DECLARATION OF WAR
The al-Qaeda Switchboard
By early 1994, the al-Qaeda cell in Nairobi tasked with planning attacks against U.S. targets in Africa was operational. Led by bin Laden’s trusted lieutenant Khalid al-Fawwaz, the cell established front businesses and charities as a cover for its presence in the city—and for bringing personnel, equipment, and money into Africa. Among the charities was el-Hage’s Help Africa People.
In charge of the casing of targets was the double agent Ali Mohamed, one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s, most daring and successful operatives. Fluent in several languages, charismatic, and fit, Mohamed had had a seventeen-year career in the Egyptian military. Officers from his unit in the Egyptian army had killed President Sadat. Like Mohamed, they were EIJ members. At the time of the assassination, Ali Mohamed was attending a program in the United States.
After leaving the Egyptian army, Mohamed had worked as a security adviser to both EgyptAir and the CIA. He had moved to the United States, married an American woman, Linda Sanchez (whom he met on his first flight over), and acquired U.S. citizenship. In 1986 he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Fort Bragg, where he lectured on Islamic culture and politics.
He took a leave from the army to train “brothers in Afghanistan,” a hiatus for which the army granted approval, and he also regularly took leave to help EIJ and al-Qaeda, on missions ranging from training bin Laden’s bodyguards to helping plan operations. The guides and maps that he had initially taken and photocopied from the U.S. Army proved so useful in training al-Qaeda and EIJ members that Mohamed eventually refashioned much of the material into his own pamphlet. He was known in al-Qaeda circles under the alias Abu Mohamed al-Amriki (“the American”)—a tribute to his successfully duping the CIA and the U.S. military.
In May 1993 Mohamed attempted to join the FBI as a translator, admitting to the agent in San Jose who interviewed him that he had connections to a terrorist group in Sudan. The name al-Qaeda meant little to the agent, but he referred the matter to the Department of Defense. Years later, when the bureau requested a transcript of the DoD’s subsequent conversation with Mohamed, the DoD said that it had been lost.
Among the operatives working with Mohamed in 1994 in Nairobi was Anas al-Liby. Born in Tripoli and identifiable by a scar on the left side of his face, Liby joined al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after standout performances at various training camps. Apart from his considerable computer skills, he rose to become one of the terrorist group’s most efficient operatives and often trained other members. With Mohamed and Liby in Nairobi, but for a different purpose, was L’Houssaine Kherchtou. A Moroccan who was one of al-Qaeda’s earliest recruits, Kherchtou was training in a flight school in Nairobi to become bin Laden’s personal pilot.
The three men knew each other well, as both Kherchtou and Liby had been among a group of select new al-Qaeda trainees to whom Mohamed had taught surveillance in Afghanistan a few years earlier. Liby, in turn, had trained the group in the use of computers for operational purposes.
Posing as tourists, in December 1993 Mohamed and his team conducted surveillance of different sites in Nairobi, including the U.S. Embassy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The men also surveyed possible British, French, and Israeli targets. Khalid al-Fawwaz paid for the team’s expenses and equipment as they took pictures, monitored traffic and crowds, and learned where security cameras and guards were positioned. Kherchtou’s apartment in Nairobi often served as a makeshift darkroom, and when the team completed their surveillance they wrote up a report, which included their recommendations for where to strike. In their view, the best option was to attack the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
They traveled to al-Qaeda headquarters in Khartoum and briefed bin Laden on their findings. He agreed with their assessment, and after studying the map they had drawn of the U.S. Embassy, he pointed to a spot along the perimeter of the building and told everyone gathered, “Here’s where a truck can be driven in for a suicide attack.”
Al-Qaeda was organized so that different cells were responsible for different parts of an operation. Often one cell would set up cover businesses in a country, another would conduct surveillance of targets, a third would carry out the attack, and a fourth would clean up afterward. This separation helped ensure that if one cell were compromised, other operatives would be safe.
Having succeeded in their part of the operation, Ali Mohamed and his cell were dismissed, and the cell that would carry out the operations traveled to Nairobi. A separate cell traveled to Dar es Salaam, where a similar attack on the U.S. Embassy there was being planned. Al-Qaeda had decided to launch simultaneous attacks in order to garner as much attention as possible. Bin Laden calculated that while one attack could be downplayed, the ability of a terrorist organization to inflict simultaneous attacks showed not only the strength of the group but also American weakness, both of which would help with future al-Qaeda recruitment and with the organization’s aim of inflicting harm on the United States.
The chief of the twin operations was the Egyptian operative known both as Abu Mohammed al-Masri and as Saleh, though he also used a fraudulent Yemeni passport under the name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah. The explosives expert was another Egyptian operative, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir (Muhsin Musa Matwakku Atwah), who would later become al-Qaeda’s chief bomb maker.
