida told Fadl. He added, “We’ll just have to check the uranium.”

“How will you check it?”

“We have access to a machine, an electric machine, that can check it. But first we need to take a look at the cylinder containing the uranium, which will tell us about the quality of it and which country it is made in.” Abu Rida wrote down for Fadl a list of questions al-Qaeda had and the information they wanted, and told him to get the answers.

Fadl returned to the middleman and told him that he needed to meet Basheer again to discuss the uranium, on the basis of Abu Rida’s questions. The middleman provided a rendezvous point and asked Fadl to meet him there in several days’ time at ten in the morning. “You can bring Abu Rida al-Suri with you, if you want,” he added.

On the appointed day, Fadl and Abu Rida drove to the location given to Fadl by Basheer, who suddenly materialized alongside them in a jeep. “Leave your car here,” he told them. “Come with me and we’ll go to the uranium.” They got into his jeep and sped north out of Khartoum, eventually leaving the main road and pulling up outside a house. “Let’s go,” Basheer instructed them. Ushering them inside the house, he got them settled, then disappeared and returned with a big bag. Out of the bag he pulled a cylinder. It was a few feet long and had words engraved on it. Basheer handed it to Abu Rida.

Abu Rida examined the writing and spent about five minutes inspecting the whole cylinder, all the while jotting down information in a notebook. He conferred briefly with Basheer before they all left. Basheer dropped them off at their car in Khartoum.

Once they were alone, Abu Rida tore the sheet of information from his notepad and handed it to Fadl. “Take this to Abu Hajer, and whatever he says we should do is okay with me.”

Fadl did as he was told. It was a brief meeting, with little time wasted on anything other than the task at hand. Abu Hajer studied the page and said, “Tell them we’ll buy it.”

At his third meeting with Basheer, again brokered by the middleman, Fadl told Basheer, “My people want to buy the uranium.” Basheer once again asked how they planned to check the uranium, and Fadl explained, “We’re waiting for a machine to come from outside Sudan to check it.”

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know. But Abu Rida will handle everything. He’s the financier.”

Fadl reported back to Abu Rida, telling him how to get in contact with Basheer.

It became apparent to Fadl that his part in the negotiation had come to an end. “Great job,” Abu Rida said, and gave him ten thousand dollars.

“What’s this for?” Fadl asked. He could not have been more surprised than if Abu Rida had instructed him to return to Basheer a fourth time with more questions.

“For your hard work.”

After purchasing the uranium—for the full $1.5 million asking price, plus the payment of commissions to the various fixers along the way—al-Qaeda discovered that they had been duped: it wasn’t uranium that they had purchased but red mercury, which was useless to them.

Years later, when I was in London, investigating the al-Qaeda cell there as part of Operation Challenge, we were going through files belonging to Fawwaz and other cell members in London, and I read a lab report from Austria identifying the substance as osmium.

Born in Egypt in 1935 and married to an American, Dr. Rashad Khalifa was a liberal imam in Tucson, Arizona. He had moved to the United States in the late 1950s; his son Sam Khalifa went on to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early to mid-1980s. A biochemist, Khalifa imputed properties to numbers, believing that they determined events in life, and even alleged that the miracles of the Quran were revealed through mathematical equations. He allowed male and female congregants to pray together in his mosque, Masjid Tucson, and didn’t demand that they wear traditional Muslim dress, even for prayers. Khalifa also publicly opposed radical takfiri ideas that others in the local Muslim community—especially radical Egyptians—espoused, such as labeling fellow adherents of Islam who didn’t accept their views as kafirs, or nonbelievers.

A rival Tucson mosque, the Islamic Center, situated about ten miles from Masjid Tucson, served the more radical members of the local Muslim community, including Wadih el-Hage. The Islamic Center’s congregants often discussed Khalifa and their displeasure with what he was preaching. By the late 1980s, their complaints about the imam had reached other radical communities across the United States.

On a Friday in January 1990, el-Hage received a call from a man who said that he was a visitor from New York and that he was waiting at the Islamic Center to see him. They met at the mosque; el-Hage later described the man vaguely and unhelpfully as a tall Egyptian who wore glasses and had a long beard. The man told el-Hage that he was visiting Tucson to investigate Rashad Khalifa. “I’ve heard that his teachings contradict what all Muslims agree on,” the man told el-Hage. He spoke of Khalifa’s willingness to allow men and women to pray together, and of his theories about numbers in the Quran. Scientific American had called Khalifa’s well-received annotated translation of the Quran, published under the title Quran: The Final Testament, “an ingenious study,” which did nothing to address his critics’ objections. El-Hage invited the visitor back to his house for lunch.

