The House That Al Qaeda Built
The communications hub for the Islamic terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, was once located in the non-descript Madbah neighborhood located in the city of Sanaa, Yemen. Ahmed al-Hada, a native of Dhamar Governorate located in the south of Sanaa, owned the building, there is quite little to know how he came to own the property. Up on the second floor of the home lies a decorative balcony adorned in white with brown strip and lightly shade of brown adoring the window frames outside. al-Hada was once a “Mujahid” from the Afghanistan-Soviet War in 1979. It’s where he met Osama Bin Laden, a young Saudi upstart using the war as his launchpad for greater things. al-Hada always kept in touch with Bin Laden, and when he moved to the Madbah territory in 1994, his home slowly became a hub of sorts for other “mujahid” who were former “freedom fighters” as Zbigniew Brzezinski called them.
From 1996–2006, the home became a “global switchboard” for Al Qaeda. However there are some is level of “debate” as to when exactly the Intelligence Agencies began monitoring Bin Laden. According to Dan Coleman FBI Liaison officer….“It has not been revealed when US intelligence begins monitoring bin Laden exactly, though the CIA was tailing him in Sudan by the end of 1991. But in late 1995 the FBI is given forty thick files on bin Laden from the CIA and NSA, mostly communications intercepts. The sheer amount of material suggests the surveillance had been going on for several years. Dan Coleman, an FBI agent working with the CIA’s bin Laden unit, will begin examining these files and finds that many of them are transcripts from wiretapped phones tied to bin Laden’s businesses in Khartoum, Sudan, where Bin Laden lives from 1991 to 1996”
In 1996, the National Security Agency (NSA) had begun tapping Bin Laden’s satellite phone. The Phone was bought by an individual named “Ziyad Khaleel”, whom bought the “Compact M” satellite phone while in Virginia. More than 200 calls were placed to Yemen, the number “ 00 967 1200578” kept popping up often enough that NSA analysts monitoring the line, had “red flagged” the number, it became a “hot line” as they called it. It then became of interest to those who were beginning to closely monitor the activities of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and ultimately came from a home in Sanaa, Yemen. The NSA began tapping the home, which belonged to Ahmed al-Hada supposedly beginning in 1996 (although this is of questionable debate). The NSA claims to have begun tapping the al-Hada home in 1998, but according to those from the “I-49” FBI unit, an investigative team dedicated to tracking down Bin Laden, the tapping of the home began in 1996. The FBI would complain about the NSA not sharing data with them in regards to the home.
The I-49 unit in NYC then began planning to build their own electronic antennas near Afghanistan to begin monitoring the al-Hada house in Yemen. This would give the NSA pause, and they agreed to share data with the FBI, but what data would be shared? By 1998, the NSA gives up transcripts from 114 phone calls to prevent the antennas from being built, but refuses to give up any more. Incidentally, Bin Laden would cease using his satellite phone due to the bombing campaign from U.S aircraft which were in response to the U.S Embassy Bombings in East Africa, some have speculated that the satellite phone was compromised from a New York Times report but this was unfounded. Ironically enough in the East Africa Bombing Trial of Mohammed al-Owhali, the Yemen Hub number was public ally released. Not even noticed by even the more vigorous Al Qaeda member, not even Ahmed al-Hada, as the phone was still in use even after the trial ended. From the Guardian:
“The FBI traced the line to Baku in Azerbaijan, and pulled the phone records. They claim these showed a series of calls from 00 873 68505331 — the number of the satellite phone, registered as Kandahar Communications, that the FBI suspected was used by al-Qaeda. So, they got the call records for the Afghan satellite phone. These, as predicted, showed calls to Baku. But they also, the FBI claimed, showed calls to a number in the Yemen, 00 967 1200578, the San’a number of al-Owhali’s friend. On the records for that line they could see several calls to and from Nairobi, which could easily be traced to the Ramada Hotel — in the suburb of Iftin in Nairobi, to be exact. The records didn’t show the room number. They didn’t need to.”
Many discrepancies began as to how the FBI received the Yemen Hub number. according to I-49 Task Force member, John Anticev, he began talking to al-Owhali while he received medical care from his wounds attributed to the 1998 east Africa Bombings. According to the CIA, it came from the joint account of the CIA-NSA who shared the number with the investigative I-49 unit. The U.S monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it, and while the NSA can intercept all incoming and receiving calls, the CIA can only intercept calls made from the home.
