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Ahmed al-Hada and his phone are one of the biggest mysteries surrounding 9/11. Although several US and other agencies knew he was involved with al-Qaeda, the 1998 African embassy bombings, and the 2000 USS Cole attack, al-Hada was allowed to continue to operate and was a key link in 9/11.
The surveillance of al-Hada’s phone by the US provided enough information to prevent 9/11 – there were numerous calls between the al-Hada family, under NSA and CIA surveillance in Sana’a, Yemen, and 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, al-Hada’s son-in-law, and Nawaf Alhazmi in the US. These calls were intercepted and analyzed by the NSA and could have been used to discover the hijackers’ location in the US – at least one of the US phones used was registered to Alhazmi, who the NSA knew was an al-Qaeda operative. But this did not happen and the reason has never been sufficiently explained. Why did the US not exploit the information from al-Hada’s phone to locate the hijackers in the US roll up the plot? How many calls to/from the hijackers in the US did the NSA intercept?
It appears that al-Hada was allowed to operate after the embassy bombings – where he was a key connection between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the bombers in Africa – because it was thought that surveillance of him would reveal other plots. Reportedly, the monitoring was productive and the FBI was even able to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation based on the intercepts and many plots were prevented, surely important achievements.
However, al-Hada is then said to have been involved in the attack on the Cole – the bombers that carried out the operation used his phone to “put everything together” before the bombing. One question is, if the NSA was listening in on the bombers putting everything together, why could the attack not have been prevented? Second question: why was al-Hada not shut down after the Cole attack? If the policy was to let him operate and then hope to close down the plots before they came to fruition, the 17 dead sailors on the Cole were stark proof that this high-risk plan had failed. After the Cole, al-Hada had helped murder 240 people, 29 of them Americans. What did he have to do to get arrested?
Additionally, al-Hada must have known that he was under surveillance, because his son Samir was questioned following the embassy bombings, and the facility he ran – a safe house as well as a communications hub – appears to have been mentioned in a 1999 trial in Egypt (the “Trial of the Albanian Returnees”). Incredibly, al-Hada, despite being one of the US intelligence community’s leading sources of information on al-Qaeda, was mentioned at the New York trial for the embassy bombings, in February 2001. His name (translated al-Hazza in this case) was read out in open court, as was his phone number, and his close connections to the embassy bombers and Osama bin Laden were highlighted. This subsequently appeared in a State Department press release and the global media before 9/11.
In intelligence terms, it could not have been clearer to al-Hada that he was under surveillance. This was a blunder by the US of enormous proportions, as normally the surveillance target would realize he was under surveillance and cease his activities, shutting off the flow of information. However, in an even greater blunder al-Qaeda continued to use al-Hada’s phone for its communications, and, according to MSNBC, the 9/11 hijackers made at least one call to it after al-Hada was named at the trial. One can only wonder what bizarre string of events led to al-Hada being named in court, presumably at the insistence of the FBI and prosecutors, and what the NSA and CIA thought of this. One must also wonder why al-Qaeda kept using the damn phone after this. The Yemeni authorities were notorious for turning a blind eye to a spot of jihad – was there some sort of deal?
Finally, where is Ahmed al-Hada? He is said to have been arrested in 2002, was wanted in 2005, but was reported to be in jail in 2006.
There are dozens of other questions about the surveillance of al-Hada (such as where is the NSA inspector general’s report on 9/11? What terrorist plot did Almihdhar and Alhazmi discuss on the phone in early 1999? Why did the calls to/from the US rate only two cryptic mentions in the 9/11 Commission report? Is this related to the “Judy Miller warning”?). In March and April of 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey used one of these calls to justify increased NSA powers post-9/11, finally generating some attention from the media. Hopefully, these leads will be pursued and we will get some answers.
May 1996: Al-Qaeda Begins Using Vital Communications Hub in Yemen
Al-Qaeda begins using an important communications hub in Yemen at this time. This is according to counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, who claims to have had access to “hundreds of telephone, email, and other communications” between al-Qaeda leaders due to his close ties to Western intelligence agencies. The hub uses the telephone line of Ahmed al-Hada, who lives in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Hada is a veteran mujaheddin and close friend of bin Laden. He also has many militant relatives who will use the hub, including his son-in-law 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. The hub is used as a switchboard to “divert and receive calls and messages from the [Middle East] region and beyond.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 2-3, 16, 188] US intelligence will begin monitoring calls to the hub by late 1998, if not before (see August 5-25, 1998).
