Paving The Road To 9/11
Former U.S. Green Beret Ali Mohamed Built The Critical Infrastructure Al Qaeda Used For the September 11 Attack
By J.M. Berger
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is widely regarded as the Justice Department's top gun on al Qaeda. He appeared before the 9/11 Commission in June 2004 to outline his views on the terrorist network's most critical components.
Fitzgerald spent almost an entire page of his five-page prepared statement discussing one man -- Ali A. Mohamed, a senior al Qaeda associate who infiltrated the U.S. Army and played tag with the FBI for nearly a decade before being stopped.
Fitzgerald did not spare a single word for Ramzi Yousef. He mentioned blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman only once -- as a tangent to Mohamed. Fitzgerald spent more time discussing Mohamed than talking about Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's chief ideologist and purported second-in-command.
The emphasis could not have been more clear. Yet the final
report of the 9/11 Commission did not reflect Fitzgerald's concern. The report barely
mentioned Mohamed, spending a great deal of capital on Yousef, even as its
findings dismissed the
While Yousef likely played a critical role devising the plot that eventually became the September 11 attack, Ali Mohamed was the utility player who created al Qaeda's terrorist infrastructure in the United States -- a series of connections, ideas, techniques and specific tools used by the plot's hijackers and masterminds.
Although Mohamed was arrested in 1998, his infrastructure remained not only intact but virtually unmonitored until after 9/11. Even as his network was dragged into the light, his role in facilitating the attacks remained obscure, in no small part because Mohamed himself has been locked away from the public and the judicial system, his pre-9/11 plea deal with the government now frozen in secret, semi-permanent limbo.
Despite this secrecy, Mohamed's operations and connections can be tracked by painstakingly combing through the public record. The result is clear -- Mohamed's trail of infiltration through the
THE POST 9/11 INTERROGATION
Immediately after the September 11 attack, Ali A. Mohamed -- like many other terrorist inmates -- was placed into a maximum security detention setting, cut off from the outside world and from all media reports.
Shortly afterward, he was interrogated by his FBI handler, Special Agent Jack Cloonan. Cloonan asked the al Qaeda trainer to tell him how they did it.
"I don't believe he was privy to all the details, but what he laid out was the attack as if he knew every detail," Cloonan said in a 2006 documentary. "This is how you position yourself. I taught people to sit in first class." Mohamed described teaching al Qaeda terrorists how to smuggle box cutters onto airplanes.
"It was just kind of eerie," Cloonan said.
Cloonan believes that Mohamed did not have direct knowledge of the plot.
"I think he probably understood that the
It may or may not be true that Mohamed had no knowledge of the specific 9/11 plot.
But the Egyptian terrorist did know the tactics used by the
hijackers. He knew the specific location of the private post office boxes where
the hijackers received mail in the
He knew al Qaeda was sponsoring flight training for terrorists. He knew of at least one specific terrorist operation centered on a suicide airplane attack. And he knew at least three terrorist pilots personally.
He was linked to at least one of the specific schools visited
by the 9/11 hijackers. He knew the internal procedures of the security company
that maintained two checkpoints used by hijackers at
And Mohamed was one of the primary sources for the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike In U.S."
Whether or not Mohamed knew the particulars of the 9/11 plot, he knew a lot. Businesses and institutions exploited by Mohamed and his close associates were re-used by virtually all of the 9/11 hijackers as they prepared for the attack.
Almost all of these investigative leads were discovered, reviewed and then forgotten or dismissed by the FBI prior to September 11. Even after the attacks, after the law enforcement investigation and two independent probes of pre-9/11 intelligence failures, virtually none of this material has been presented to the public in coherent form.
Ali Mohamed joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad some time around
1984; he reported to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. His very first terrorist assignment was
design strategies to hijack planes from the
Over the course of the next several years, Mohamed refined
his techniques and pass them on to others. By 1992, he was formally training al
Qaeda terrorists in
Mohamed trained terrorists on behalf of al Qaeda in
His uncle traveled in and out of
THE OTHER PILOTS
Hijacking was only part of the story, however. Mohamed was also directly linked pilots recruited by and trained for al Qaeda.
At least three of Mohamed's close associates were trained as pilots.
Mohamed lived and worked in
Dahab had taken flight training on behalf of EIJ. After his
capture and interrogation by Egyptian authorities in 1998, Dahab claimed the
training was intended for an improbable-sounding plan to stage a prison break at
L'Houssaine Kherchtou, an al Qaeda member trained by Ali Mohamed, was also trained as a pilot on orders from al Qaeda. In 1993, Kherchtou attended a meeting in which al Qaeda operatives discussed air traffic control systems. There are indications al Qaeda may have intended to use Kherchtou as a suicide pilot.
Although Kherchtou wasn't formally clued about these plans for his future, he did suspect the terrorist network was working on some sort of aerial attack.
