The CIA and 9/11 Part 2: The Cole & “Omar”

The Tale of Incompetence Stretched Well Beyond Breaking Point

By Kevin Fenton

coleIn the first part of this series we saw how, in January 2000, the CIA learned that Flight 77 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar had a US visa, but kept this secret from the FBI. At the time, concealing a terrorist or two from the FBI may have been wrong, but it was nothing to get that excited about. However, the withholding of the information took on a new meaning on October 12, 2000, when al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen.

Although there is no stone-cold proof of Almihdhar’s involvement in the bombing, there is a small hill of circumstantial evidence linking him to it. For example, he was in Yemen at the time, reportedly with one of the masterminds of the attack, Khallad bin Attash, and the bombers called his phone number in Sana’a, Yemen, although this was an al-Qaeda communications hub and they could have been talking to somebody else there. In addition, one day after al-Qaeda’s previous ship-bombing attempt in Yemen, he had left the country and gone to meet with other people suspected of involvement in the operation. Also, he worked on another al-Qaeda ship-bombing plot, to be carried out in Singapore.

The team that went to Yemen to investigate the bombings was mostly from the FBI, although there were also Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, and the CIA station in Yemen was supposed to co-operate. The team was led by FBI managers John O’Neill, who died on 9/11, and Ali Soufan, who later became famous due to his opposition to torture by the CIA and US military.

al-QThey quickly found evidence linking the bombing to al-Qaeda. This was both through the calls to the communications hub where Almihdhar lived and through evidence linking the attack to bin Attash and another al-Qaeda leader, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Both bin Attash and al-Nashiri were known to the US intelligence community. Indeed, the number of core bin Laden operatives was so small that both had also played a part in the 1998 East African embassy bombings, something already known to US authorities in 2000.

Investigating bin Attash, Soufan picked up hints of an al-Qaeda meeting somewhere in Southeast Asia around January 2000. Thinking this might be significant; in November 2000 he sent a formal request to the CIA asking whether the Agency knew anything about such meeting. The reply that came back was that it knew nothing. This was not true, as the CIA was highly aware of the meeting, having followed the participants around Kuala Lumpur for several days.

It is hard to comprehend how the CIA could simply have forgotten it knew about Malaysia. It is even harder when one learns that Soufan sent not one such request, but three, the latter two coming in the spring and summer of 2001. Each request was more specific than the last. In the end, Soufan even linked the Cole operation to a pay phone used by the militants outside the condominium in Kuala Lumpur where al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit was held and asked the CIA about this pay phone. The Agency had watched the attendees coming out of the building, walking round the block and then making calls from the pay phone, but they were determined not to tell Soufan any of this before 9/11.

commrptSoufan’s requests were first made public in a New York Times piece by James Risen in April 2004, a few months before the 9/11 Commission and Justice Department inspector general, which investigated the FBI’s pre-9/11 performance, reported. Yet, there is not a single mention of these three requests in either of these two reports. Neither is there any mention of them in what remained unredacted of the 2002 Congressional Inquiry report or the executive summary of the CIA inspector general’s report into that agency’s failings. Soufan was interviewed three times by the 9/11 Commission, which also looked at documentation from the Cole bombing enquiry. There was a plan to have Soufan testify publicly at a 9/11 Commission hearing, but it never came to fruition.

Working the bin Attash angle, Soufan received a photo of a person thought to be bin Attash from the Yemeni authorities on November 22. He sent it to the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, via the CIA, to check that it was the same Khallad a joint FBI-CIA source inside al-Qaeda who was handled out of Islamabad had previously reported on. On December 16, an FBI agent known as “Michael D.” and a CIA officer known as “Chris” took the photo to the source, who we will call “Omar.” Chris showed the photo to Omar while Michael D., who could not speak any of the source’s languages, was out of the room. When Michael D. came back, Chris showed the photo again, and Omar identified it again as bin Attash in front of Michael D. The news that Omar said the photo showed the Khallad bin Attash he knew was passed along. This might seem less glamorous than assassinating someone with a missile, but it is real police work.

Shortly after this, an unknown CIA official drafted a cable containing some information about bin Attash and some information not about bin Attash. The cable instructed officers to share the information not about bin Attash with the Bureau, but contained no such order regarding the information about bin Attash. Again, this seems to be part of a plan to withhold evidence about certain terrorists from the FBI, although it is unclear whether the center of attention is bin Attash, Almihdhar or someone else.

The CIA alleges that it then somehow convinced itself that Almihdhar may in fact be bin Attash. This despite the fact that it had photos of the two men and they have remarkably different facial features. The idea led the agency to send one of the Malaysia photos showing Almihdhar to Islamabad for Chris and Michael D. to show Omar. However, when the photo arrived in Islamabad it was accompanied by another one; it showed Alhazmi and was also taken in Kuala Lumpur.

