The Saudi Connection: Inside the 9/11 Case That Divided the F.B.I.
A small team of agents spent years investigating whether one of Washingtons closest allies was involved in the worst terror attack in U.S. history. This is their story.
The Sept. 11 attacks, and U.S. visas for Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.Credit...Photo illustration by Mark Weaver
By Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella
Jan. 23, 2020
This article is a partnership between ProPublica, where Tim Golden is an editor-at-large and Sebastian Rotella is a senior reporter, and The New York Times Magazine.
On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.
One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the F.B.I.s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents Bush and Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the F.B.I. bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didnt mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump of complicity in the attacks.
The president promised to help. Its done, he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an F.B.I. report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi officials name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked significant harm to the national security.
William P. Barrs Statement to the Court
7 pages, 6.47 MB
The families were stunned. They knew that the success of their lawsuit might well depend on access to the F.B.I.s investigation into possible Saudi involvement in the plot by Al Qaeda. In a federal courthouse in Manhattan, near where the twin towers once stood, the fight over evidence had already dragged on for more than a year. Now, as the judge prepared to rule on what documents would be disclosed, the Justice Department was digging in.
Daniel Gonzalez wasnt surprised by the hard line. A former street agent in the F.B.I.s San Diego field office, he was one of several retired investigators who had signed on to help the families. During the last 15 years of his F.B.I. career, Gonzalez was a central figure in the bureaus effort to understand Saudi connections to 9/11. But even on the inside, Gonzalez often felt as if his own government wanted no part of what he was finding.
From the day of the attacks, the trail seemed to point to Saudi Arabia. First, there was the inescapable fact that, like Osama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The first two flew in to Los Angeles in January 2000 and quickly made their way to a Saudi mosque. When they moved to San Diego a few weeks later, they turned for help to a middle-aged Saudi student whom the F.B.I. suspected of spying for the kingdom.
But as details of the 9/11 plot came into focus, the F.B.I. line on possible Saudi involvement began to shift: When the evidence was assessed, F.B.I. officials reported, there was no solid proof that the Saudi government or any of its senior officials deliberately aided the Qaeda terrorists. Low-level Saudis with government ties might have helped the two hijackers in California, the bureau acknowledged, but there was no indication that they knew the men were terrorists much less planning to murder thousands of Americans.
Gonzalez knew he hadnt seen all the evidence; he had just a corner of an investigation that stretched around the world. American intelligence agencies surely had pieces of the Saudi puzzle that even senior F.B.I. officials might not be aware of. But what Gonzalez uncovered was troubling, and he knew that bigger questions about the plot were still unanswered. My head was already flat from banging it against the wall, he recalled. But I thought, Were not done.
Gonzalez, a tough, affable Texan, pressed on. With a small group of like-minded investigators in New York and California, he hunted down witnesses who had slipped away and circled back to clues that had been missed. The evidence they developed was nearly all circumstantial. But it added to the questions about the role of the Saudi government.
ImageDaniel Gonzalez, a former F.B.I agent.
Daniel Gonzalez, a former F.B.I agent.Credit...Photo illustration by Mark Weaver
The F.B.I. has disputed the idea that foreign-policy considerations significantly influenced its investigation. In interviews, current and former bureau officials and federal prosecutors insisted to us that they never would have hesitated to pursue any Saudi who could have been solidly linked to the 9/11 plot, even if that person never faced trial in the United States. (Saudi Arabia does not extradite its citizens.) I have never been privy to discussions about not charging someone for 9/11 because we need to maintain a better relationship with the Saudis, Jacqueline Maguire, a special agent in charge in New York who was closely involved in the case from the beginning, told us. I have never heard charges be questioned for that reason.