August 5-25, 1998: Embassy Bomber’s Arrest Points to Vital Al-Qaeda Communications Hub
Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali, who was supposed to be martyred in the attack, is asking al-Hada for help getting out of Kenya and eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a. Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23, 3/27/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998, pp. 1 pdf file] Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 275-8] The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 48]
August 5-16, 1998: Hijacker Almihdhar Calls Al-Qaeda Communications Hub Before and After US Embassy Bombings, FBI Learns of This
9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar makes a series of calls to an al-Qaeda communications hub run by his father-in-law, Ahmed al-Hada. A Yemeni police official will later tell Agence France-Presse that Almihdhar “made a number of overseas calls to Ahmed al-Hada, who was then in Sana’a, before, during, and after” the African embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998). Al-Hada is involved in the embassy bombings and the US intelligence community begins joint surveillance of his phone after the bombings (see Late August 1998), although the NSA may already have been monitoring it (see Before August 7, 1998). The calls made by Almihdhar are from overseas and the FBI learns of this, presumably during the investigation into the embassy bombings (see August 5-25, 1998) [Agence France Presse, 2/15/2002] Around this time Almihdhar is also in contact with al-Hada’s son, Samir, who is his brother-in-law, and the Yemen Times will later report that these contacts are monitored. However, it is not clear whether this is just by local authorities in Yemen, or also by US intelligence. [Yemen Times, 2/18/2002] British Prime Minister Tony Blair will later say that one of the 9/11 hijackers, presumably Almihdhar, played a key role in the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa (see October 4, 2001).
Before August 7, 1998: NSA Intercepts Calls to Communications Hub Involved in Embassy Bombings
Calls are made using Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is involved in the embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998). According to MSNBC, two of the calls from bin Laden’s phone are made “days before” the bombings. The NSA is intercepting calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone at this time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and his phone is used to make dozens of calls to the Yemen communications hub from 1996 to 1998, but it is unclear what is done with the intercepts, as the NSA is sometimes unwilling to share information with other US intelligence agencies (see Between 1996 and August 1998, December 1996, Between 1996 and September 11, 2001, and Before September 11, 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 10/10/2001; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002] The communications hub is run by veteran mujaheddin Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of one of the embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Al-Owhali stays at the hub in the months before the bombing and obtains a fake passport in Yemen (see August 5-25, 1998). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998 pdf file] The NSA continues to intercept calls to and from the hub after the embassy bombings (see Late August 1998 and August 5-25, 1998).
Mid-August 1998-October 2000: Al-Qaeda Operatives Use Monitored Yemen Communications Hub to Coordinate Cole Bombing
Al-Qaeda operatives use a communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, to “put everything together” before the bombing of the USS Cole. The communications hub is run by Ahmed al-Hada, who US officials will later describe as “a prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing.” The hub is monitored by US intelligence from 1998, at least, (see Late August 1998) and information gleaned from it is used to thwart a number of plots (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The US monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it. The hub was also used before the 1998 embassy bombings and will be used to communicate with the 9/11 hijackers before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Mirror, 6/9/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005] When the FBI arrives in Yemen to investigate the bombing, it finds that “telephone records show[…] that suspects in the Cole bombing had been in touch with suspects from the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 238] Calls between the hub and an al-Qaeda cell in Ireland that seems to have a connection to the Cole bombing are also intercepted during part of this period (see Late December 1999-October 12, 2000). It is unclear why the information does not allow the NSA to thwart the plot. Despite the scope of the monitoring, NSA Director Michael Hayden will later say there were no intercepts the NSA could have exploited to stop the bombing: “When the Cole disaster took place I had brought to my desk in, in this office, every stitch of NSA reporting on the—that could in any way be related to this. And I went thought it report by report and I sent a letter out to our entire work force, which was essentially, you performed well. Keep up the good work.” [CBS News, 6/19/2002]
Late August 1998: US Intelligence Community Begins Joint Surveillance of Al-Qaeda Communications Hub
The investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998) led to the discovery of the phone number of an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see August 5-25, 1998). The hub is run by an al-Qaeda veteran named Ahmed al-Hada, who is helped by his son Samir and is related to many other al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and elsewhere. He is also the father in law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, whose wife, Hoda al-Hada, lives at the hub with their children. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 277, 309, 343, 378] Several of Ahmed al-Hada’s relatives die fighting for al-Qaeda before 9/11, a fact known to US intelligence. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Guardian, 2/15/2006] The NSA may already be aware of the phone number, as they have been intercepting bin Laden’s communications for some time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and, according to Newsweek, “some” of bin Laden’s 221 calls to Yemen are to this phone number. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; Media Channel, 9/5/2006] The US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to monitor the number. The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] US intelligence also learns that the communications hub is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002] The joint effort enables the FBI to map al-Qaeda’s global organization (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and at least three of the hijackers use the number, enabling the NSA to intercept their communications and find out about an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999 and January 5-8, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until Samir al-Hada dies resisting arrest in early 2002 (see February 13, 2002).