The suicide bombers were handpicked by bin Laden: two Saudis, Mohamed al-Owhali and “Jihad Ali,” for Nairobi; and an Egyptian, Hamdan Khalif Alal—known as “Ahmed the German” because of his blond hair—for Dar es Salaam. Owhali was known in al-Qaeda as Moath al-Balucci. Jihad Ali’s birth name was Jihad Mohammed Ali al-Harazi, and his al-Qaeda alias was Abu Obeydah al-Maki; during the Nairobi operation, he also went by the single name Azzam. The three men were informed of their mission, which they eagerly accepted, and they filmed martyrdom videos.
The leadership decided that the attacks would occur on Friday, August 7, 1998, at 10:30 am, the time of day when Muslims are meant to be in the mosque at prayer. Therefore, al-Qaeda’s theologians argued, anyone killed in the bombing could not be a real Muslim, as he wasn’t at prayer, and so his death would be an acceptable consequence.
In Afghanistan, a few days before the bombings, Saif al-Adel, by now al-Qaeda’s security chief, approached Salim Hamdan, who had acquired the alias Saqr al-Jadawi and had been elevated to the position of personal driver for bin Laden. “Saqr, I need you to fix that car from the sheikh’s convoy,” Saif al-Adel said, pointing to one of the cars.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Hamdan replied.
“Make sure it’s tuned up. We’ll probably be on the move soon.”
The vehicles bin Laden used had tinted windows, and the bodyguards who rode with him carried Kalashnikov machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Hamdan himself always carried a Russian-manufactured Makarov handgun, although in the event of attack, his main role was to drive bin Laden to safety. They regularly rotated the cars—this was Hamdan’s responsibility—so that the convoy would not be easily identifiable, and they chose not to use Land Cruisers with mounted weapons, as the Taliban leaders did, since those vehicles attracted too much attention.
Bin Laden usually sat in the rear and listened to tape recordings of the Quran, religious lectures, or lectures on other Islamic topics. Other times, he just closed his eyes and relaxed. His repose was only disturbed if Zawahiri, Abu Hafs, Saif al-Adel, or another senior al-Qaeda leader was riding with him, in which case a range of topics might need to be discussed, even operations.
On the evening before the bombing, Abu Hafs called a meeting at the mosque in bin Laden’s Kandahar compound. He read a list of the names of people who would have to leave the compound immediately and head to Kabul and said that they would be transported by plane. In the meantime, bin Laden, Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, and Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, an al-Qaeda shura council member who replaced Madani al-Tayyib on the financial committee, would go to another facility in Kandahar.
Bin Laden wanted to travel with as small an entourage as possible to avoid being noticed, so he didn’t take his ever-present security detail with him. Abu Jandal later remarked to me, “It was strange to see those guys leaving the compound driving their own trucks, with their families in the back.” Later, Saif al-Adel returned and told Abu Jandal to dig trenches around the compound, especially next to the guard posts, as “the Americans are going to bomb us soon.”
Abu Jandal knew the suicide bombers well: he had once chastised Owhali for playing with a grenade with the safety pin out. Owhali and Abdul Aziz al-Janoubi—an alias for Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi, the brother-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar (alias Sinan al-Maki)—had been fooling with the grenade, took out the pin, and didn’t know how to put it back in. Abu Jandal put the pin back in and made the two of them crawl around the base they were training at as punishment.
Owhali had also been stationed as a bodyguard outside the press conference bin Laden gave following his May 1998 meeting with ABC journalist John Miller. The press conference was conducted in the Jihadwol training camp in Khost, Afghanistan; also present were Saif al-Adel, Zawahiri, and Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi, head of military training before he was killed fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi was the son-in-law of Adbullah Tabarak, who oversaw the team of bodyguards charged with protecting bin Laden.
Jihad Ali served as a bin Laden bodyguard and was the cousin of Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashiri; both were members of the Northern Group. Nashiri’s al-Qaeda alias was Mullah Bilal, and Jihad Ali—known for his jokes—nicknamed him “Bulbul,” Arabic for a kind of bird. When Jihad Ali was selected as the bomber, Nashiri and Khallad prepared him, and Nashiri phoned Jihad Ali’s mother—his aunt—to tell her that her son had been martyred.
The designated suicide bomber for Tanzania, Ahmed the German, was an explosives trainer whom other operatives had accused of liking “little boys.” This greatly upset him and he complained to Abu Jandal, who assured him that the accusations must be false.
The Nairobi bombing occurred at 10:35. A Toyota Dyna truck carrying the bomb exploded near the rear of the U.S. Embassy, killing 12 Americans and 201 others. It was morning rush hour, and cars, buses, and other vehicles were lined up in traffic outside the embassy, including a bus carrying schoolchildren. A multistory secretarial college was demolished, and the U.S. Embassy and a Cooperative Bank building were severely damaged.