But others who worked on the matter, including some at the F.B.I.s highest levels, say that the United States complex and often- troubled relationship with the Saudi regime was an unavoidable fact throughout their investigations. Even as the Saudi authorities became more cooperative with the United States in fighting Al Qaeda after 2003, they were minimally and grudgingly helpful when it came to the 9/11 inquiry. According to current and former officials, requests for assistance that might rattle the Saudi security agencies were frequently balanced against F.B.I. and C.I.A. needs for Saudi help against continuing terror threats.
How such considerations might also weigh against the appeals of the 9/11 families for a fuller record of what happened remains an open question. If anything, the transactional nature of Americas relationship with the Saudi kingdom has become more overt. In December, following the terrorist shooting by a Saudi Air Force officer that killed three Americans and wounded eight others on a Florida naval base, Trump tweeted what he said were assurances from King Salman that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people. Earlier last year, addressing the Saudi governments murder of a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, Trump argued that such offenses should be seen in a broader context. Im not like a fool that says, We dont want to do business with them, he told NBC News.
Washingtons efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former F.B.I. agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an F.B.I. lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil good relations with Saudi Arabia. (The F.B.I. declined to comment.)
Kenneth J. Williams Sworn Declaration
4 pages, 0.45 MB
The full story of the F.B.I.s investigation into Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks has remained largely untold. Even the code name of the case Operation Encore has never been published before. This account is based on interviews with more than 50 current and former investigators, intelligence officials and witnesses in the case. It also draws on some previously secret documents as well as on the voluminous public files of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.
The Encore investigation exposed a bitter rift within the bureau over the Saudi connection. It illuminated a series of missed opportunities to resolve questions about links between one of Washingtons closest allies and the deadliest attack in the nations history. Richard Lambert, who led the F.B.I.s initial 9/11 investigation in San Diego, as the assistant special agent in charge there, says he believes that even if the F.B.I.s evidence of possible Saudi involvement in the case is not conclusive, it is significant enough that it should be fully disclosed. The circumstantial evidence has mounted, he says. Given the lapse of time, I dont know any reason why the truth should be kept from the American people.
ImageThe King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.
The King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif.Credit...Photo illustration by Mark Weaver
Images of the World Trade Centers collapse were still looping on television sets in the F.B.I.s San Diego field office when a lead came in from Dulles International Airport, outside Washington. A blue 1988 Toyota Corolla had been found in a parking lot; it was registered to one of the suspected hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which took off for Los Angeles the previous morning before crashing into the Pentagon, killing 64 people on board and 125 inside the building. The hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, listed a San Diego address.
Gonzalez caught the lead. At 42, he had been in the office for a decade, building a reputation as a shrewd, instinctive agent with a gift for getting people to talk. He had worked very effectively against Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt border-control agents, and he pivoted easily to the new target. He was a phenomenal agent, Lambert says, what you would want to see if an agent knocked on your door. He just kept going and going.
The address from Dulles led Gonzalez to a plain, white, two-story house in the working-class suburb of Lemon Grove. The listed owner was a 65-year-old Indian immigrant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had taught English as a second language at local community colleges and helped establish the Islamic Center of San Diego, the citys largest mosque. Gonzalez hurried back to prepare a search warrant at the F.B.I. office, where snipers had taken up positions on the roof. It was chaos, recalls William D. Gore, who was then the special agent in charge in San Diego. Nobody knew where the next attack would be.
When Gonzalez returned to the Lemon Grove house the next day, a small army was mustering: an evidence-collection team, computer experts and a SWAT team with protective gear and a battering ram. Before they could get to the door, however, the professor politely opened it for them. It would be more than a week before anyone told Gonzalez that Dr. Shaikh, as he liked to be called, was in fact a longtime informant for the F.B.I. field office.
Shaikhs F.B.I. handler would later acknowledge to Justice Department investigators that the professor had mentioned the two hijackers to him but only by their first names, noting casually that they were the latest in a line of young Muslim men who rented his spare bedroom. Even had the agent dug further, he might not have discovered that Shaikhs boarders, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al- Hazmi, were known Qaeda operatives whose names were in the databases of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency. While C.I.A. officials placed the two men under surveillance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early January 2000 and learned that at least one of them later flew to Los Angeles, the agency did not alert the F.B.I. to their presence until August 2001, a few weeks before the attacks.