During the meal, the visitor raged against Khalifa. He told el-Hage that he had tried to go to Masjid Tucson to pray but hadn’t been allowed in because of his long beard. Peering through a window of the mosque, he had seen men and women worshipping together and had grown even angrier. According to el-Hage, the visitor simply left after this catalogue of grievances.

Later that month, Dr. Khalifa was found murdered in the kitchen of his mosque. Wadih el-Hage later said he felt that Khalifa’s killing was justified. The murder remains unsolved.

On November 5, 1990, Meir Kahane, a right-wing American Israeli rabbi and onetime member of the Israeli parliament, was giving a speech at a Marriott hotel in New York City. When he finished, members of the audience gathered around him to congratulate him. A gun was fired, and the bullet hit Kahane in the neck, killing him. While trying to escape, El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian who had immigrated to the United States in 1981, was wounded in a shootout and apprehended.

A subsequent investigation found that an Egyptian named Mahmud Abouhalima had provided Nosair’s gun and additional weapons for the attack. The weapons allegedly had been bought for Abouhalima by el-Hage, whom he had met at an Islamic conference in the United States in 1989. Nosair was a member of the group of radical Islamists in New York led by the Blind Sheik, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman.

Abdul Rahman, having mastered the Quran in Braille, had gone on to study at Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University. He had been arrested by the Egyptian regime in connection with the assassination of Sadat—accused, among other acts, of having written a fatwa that prompted the murder—and reportedly he had been tortured in prison. In the end he was acquitted but expelled from Egypt. He traveled to Afghanistan, where he met up with Abdullah Azzam, under whom he had once studied.

Abdul Rahman then moved to the United States to take control of Azzam’s organization’s U.S. assets, despite being on the U.S. State Department terrorist watchlist. The visa was given to him in Sudan by a CIA official. On arriving in the United States, the Blind Sheikh began recruiting more followers, raising funds, and denouncing the United States, using many of the same arguments as Qutb, whom he greatly admired.

In early 1991 el-Hage received a phone call from Mustafa Shalabi, a young Egyptian immigrant who ran the al-Kifah Center, located in Brooklyn’s al-Farouq Mosque. Shalabi asked el-Hage to come to New York for two weeks to take care of the center while he went to Pakistan. The center was part of Makhtab al-Khidmat, and Shalabi was effective at recruiting followers and raising funds.

After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, there was a dispute in the center about how to handle approximately $100,000 in leftover funds. Shalabi, whose loyalty was solely to Azzam, wanted to send the money to Afghanistan to help the people there rebuild. The other faction, led by the Blind Sheikh, wanted to use the funds for jihad in other countries, especially in Abdul Rahman’s Egypt. Shalabi had decided to travel to Pakistan to see Azzam and try to resolve the dispute. El-Hage would run the center in his absence.

When el-Hage arrived in Brooklyn, he went to meet Shalabi at a prearranged location, but Shalabi never showed up. He didn’t show up on the appointed day, and he didn’t show up the next day, either. A week later Shalabi’s body was found in an apartment he had shared with Mahmud Abouhalima. An investigation found that Shalabi had been murdered on March 1, 1991—the day el-Hage got to New York. While el-Hage was in New York, he also went to Rikers Island prison to visit El Sayyid Nosair.

After Shalabi was killed, the Blind Sheikh’s followers took control of the center, and it became a training ground for radicals. One the most popular trainers was Ali Mohamed, who had helped move bin Laden to Sudan. Ali Mohamed joined the United States Army in the 1980s; at the same time, he was also a member of Zawahiri’s EIJ, thus functioning as a double agent. He was in the habit of bringing U.S. Army manuals to the center to train fighters, among them El Sayyid Nosair.

On February 26, 1993, a vehicle parked in the underground garage of the World Trade Center exploded, ripping a hole through seven stories, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand. The aim had been to blow up one tower, causing it to topple into the next one—bringing them both crashing down—but the explosives weren’t powerful enough.