Four minutes later, at 10:39, a white Suzuki Samurai truck blew up next to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, killing eleven people. Hundreds were injured in the two attacks.
When the news of the bombing reached them in Afghanistan, Abu Jandal, Hamdan, and the rest of bin Laden’s entourage went to Kabul to be with him. They all kept a low profile: as Hamdan later said, “This was the first time that bin Laden was essentially going face-to-face with the Americans, and he was unsure of what the response would be.”
It was around 5:30 AM on August 7 when my beeper went off, snapping me out of sleep. I rolled over, grabbed the pager from my bedside table, and took a look at the message: it was from my supervisor, Tom Donlon, telling me to contact him at the office.
I jumped out of bed, picked up my house phone, and dialed the office. I heard Tom’s voice come on the line.
“Tommy, it’s Ali. I got your page. What’s going on?”
“The American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed this morning. It looks like suicide bombers drove trucks into the embassies and blew themselves up. There are a lot of casualties. Details are still coming in.” Tom spoke rapidly, barely pausing between sentences.
I silently gathered my thoughts. “Do we know who is responsible?”
“It’s unclear. I think it may be your guy,” Tom replied. “Hurry up and come straight to the office.”
I put on some clothes and ran out of my apartment. At the office, the mood was somber. I nodded to my colleagues but didn’t stop for hellos or small talk. Everyone else was similarly focused: eyes on the television set, watching incoming reporting, or reading reports about the attacks or standing in small knots of intense conversation.
I printed out all reports of the bombing that had reached our system, along with the two claims of responsibility for the attack that had been sent to media outlets, and started analyzing them. Every few minutes, new details kept coming in.
About twenty minutes after I had arrived, Tom came to my desk. “So, Ali, what’s your guess on who is behind the attacks?” he asked.
“Based on my reading of these reports and open sources,” I said, “my guess is al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.”
“Why do you think that?”
“For a start, that’s where his recent fatwas have been pointing. He issued a fatwa on February 23, 1998, declaring jihad against the West, and in my opinion it was a warning that an al-Qaeda attack would be launched soon.” Tom nodded and said he remembered the fatwa and the memo on it that I had distributed to colleagues.
Bin Laden’s fatwa had stated: “We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema [legal scholars], leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.” In addition to bin Laden, the fatwa had been signed by Zawahiri, then head of EIJ—his group had not yet merged with al-Qaeda and he had not yet become bin Laden’s deputy—and other prominent Islamic terrorists.
“Besides the fatwa, is there anything else indicating that it’s likely bin Laden is behind the attacks?” Tom asked.
“There is. Take a look at the claims of responsibility for the attacks,” I said, showing Tom what I had printed. “The language mirrors past statements by bin Laden.”
I had underscored some of the lines in the two statements and showed them to Tom, along with the similar lines that appeared in past bin Laden declarations, which I had kept from earlier research. “That’s a good catch,” Tom said. “Let’s go to the command center, and you can tell John O’Neill your theory. Headquarters is deciding whether this should be an NYO case or a WFO case.”
The FBI’s Washington, DC, field office, or WFO, had responsibility for almost all overseas attacks. Al-Qaeda attacks were the exception, and they were normally handled by the New York field office. This was because the office of origin (OO) for al-Qaeda was New York. Under the bureau’s OO system, whoever first opens an official case on a particular subject or group—there are fifty-six FBI offices across the country—subsequently handles all related matters. This ensures that work is not duplicated and that institutional expertise from past investigations is retained and built on rather than having to be relearned by a new office every time another incident occurs.
However, because the WFO was the first port of call for overseas attacks, and because al-Qaeda had not officially claimed responsibility for the embassy bombings (thus the case had not automatically been given to NYO), a WFO team was already en route to Nairobi to begin investigating. Before NYO could start investigating, we had to convince headquarters that al-Qaeda was involved.
Tom and I walked across the street from our office to the Joint Terrorism Task Force command center. It was packed with representatives of every U.S. intelligence and law enforcement outfit with offices in New York City, including the CIA, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and the police department. In the center of the room, at the podium, manning the secure phones and conversing with headquarters in Washington, were John O’Neill, Pat D’Amuro, and other senior FBI agents.
“Ali believes that al-Qaeda is responsible for the attacks,” Tom told John and Pat, “and he’s got a convincing explanation.”
I repeated what I had told Tom a few minutes earlier.
“Good thinking,” John said when I had finished. “I want you to help draft a memo to headquarters in Washington explaining why we think the attack has bin Laden’s signature. Come with me.”
I followed John from the podium to a side room. Sitting at a round table reviewing files were Kevin Cruise, from the I-49 squad, and an NYPD detective, Tom Corrigan, who was also attached to I-49. Both Kevin and Tom were al-Qaeda experts. John instructed the three of us to prepare a memo for headquarters outlining why we thought al-Qaeda was responsible.