As the raid proceeded, Gonzalez escorted one of Shaikhs new boarders outside. The young man got to know Hazmi a bit at a Texaco gas station where Hazmi briefly worked washing cars. But the guy whom Gonzalez should try to find, the boarder said, was another young immigrant who was especially close to the two Saudi men. His name was Mohdar Abdullah.
Gonzalez set up 24-hour surveillance on the Texaco station and began searching for Abdullah. The next day, as Abdullah drove into a student parking lot at San Diego State University, Gonzalez pulled up alongside him and identified himself as F.B.I. What took you so long? Abdullah asked. I thought youd be all over me sooner.
Gonzalez and another agent invited Abdullah for breakfast at a Dennys just east of the campus. The diner was one of the spots that Abdullah liked to go to with the two hijackers. Just up the hill, on Saranac Street, was the two-bedroom apartment they rented, where they often whiled away their days with Abdullah and a rotating crew of young Muslim men. Nearby was a small mosque where the three men worshiped under the guidance of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American imam who would emerge as an important Qaeda leader before being killed in Yemen by a United States drone strike in 2011.
Over the next three days, Abdullah, then 22, sketched a picture of the hijackers California lives praying daily at the mosque, going for pizza at Little Caesars, playing pickup soccer. Abdullah translated for the two Saudis, drove them on errands and registered them for English classes. He also tried to arrange flying lessons for the pair. At a San Diego airfield in May 2000, they told the instructor they wanted to skip past the single-engine Cessna and learn to fly Boeing jets. He broke off their training after the second lesson and advised them to come back when they could speak better English.
Mihdhar, who was 24, left for Yemen in June 2000 to see his wife and new daughter. Hazmi, 23, talked to Abdullah about finding a wife as well. (Computer searches suggest that he was seeking a young Mexican woman who would convert to Islam.) Although the Saudis were discreet with strangers, they clearly had strong views about United States support for what they saw as corrupt puppet regimes around the Arab world and Israels oppression of the Palestinians. Mihdhar also admitted to Abdullah that he had been involved with a Qaeda-linked group in Yemen. But they seemed to understand little about American life and didnt have much desire to learn.
Abdullah later said he was introduced to Mihdhar and Hazmi by Omar al-Bayoumi, a well-connected Saudi whom Abdullah knew from local mosques. Bayoumi pulled him aside, Abdullah said, and asked him to help the two newcomers settle into their lives in Southern California.
After a couple of long interviews, Gonzalez was sure that Abdullah was telling the F.B.I. less than he knew. He was a bright, garrulous guy and had made his way quickly since coming to the United States in 1998. He seemed to appreciate the opportunities he had found, but he also struck Gonzalez as a hustler. He insisted that he was horrified by what the hijackers had done and that he had no idea they could have been involved in anything so heinous. But he also seemed to have been sympathetic to the Saudis ideology, Gonzalez thought, perhaps even their defense of Muslims duty to carry out jihad.
Gonzalez could understand such conflicted feelings; he had seen that with informants before. But he was skeptical that a busy student like Abdullah would have done so much to help the visitors out of mere brotherly feeling. The agents also learned that Abdullah lied on his United States visa application, claiming to be a war refugee from Somalia when he was in fact an Italian-born Yemeni who came into the United States from Canada.
When Gonzalez told Abdullah he would need to take a polygraph, a fairly standard practice with important but unreliable witnesses, he initially agreed but later changed his mind. Gonzalez tried to hold off his bosses while he urged Abdullah to reconsider. By then, however, even the special agent in charge in San Diego was no longer calling the shots. It was not a local decision, Gore recalled. Those were made in Washington and New York.