The FBI’s New York field office took control of the investigation. Forensic investigators on the scene identified part of the vehicle as being from a rental van that had been reported stolen in New Jersey by Mohammed Salameh, a Palestinian who was illegally in the United States. He had been calling the rental office to get his $400 deposit back.

FBI agents arrested Salameh on March 4 and soon arrested others connected to the plot, including Nidal Ayyad, the engineer who had procured the chemicals for the bomb. The investigation found that Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti of Pakistani origin, had parked the van. Educated in England, he had entered the United States in 1992 with fraudulent documents but then claimed political asylum—which was granted.

Yousef had fled to Pakistan after the attack, and the evidence showed that the plot was planned either at or in the vicinity of a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, near Khost, called the Khaldan camp; Yousef and the other plotters had met there. The investigation also led the bureau to al-Farouq Mosque in Brooklyn, the al-Kifah Center, and the Blind Sheikh. Salameh, Abouhalima, Nosair, and the Blind Sheikh all became subjects of investigation following the bombing. The investigation uncovered the fact that the men were hatching a second plot—to attack New York City landmarks, including the United Nations, the FBI office, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge.

FBI special agent John Anticev was the case agent for the Kahane murder, and intelligence from that operation led to the bureau’s identifying members of the World Trade Center cell. Anticev and his partner, New York Police Department (NYPD) detective Louis Napoli, had a source who had penetrated the second terrorist cell, which was preparing to attack the New York City landmarks.

Through the investigation into the World Trade Center bombing and the investigation into the thwarted landmarks plot, an operation that the FBI called Terrorstop, the name of one American citizen kept appearing: Wadih el-Hage. The FBI began to search for him, with Dan Coleman leading the investigation, and it was discovered that el-Hage was living in Nairobi, where he worked with Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military leader and second in command, and Harun Fazul, Banshiri’s secretary.

El-Hage’s Nairobi house was eventually raided, on August 21, 1997. Dan Coleman wanted to shake the tree and see what happened, as the FBI didn’t have any direct case against el-Hage. They found his address book, which included the names of Nawawi—Ridi’s copilot when they crashed bin Laden’s plane—and Ali Mohamed, the al-Qaeda double agent in the U.S. military. On el-Hage’s personal computer was also a letter from Harun Fazul, in which Harun warned that he believed the cell in Nairobi was being monitored: “There are many reasons that lead me to believe that the cell members in East Africa are in great danger, which leaves us no choice but to think and work hard to foil the plans of the enemy who is working day and night to catch one of us or gather more information about any of us.” Harun also recounted that it had been reported, in a British newspaper, that someone close to bin Laden had been cooperating with the Saudi intelligence services. He believed it to be Madani al-Tayyib, al-Qaeda’s financial chief, who had worked with Fadl to purchase the uranium. Harun said that he was trying to verify his hunch and that Tayyib’s betrayal, if verified, would be “terrible news.” He urged greater security precautions.

Tayyib was close to bin Laden, having married his niece. He had lost a leg in the Soviet jihad. Weakened and in constant pain since the amputation, he had traveled to Europe to get treatment—enlisting the help of Fawwaz, bin Laden’s man in London. In London he surrendered to the Saudis, hoping that they would help him attend to his medical needs. He told them all he knew about bin Laden’s and al-Qaeda’s finances, but the Saudis never shared this or gave the FBI access to Tayyib, claiming later that they did give the information to the CIA. The news of Tayyib’s defection from al-Qaeda became public in 1997.

Years later, in early 2002, when I was interrogating suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, I received a call from Major General Michael Dunlavey, the commanding officer of Joint Task Force 170, set up by the Pentagon to coordinate interrogations. Dunlavey asked me to come see him. “I’ve got Madani al-Tayyib in our custody,” he said excitedly. “He’s a top al-Qaeda guy. He knows all about their money.”

I walked across the camp to Dunlavey’s office. “Are you sure you’ve got him?” I asked.

“Yes, I am, we’ve questioned him.”

“But I heard the Saudis have him locked up.”

“Well, it’s him. He is not cooperating yet. He”—Dunlavey gestured to an officer standing nearby—“is interrogating him.”

“Did you see Madani al-Tayyib in person?” I asked the officer.

“Yes, I did.”

“How many legs does he have?”

“What do you mean?”

“His legs. Does he have one or two legs?” I asked.