I wrote down the analysis I had given John and the others, and Kevin and Tom added historical and other classified information that bolstered the claim. They had been privy to intelligence reports on al-Qaeda cells in the region, specifically in Nairobi, and added those details to the memo. When we completed it we showed it to John, who gave it his approval and sent it off to headquarters.
A reply came back about thirty minutes later that headquarters had accepted the arguments in our memo. An NYO team was to be assembled: half would go to Nairobi and the other half to Dar es Salaam. Senior officials decided that Pat D’Amuro would lead both groups. Arrangements were made for everyone to leave in a few hours.
While the decision was being made as to who would make up the team, John came up to me. “Good work on the memo,” he said, putting his arm around me.
“Thanks, boss,” I said.
“Listen,” John continued, “I don’t want you to go to Nairobi. I need you here with me. We’ll have enough agents on the ground there, but I could use your insights here.”
In Nairobi the FBI team worked with local law enforcement and intelligence services to begin piecing together the attacks, gathering evidence, performing forensic analysis, questioning witnesses, and following leads. Reward for Justice posters were issued by the State Department and distributed worldwide.
At the same time, Department of Justice prosecutors from the Southern District of New York flew in and worked with local officials to establish protocol for conducting the investigation. This was essential, as our interest was not just in finding those responsible but also in ensuring that we would be able to convict them in a U.S. court—and use evidence gained for other potential al-Qaeda–related prosecutions.
We needed to make certain that all parts of the investigation—from the handling of evidence to the conducting of interviews and interrogations—met federal standards, so that evidence, testimony, and confessions would be admissible in U.S. courts. Counterterrorism is a continuous process. The result of any operation might end up in court, so it is prudent to have the legal process in mind in order to keep all options open.
While my colleagues were doing the hard work on the ground in Nairobi, I worked with John and others in New York both in providing assistance to the Nairobi team and in tracking the broader al-Qaeda network. One city we started focusing on was London. The British capital had been the location from which al-Qaeda had distributed bin Laden’s declaration of jihad and other statements. It was also where media outlets such as CNN and ABC had arranged their meetings with bin Laden.
John contacted senior British officials to urge them to take the al-Qaeda threat seriously and to help us investigate alleged al-Qaeda members in London and throughout the United Kingdom. They were at first reluctant to do anything about the presence of EIJ and al-Qaeda operatives in London, who didn’t seem to be harming British interests.
I did further analysis on the claims of responsibility. The two were almost identical, the only difference being the location and the names of the shadowy “platoons,” or cells, that had carried out the bombings. The Nairobi claim announced that the bombing had been planned by the platoon of Martyr Khalid al-Saeed and carried out by operatives from the Arabian Peninsula (referring to Saudi Arabia); the Dar es Salaam claim said that the bombing had been planned by the platoon of Abdullah Azzam and carried out by an Egyptian. The names of the platoons honored Islamist terrorist heroes: Khalid al-Saeed was one of the terrorists behind the November 1995 attack on U.S. servicemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (an act for which he had been praised by bin Laden), and Abdullah Azzam was an original mentor to many of al-Qaeda’s members, widely considered to be the father of the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan. Azzam’s base had been in Afghanistan, so this pointed to a connection between Afghanistan and the attack. Moreover, the parties in both claims, employing language similar to that used by bin Laden in previous fatwas, referred to themselves as being part of the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places.
On August 10, three days after the bombing, Debbie Doran, an I-49 agent manning the phones in the FBI’s command post in Nairobi, took a call from someone who reported seeing a “suspicious Arab man with bandages on his hands and stitches on his forehead.” The caller then appeared to have second thoughts and signaled that he was going to hang up.
The FBI runs in Debbie’s blood: her father was a special agent in charge in New York. When she signed up for the bureau, she knew exactly the long hours it would entail, and she is willing to be consumed by important work. Debbie coaxed the caller to stay on the line by assuring him that anything he told her was confidential. It was clear to her from his voice—almost a whisper, with a distinct element of fear—that he worried that saying too much might put him in danger. Debbie spoke of the bombing and reminded him of his moral duty to find the killers of so many innocent people.
The caller told her where he had spotted the man and provided a description. An undercover team was dispatched. Among the agents were Stephen Gaudin and an NYPD detective named Wayne Parola. Stephen, newly assigned to the SWAT team in the New York office, had been with the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. Though at the time he lacked in-depth knowledge of al-Qaeda, he had a remarkable talent for communicating with suspects, a function of his natural empathy and people skills. He would later put this gift to use in key interrogations. The assignment to Nairobi changed Stephen’s career path: he was to become a central member of the FBI’s al-Qaeda team. Wayne Parola was a member of the JTTF and brought a lot of experience. Italian, stocky, with a black beard, he walked the walk, talked the talk, and fit the role of an NYPD detective.
