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Context of 'February 1991: CIA Already Aware of ‘Al-Qaeda’'

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August 11-20, 1988: Bin Laden Forms Al-Qaeda

The notes from al-Qaeda’s formation meeting. The short lines on the right side are the list of attendees.The notes from al-Qaeda’s formation meeting. The short lines on the right side are the list of attendees. [Source: CNN]Bin Laden conducts two meetings to discuss “the establishment of a new military group,” according to notes that are found later. Notes reveal the group is initially called al-Qaeda al-Askariya, which roughly translates to “the military base.” But the name soon shortens to just al-Qaeda, meaning “the base” or “the foundation.” [Associated Press, 2/19/2003; Wright, 2006, pp. 131-134] With the Soviets in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, it is proposed to create the new group to keep military jihad, or holy war, alive after the Soviets are gone. The notes don’t specify what the group will do exactly, but it concludes, “Initial estimate, within six months of al-Qaeda (founding), 314 brothers will be trained and ready.” In fact, al-Qaeda will remain smaller than that for years to come. Fifteen people attend these two initial meetings. [Wright, 2006, pp. 131-134] In addition to bin Laden, other attendees include:
bullet Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the head of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002]
bullet Mohammed Atef, a.k.a. Abu Hafs.
bullet Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a.k.a. Abu Hajer.
bullet Jamal al-Fadl.
bullet Wael Hamza Julaidan.
bullet Mohammed Loay Bayazid, a US citizen, who is notetaker for the meetings. [Wright, 2006, pp. 131-134]
Al-Fadl will reveal details about the meetings to US investigators in 1996 (see June 1996-April 1997). Notes to the meeting will be found in Bosnia in early 2002. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] It will take US intelligence years even to realize a group named al-Qaeda exists; the first known incidence of US intelligence being told the name will come in 1993 (see May 1993).

Entity Tags: Mohammed Loay Bayazid, Osama bin Laden, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Jamal al-Fadl, Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Wael Hamza Julaidan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Meir Kahane.Meir Kahane. [Source: Publicity photo]Egyptian-American El Sayyid Nosair assassinates controversial right-wing Zionist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane’s organization, the Jewish Defense League, was linked to dozens of bombings and is ranked by the FBI as the most lethal domestic militant group in the US at the time. Nosair is captured after a police shoot-out. [Village Voice, 3/30/1993] Within hours, overwhelming evidence suggests that the assassination was a wide conspiracy but the US government will immediately declare that Nosair was a lone gunman and ignore the evidence suggesting otherwise (see November 5, 1990 and After). Nosair will later be acquitted of Kahane’s murder (though he will be convicted of lesser charges) as investigators continue to ignore most of the evidence in his case which links to a wider conspiracy (see December 7, 1991). Nosair is connected to al-Qaeda through his job at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, an al-Qaeda front (see 1986-1993). A portion of Nosair’s defense fund will be paid for by bin Laden, although this will not be discovered until some time later. [ABC News, 8/16/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 34-37]

Entity Tags: Meir Kahane, Al-Qaeda, Al-Kifah Refugee Center, El Sayyid Nosair

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA is aware of the term al-Qaeda at least by this time. Billy Waugh is a CIA contractor assigned to follow bin Laden and other suspected criminals in Sudan starting at this time (see February 1991- July 1992). He will later recall in a book that when he arrived in Sudan, the CIA station chief there said to him about bin Laden, “We don’t know what he’s up to, but we know he’s a wealthy financier and we think he’s harboring some of these outfits called al-Qaeda. See what you can find out.” Waugh will note, “I was familiar with bin Laden from [CIA] traffic, but this was the first time I had heard the term al-Qaeda.” [Waugh and Keown, 2004, pp. 121] According to most other media accounts, US intelligence does not learn about the existence of al-Qaeda until several years later, not long before the State Department publicly uses the term in 1996 (see August 14, 1996). For instance, US News and World Report will even assert in 2003, “So limited was the CIA’s knowledge that it began using al-Qaeda’s real name only [in 1998]—10 years after bin Laden founded the organization.” [US News and World Report, 12/15/2003]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Billy Waugh, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Double agent Ali Mohamed, who became an informant for the FBI in 1990 (see 1990), apparently works as an FBI informant again, obtaining intelligence on some suspects at a San Jose, California, mosque. But he is never polygraphed, even though this is standard procedure. Retired FBI agent Joseph O’Brien will later complain, “One of the most unbelievable aspects of the Ali Mohamed story is that the Bureau could be dealing with this guy and they didn’t” polygraph him. “The first thing you do with any kind of asset or informant is you polygraph him and if the relationship continues, you make him submit to continued polygraphs down the line.” FBI agent John Zent becomes Mohamed’s handler. [Lance, 2006, pp. 95-96] Apparently Mohamed will be given a polygraph test in 1993 and will fail it (see May 1993).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ali Mohamed, Joseph O’Brien, John Zent

