A senior FBI official yesterday moved to quash rumors that the publication of a secret State Department cable by Wikileaks points towards a so-called “fifth 9/11 hijack team.”
The cable, sent February 11, 2010, by the US Embassy in Doha to the National Counterterrorism Center in Virginia, recommended adding a Qatari citizen to the air-travel watch list because he was one of four individuals “currently under investigation by the FBI for his possible involvement in the 11 September 2001 attacks. He is suspected of aiding people who entered the U.S. before the attacks to conduct surveillance of possible targets and providing other support to the hijackers.”
The cable, the FBI official said, was not accurate. “They’re not sought by us and they’re not 9/11 plotters,” the FBI official said, speaking anonymously so he could speak candidly.
The man named in the cable, Mohamed ali Mohamed al-Dahham al-Mansoori, was indeed investigated in the wake of the 2001 attacks, but after interviewing him, the FBI eventually decided that he did not play any role in the plotting. Officials remained concerned, however, that he might be a future threat to the US and revoked his visa and deported him.
According to the cable, three other Qataris—Meshal al-Hajri, Fahad Abdulla, and Ali al-Fehehaid—entered the US on August 15, 2001, on a British Airways flight from London. The cable says, “The men first visited New York, New York, and Washington, D.C. They visited the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, the White House, and various areas in Virgina [sic].”
It goes on to say that the men traveled to Los Angeles, where they supposedly aroused the suspicions of hotel cleaning staff because they had “pilot-type uniforms, several laptops, and several cardboard boxes addressed to Syria, Jerusalem, Afghanistan, and Jordan” in their room. The men evidently spent a week traveling around California with al-Mansoori and had been scheduled to fly to Washington on September 10, 2001, aboard the same American Airlines flight that the next day would be hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. Instead, the three men flew to London on September 10 and then on to Doha days later.
That suspiciously timed travel put them on the FBI’s radar. While more than a quarter-million leads flooded into the FBI and the US government as part of the investigation into 9/11, the three Qatari men were part of a pool of more than 100 individuals who were identified and investigated much more thoroughly.
The investigation, known within the FBI by the codename PENTTBOM—which stood for “Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing”—was the largest in the Bureau’s history and the first case ever to be run out of FBI headquarters (a decision that was controversial at the time). Ultimately, PENTTBOM agents conducted more than 180,000 interviews. Specific attention was focused on those 100 or so individuals who, because of possibly suspicious movements or travel, training, meetings, or financial links, might have a nexus to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. “PENTTBOM looked at everybody,” the official said. “We ran them all to ground.”
However, while the FBI did interview al-Mansoori, according to this FBI official, the Qatari men were never located after 9/11. Thus the FBI kept an unofficial “tickler” on the men in case they ever surfaced. A year ago, the official said, there was unspecified intelligence that led Doha authorities to believe that Mansoori might surface along with the three other men. That intelligence is what triggered the February 2010 cable, the official said, adding, “Would it be nice to sit down and look them in the eye and ask them about their involvement? Sure. But we ran it to ground and the information we collected is probably more reliable than what they’d tell us anyway.”
While acknowledging that the men may have had nefarious purposes in the US (“You can never say never.”), the official said that in the follow-up investigation the FBI was unable to locate any nexus between the Qatari men and known al-Qaeda plotters, leaders, or support cells. As part of the PENTTBOM investigation, the subject of the Qatari men was raised in FBI and other US government interviews of detainees at Guantanamo and other sites, including with al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who organized the 9/11 attacks and was captured in Pakistan in 2003. “Nothing fit. They don’t cross paths with anyone,” the official explained.
Although the government was able to rule out al-Mansoori as a player in the 9/11 plot, they were not convinced that he posed no possible ongoing threat to the US, so his visa was revoked and he was deported.
The new cable added fresh fuel to the various conspiracy claims swirling around the 9/11 attacks. The PENTTBOM investigators recognized that their work would be closely scrutinized and that conspiracy theories abounded. In fact, visitors to the out-of-the-way basement room where the PENTTBOM squad worked in the FBI’s Hoover Building headquarters found tongue-in-cheek handmade signs that read “Kennedy Assassination” and “Hoffa Case.” As the official said yesterday, “People love a hanging chad on 9/11.”
Officials have never prosecuted anyone for providing support to the 9/11 terrorist hijackers, although some FBI investigators believe that a Yemeni cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was preaching at mosques in California and Northern Virginia around the time of the attacks, may have had some forewarning of the hijackings. He had contact before 9/11 with two of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Al-Awlaki is believed now to be in Yemen, where he’s become a critical spiritual leader for Islamic extremists and has been linked to various terrorist plots in recent years, including the 2008 Christmas Day bombing attempt and the 2010 attempt to blow up cargo planes with explosives hidden in printer cartridges. Last year, he became the first American citizen to be placed on the CIA’s list of approved assassination targets.
The new cable did raise at least one unanswered question in stating that the Qataris’ plane tickets and hotel rooms were paid for by a “convicted terrorist.” NBC News’s Michael Isikoff suggested in a piece yesterday that the consular officer was speaking of Fahed al-Hajri, the brother of Meshal, who evidently paid for the travelers’ hotel rooms and was convicted as part of a 2003 student-visa fraud scheme, although he was not charged with or convicted of any terrorism charges.
Garrett M. Graff, the editor of The Washingtonian, is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.”