Wayne, Stephen, and the rest of the team staked out the location, and a man who matched the description given to Debbie soon appeared. The agents monitored him, waiting for an opportune moment to grab him. When the moment presented itself, they apprehended and subdued him. A search produced eight hundred-dollar bills. The man had no identification or documents.Unsure how serious his injuries were, the team took him to a hospital to be evaluated by a doctor.
John Anticev led the questioning at the hospital, conducted at the detainee’s bedside. John had been the case agent for Terrorstop, the 1993 New York City landmarks operation, and he was both an experienced interrogator and schooled in radical terrorism, a fact he soon impressed upon the patient-detainee.
“What’s your name?” John asked.
“My name is Khaled Saleem bin Rasheed,” the man replied. Asked where he was from and what he was doing in Nairobi, the man replied that he was from Yemen and that he was looking for business opportunities.
John didn’t challenge his story. Instead he asked him how he had been injured. Rasheed replied that he had been in the Cooperative Bank at the time of the bombing, and that he had been knocked down by the explosion. He had checked himself into the hospital, where he had gotten stitches and where his injuries had been bandaged.
John nodded and jotted down everything he said, in the meantime analyzing his words and studying his moves. He asked Rasheed if he was comfortable and whether he had had a chance to pray. Rasheed said that he had, and John went on to ask him a series of seemingly routine questions about his religious beliefs and his views on the United States, the Taliban, and related matters.
Rasheed settled into his bed and engaged John. He seemed to enjoy the discussion, welcoming the chance to “educate” John on these subjects. John steered the conversation to Abdullah Azzam and noticed that Rasheed gave a slight, seemingly involuntary smile upon hearing the name. It was clear that he was knowledgeable about the theology used as a basis for Islamist radicalism, and he, in turn, was impressed with John’s knowledge.
Rasheed had reached a point at which he was completely at ease. John was relaxed, calm, smiling, and polite. He gave Rasheed the impression that he respected him, and Rasheed clearly appreciated it—he smiled back and happily chatted.
As Rasheed was midway through a sentence, John interrupted him and in a swift movement placed a piece of paper and a pen in front of him, telling him sternly, “Write down the number you called after the bombing.”
Rasheed froze, bewildered by the change in John’s manner and tone. John repeated, “Write down the number!” The certainty with which he gave the command stunned Rasheed, who almost robotically wrote down a phone number. He then put down the pen and stared blankly at John. He was shaking. He had no idea how John knew he had called a number.
In fact, John didn’t know; but his hunch had paid off, and now the FBI team had in custody someone who not only had effectively admitted a role in the bombing but had supplied an important lead.
John asked a follow-up question about the number, but Rasheed wouldn’t say anything else.
As the interrogation was taking place, another team of agents was investigating Rasheed’s cover story. They went to the hospital where he claimed to have been treated following the bombing and to the airport to see if they could find his landing card or any other information. At the hospital, after questioning staff and doctors, they discovered that a janitor had found Rasheed’s belongings stashed on a windowsill above a toilet seat. Among the belongings were truck keys and bullets. They were sent to the FBI forensic team that was analyzing the remains of the truck used for the bombing. The keys were found to match the suicide truck’s locks.
The agents who had gone to the airport found a landing card under the name Khaled Saleem bin Rasheed. Following up on the landing card information took them to a villa in Nairobi that appeared to have been used by the bombers—residue from explosives was found throughout.
At the same time, we traced the telephone number Rasheed had written down to a man in Yemen named Ahmed al-Hada. By monitoring the number, we found that it appeared to be used as the main contact number for al-Qaeda in Yemen, and that calls placed from it went regularly to a satellite phone that U.S. authorities had already been monitoring because it belonged to Osama bin Laden. There were several calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone to the Hada switchboard and from Hada to Nairobi. The al-Qaeda link to the bombing was clear.
On the day of the embassy bombings, a Palestinian al-Qaeda operative named Mohamed Sadeek Odeh was arrested at the airport in Karachi. He had flown in from Kenya, and Pakistani authorities had noticed that the picture on his passport was fraudulent. He was questioned for several days before being rendered, on August 14, to Kenyan authorities and then transported —on the Pakistani prime minister’s plane—to Nairobi. Pat D’Amuro and a team assigned to meet Odeh and his handlers at the Nairobi airport found themselves faced with an unexpected dilemma: the prime minister’s plane didn’t have enough fuel to fly back to Pakistan.
Eventually the fuel tank was filled. A Kenyan official asked pointedly, “But who will pay?”
Pat spotted a CIA plane on the runway. “Bill it to them,” he deadpanned.