"(Kherchtou) observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali, about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system, and it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane," Patrick Fitzgerald told a New York court in 2001.
The Egyptian "person who was not a pilot" was never identified in open court. The other man at the meeting -- Ihab Ali -- is a different story.
Yet another of Ali Mohamed's trainees, Ihab Ali provides one of the tightest links between Ali Mohamed and September 11.
Ihab Ali was born in
In 1993, Ihab Ali signed up for flight training at the
FBI agents traveled to the Airman school and made queries,
which were soon forgotten. An INTELWIRE search of address records found that
Ali had even listed the Norman school as his home address at one point.
Atta had inquired about the school prior to his arrival in
Several months later, yet another al Qaeda member would enroll at the Norman school -- Zacarias Moussaoui.
Like Atta, he contacted the school before entering the country. Like both Ihab Ali and Atta, Moussaoui adopted the tactic of listing the flight school's address as his own.
And -- like Atta -- Moussaoui had been sent to the
Although virtually no one now believes the early allegation that Moussaoui was the "20th hijacker," he was clearly wired into al Qaeda -- and the same part of al Qaeda that was patiently and relentlessly marching toward September 11.
Moussaoui came to the attention of the FBI and was arrested in August 2001, but bureaucratic obstacles delayed a search of his laptop computer, despite anxious efforts by FBI agents on the scene.
No one linked Moussaoui to Ihab Ali, despite the fact that the FBI had investigated Ali's attendance at the school less than a year earlier. In fact, Ali's flight records had been introduced in the embassy bombing trial in April 2001 -- only four months before Moussaoui was arrested.
Though indicted prior to September, Ihab Ali never went to trial. His case is simply pending without further explanation in the docket. He is now cooperating with the government. Despite the fact he has never been tried, Ihab Ali today lives in an undisclosed federal prison.
SPHINX TRADING CO.
At least nine hijackers lived in
Ali Mohamed and many of his terrorist trainees visited the
mosque several times in 1989, meeting with members of the nascent
The mosque was located at
On the ground floor of the same building, with the address
Various terrorist training materials written by Ali Mohamed advise undercover operatives to keep a post office box away from their home, in a location used by others of their nationality, for communication with fellow operatives.
At minimum, two Ali Mohamed-trained members of the
A decade later, the mailboxes were still being used by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
Testifying in a sealed proceeding in 2002, a
Police searched the office of a
The police officer testified in 2002 that the FBI had shut
Two other men connected to the Sphinx Trading location were arrested on September 11 on suspicion of being connected to the hijacking plot.
Forced off an airplane when all flights were grounded that day, the men were carrying cash, passports, hair dye and box-cutters. Both men had shaved their entire bodies, consistent with instructions followed by the 9/11 hijackers.
They lived half a block away from the Al-Salaam Mosque and Sphinx.
Their neighbors and nearby businesspeople reported having seen Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi on the same block.
One of the two men also kept a mailbox at Sphinx Trading Co.
One of the most intriguing links between Mohamed and 9/11 is also perhaps the least explained.
During the 1990s, Mohamed made various efforts to infiltrate
In 1995, Mohamed obtained employment with the Burns International Security Co., a private company that provided security services to businesses and government agencies. (Timothy McVeigh once worked for the company's armored car division.)
Mohamed was assigned as a security guard at a Northrop Grumman facility that developed sensitive components used in nuclear weapons. Mohamed sought a security clearance to work in the facility's classified areas, but his application was denied.
Burns is a massive conglomerate with multiple divisions and thousands of employees. It was bought by and became a division of Securitas in 2000. So it's difficult, on many levels, to judge whether Mohamed would have been able to leverage his access usefully. Certainly, the Egyptian's track record with the U.S. Army certainly showed that he was capable of exploiting any kind of access to maximum effect.
Although it would be premature to make a definitive statement about what Mohamed may have accomplished through this job posting, Burns Security did surface on September 11 -- in two different capacities.
A Burns division known as Globe Aviation Services provided checkpoint screening at Logan Airport, including two specific checkpoints used by the 9/11 hijackers. As previously noted, Mohamed did a great deal of work for al Qaeda regarding airline security, including surveillance of airports, devising hijacking schemes and smuggling box-cutters onto planes for use as a weapon.
Burns was also connected to a still-unexplained incident in
Abdi was a Somali national. He left that country for
When the FBI found the car left behind the five 9/11
hijackers who departed from
Burns' Globe subsidiary provided security at both Reagan and
Like so many others who intersected -- perhaps only coincidentally -- with Ali Mohamed's long trail of associations, Abdi was never convicted of any crime related to terrorism. He was sentenced to four months in prison for check forgery and released under supervision in January 2002.
THE PRESIDENT'S DAILY BRIEF
In 2004, the White House was forced to release a top-secret
intelligence briefing that had been delivered to President Bush on August 6,
2001. The Presidential Daily Brief, or PDB, consisted of a one page report on
al Qaeda's past efforts and future intentions to stage attacks on
"If you look to the six or seventeen sentences that are in there, from what I've seen, all that information came from Ali," said FBI Special Agent Jack Cloonan.