On Sept. 21, another SWAT team descended on Abdullah outside a big- box electronics store, handcuffing him at gunpoint in the parking lot. Gonzalez thought it was overkill. I had been building something with Mohdar, working him, he recalled. But headquarters says: Youve got a guy who hung out with the hijackers. What if he blows someone up?
Within days, Abdullah was gone, flown to New York for questioning by a federal grand jury. He was never charged in connection with the attacks, but he was indicted on a charge of immigration fraud and moved to a federal lockup. Gonzalez approached him again over the next two years but got nothing more after a public defender advised Abdullah against further cooperation with the F.B.I. The relationship was over.
Even before Gonzalez found Abdullah, agents began searching for Bayoumi, the hijackers mysterious Saudi friend. His name turned up repeatedly on bank documents and as the co-signer on their initial San Diego lease at the Parkwood Apartments where Bayoumi also lived. Bayoumi, 43, was already known to the F.B.I. An employee at his previous residence had contacted the field office to report some strange goings-on: large gatherings of young Arab men; a package that came from Saudi Arabia that had wires sticking out of it and no customs papers; some suspicious wiring that a maintenance man found under Bayoumis bathroom sink. In September 1998, the F.B.I. opened a preliminary counterterrorism investigation.
Little about Bayoumi added up. Although he identified himself as a graduate student in business, he rarely went to class. He drew a monthly stipend from a Saudi contracting company, but the firm was a conduit for money coming from the Saudi Defense Ministry, where Bayoumi had worked in civil aviation. At local mosques, he was known as a glad-hander who often pulled out a video camera to record gatherings. Agents learned that many worshipers suspected he was a Saudi spy.
F.B.I. officials eventually came to share that view. Our best assessment of him in San Diego was that he was a spy for the Saudis, says Gore, who headed the office. But the bureau closed its preliminary inquiry in June 1999 without questioning Bayoumi. Even if he was doing intelligence work without the official cover of a diplomatic post, former F.B.I. officials say, he would probably not have been charged with any crime because he would have been spying for an allied government. Investigators also worried that a more aggressive pursuit of Bayoumi might tip off local men he knew who were suspects in another F.B.I. counterterrorism investigation.
By the time the F.B.I. began searching for Bayoumi again, right after 9/11, he had decamped to Birmingham, England, with his wife and children. At the F.B.I.s request, he was detained by agents of New Scotland Yard on Sept. 21, 2001. Although he was ostensibly studying for a doctorate in business ethics, his main job seemed to be running a Saudi student association. The kingdoms security services often use such groups to monitor students for dissident activity.
F.B.I. agents flew to Britain in the hope that they would be able to interview Bayoumi. If they gathered sufficient evidence, they thought, they might even be able to bring him back to the United States. Because of British police protocols, the F.B.I. agents were not allowed to speak with Bayoumi directly but instead had to forward their questions to the British detectives. Bayoumi was hardly a forthcoming witness. He claimed to have met the two hijackers by chance, after hearing them speaking gulf-accented Arabic in a small halal cafe in Culver City, Calif. When Mihdhar and Hazmi told him they didnt like Los Angeles, Bayoumi said that he suggested San Diego. When they turned up a few days later, he claimed, he showed them the hospitality he would have accorded any Saudi brother.
Such a casual acquaintance seemed at odds with the efforts Bayoumi made to help the two strangers. And given that Bayoumi claimed to be a mere graduate student, former F.B.I. officials told us that they were struck by what they say was pressure on British officials for his release by the Saudi Embassy in London. After a week and before F.B.I. officials had a chance to fully review the documents and videotapes seized in a search of Bayoumis home he was freed. He was not asked whether he had a relationship with Saudi intelligence.
ImageThe Parkwood Apartments in San Diego where al-Mihdhar and al- Hazmi lived.
The Parkwood Apartments in San Diego where al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi lived.Credit...Photo illustration by Mark Weaver
After returning to Saudi Arabia the next year, Bayoumi was employed by the government in civil aviation again. In late 2002, a pro-government Saudi newspaper reported that the F.B.I. and Scotland Yard had cleared Bayoumi of all wrongdoing. But United States authorities had already revoked his visa on the grounds of quasi-terrorist activities.