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

One of the documents stolen by Ali Mohamed found in El-Sayyid Nosair’s residence. At the bottom are the words: ‘United States Army. John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center.’One of the documents stolen by Ali Mohamed found in El-Sayyid Nosair’s residence. At the bottom are the words: ‘United States Army. John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center.’ [Source: National Geographic]Not long after the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 (see February 26, 1993), investigators discover a connection between some of the plotters, Ali Mohamed, and El-Sayyid Nosair (see November 5, 1990). The Wall Street Journal reports that investigators “went back to look at [Nosair’s] personal possessions. There, they finally saw the link to Mr. Mohamed.” Top secret US military documents obviously supplied by Mohamed are found among Nosair’s possessions. Still no action is taken against Mohamed. [Wall Street Journal, 11/26/2001; Posner, 2003, pp. 186-94]

Entity Tags: El Sayyid Nosair, Ali Mohamed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In the wake of his detention in Canada (see June 16, 1993), double agent Ali Mohamed is interviewed by the FBI and volunteers the earliest publicly known insider description of al-Qaeda. Mohamed is working as an FBI informant on smugglers moving illegal immigrants from Mexico to the US. FBI agent John Zent, Mohamed’s handler, interviews him in the FBI San Francisco office after having helped release him from Canadian custody. [New York Times, 10/31/1998; Lance, 2006, pp. 125, 130] Mohamed says that bin Laden is running a group called “al-Qaeda.” Apparently, this is the first known instance of the FBI being told of that name, though it appears the CIA was aware of the name since at least 1991 (see February 1991). Mohamed claims to have met bin Laden and says bin Laden is “building an army” that could be used to overthrow the Saudi Arabian government. He admits that he has trained radical militants at bin Laden’s training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan. He says he taught them intelligence and anti-hijacking techniques. Mohamed apparently is given a polygraph test for the first time, and fails it (see 1992). However, he denies links to any criminal group or act. An FBI investigator later will say, “We always took him seriously. It’s just he only gave us 25 percent of what was out there.” In addition to his Canadian detention, the FBI is also interested in Mohamed because his name had surfaced in connection with the Al-Kifah Refugee Center as part of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation. [New York Times, 12/1/1998; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/4/2001; Wall Street Journal, 11/26/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001] By the time this interview takes place, investigators looking into the World Trade Center bombing earlier in the year have already determined that top secret US military training manuals found in the possession of assassin El-Sayyid Nosair (see November 5, 1990) must have been stolen by Mohamed from the US army base where he had been stationed (see Spring 1993). Yet Mohamed is not arrested, though he is monitored (see Autumn 1993). New Yorker magazine will later note, “inexplicably, [the contents of the FBI’s] interview never found its way to the FBI investigators in New York.” [New Yorker, 9/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Ali Mohamed, Al-Qaeda, John Zent, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Kifah Refugee Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The term “al-Qaeda” is first mentioned in the international media. An article by the French wire service Agence France-Presse on this day entitled “Jordanian Militants Train in Afghanistan to Confront Regime” uses the term, although it is spelled “Al-Ka’ida.” The article quotes a Jordanian militant who says he has been “trained by Al-Ka’ida, a secret organization in Afghanistan that is financed by a wealthy Saudi businessman who owns a construction firm in Jeddah, Ossama ibn Laden.” (The spelling is the same in the original.) [Wright, 2006, pp. 410] The term will not be mentioned in the US until August 1996 (see August 14, 1996).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Essam Marzouk.Essam Marzouk. [Source: FBI]US-al-Qaeda double agent Ali Mohamed is detained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Vancouver, British Columbia, after attempting to pick up a man named Essam Marzouk, who is carrying numerous false passports. The RCMP identifies Mohamed as a top al-Qaeda operative. Mohamed admits to it that he traveled to Vancouver to help Marzouk sneak into the US and admits working closely with Osama bin Laden. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/4/2001; Globe and Mail, 11/22/2001; Wall Street Journal, 11/26/2001] After many hours of questioning, Mohamed tells the Canadian officials to call John Zent, his handler at the FBI. Zent confirms that Mohamed works for the FBI and asks them to release him. They do. [Lance, 2006, pp. 124] Mohamed is accompanied by fellow al-Qaeda operative Khaled Abu el-Dahab (see 1987-1998), who brings $3,000 sent by bin Laden to pay for Marzouk’s bail. Marzouk had run one of bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and was an active member of the al-Qaeda allied group Islamic Jihad at the time. However, Canadian intelligence apparently is unaware of his past. Marzouk will spend almost a year in detention. But then, again with the help of another visit to Canada by Mohamed, Marzouk will be released and allowed to live in Canada (see June 16, 1993-February 1998). He later will help train the bombers who carry out the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [Globe and Mail, 11/22/2001; National Post, 11/26/2005] Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent who later investigates Mohamed, will say: “I don’t think you have to be an agent who has worked terrorism all your life to realize something is terribly amiss here. What was the follow up? It just sort of seems like [this incident] dies.” [Lance, 2006, pp. 125]