Late 1998-Early 2002: US Intelligence Maps Al-Qaeda Network Using Phone Records; Many Attacks Thwarted
Beginning in the autumn of 1998, the FBI uses the phone records of an al-Qaeda communications hub run by operative Ahmed al-Hada and his son Samir to build a map of al-Qaeda’s global organization. A map showing all the places in the world that have communicated with the hub is posted on the wall of the interagency counterterrorism I-49 squad in New York. The hub’s telephone number was uncovered during the East African embassy bombings investigation (see August 5-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). [Al Ahram, 2/21/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] According to FBI agent and I-49 squad member Dan Coleman, al-Hada is “uncle of half the violent jihadists we knew in the country.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] Several of his sons and sons-in-law are al-Qaeda operatives and some die fighting and training with radical Islamists; this is known to US intelligence before 9/11. Hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is also a son-in-law of al-Hada. [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Fox News, 2/14/2002; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The number is monitored by the NSA and over the next three years it mines intelligence that helps authorities foil a series of plots, including planned attacks on the US Embassy in Paris and the US Consulate in Istanbul, along with an attempted airline hijacking in Africa. However, the hub also serves as a planning center for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which is successful (see October 12, 2000). [US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] The CIA, as the primary organization for gathering foreign intelligence, has jurisdiction over conversations on the al-Hada phone. Helped by the NSA, it stakes out the house—tapping the phone, planting bugs, and taking satellite photographs of its visitors. However, the CIA apparently does not provide the FBI with all the relevant information it is obtaining about al-Qaeda’s plans. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] For example, the FBI is not informed that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi make calls to the communications hub from the US between spring 2000 and summer 2001 (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001). The FBI also asks the NSA to pass any calls between the communications hub and the US to the FBI, but the NSA does not do this either (see Late 1998). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94]
1999: Monitored Al-Qaeda Operative Sits Next to Bin Laden at Banquet
Ahmed al-Hada, an operative who runs a communications hub for al-Qaeda in Yemen, travels to Afghanistan and attends a banquet, where, US intelligence learns, he sits next to Osama bin Laden. The communications hub run by al-Hada, who fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, helped coordinate the East African embassy bombings and has been under heavy surveillance by the NSA and other US agencies since at least late 1998 (see Late August 1998). [Newsweek, 2/18/2002]
December 29, 1999: NSA Tells CIA about Planned Al-Qaeda Summit Involving Future Hijackers
The NSA, monitoring a telephone in an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002), has listened in on phone calls revealing that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi are to attend an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999). Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned, as well as the first names of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. On this day, the NSA shares this information with the CIA’s Alec Station bin Laden unit. Other US intelligence agencies, including FBI headquarters and the FBI’s New York field office, are told as well. Although Khalid Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned in one call, the NSA only passes on his first name. Also, the NSA has already learned from monitoring the Yemen hub that Nawaf’s last name is Alhazmi and that he is long-time friends with Almihdhar (see Early 1999). However, they either don’t look this up in their records or don’t pass it on to any other agency. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 239 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 310] An NSA analyst makes a comment that is shared between US intelligence agencies, “Salem may be Nawaf’s younger brother.” This turns out to be correct. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file] A CIA officer will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that information from the Africa embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998) was reviewed in late 1999 during a worldwide effort to disrupt millennium attack plots (see December 15-31, 1999) and “a kind of tuning fork… buzzed when two [of the hijackers] reportedly planning a trip to [Malaysia] were linked indirectly to what appeared to be a support element… involved with the Africa bombers.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] The fact that they are connected to the Yemen communication hub already indicates some importance within al-Qaeda. It is learned they are connected to the embassy bombings in some way (see October 4, 2001 and Late 1999). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 pdf file] The NSA report about them on this day is entitled, “Activities of Bin Laden Associates,” showing the clear knowledge of their ties to bin Laden. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The CIA will track Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to the Malaysia summit (see January 2-5, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000).
