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A Meeting in Malaysia The First Failures
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia January 5, 2000
Cameras clicked from a distance as nearly a dozen men gathered at the suburban condominium overlooking a Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course on the southern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Anyone who had happened upon the group would probably have found them eminently forgettable, a group of clean-cut Arab men in a diverse international city of one and a half million.
The meeting could have been a reunion of vacationing friends, or a gathering of graduate students. It wasn’t. It was a summit of terrorists.
Two of the Saudi participants arriving at the placidly named Hazel Evergreen resort community were Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al- Mihdhar, who had already been identified by United States intelligence as terrorist operatives. They had been involved in planning and providing logistical support for the near-simultaneous bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that had killed 224 people and left more than 5,000 injured. Both would later hijack American Airlines flight number 77, and were restraining passengers as the Boeing 757 rammed into the Pentagon.
For American intelligence, the trail to the meeting in Malaysia began on the morning of August 7, 1998, in the rubble and confusion outside our embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
That morning, the ordinary bustle of Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue was shattered as a Toyota cargo truck exploded next to the five-story U.S. embassy. Within seconds, black smoke filled the sky and the road’s tar paving ignited, setting fire to parked cars and passing buses. The blast shattered every window within a quarter-mile radius, blew the bombproof doors off the embassy, sucked out ceilings and furniture and people, and collapsed the four-story office building next door.
Less than five minutes earlier and nearly 450 miles away in Tanzania, a vehicle had driven onto the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam and exploded, wrecking the entrance, blowing off parts of the building’s right side, and setting cars ablaze.
One of those involved in the Nairobi bombing was a Yemeni named Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali. His job was a minor one. As the truck packed with explosives headed for the embassy, al-Owhali was to throw four flash grenades at the front door—bringing curious people toward the windows in order to make the truck’s explosion all the more deadly.
Al-Owhali had expected to die in the blast. The truck bomb was supposed to detonate seconds after his task was finished, making him a martyr and assuring him a place in paradise. Instead, two things happened that kept al-Owhali alive. First, the truck’s driver decided, before detonating the bomb, to fire a number of bullets at the embassy. Second, after throwing his flash grenades, al-Owhali ran. The seconds the driver spent picking up his gun allowed al-Owhali to get around the corner of the building, which, in standing up to the blast, also saved his life. When the bomb was detonated, al-Owhali was thrown from his feet; his arm and forehead were cut. A stranger put him into a car and took him to the hospital, where he was stitched up. He hid his gun in the bathroom of the hospital, then got into a cab and headed for an apartment where he expected to wait until he could arrange to be smuggled out of the country. When authorities began asking about an injured Arab, the taxi driver remembered both the passenger and the address.
Within two days of the bombing, al-Owhali was in custody, and—stunned and remorseful over the carnage he had helped bring about—willing to talk about the attack that was supposed to have taken his life. His confession included the location of an al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen, and, importantly, its telephone number.1
The number allowed the National Security Agency (NSA), the American intelligence agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping, to do what it does best: collect signals intelligence. Using an array of satellites and other signals technologies, the United States began listening to the conversations emanating from the safe house. It quickly became clear that the place was more than a safe house: it was an al-Qaeda logistics center. Information flowed in from operatives around the world, where it was then relayed to Osama bin Laden at his Afghanistan hideout.
As far as intelligence work goes, finding this switchboard was the equivalent of striking gold.
In the last weeks of 1999, as the United States became increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks around the turn of the millennium, the level of monitoring was ratcheted up.
In December, an intercepted communiqué alerted the United States to a summit of al-Qaeda operatives scheduled for Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. The United States wanted to keep tabs on the meeting, and, in particular, to get some ears inside it.
The summit was to be held at the weekend retreat of Yazid Sufaat, a 37-year-old Malaysian citizen trained in microbiology. Sufaat was an example of what the Malaysian government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to encourage—a progressive Muslim professional. He was also a case study in the making of a terrorist sympathizer.
The son of a rubber tapper, Sufaat had won a scholarship to study at the government’s prestigious Royal Military College. From there he won another scholarship to continue his studies, this time at California State University in Sacramento—one of several thousand Malaysian students sent abroad annually to study. Upon returning home, Sufaat founded a profitable laboratory analysis company, built on government contracts and the Malaysian government’s preferential treatment of Muslim-owned businesses. During that time, he was successful in his business enterprise and not a particularly devout Muslim, occasionally enjoying a beer. And then, in 1993, he began to change. At the insistence of his wife, he began going to a mosque, an activity that furthered his interest in his Muslim roots and left him increasingly disillusioned with Malaysia’s secular government. He began spending more and more time with militant Islamic teachers, who told him that Muslims should take up arms and defend their brothers in Indonesia’s Maluku islands, where Christians and Muslims had been involved in bloody clashes. By all accounts, he was an eager recipient of such teachings.2
Seeing this enthusiasm, one of his teachers, who police now believe is al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian operations chief, began tapping him for small assignments.