The next day, August 15, John Anticev and his team were given access to Odeh. They started off by advising him of his rights, as guided by the bureau and the Department of Justice, and Odeh signed the form, acknowledging that he understood its contents. He went on to admit his involvement in the plot, and he outlined his path to al-Qaeda. He had gone to high school in the Philippines and had become interested in jihad after watching videos and listening to tape recordings of lectures by Abdullah Azzam. In his final year of high school, Odeh needed a thousand dollars, which his father agreed to send him. Upon receiving the money, he asked a cleric whether he should use it to finish his studies or to travel to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen. The cleric told him to head to Afghanistan. There he attended the al-Farouq camp, near Khost, later joining al-Qaeda. He was trained in assassinations and learned how much explosive power was needed to bring down different types of buildings.
Once his training with al-Qaeda was complete, Odeh was sent to Somalia and then Kenya. His first assignment in Kenya was to set up a fishing business, whose proceeds were used to help finance the Nairobi cell. His second assignment was to work with explosives. Odeh explained to the interrogators that in late July 1998, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil, and other al-Qaeda members had gathered in Dar es Salaam to grind TNT to be used in the bombing. The two of them had met Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam and Ahmed the German in House 213 in the Ilala district of the city to make final preparations. With the help of operative Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, they had loaded boxes of TNT, cylinder tanks, batteries, detonators, fertilizer, and sandbags into the back of the truck to be used.
Odeh explained that on August 1, 1998, Saleh had told him that all members of al-Qaeda had to leave Kenya within five days. That same day, Ghailani checked into the Hilltop Hotel in Nairobi, and the following day, Odeh and Harun Fazul met with other al-Qaeda members there. At about the time this meeting was taking place, al-Qaeda members Sheikh Ahmed Salem Swedan and Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil, following instructions, left Nairobi on Pakistan International Airlines Flight 744, bound for Karachi via Dubai; and on August 3, Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam purchased tickets for himself and Odeh on Pakistan International Airlines Flight 746, scheduled to depart on August 6.
Odeh joined other al-Qaeda members at the Hilltop Hotel, where they remained in touch with the team in Dar es Salaam. On August 5, in preparation for meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan following the next day’s flight to Karachi, Odeh shaved his beard and got new clothing. While accomplishing his shopping errands, he took a walk along Moi Avenue, near the U.S. Embassy. On August 6, Saleh and Ghailani left Nairobi for Karachi on Kenya Airways Flight 310, and Odeh (using a false name) and Msalam departed on Flight 746.
Among other details Odeh shared with the interrogators was the role Harun Fazul played in al-Qaeda, specifically his role in writing reports for the leadership. He wrote in code; if anything fell into the wrong hands, al-Qaeda’s plans would still be safeguarded. Odeh gave the questioners examples: “working” meant “jihad,” “potatoes” meant “hand grenades,” “papers” meant “bad documents,” and “goods” meant “fake documents.”
“Can you give an example of how these words would be used?” Anticev asked.
“If we say, ‘How were the goods from Yemen,’” Odeh replied, “it would mean ‘we need fake documents from Yemen.’” Odeh said that Harun’s reports were faxed to Pakistan and from there taken by courier to al-Qaeda’s leaders.
On August 27 John Anticev flew with Odeh from Kenya to Stewart Air Base, where an FBI team was waiting to collect him and continue questioning him. I was one of the members of that team. I stepped onto the plane and gave John a hug. “Welcome home,” I said. “Great work.” This was an understatement. John and the team in Kenya had done a tremendous job. Odeh, wearing a dark jumpsuit, was taken by a SWAT team onto a helicopter and flown to a jail in New York.
On August 20, thirteen days after the bombings, I was in the middle of a conversation with John O’Neill about al-Qaeda operations in London when we heard a run of expletives and shouts from people gathered in front of a television screen nearby.
We ran over and watched a reporter announce that President Clinton had ordered the firing of missiles from navy vessels in the Arabian Sea to bomb sites in Sudan and Afghanistan believed to be run by, or connected to, bin Laden. The sites included a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum and al-Qaeda training camps near Khost. David Cohen and Charlie S[1 word redacted] from the CIA had called John only minutes before to warn him that the bombing was about to take place.
This, the reporter said, was the U.S. retaliation for the embassy bombings. Crowds in Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world were protesting the strikes; the United States was seen as having attacked without cause or warning, killing innocent people.
“What are they doing?” shouted one colleague in disbelief, voicing what we were all feeling at that moment. “Don’t they realize we’ve got agents on the ground in hostile territories?”
“Why the hell didn’t they at least tell us first that they were going to do this?” I asked John. He shrugged as I followed him to a side office off the command post and called Pat D’Amuro to check on the security of the agents on the ground in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, all now easy targets for anyone wishing to avenge the U.S. strikes. If the FBI had known about the bombings in advance, our agents would have been pulled out or taken off the streets until the issue died down.