“He’s got two.”

“Two real legs.”


“Then it’s not Madani al-Tayyib,” I said, “because he’s an amputee.”

Pleased that the matter had been put to rest, Dunlavey turned to the officer and said jocularly, “You see, you can’t regrow limbs.”

By the mid-1990s there was growing international pressure on Sudan over its hosting of bin Laden. Beginning in 1992, bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda’s religious rulings committee had published fatwas instructing people to attack U.S. troops based in the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. Between 1992 and 1995, al-Qaeda members, using vehicles associated with bin Laden’s businesses, transported weapons and explosives from Khartoum to the Port of Sudan for shipment to Saudi Arabia. In November 1995, a car bomb exploded in Saudi Arabia outside a training facility run jointly by the United States and the Saudis; the perpetrators were led by Khalid al-Saeed, a close associate of bin Laden’s. In June 1996, a truck bomb exploded in the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which housed U.S. servicemen. Nineteen Americans were killed and 372 wounded. The FBI investigators concluded that the attack had been carried out by Saudi Hezbollah. However, this did not stop al-Qaeda from taking credit. In his 1996 declaration of war, bin Laden boasted, in a poem invoking Qiblah, or the direction Muslims face for prayers, that he had not betrayed the Saudi king but that the king had betrayed the Grand Mosque by allowing infidels into the kingdom:

The crusader army became dust when we detonated al-Khobar

With courageous youth of Islam fearing no danger,

If they are threatened: “The tyrants will kill you,”

They reply, “My death is a victory.”

I did not betray the king, but he did betray our Qiblah,

And he permitted, in the holy country, the most filthy of humans

I have made an oath by God, the Great, to fight whoever rejected the faith.


Pressure on Sudan also came from Libya, as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, allied with al-Qaeda, was dedicated to overthrowing longtime dictator Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s rule and setting up an Islamic state. Their opposition to Gaddafi was rooted in the concept of takfir: even though Gaddafi was a practicing Muslim, he was not allowing them to establish Sharia law and was instead establishing his own version of a socialist regime. Sudan eventually bowed to Libyan pressure and told bin Laden that all Libyan members of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups needed to leave the country. Some took positions in al-Qaeda cells elsewhere—for example, Anas al-Liby, a computer expert, traveled to London. Others left al-Qaeda, feeling that bin Laden had betrayed them by not standing up for them.

In June 1995, when Hosni Mubarak was visiting Ethiopia, an assassination attempt was carried out on the Egyptian president by the al-Qaeda affiliate EIJ. Years later, when I interrogated Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi, a Sudanese al-Qaeda member, he told me that Abu Hafs al-Masri gave him $5,000 to deliver to the would-be plotters and that, after the attack failed, the perpetrators hid in Sudan. The international community sanctioned Sudan after it refused to hand them over.

None of these incidents was capable of bringing an end to bin Laden’s tenure in Sudan: as long as he was spreading his wealth among the Sudanese leadership, the country was happy to have him. But when the Saudis decided to squeeze bin Laden financially—forcing the Saudi Binladin Group to stop sending him money—he faced real problems. Internally, he found it increasingly difficult to pay al-Qaeda members’ salaries; more importantly, his largesse in Sudan came to an end. The Sudanese decided that it was no longer worth bearing the burden of bin Laden and told him it was time to leave. On May 19, 1996, on a rented plane, he flew to Afghanistan accompanied by his trusted followers.

Two days later, on May 21, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri was aboard a ferry, the MV Bukoba, on Lake Victoria, traveling between two ports in Tanzania, from Bukoba to Mwanza, on his way home from visiting family members. The main purpose of the al-Qaeda military commander’s trip had been to oversee military operations in Kenya. Banshiri’s brother-in-law, Ashif Mohamed Juma, was traveling with him. The ferry’s capacity was 480 passengers, but it was carrying at least 1,200.

Abu Ubaidah and Juma had purchased tickets in a second-class cabin. Their room was about 7 by 10 feet, and it had four sets of bunk beds. They shared the cabin—Juma on one of the top bunk beds and Abu Ubaidah beneath him—with five other people. At a point in the crossing, where the water was 110 feet deep, the ferry started swaying wildly from side to side—its stabilizer wasn’t working.

Juma had been napping but was awakened by the rocking. “Abu Ubaidah,” he shouted, “something is wrong.”