Early 2000-Summer 2001: NSA Intercepts Communications between Hijackers in US and Al-Qaeda Communications Hub
The NSA intercepts approximately 14 calls between the hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by Ahmed al-Hada, who is hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father in law (see August 5-25, 1998).
- The first calls are made by Almihdhar and are intercepted during the spring and summer of 2000 (see Spring-Summer 2000).
- More calls are made by hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001).
- The final call from the US is intercepted just a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)). The NSA intercepted the hijackers’ calls outside the US before this (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and continues to do so in 2000 (see Summer 2000) after Almihdhar returns to Yemen (see June 10, 2000 and (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)). Some of the calls may only contain non-operational information, as they are between Almihdhar and his wife. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 343] However, the calls are also used to relay messages to the 9/11 hijackers. [Embassy of Yemen (Washington), 2/13/2002; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005] The CIA is the lead agency monitoring the communications hub. It has planted bugs inside the house and is wiretapping all calls (see Late August 1998). Intercepts of calls to and from the hub are a major plank of the US intelligence community’s effort to fight al-Qaeda. Also involved is the FBI, which is using phone records to plot these calls on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). Some of the calls intercepted by US intelligence come from bin Laden’s satellite phone in Afghanistan (see August 5-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). After 9/11, counterterrorism officials will say that the number was one of the hottest targets being monitored by the NSA and was an “intelligence bonanza.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 343] Also after 9/11, counterterrorism officials will agree that the failure to follow leads to the US from this number was a huge missed opportunity to stop the plot. For instance, FBI agent Kenneth Maxwell will say: “Two al-Qaeda guys living in California—are you kidding me? We would have been on them like white on snow: physical surveillance, electronic surveillance, a special unit devoted entirely to them.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] The failure to roll up the plot based on these communications intercepts will be discussed following 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).
(Mid-June-Mid-July 2000): Almihdhar Stays in Yemen House Monitored by US Intelligence
When hijacker Khalid Almihdhar leaves the US in June (see June 10, 2000), he flies to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Oman in the Middle East. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] From there he returns to his family’s home in Sana’a, Yemen. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 237] His wife and children live at an al-Qaeda communications hub that is run by his father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. The hub is being monitored by the NSA and CIA. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should have been aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar was, but what exactly was known and who may have known it has not been made public.
Before October 12, 2000: Commander of Cole Attack Reportedly Meets Monitored Al-Qaeda Operative and Bin Al-Shibh
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an al-Qaeda leader involved in the attack on the USS Cole, is said to meet two associates, Ahmed al-Hada and al-Hada’s nephew Ramzi bin al-Shibh, in Yemen. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; Newsweek, 12/2/2002] Al-Hada, an operative who runs a communications hub for Osama bin Laden, has been under surveillance since 1998, at least (see August 5-25, 1998). The surveillance of al-Hada is reportedly so important that his house is monitored by spy satellites, to visually identify everyone coming and going (see Late August 1998), although it is unclear where the meeting with al-Nashiri takes place. The exact timing of this meeting and that with bin al-Shibh is not known, although bin al-Shibh makes a trip to Yemen a month before the bombing (see Around September 15-16 and October 10-21, 2000). [Newsweek, 12/2/2002] Bin al-Shibh is repeatedly denied a US visa. Although the earlier applications are denied on the grounds he may stay in the US, it will later be suggested that his presumed role in the Cole bombing may have influenced one or more later denials (see May 17, 2000-May 2001).
Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001: NSA Intercepts Calls between Hijacker in US and Al-Qaeda Communications Hub
In the months after the USS Cole is bombed in autumn 2000 (see October 12, 2000), the NSA intercepts about half a dozen communications between hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] The hub and people associated with it are thought to have played a support role in the Cole bombing (see also October 14-Late November, 2000 and October 4, 2001). [CNN, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It was also involved in the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (see August 5-25, 1998). The NSA has been monitoring the number for at least two years (see Late August 1998) and the FBI has used it to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA had previously intercepted calls between hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and the hub (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001) and also intercepts a call between Alhazmi and the hub a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).
November 2000 or After: FBI Connects Al-Qaeda Communications Hub to Cole Bombing, No Apparent Action Taken
The FBI’s investigation of the USS Cole bombing in Aden, Yemen, connects the bombers to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, the country’s capital, which has been monitored by the US for at least two years (see Late August 1998 and Mid-August 1998-October 2000). It was also used in the East African embassy bombings (see August 5-25, 1998) and will be used by the 9/11 hijackers (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). It is not known when this connection is made. No apparent action is taken against Ahmed al-Hada, the operative who runs the communications hub, before 9/11. However, this may be due to the importance of intelligence generated from his phone (see Late 1998-Early 2002). In early 2001, al-Hada will be publicly identified as an al-Qaeda operative at the embassy bombings trial, when his phone number is disclosed openly in court and reported in the media (see February 2001 and After). Yet he still is not publicly indicted for either the embassy bombings or the Cole bombing, even though a number of other fugitives are publicly indicted. In 2002, US officials will describe al-Hada as a “prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing,” and say his phone was used by the bombers to relay messages and “put everything together” before the attack. [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005]
February 2001 and After: Al-Qaeda Communications Hub in Yemen Is Disclosed in Global Media, but Hijacker Continues to Call It
During the trial of men accused of the 1998 East African embassy bombings, an FBI witness mentions that one of the defendants, Mohamed al-Owhali, told investigators that he had stayed in a Yemen-based al-Qaeda communications hub run by Ahmed al-Hada. He also revealed that he had called the hub before and after the Nairobi bombing. (Note: al-Hada’s surname is transliterated as “al-Hazza” during the trial.) The existence of the communications hub in Yemen is then reported by the US State Department, CNN, the Guardian, and UPI over the next few months. [United Press International, 2/13/2001; US Department of State, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; CNN, 5/2/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The hub was also previously mentioned at a big trial of Islamic Jihad operatives in Cairo (see 1999). The 9/11 hijackers have been calling the communications hub by phone since early 1999, at least (see, e.g., Early 1999). The calls are being intercepted by the NSA and some of them have originated from within the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Perhaps unaware that the hub’s existence has been disclosed, they will make at least one more call to the hub (see (August 2001)).
Summer 2001: 9/11 Hijackers’ Associates Call Monitored Al-Qaeda Communications Hub in Yemen
Associates of the 9/11 hijackers call a number in Yemen also called by the radicals who bombed two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The calls, which MSNBC says are made “in the weeks before the attacks,” are presumably to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of Nairobi embassy bomber Mohamed al-Owhali (see August 5-25, 1998). The number is monitored by US intelligence at this time and is also called by the hijackers themselves (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), at least one of the calls being around this time (see (August 2001)). But it is not clear what intelligence the NSA and CIA gleaned from these calls or which associates of the hijackers make the calls. [MSNBC, 10/3/2001] However, it is thought that one of the hijackers’ associates, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, met with an associate of al-Hada’s in Yemen the year before (see Before October 12, 2000) and traveled to Yemen before the bombing of the USS Cole (see Around September 15-16 and October 10-21, 2000).