Entity Tags: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, John Zent, Osama bin Laden, Jack Cloonan, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Essam Marzouk, Ali Mohamed, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Canadian Security Intelligence Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

At some point not long after Ali Mohamed is interviewed by the FBI in the autumn of 1993, the US government begins tracking his movements and monitoring his phone calls. Eventually, this surveillance will lead US investigators to the al-Qaeda cell in Nairobi, Kenya (see Late 1994). It is not clear which governmental agency does this. Meanwhile, he continues to have periodic contact with the FBI. They are especially interested in what he knows about bin Laden, as bin Laden’s importance becomes increasingly evident. [New York Times, 12/1/1998]

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

FBI agent Jack Cloonan is given the task of building a file on double agent Ali Mohamed. Mohamed is living openly in California and has already confessed to working for al-Qaeda (see May 1993). He has been monitored since 1993 (see Autumn 1993). [Lance, 2006, pp. 138] Cloonan is part of Squad I-49, a task force made up of prosecutors and investigators that begins focusing on bin Laden in January 1996 (see January 1996). Mohamed has been an informant for FBI agents on the West Coast of the US (see 1992 and June 16, 1993), though when he stops working with them exactly remains unknown. Cloonan and other US officials will have dinner with Mohamed in October 1997 (see October 1997), but Mohamed will not be arrested until after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see September 10, 1998).

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, Jack Cloonan, I-49

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

David Cohen.David Cohen. [Source: Ting-Li Wang / New York Times]David Cohen, head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, wants to test the idea of having a “virtual station,” which is a station based at CIA headquarters and focusing on one target. He chooses Michael Scheuer to run it. Scheuer is running the Islamic Extremist Branch of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center at the time and had suggested creating a station to focus just on bin Laden. The new unit, commonly called Alec Station, begins operations in February 1996 (see February 1996). The 9/11 Commission will later comment that Scheuer had already “noticed a recent stream of reports about bin Laden and something called al-Qaeda.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 109] It has been widely reported that US intelligence was unaware of the term al-Qaeda until after defector Jamal al-Fadl revealed it later in 1996 (see June 1996-April 1997). But Billy Waugh, an independent contractor hired by the CIA to spy on bin Laden and others in Sudan in 1991 to 1992, will later claim that the CIA was aware of the term al-Qaeda back then (see February 1991- July 1992). And double agent Ali Mohamed revealed the term to the FBI in 1993 (see May 1993). The term will first be used by the media in August 1996 (see August 14, 1996).

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Counterterrorist Center, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Alec Station, David Cohen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Based on a review of the Lexis-Nexus database, the term al-Qaeda is first mentioned in the mainstream media on this day. A United Press International article draws from a State Department fact sheet released today (see August 14, 1996) and states, “Earlier, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Usama Bin Ladin drew on his family’s wealth ‘plus donations received from sympathetic merchant families in the Gulf region’ to organize the Islamic Salvation Foundation, or al-Qaida. The group established recruitment centers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan that enlisted and sheltered thousands of Arab recruits to fight the Soviets. ‘This network remains active,’ the State Department said.” (The spelling is the same as in the original.) [US Department of State, 8/14/1996; United Press International, 8/14/1996] The term was first used in an overseas article by the French wire service Agence France-Presse, in May 1993 (see May 30, 1993). The CIA has been aware of the term since at least the start of 1996 (see Shortly Before February 1996) and possibly by 1991, if not earlier (see February 1991- July 1992). However, the term will remain little used and little understood by the media for the next several years. For instance, the New York Times will first mention it two years later in quoting the courtroom testimony of one of the plotters of the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). It is referred to as “al-Qaeda, an international terrorist group, led by Mr. bin Laden.” [New York Times, 8/28/1998]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The State Department officially designates the Abu Sayyaf a foreign terrorist organization. The Abu Sayyaf is a militant group in the Philippines with reported connections to bin Laden. Thirty groups are newly listed, including other groups associated with bin Laden, such as the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in Algeria. [New York Times, 10/7/1997] However, al-Qaeda will not be so listed until 1999 (see October 8, 1999). Al-Qaeda is still relatively unknown; the name was first mentioned in the media in 1996 (see August 14, 1996).

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Groupe Islamique Armé

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers allegedly told US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and some speculate that is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Miller will write, “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Mohamed al-Owhali, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Azzam, Al-Qaeda, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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