In San Diego, Gonzalez continued to sift through the circle of people who had known Hazmi and Mihdhar. It became clear that Bayoumi spent a good deal of time with the two hijackers, and that he received a significant increase in his government stipend around the time that he met them. (There was never any proof, however, that he helped them financially.)
In fleshing out details of the hijackers lives, Gonzalez found that they seemed to have money but lived frugally, moving out of the Parkwood rental for the less-expensive room in Lemon Grove. They also seemed to have been careful in their communications, generally using pay phones, for which F.B.I. investigators were ultimately unable to recover call records.
In the spring of 2000, Abdullah and others told the F.B.I. that the two Saudis became interested in a couple of American Muslim converts who were stationed in San Diego with the United States Navy. Mihdhar and Hazmi reportedly quizzed the sailors about their life on a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. John Paul Jones and whether the ships guns were loaded when they docked in port. Around the same time, another Qaeda operative linked to the two Saudis was helping to organize a suicide attack that would kill 17 sailors aboard the John Paul Joness sister ship, the U.S.S. Cole, in a Yemeni port in October 2000.
Throughout this time, Hazmi and Mihdhar were living in plain sight. They used their real names on their bank account, on their vehicle registration and on the California drivers licenses they obtained. Hazmi was even listed in the San Diego telephone book. None of this prompted C.I.A. officials to inform the F.B.I. of their presence in the United States.
The F.B.I.s 9/11 investigation, which was given the ungainly name Penttbom (a reference to the Pentagon and the twin towers), eventually compiled a detailed chronology of all 19 hijackers movements, financial transactions and other activities. But the agents were frustrated by one gaping hole in the timeline: They could not account for the first two weeks after Hazmi and Mihdhar landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 15, 2000.
Their arrival was the first major step in bin Ladens plot to attack the United States, and it was a risky one. Both young men had trained and fought as jihadists in Bosnia and Afghanistan. They were known to the N.S.A. and the C.I.A., as well as to Saudi intelligence, which passed some background information about them on to the Americans. Even so, they flew to the United States under their real names, passing through immigration with the tourist visas stamped in their Saudi passports.
The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, would later claim to C.I.A. interrogators that he sent the two men to Los Angeles without any contacts at all an assertion that both the 9/11 Commission and Danny Gonzalez found improbable. Neither Saudi spoke English. What little they knew about life in the West came mostly from a crash course in Pakistan, in which Mohammed tried to teach them to read airline timetables and telephone books and showed old Hollywood movies with hijacking scenes. Documents from the investigation show that even Mohammed doubted they could get the job done.
But, after gathering their duffel bags and clearing customs at LAX, Mihdhar and Hazmi managed to disappear. If closed-circuit cameras followed them through the airports international terminal, or if anyone came to meet them, no recording has ever surfaced publicly, and F.B.I. agents on the case said they did not see one. When F.B.I. agents canvassed dozens of hotels around Los Angeles, they found no evidence that the Saudis stayed at any of them during those first two weeks. In its detailed report on the plot, the 9/11 Commission wrote simply, We do not know where they went.
On orders from the F.B.I.s new director, Robert S. Mueller III, Penttbom set up its command center in a poorly lit room in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, where the F.B.I. is headquartered. Various teams including one for each hijacked flight coordinated the work of agents around the country. It was an unusual arrangement, one that limited the autonomy of the field offices to run their own cases. Counterterrorism agents often complained before 9/11 that headquarters tightly managed the flow of intelligence information, sometimes to the detriment of investigations. Now, in the biggest case the F.B.I. had ever undertaken, that kind of control became standard practice.