(August 2001): NSA Intercepts Another Call to Hijackers in US
The NSA has been intercepting calls between at least two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by al-Qaeda operative Ahmed al-Hada over an approximately 18-month period before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). According to MSNBC, the final intercepted call comes “only weeks” before 9/11. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] Around the same time there is great alarm in the US intelligence community over a communications intercept in Yemen indicating there was going to be a major al-Qaeda attack against US interests (see June 30-July 1, 2001). Further, the investigation of the USS Cole bombing has reignited interest in Almihdhar and Alhazmi on the part of the US intelligence community since at least June 2001 (see June 11, 2001 and July 13, 2001). The two of them are placed on an international no-fly list in late August (see August 23, 2001).
October 4, 2001: British Prime Miniter Tony Blair Says 9/11 Hijacker Played ‘Key Role’ in Embassy Bombings
In a key speech about al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that one of the hijackers played a “key role” in the 1998 African embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998). Though he doesn’t specify which one, he does say the individual was one of the three hijackers who were quickly identified after 9/11 as known al-Qaeda associates (see 9:53 p.m. September 11, 2001) and someone who had also played an important role in the USS Cole attacks (see October 14-Late November, 2000). [UK Prime Minister, 10/4/2001] Blair’s description of this hijacker as being involved in the USS Cole and African Embassy attacks strongly suggests the person he is referring to is Khalid Almihdhar. Almihdhar allegedly had a hand in the Cole attack (see Early October 2001) and had links to one of the captured embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Before the Cole attacks, al-Owhali stayed at an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen run by Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see February 2001 and After). Additionally, al-Owhali met an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan by the name of Khalid, although this may have been Khallad (aka Tawfiq bin Attash), or even Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; Guardian, 10/5/2001; CNN, 10/16/2001; Burke, 2004, pp. 174; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Wright, 2006, pp. 309] It is also possible that the person alluded to in Blair’s speech is Nawaf Alhazmi, who also had connections to the embassy bombings (see 1993-1999).
February 13, 2002: Al-Qaeda Stops Using Monitored Communications Hub after Shootout
Samir al-Hada, an al-Qaeda operative who helped run a vital al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Late 1998-Early 2002), dies while being pursued by Yemeni police. The Yemeni police were tipped off by Samir’s landlord that he was planning to flee the country when he failed to produce identity documents to renew his lease. The police stake out his hideout for a week but he escapes and, during the chase, a grenade explodes in his hand and kills him. He was the brother-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. [BBC, 2/13/2002; Guardian, 2/14/2002; CNN, 2/14/2002; Al Ahram, 2/21/2002] After the attack, the police search the house where al-Hada had been staying and seize weapons, documents, books, a mobile phone, and a piece of paper containing phone numbers. [CBS News, 2/13/2002; BBC, 2/15/2002] The al-Hada hub was used in planning the embassy bombings in 1998 (see August 5-25, 1998 and October 4, 2001), the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (see October 14-Late November, 2000), and 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). It had been monitored by the NSA since the late 1990s (see Late August 1998 and Early 1999). Ahmed al-Hada is in Yemeni custody by 2006; it has not been stated when or how he was captured. [Wright, 2006, pp. 378] It appears that the communications hub is no longer functional after al-Hada’s death, as there are no more references to it operating, several of the al-Hada clan are rounded up, the hub is again discussed by the media (see February 2001 and After), and the clan’s patriarch, Ahmed al-Hada, is again named in the media. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/14/2002; CNN, 2/14/2002; Al Ahram, 2/21/2002]
Before May 11, 2002: Al-Qaeda Operative Who Ran Communications Hub Reportedly Arrested in Yemen
Ahmed al-Hada, an operative who ran an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen that was monitored by US intelligence, is said to be arrested by authorities in Yemen, though it is not known exactly when this happened. The hub was involved in the East African embassy bombings (see August 5-25, 1998), the attack on the USS Cole (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000) and 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). His son, who helped run the hub, died while being pursued by security forces in February 2002 (see February 13, 2002). Details such as whether he is questioned by the US, whether he is charged, and the place he is being held are unknown. [Agence France Presse, 5/11/2002] According to author Lawrence Wright, he will still be in custody in 2006. [Wright, 2006, pp. 378] However, an undated MSNBC article apparently written around 2005 will list him as still being at large. [MSNBC, 5/2005]