The briefing included several references that clearly pertained to Mohamed.
"Al Qaeda members -- including some who are
"Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to
bomb our embassies in East Africa were
"A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden
The briefing also cited foreign government sources as saying "After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, and "an Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative [ said ] at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike."
The latter piece of intelligence was likely extracted from Mohamed's
THE FIRST SUICIDE PLANE PLOT
One very specific piece of intelligence provided by Ali Mohamed did not make it onto the President's brief.
Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, a Sudanese national living in the
Siddig Ali was a member of a Brooklyn-centered terrorist cell
led by blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The cell's most dangerous members had
been trained by Ali Mohamed in
Mohamed told the FBI about the plot around the same time he was negotiating his plea agreement in 2000, according to Cloonan.
The plot should not have come as news to the FBI. In spring 1993, informant Emad Salem told the FBI all about it. He even testified about the scheme in open court.
Emad Salem was an Egyptian national who infiltrated the
In 1993, Siddig Ali asked Salem to help the pilot find "gaps in the air defense in Egypt so he can drive to bomb the presidential house, and then turn around, crash the plane into the American embassy after he eject himself out of the plane (...) ."
Despite the web of linkages between Ali Mohamed and the September 11 plot, it's very difficult to properly evaluate the scope of the intelligence failure. Many of the connections can reasonably be characterized as ambiguous, but some clearly cannot.
There are a number of outstanding questions that remain to
be answered. The primary obstacle is that full view of the case has been
hopelessly obscured by the level of government secrecy around Mohamed and his
Additional complications arise from Mohamed's relationship
with the Justice Department both before and after his arrest and the valid
concerns faced by his custodians in terms of both protecting Mohamed's life and
keeping him securely detained.
Nevertheless, the sheer volume of the linkages and their
nature overwhelmingly suggest that Ali Mohamed built a substantial network of
prospects, contacts, services and tactics for use by al Qaeda operatives in the
There is an element of the exceptional around Mohamed. There have been few figures in the known history of espionage to wreak such havoc, and to operate so openly in front of the enemy. He was a prodigy, and his skills help explain his success -- to a degree.
Yet, it is equally certain that
But his skills -- formidable as they were -- do not represent a complete explanation of his success. There is more to the story.
Look for additional installments of the Unlocking 9/11 series on INTELWIRE through the fall and winter of 2006.
of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, United States Attorney, Northern District Of
Illinois, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the
Cloonan material in this story is drawn from National Geographic Presents
Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in
 Mohamed's possible relationship to Khalid Shaikh Mohamed will be examined in a forthcoming INTELWIRE story.
Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in
 Op cit.
 See INTELWIRE report: Unlocking 9/11; Who Called The Shots In WTC 1993?, http://intelwire.egoplex.com/unlocking911-1-ali-mohamed-wtc.html
 Islamic Jihad 'Confessions' Described, FBIS-NES-1999-0309, March 6, 1999
 See also Report Warned Of Suicide Hijackings, CBS.com, May 17, 2002, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/05/18/attack/main509488.shtml
 US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, February 21, 2001
 St. Petersburg Times, Pilot led a quiet life
 US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, May 2, 2001
 US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, April 4, 2001
Petersburg Times, Pilot led a quiet life in
 New York Times, A 6th Suspect Said to Be Tied To bin Laden Is in Custody, Benjamin Weiser, May 22, 1999
 Associated Press, Mysterious pair in custody perplexes federal investigators, Wayne Parry, November 11, 2001; The Jersey Journal, Neighborhood tired of suspicions and fear, Falasten M. Abdeljabbar, December 18, 2001
 "Manchester Manual," US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023
Kifner, "Kahane Suspect Is a Muslim With a Series of Addresses,"
The transcripts were unsealed after a lawsuit by several organizations
including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Transcript provided by
attorney Louis Pashman, representing
 New York Times, 4 Transcripts Are Released In Case Tied to 9/11 Hijackers, Robert Hanley and Jonathan Miller, June 25, 2003; Associated Press, Judge releases transcripts in Sept. 11 fake IDs case, Wayne Parry, June 24, 2003
 The men were eventually deported, but not charged with terrorist acts. See Associated Press, Mysterious pair in custody perplexes federal investigators, Wayne Parry, November 11, 2001; New York Times, Fear and Loathing, Laura Mansnerus, October 28, 2001; New York Times, Ex-Suspect Expects Deportation, Benjamin Weiser, September 19, 2002; New York Times, Former Hijacking Suspect Deported, December 31, 2002
Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in
Events, Somali immigrant tied to hijackers by D.C. map worked at
National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in
 See INTELWIRE report: http://intelwire.egoplex.com/2004_04_08_exclusives.html
National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in