Headquarters instructed all personnel on the ground in East Africa to keep a low profile until the furor over the attacks had subsided. Being in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam was already dangerous enough: al-Qaeda had just attacked there and likely still had the means to attack again.
There were many phone calls home that day from the two African cities—FBI agents assuring their loved ones back home that they were safe. There was some talk that President Clinton had ordered the strikes to distract attention from his ongoing Monica Lewinsky scandal, but I didn’t believe, nor did I want to believe, that national security would be used in such a manner. Still, whoever had decided to keep the FBI out of the loop took a great risk with American lives.
The emir of one of the camps bombed was Hassan al-Khamiri. The bombing had a devastating effect on him, deepening his hatred of the United States and prompting him to ask bin Laden if he could martyr himself in an upcoming al-Qaeda operation.
Rasheed was brought back in for further interrogation, this time by Stephen Gaudin and Wayne Parola. Neither of them spoke Arabic, so a translator was furnished by the WFO. He was an older man and Rasheed saw him as a father figure; the two bonded.
Stephen and Wayne began by asking Rasheed the questions John Anticev had asked at the start of the original interrogation: What was he doing in Nairobi? What was his connection to the bombing? Rasheed initially gave the same answers he had supplied previously. Stephen and Wayne confronted him with the evidence; in addition, Stephen gave him Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), instant rations for U.S. soldiers abroad. Rasheed was fascinated with the idea of an instant meal, found the MREs to be tasty, and especially loved the cookies that came with them. Gradually his stonewalling gave way to a kind of resignation. Seemingly overwhelmed by the weight of the evidence, he simply declared: “Here’s what I want. I want to be tried in America, not Kenya, because America is my enemy. If you promise me this, I’ll tell you everything.”
The FBI discussed his request with the Department of Justice, and it was agreed that there was no reason not to accede to it: we would have wanted to try him in the United States anyway, as he had attacked U.S. embassies and murdered U.S. civilians. Assistant U.S. attorney Pat Fitzgerald drew up a document stating that the United States would endeavor to get him extradited to the United States for a trial.
Rasheed was presented with the document and an Arabic translation. He seemed happy with it. After it was signed, he said: “Thank you, and now I have something to tell you.” He paused, and then continued, “My name is not Khaled Saleem bin Rasheed. I am Mohamed al-Owhali, and I’m from Saudi Arabia.” Having fulfilled his role as a suicide bomber without in fact dying—a feat he would eventually explain—Owhali had fled the scene of the attack and was alive to tell the FBI his story.
He said that his path to al-Qaeda had been through the Khaldan training camp. While the camp was not controlled by al-Qaeda, it was in the habit of letting the leadership know about promising recruits. Owhali had been one such recruit. He told the interrogators with pride that his skills had distinguished him from fellow recruits and that he had been recommended to al-Qaeda. In due course, he had met bin Laden. Owhali told the interrogators that he had found himself agreeing with everything that bin Laden said.
He pledged bayat to bin Laden and joined al-Qaeda. Soon after, he asked bin Laden for a mission. Bin Laden told him that something would come his way. Eventually bin Laden summoned Owhali and told him that he would be part of an effort to inflict a mighty blow against the United States—he would help bomb the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. On July 31, he had flown from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Dubai, where he had missed his intended flight to Nairobi, not arriving till August 2.
Owhali took the interrogation team through everything he knew about the bombing, from the bomb maker—whom he identified as the Egyptian known as Saleh—through to his actions on the day of the attack. He was not a proficient liar, and when he tried to withhold information or protect the identity of his friends, the interrogation team caught him out.
Around May 1998, Harun Fazul, who was to serve as a guide for Owhali and his fellow designated bomber Jihad Ali during their time in Nairobi, rented a villa, at 43 New Runda Estates. On August 4, Owhali, Harun, and other al-Qaeda members reconnoitered at the U.S. Embassy. On the fifth, sixth, and seventh, Owhali called Hada’s switchboard in Yemen from a phone at the villa. On the morning of the bombing, at around 9:30, Harun accompanied the bombers from the villa to the embassy. They traveled in a convoy, led by Harun in his own truck, with Owhali and Jihad Ali following in the bomb-laden truck. Owhali was equipped with four stun grenades, a 9 mm Beretta handgun, bullets, and keys to the padlocks on the bomb truck.
At around 10:30 AM, Harun threw a stun grenade at embassy guards to engage and distract them while Owhali and Jihad Ali continued on toward the building. Harun drove off, his part in the mission finished. As Owhali and Jihad Ali got closer to the embassy, they reached a point where gates and another set of guards prevented them from going any further. Owhali jumped out—it had been agreed that his role would be to detonate himself at these very gates in order to enable Jihad Ali to explode himself and the car close enough to the embassy to do damage. Brandishing the stun grenades, Owhali shouted at a guard to open the gates. The guard refused, and Owhali threw a grenade at him. Seeing the commotion and the explosion, Jihad Ali began firing a pistol at the embassy, causing people to scatter.