“Don’t worry,” Abu Ubaidah replied. “We’re fine, go back to sleep. Allah is with us.” About five seconds later the boat tilted to one side and capsized. Screams were heard as people were thrown out of their beds. The cabin door was now located above Abu Ubaidah and Juma’s heads. Juma used some of the furniture to climb up and pull himself out. The others followed suit as water began seeping in. As Abu Ubaidah was climbing out—using the cabin door to propel himself—the door came off its hinges and he fell back into the cabin. Juma screamed his name and tried grabbing him, but a wall of water came crashing through the corridor, dragging Juma away. He tried to keep his head above water and found himself repeatedly knocking into bodies—whether the people were alive or dead he could not tell. He managed to swim out of the ship and then tried to swim toward what he thought was land.

He quickly realized that he would never reach land, and swam back toward the ferry, hoping to find something to grab onto. Other passengers were on floats, and he grabbed one, praying that Abu Ubaidah had somehow miraculously made it out alive. Two hours later a rescue ship arrived, and the survivors were taken to the port of Mwanza. Juma searched in vain for Abu Ubaidah. Back home, he passed the message to Abu Ubaidah’s al-Qaeda colleagues that he had drowned. The news reached bin Laden two days later, on May 23. He was devastated; not only was Abu Ubaidah his trusted deputy and the most effective and popular military leader al-Qaeda had, but bin Laden was counting on his guidance as he prepared to rebuild al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden at first hadn’t believed that Abu Ubaidah had drowned. He suspected that he had been murdered, and he ordered Wadih el-Hage and Harun Fazul (both then in Nairobi) to investigate. Harun got to Mwanza first and began searching for Abu Ubaidah’s body, taking boats out on the lake to look for clues. Two weeks later el-Hage joined him. They stayed for two more weeks, before returning to Nairobi. From there they sent a report to bin Laden, stating their belief that Abu Ubaidah in fact had drowned. The FBI later found news television footage from the port capturing Harun frantically looking for Abu Ubaidah.

Faced with replacing Abu Ubaidah as al-Qaeda’s military commander, bin Laden appointed Abu Hafs to the position. A second vacancy—head of the East African cells—was filled by Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, better known in al-Qaeda circles as Abu Mohammed al-Masri. In East Africa he operated under the alias Saleh.

In December 1994, Ramzi Yousef, then living in Manila, drew up plans both to assassinate Pope John Paul II when the pontiff visited the Philippines and to place bombs inside toys on U.S. airlines flying out of Bangkok. The attacks were referred to as the Bojinka plot. Yousef’s partner in the latter plan was his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A Kuwaiti born to Pakistani parents, KSM had been yearning to get more actively involved in jihad ever since his nephew had earned notoriety for the World Trade Center bombing almost two years earlier. KSM had an identical twin brother who had allegedly been killed in Afghanistan during the first jihad.

Yousef had successfully conducted a trial run of the Bojinka plot, leaving a bomb under a passenger seat on a flight from Manila to Tokyo on December 11, 1995, that ripped apart the body of a Japanese businessman. The bomb also tore apart the cabin floor, exposing the cargo hold below, but the pilot was able to make an emergency landing on Okinawa. Yousef had successfully shown he could get a bomb on a plane—all that was needed to bring down the plane were more explosives.

With the test a success, Yousef hunkered down in Manila with KSM and began preparing to build bombs that would do far more damage. During a preparatory session, however, a fire started in Yousef’s apartment, and the police raided it and found evidence of the plot. Yousef somehow evaded arrest and went to Pakistan to continue to carry out his plan. On February 7, 1995, Pakistani intelligence officers captured him in Islamabad. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—who had sent his nephew $600 just prior to the World Trade Center bombing, a transaction he perhaps now feared could be traced, implicating him—was in Qatar at the time. When he learned that Yousef had been arrested, he went into hiding.

Yousef was flown from Pakistan to Stewart Air National Guard Base, in Newburgh, New York, which is under the jurisdiction of the Southern District despite its distance from downtown Manhattan. At the base, he was transferred to an FBI helicopter to be flown to Manhattan. As the helicopter passed over the World Trade Center, one of Yousef’s guards nudged Yousef and pointed to the towers. “You see, it’s still standing,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be if we’d had more money,” Yousef replied.

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