Alec Station Chief, Michael Schurer begins to ask the NSA for all calls revived and transcribed so their analysts can collect the data and act on the information. However the NSA is rather reluctant to share the data, leading Schurer to go to NSA Deputy Director, Barbara McNamara, and vigorously complain about sharing the data.
McNamara stated to Schurer that if the CIA were to compromise the NSA monitoring the Yemen house they would legally take action against the CIA. Schurer would relent the pressure, and took action in another way. Alec Station would begin monitoring those coming in and out of the home, old fashioned Human Intelligence (HUMINT). Meanwhile another figure to note that was active in the house was an individual who would end up having larger ramifications, Khalid al-Mihdhar, who would end up marrying the daughter of Ahmed al-Hada…Hoda al-Hada. Meanwhile, the FBI began ramping up their investigations into the Yemen Hub. Beginning in the autumn of 1998, the FBI uses the phone records of the al-Qaeda communications 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 inter-agency counter-terrorism I-49 squad in New York.
The USS Cole Bombing operations were fully known to those in the Intelligence Community if it is true, that the Yemen Hub number was indeed “monitored” by the NSA and CIA. The question is why wasn't the operation stopped from transpiring? The CIA, as the primary organization for gathering foreign intelligence, has jurisdiction over conversations on the al-Hada phone due to this being a “overseas” investigation where the CIA can legally operate as opposed to it being inside the United States where the FBI would have jurisdiction.
This simple revelation would have even bigger consequences in regards to the September 11th attacks in 2001, where the CIA would lead other agencies working in Alec Station, to believe the next attack would be in East Asia and not in America. Because of this, the analysts at Alec Station would not share pertinent data it received about Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi obtaining dual entry US Visas and coming to the United States to anyone.
The FBI is also not informed about Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi making calls to the communications hub from the U.S between the spring of 2000 and the summer of 2001. The FBI also asks the NSA to pass any calls between the communications hub and the U.S to the FBI, but the NSA does not do this either. Leading I-49 Unit Chief, John O’Neill, to loudly complain at Principals meetings about the reluctance of sharing data from both the CIA and NSA.
Meanwhile the NSA has learned thru intercepted calls that an important meeting between high level Al Qaeda operatives would take place in Malaysia in January 2000. This information is immediately shared with analysts at Alec Station and those of the FBI I-49 unit. The NSA learns of 3 names from these calls, Khalid Al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Salem al-Hazmi. Although Khalid Al-Mihdhar full name was mentioned in one call, the NSA only passes on his first name. However this too would become “questionable” as to how the CIA learned of Khalid al-Mihdhar. According to a New Yorker article from Lawrence Wright, the CIA was aware of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi’s involvement with al-Qaeda, having been informed by Saudi intelligence during a 1999 meeting in Riyadh.
On January 4th 2000, Khalid al-Mihdhar would stop over in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) to stay at a hotel before going to the meeting in Malaysia. The CIA had begun following him since he left Yemen. While al-Mihdhar was away from his room, CIA agents broke into it and begun photographing al-Mihdhar passport which gave them his full name, birth information and passport number for the first time, and alerted them that he held an entry visa to the United States. This data would be shared to Alec Station analysts immediately, but not with FBI agents working in the station, agents such as Mark Rossini, Doug Miller and Maggie Gillespie would be left in the dark regarding this information. That is until Doug Miller read the cable regarding the information uncovered by the CIA. Miller immediately drafted a cable trying to warn FBI headquarters in New York City that a known Al Qaeda operative who had direct affiliations with the 1998 East Africa Bombings and the 2000 USS Cole Bombing was coming to the United States.
The draft cable was left for one final review, but one CIA analyst, Michael Anne Casey had intercepted the cable and reported it to Al Station Deputy Director, Tom Wilshire. Wilshire read the cable and Casey had put a suspension on it being sent writing on the cable “please hold off for now, per Wilshire”. The cable was never sent to the FBI. Mark Rossini would grow impatient and began adamantly remarking that investigators from the FBI have to become aware of this revelation. Casey would reply to Rossini,
“Look, the next attack is going to happen in Southeast Asia — it’s not the bureau’s jurisdiction. When we want the FBI to know about it, we’ll let them know. But the next bin Laden attack’s going to happen in Southeast Asia.’