In the months after the attacks, the harried Penttbom teams logged more than 250,000 leads, most of them insignificant. But a number of clues suggested Saudi involvement: A Saudi engineering student was among the Arizona extremists reported by Williams before the attacks; in March 2002, the student was captured with Qaeda bomb makers in Pakistan. Two other Saudis associated with the Arizona group were briefly detained in 1999, after one of them tried to enter the cockpit during a flight from Phoenix to Washington for an event at the Saudi embassy. Airline officials eventually apologized to the men, but some investigators later came to suspect that they had carried out a dry run for the 9/11 hijacking plot. A Saudi woman in San Diego, a close friend of Bayoumis wife, received about $70,000 in payments from the wife of Prince Bandar, then the powerful Saudi ambassador to the United States. Although initially intrigued, Washington investigators eventually concluded that the vastly wealthy Bandars often gave money to Saudi expatriates.
But even as the flurry of Saudi-related clues continued, Gonzalez and other agents began to note some skepticism within the F.B.I. hierarchy about the idea that the Saudis were linked to the case. In September 2002, Lambert, the counterterrorism chief in San Diego, was asked to help prepare Muellers testimony to a joint inquiry of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that had been established to investigate intelligence failures leading up to the attacks. Muellers deputy, Bruce Gebhardt, explained how Lambert was to describe the Saudi role. The bureaus position is that there was no complicity in the plot, Lambert recalls Gebhardt telling him. (Gebhardt says he does not remember the exchange.)
Lambert was struck by the decisive conclusion being drawn on a question he thought was far from settled. But he realized no one wanted his opinion. I had my marching orders, says Lambert, who is now consulting for the lawyers to the Sept. 11 families. It was very apparent to me that that was a decision that was made at a very high level, and thats what I wrote to.
Parts of Muell ers testimony on Sept. 26, 2002, remain secret, and there is no indication in the public record that he exonerated any Saudis suspected of involvement in the plot. Still, he played down the idea that the hijackers had any established support network in the United States or should have drawn F.B.I. scrutiny. While here, the hijackers effectively operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that alerted law enforcement, he said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, American intelligence agencies began to focus more deeply on the Saudi kingdoms vast effort to spread its ultraconservative Wahhabist brand of Islam that helped radicalize thousands of young jihadis at schools in Pakistan and elsewhere. Generously funded by the Saudi royals to placate their restive clerical establishment, the campaign to spread Wahhabism extended to Europe, Africa and Australia, with a large outpost in the Washington suburbs and the gleaming King Fahad Mosque in Culver City.
Not long after 9/11, the F.B.I. formed two new investigative teams that combined counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents to identify Saudi religious extremists and spies in the countrys diplomatic and cultural apparatus. The Bush administration later forced out dozens of Saudi diplomatic personnel in 2003 and 2004, officials say. The F.B.I. teams also helped illuminate a shadowy network of Saudi propagators who moved around the United States, often with diplomatic status, spreading Wahhabist doctrine, networking in Muslim communities, doling out money to mosques and gathering intelligence.
In Los Angeles, one of those Saudi proselytizers came to the F.B.I.s attention soon after 9/11. A young Muslim convert reported driving Bayoumi from San Diego to Los Angeles on the day of his supposed chance meeting with the two hijackers. Beforehand, the convert told agents, Bayoumi stopped at the Saudi consulate to meet with a bearded man who worked there; later they stopped to pray at the King Fahad Mosque.
F.B.I. investigators suspected that the bearded consular official might be a 32-year-old diplomat named Fahad al-Thumairy, who also served as an imam at the mosque. In August 2002, the bureau quietly sought the State Departments approval to investigate him for extremist ties. By the time he returned to Los Angeles in May 2003 after an extended trip abroad, the State Department had withdrawn his diplomatic visa on the grounds that he might be connected to terrorist activity. Detained for two days at the airport, Thumairy was questioned only briefly before being deported to Saudi Arabia. Although agents on the Penttbom team at headquarters were apprised of the questioning, Gonzalez and other agents working the Bayoumi file locally learned about it only after Thumairys repatriation.