Owhali was unsure what to do: his mission had been to help Jihad Ali get as close to the embassy as possible. Although the gates were still closed, the guards had dispersed, and Jihad Ali was in fact now close enough to fulfill his mission. For Owhali to blow himself up would be considered suicide rather than martyrdom—forbidden under Islam. It was a fine distinction, but one of importance to Owhali. After making a quick calculation, Owhali began to run away—and was knocked over and injured by the explosion when Jihad Ali blew himself up.
Owhali entered a nearby hospital, disposing of his remaining bullets from his gun in the bathroom in which they were later found and placing a few other belongings on the window ledge. He told the nurses and doctors who treated him that he had been a victim of the blast. After being stitched up and bandaged, he left the hospital and contacted al-Qaeda through the Hada switchboard, reporting what had happened. He asked that someone send him a passport and money. A thousand dollars was transferred, which Owhali used to buy new clothes. He was planning his escape from Nairobi when he was picked up.
Owhali was flown to the United States and, once jailed, was asked who his next of kin was. He pointed to Stephen Gaudin. Owhali was tried in 2001 and sentenced in federal court to life without parole, along with Wadih el-Hage and two other operatives involved in the bombings, Mohamed Odeh and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed.
Ali Mohamed was arrested in September 1998 when he tried to flee to Egypt after being subpoenaed for his connection to the bombings. He pled guilty in May 1999 but was never sentenced. To date he is awaiting sentencing and is being held in a secure location. Pat Fitzgerald had long been pressing for Mohamed to be tried and convicted, and when I went with Pat to debrief him in jail, the former double agent seemed shaken.
The investigators followed up on Owhali’s leads, all of which proved accurate. We later learned that in the days after the Nairobi bombing, Harun Fazul hired people to clean the villa at 43 New Runda Estates, and around August 14 he left Nairobi for the Comoros Islands. In Dar es Salaam, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed cleaned the premises at House 213 in Ilala and made arrangements for the cleaning and discarding of the grinder used to prepare the TNT. On August 8, he left Dar es Salaam for Cape Town. A full picture emerged of how the attacks had been planned and carried out, and the prosecution teams began planning the indictments and trials of bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders for their roles.
The searches of the different facilities, safe houses, and offices used by al-Qaeda generated valuable documents, phone numbers, and photographs of many al-Qaeda members. At the Help Africa offices, agents recovered passport-size photos used to issue bogus identification cards. The photos were of the entire al-Qaeda leadership, in addition to most of the main operatives from the period bin Laden was based in Sudan. The pictures became the basis for one of our first al-Qaeda “photo-books,” a term the agency uses for mug shots and other pictures of suspects relevant to an investigation.
At the same time, our investigative interest now had taken new directions. First there was Yemen: it was clear that al-Qaeda members were based there and were using the country for operations. The fake passports used by Owhali (in the name of Rasheed) and other terrorists involved in the attacks were issued in Yemen, with Hada’s phone number the main means of communication. Then there were leads pointing to al-Qaeda in London. We had started investigating London in 1996 because bin Laden’s media office was based there. After the East African embassy bombings, British authorities had finally arrested Khalid al-Fawwaz and two of Zawahiri’s operatives. Working with Scotland Yard, we had found that the claims of responsibility for the attacks had been faxed by Zawahiri's two Egyptians, Adel Abdel Bary and Ibrahim Eidarous, from The Grapevine, a copy shop across the street from a residence on Beethoven Street used by the group’s media operatives. We dubbed it the Beethoven Office.
Two of the agents involved in the Dar es Salaam investigation were Abby Perkins and Aaron Zebley. Both were instrumental in apprehending and gaining a confession from Khalfan Khamis Mohamed—a confession that helped convict him and get him a life sentence in the eventual embassy bombings trial.
In the second half of 1999, bin Laden met with some thirty graduates of a special “close combat” training session at Loghar training camp. Assembled by Khallad, the members of the group were viewed as special operatives. Khallad brought in a Pakistani trainer to teach the operatives hand-to-hand combat, and Tae Kwan Do and other martial arts.
After the session was finished, the students were sent to Kandahar to see bin Laden. He congratulated them on graduating and lectured them about the East African embassy bombings, divulging operational details, including the vehicles and explosives used, and explaining, in particular, the reasons for the Nairobi attack: one, Operation Restore Hope, in Somalia, which he claimed had resulted in the death of thirty thousand Muslims, had been directed from the Nairobi embassy; two, the embassy was the base of support for Sudanese rebel leader and politician John Garang de Mabior; and, three, it was the biggest center of American intelligence in East Africa.
Among the group to whom bin Laden offered this justification were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 hijackers.