Rossini also claims Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, a manager at the Bin Laden Issue Station, covered for Casey by telling congressional investigators that she walked from her office to FBI Headquarters to deliver the information about al-Mihdhar having a US visa. FBI log books proved this claim false.
January 5th 2000, Khalid al-Mihdhar arrives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The meeting would have many prominent members of terrorist organizations worldwide. Including:
Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (Al Qaeda)
Ramzi bin al-Shibh (Hamburg Cell)
Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali) (Jeddah Islammiyyah)
Tawfiq bin Attash (Khallad) (Al Qaeda)
The meeting would be held for 3 days, while in the hotel room rented by Yazid Sufaat, a member of Jeddah Islamiyyah. CIA agents would take photographs of the participants. The photos would not be shared with the FBI until much later when CIA liaison officer Clark Shannon met with FBI agents, Steve Bongardt, Russell Fincher and Dina Corsi (who would become an asset for the CIA). This two hour meeting between the CIA and FBI was in regards to the USS Cole Bombing investigation but evidently it was more than just that. Although there is no actual agenda for the meeting and Corsi will later say it is a brainstorming session, author Lawrence Wright will say that one of the reasons for the meeting is that CIA officer Tom Wilshire, an associate of Shannon’s, “wanted to know what the FBI knew” about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit.
And to see if Bongardt knew who was in the photographs obtained from the Malaysia Summit. Bongardt and Fincher ask who is in the pictures, why they were taken, and whether there are other photos of the meeting. Shannon refuses to say, but Corsi eventually admits one of the men is named Khalid al-Mihdhar. As a name alone is not sufficient reason to start an investigation, Bongardt asks for a date of birth or other details that will allow him to know which Khalid al-Mihdhar in the world is being discussed, but Shannon refuses to provide them. Shannon admits that al-Mihdhar was traveling on a Saudi passport and then leaves the meeting and he also doesn’t tell them about al-Mihdhar dual entry visa into the United States.
This neglect would come into full form after the September 11th attacks. The CIA and more importantly, the NSA would never be held for their irresponsible nature in regards to their outright refusal to share sensitive and pertinent data with the FBI and other investigative agencies inside the United States. The Office of the Inspector General released it’s report in regards to the FBI’s Handling of the Intelligence Relating to the 9/11 attacks in November 2004, its conclusion was due to outright malfeasance.
“In sum, we found individual and systemic failings in the FBI’s handling of information regarding the Hazmi and Mihdhar matter. The FBI had at least five opportunities to learn about their presence in the United States and to seek to find them before September 11, 2001. Much of the cause for these lost opportunities involved systemic problems. We found information sharing problems between the CIA and the FBI and systemic problems within the FBI related to counter-terrorism investigations. The systemic problems included inadequate oversight and guidance provided to FBI detailers at the CIA, the FBI employees’ lack of understanding of CIA procedures, the inconsistent documentation of intelligence information received informally by the FBI, the lack of priority given to counter-terrorism investigations by the FBI before September 11, and the effect of the wall on FBI criminal investigations.
Our review also found that the CIA did not provide information to the FBI about Hazmi and Mihdhar when it should have and we believe the CIA shares significant responsibility for the breakdown in the Hazmi and Mihdhar case. However, the FBI also failed to fully exploit the information that was made available to them. In addition, the FBI did not assign sufficient priority to the investigation when it learned in August 2001 that Hazmi and Mihdhar were in the in the United States. While we do not know what would have happened had the FBI learned sooner or pursued its investigation more aggressively, the FBI lost several important opportunities to find Hazmi and Mihdhar before the September 11 attacks.”
The Ahmed al-Hada home however was now under pressure from multiple agencies immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In February 2002, Al-Hada’s son, Sameer al-Hada, committed suicide using a hand grenade as Yemen authorities raided the home…this was to avoid questioning by security forces about the Cole bombing. Ahmed al-Hada would be arrested by Yemen authorities but released in 2006, never to be heard from again mysteriously. 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.
This would lead to numerous reforms for the NSA and give them a proverbial “blank check” to start funding for massive wiretapping programs such as Trailblazer, which began data-mining American civilians meta-data. As for Ahmed al-Hada….as of 2007, his whereabouts are unknown to this day. Seemingly disappeared from existence while leaving behind a changed and more “vulnerable” world.