The bureau got another shot at both Bayoumi and Thumairy in Saudi Arabia, in the company of civilian investigators from the 9/11 Commission, who were preparing their report on the attacks. Those interviews, in 2003 and 2004, to which the Saudi authorities agreed only after a campaign of high-level Bush administration lobbying, were coordinated by the Saudi secret police, who also insisted on having officers at the table.
ImageAl-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi.Credit...Photo illustration by Mark Weaver
Some of the American investigators doubted Bayoumis testimony: He insisted that he had met Hazmi and Mihdhar only by chance, had no idea they were militants and he was just being hospitable in helping them. He denied having tasked Mohdar Abdullah to help them and generally made the case that he was a good-natured, pro-Western Muslim.
Thumairy struck his interviewers as brazenly deceitful. He insisted that he didnt know Bayoumi even after he was told that the F.B.I. had telephone records showing calls between them and interviews of witnesses who had seen them together. Thumairy also said that he had never met the two hijackers.
Still, both the F.B.I. and the 9/11 Commission gave the Saudis something of a pass. To present its conclusions on the plot at a final hearing of the commission in 2004, the F.B.I. chose its most senior counterterrorism official, John S. Pistole, along with Jacqueline Maguire, who had been selected to coordinate the Flight 77 team in 2001, little more than a year after graduating from the academy. We have not developed any information that the hijackers had been introduced to Thumairy in that January 2000 time frame, she testified, nor do we have any direct connection between them and the King Fahad Mosque in that same time frame. As for Bayoumis help to the hijackers, Maguire told the commissioners that it appeared to have been unwitting. The available evidence, she said, suggested their fateful meeting was a random encounter.
Gonzalez and other agents were stunned. If the evidence on Bayoumi and Thumairy was so clearly contradictory and incomplete, the agents wondered, why had it been distilled into a virtual exoneration? Was there secret information they didnt have?
The agents assumed that Maguires testimony had been vetted by the F.B.I. leadership. But even some senior officials doubted Bayoumis story of an accidental meeting. Joseph Foelsch, a former supervisor of the Penttbom team, says he suspected that Bayoumi might have been trying to gather intelligence on the two Saudis. I think he lied, says Foelsch, who is now retired from the bureau. I think he was trying to monitor them as part of his routine work for his government.
There were also sharp internal differences over what to do about Abdullah, who had been jailed for two years on immigration charges. Gonzalez and other agents were convinced there was more to learn from him and that the threat of his deportation home could be critical leverage in questioning him again. They also thought he could still face criminal charges as someone who might have had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the spring of 2004, new evidence began to emerge that reinforced that suspicion. In early May, F.B.I. officials interviewed a Belizean who had been held with Abdullah. He said that Abdullah told him, while they were locked up together, that he knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. The Belizean passed a polygraph examination. On May 18, F.B.I. agents interviewed a second jailhouse informant, who offered a similar story about Abdullah.
Investigators on the staff of the 9/11 Commission, having become aware of Abdullahs importance to the F.B.I. case, also began pushing to interview him. But Justice Department officials refused to delay the deportation. If they failed to bring criminal charges against Abdullah, the lawyers contended, he could end up walking the streets, as one put it. He was deported to Yemen on May 21. Weeks later, in public testimony to the 9/11 commission, Pistole testified that whatever Abdullah knew had been exploited to the fullest amount it could be done here.
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I wonder what the QRS-11 gyrochip had to do with the hijackings? Some say that chip allowed remote control piloting of planes and they were installed in all commercial aircraft in the 1990s so in the event of hijacking the plane controls could be taken over remotely and the planes landed safely. The system had a range of several hundred miles.
The facts remain that a full month after the Twin Towers collapsed, molten metal was still being pulled from the sub basement of the towers. What would cause this heat to remain for such an extended period if time?
Thermite charges were placed on steel columns which caused the buildings to "walk over" and collapse.
Marvin Bush was in charge of security at the Twin Towers on the eve of the attacks.