Summer 2002-Summer 2004: 9/11 Investigations Glance over Intercepts of Hijackers’ Calls
Both the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission examine the NSA’s intercepts of various calls made by the hijackers to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry refers to several of the calls and gives an idea of the content of some of them. But it does not mention those made by Nawaf Alhazmi and possibly other hijackers from the US after the USS Cole bombing, which are only disclosed later in the media (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and March 15, 2004 and After). However, this section of the Inquiry report is heavily redacted so most details remain unknown. It states that, although the NSA intercepted the calls and disseminated dispatches about some of them, the NSA did not realize the hijackers were in the US at the time the calls were made. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 11-12, 143-146, 155-157 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission Report contains a briefer section on the intercepts and deals with those which led to the surveillance of the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000). In addition, it mentions that Almihdhar called his wife from San Diego in the spring of 2000, but fails to mention that his wife lived at an al-Qaeda communications hub and that the calls were intercepted by the NSA (see Spring-Summer 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 181, 222] The Los Angeles Times comments: “The [9/11 Congressional Inquiry] and the Sept. 11 commission that came after it referred indirectly to the calls from Yemen to San Diego. But neither report discloses what the NSA gleaned from the calls, or why they were never disclosed to the FBI.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The publication of the 9/11 Commission report and revelations about domestic surveillance by the NSA will lead to increased media interest in and revelations about the intercepts starting from 2004 (see March 15, 2004 and After).
March 15, 2004 and After: Domestic Wiretapping Revelation Reignites 9/11 Hijacker Phone Call Debate
It was disclosed in 2003 that the NSA had intercepted several calls between hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001 and Summer 2002-Summer 2004). But in 2004, after revelations that the NSA has been wiretapping inside the US, some media begin to re-examine the circumstances of the hijackers’ calls from the US, as the Bush administration uses the example of these calls as a justification for the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program. [New York Times, 12/16/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] The calls are thought to be a key aspect of the alleged intelligence failures before 9/11. In late 1998, the FBI had started plotting intercepts of al-Qaeda calls to and from the communications hub on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). According to author Lawrence Wright, “[h]ad a line been drawn from the [communications hub] in Yemen to Alhazmi and Almihdhar’s San Diego apartment, al-Qaeda’s presence in America would have been glaringly obvious.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 343-344] In 2006, former NSA Director Michael Hayden will tell the Senate that if the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program had been active before 9/11, the NSA would have raised the alarm over the presence of hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in San Diego. [CNN, 5/19/2006] However, reports in the press suggest otherwise. For example, in one newspaper a senior intelligence official will say that it was not technically possible for the NSA, which had a budget of around $3.6 billion in 2000, to trace the calls. “Neither the contents of the calls nor the physics of the intercepts allowed us to determine that one end of the calls was in the United States,” says the official. [Bamford, 2002, pp. 482; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] But another report flatly contradicts this. “NSA had the technical ability to pick up the actual phone number in the US that the switchboard was calling but didn’t deploy that equipment, fearing they would be accused of domestic spying.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It is unclear why concerns about domestic spying allegations would prevent the NSA from passing the information on to the FBI. Almihdhar and Alhazmi were not US citizens, but foreign nationals who had entered the US illegally claiming to be tourists. In addition, there was a wealth of evidence connecting them to al-Qaeda (see Early 1999, January 5-8, 2000, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). In any event, the NSA did reportedly disseminate dispatches about some of these US calls (see Spring-Summer 2000). Some FBI officials will later profess not to know what went wrong and why they were not notified of the hijackers’ presence in the US by other agencies. A senior counterterrorism official will say: “I don’t know if they got half the conversation or none of it or hung up or whatever. All I can tell you is we didn’t get anything from it—we being the people at the FBI who could have done something about it. So were they sitting on it? I don’t know.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The US intelligence community, through the CIA, also had access to the phone company’s records for the Yemeni communications hub, which would have shown what numbers were being called in the US (see Late 1998-Early 2002).