In January 2000, his assignment was to make his condominium available for a meeting that the United States now knew was about to take place.
And so, as the terrorists gathered in Sufaat’s neighborhood, the Special Branch, Malaysia’s security service, was there, watching them sightsee and check Arabic web sites from cybercafés.
And as Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar stepped into the apartment where they would begin to plan an attack that would change the world forever, a camera shutter clicked.
Shortly after the meeting, Special Branch transmitted the photos they had taken to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
At CIA headquarters, two of the meeting participants photographed were identified as Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. This was not the first the CIA had heard of these two men.
Since early 1999, the NSA had information associating al-Hazmi with al-Qaeda. But the NSA considered the relationship to be “unexceptional” and did not disseminate information on al-Hazmi to other intelligence agencies.
In April 1999, the State Department recorded that Nawaf al-Hazmi and his brother Salim al-Hazmi (who had also attended the meeting in Malaysia) had been issued U.S. visas at our consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
While he was en route to Kuala Lumpur in the first days of January 2000, the CIA was able to obtain a photograph of Khalid al-Mihdhar’s Saudi passport. This provided the CIA al-Mihdhar’s full name, passport number, date of birth (May 5, 1975) and the multiple-entry visa issued by the Jeddah consulate in April 1999.3
Although both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were young (al-Mihdhar was 25 when he entered the United States, al-Hazmi 24), they had already developed impressive terror résumés.
Both Saudi citizens, the two grew up together in Mecca in merchant families. In the mid-1990s, as teenagers, they traveled together to Bosnia, presumably to fight alongside the Muslims there. After that, their involvement with al-Qaeda strengthened, and sometime before 1998, al-Hazmi traveled to Afghanistan and swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden and to his jihad agenda, an act known as bayat. Later, al-Mihdhar would do the same. In Afghanistan, during the latter half of 1999, the two would receive special training alongside a number of other terrorists, including one who later died in a suicide attack on the American destroyer U.S.S. Cole at the port of Aden in Yemen.
George Tenet, then the Director of Central Intelligence, would later testify to the Joint Inquiry, “We had at that point [January 2000] the level of detail needed to watch list [al-Mihdhar]—that is to nominate him to [the] State Department for refusal of entry into the US or to deny him another visa. Our officers . . . did not do so.”
This was the first failure that contributed to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
The “watch list” is increasingly significant in protecting America in an age of terror, when an individual entering our country can be as dangerous as a missile being launched at it. A watch list is a list of people who are of interest to law enforcement, visa issuance, or border inspection agencies. The agencies of the federal government keep a number of different watch lists. The principal and largest database is the State Department’s TIPOFF system. Created in 1987, it originally consisted of three-by-five-inch index cards in a shoebox. Today, TIPOFF staff use specialized search engines to systematically comb through all-source data, ranging from highly classified Central Intelligence reports to intelligence products based on public information, to identify known and suspected terrorists. These classified records are then scrubbed to pro- tect intelligence sources and methods; biographic identifiers such as aliases, physical characteristics, and photos are then declassified and exported into lookout systems. For example, employees at our embassies and consulates who handle visa applications can look up records electronically and deny visas to terrorists, their supporters, and those suspected of being either. This is vitally important in an age when a victory against terror can be as simple as a red “denied” stamp on a visa application.
Other agencies keep watch lists as well, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), which are now part of the Department of Homeland Security.
America’s watch-list system was not (and has not yet been) fully integrated into a single stand-alone terrorist screening database available not only to government officials overseas but also to state and local law enforcement in the United States. That is one problem that must be fixed. The second problem was one of attitude. As one intelligence official told me, watch-listing was not viewed as integral to intelligence work; rather it was considered a “chore off to the side.”
In practice, watch-list suggestions often appeared at the very end of CIA communications and were often overlooked. In many cases, like the case of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, the names didn’t make it onto a list to begin with.
Had the CIA placed al-Mihdhar on the watch list in January 2000, he and possibly his companion al-Hazmi would have been denied entry into the United States and detained for interrogation.
That the meeting participants in Kuala Lumpur were photographed and that we were able to obtain a photo of al-Mihdhar’s passport are a testament to how the skillful gathering of intelligence could open a window into the shadowy world of al-Qaeda; these successes also demonstrated how easily the thread of intelligence can be dropped, and how the smallest mistakes can lead to the largest failures.
For example, for reasons of priority and personnel, and possibly other reasons not publicly disclosed, the CIA turned to Special Branch to survey the condominium and the meeting participants.4
From the Hardcover edition.