Chris and Michel D. went to meet Omar on January 4, 2001. While Michael D. was out of the room, Chris showed Omar the photos of Alhazmi and Almihdhar. Omar did not recognize Almihdhar, but said that the photo of Alhazmi actually showed bin Attash. Although this might sound odd, the two men actually have similar facial features. Unlike on the previous occasion, when Michael D. came back into the room Chris did not have the identification repeated for his benefit. In fact, he never mentioned it to Michael D. at all. He then drafted three cables about the meeting. Two of them, crucially including one disseminated to the wider intelligence community, made no mention of the identification of bin Attash. The one that mentioned his identification was sent only to the CIA.

However, this was very significant information for the Agency, as it now officially believed a senior al-Qaeda operative, one who had just masterminded an operation that cost 17 American lives, had been at the Malaysia summit. The CIA claims it did not know this before—even though it is hard to credit these protestations of ignorance.

ciaChris sent the information that the photo showed bin Attash and that he had therefore been at the Malaysia summit to the CIA station in Sana’s, Yemen. That station was supposed to be working closely with the FBI on the Cole investigation. The day Sana’a station received the news bin Attash had been at the Malaysia summit, it failed to tell the FBI. It also failed to do so the next day, and the next, and so on, right up until 9/11. The 9/11 Commission knew the information had been sent to the CIA station in Sana’a, but omitted this from its report. It is hard to imagine what good-faith explanation could be advanced for such error.

The same as the station in Sana’a, Alec Station also failed to pass on the information to its FBI colleagues, this despite the fact that in mid-January 2001 Chris asked his Alec Station counterparts to contact FBI headquarters and tell it about recent developments.

Two of the Cole agents, apparently including Soufan, then flew out to Islamabad to have Omar formally identify the first bin Attash photograph for possible use in a criminal proceeding against bin Attash. When they met with Omar, on February 1, 2001, Chris was present. He made no mention of the fact that just four weeks previously Omar had seen bin Attash in a Malaysia meeting photograph. In fact, like all other CIA agents, he made no reference to the Malaysia summit at all.

This is perhaps the most confusing episode of the pre-9/11 intelligence failures, so some explanations are in order. When one views the facts as set out above, something seems to be missing, the whole episode is a series of loose ends and unanswered questions. Why would the CIA think Almihdhar and bin Attash were the same person? Why send the additional photo, showing Alhazmi, to Islamabad? And what happened between the meeting when Omar identified bin Attash in the Yemeni photograph, when everything went swimmingly, and the subsequent one, when Chris had evidently gone over to the dark side?

The explanation that best fits the facts is this: nobody involved in the withholding of the Malaysia information from the FBI realized any danger when Soufan sent the first photo to Islamabad, so Chris did his job the way the taxpayers pay him to do it. However, one of the coterie of officials who was withholding information from the FBI subsequently realized that, as Omar had identified bin Attash and bin Attash was an associate of Almihdhar and Alhazmi, then Omar might also identify these two men as well, if shown photos from the FBI. Therefore, it was necessary to ascertain to what extent this danger was real. The speculation that Almihdhar and bin Attash were the same person was then simply a ruse under which a photo could quickly be transmitted to Islamabad to be shown to Omar. The reason the Alhazmi photo arrived unannounced was that there was concern Omar might identify Alhazmi to the FBI as well. The reason neither Chris nor anyone else mentioned the apparent identification of bin Attash to the Bureau is that, well, this was information the CIA had been working hard to keep from the Bureau for a year, why tell it to them now?

It has become a truism that intelligence operations that go on for a long time get screwed up, often for the strangest reasons, and this is a perfect example of that. Nobody could have anticipated that Omar would look at the photo of Alhazmi and say it was bin Attash, but it had happened. Now Alec Station was forced to withhold crucial information about the USS Cole bombing mastermind and tied itself up in knots about how it had failed to pass this information along after 9/11. The tale of incompetence in withholding the information about Almihdhar, Alhazmi and bin Attash had been stretched well beyond breaking point, but much more, and much worse, was to come in the late spring and summer of 2001. These events will be the subject of part 3 of this series.

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Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations

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  1. jschoneboom says:

    Thank you Kevin for pulling all these threads together and weaving a plausible narrative of them. I’m also reading Disconnecting the Dots and really enjoying it — stellar work, a great contribution to our understanding. I strongly recommend the book to everyone interested in 9/11, incidentally. This is the area where things can quickly get very confusing and it’s tempting to let your eyes glaze over and give up, but Kevin does a fantastic job of summarizing at key intervals, and re-summarizing, and re-summarizing as we go along, so our heads don’t explode as we read. I’d love to see Tom Wilshire hauled into court somewhere and asked a few pertinent questions under oath. I’ve gotten more heat for mistakes at restaurant jobs than these guys ever have for (letting, making, take your pick) 9/11 happen.

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