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Context of 'May 1996: Al-Qaeda Begins Using Vital Communications Hub in Yemen'

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I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of bin Laden’s satellite phone with other agencies (see December 1996). The squad develops a plan to build their own antennas near Afghanistan to capture the satellite signal themselves. As a result, the NSA gives up transcripts from 114 phone calls to prevent the antennas from being built, but refuses to give up any more. Presumably, this must have happened at some point before bin Laden stopped regularly using his satellite phone around August 1998 (see December 1996). (Wright 2006, pp. 344) Also presumably, some of these transcripts will then be used in the embassy bombings trial that takes place in early 2001 (see February-July 2001), because details from bin Laden’s satellite calls were frequently used as evidence and some prosecutors in that trial were members of I-49. (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001)

Barbara McNamara.Barbara McNamara. [Source: National Security Agency]Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and other senior agency officers repeatedly ask the NSA to provide verbatim transcripts of intercepted calls between al-Qaeda members. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will explain, “[V]erbatim transcripts are operationally useful, summaries are much less so.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) According to PBS, Alec Station believes that “only by carefully studying each word will it be possible to understand [Osama] bin Laden’s intentions.” This is because al-Qaeda operatives sometimes talk in a simplistic code (see (October 1993-November 2001)). Scheuer will say: “Over time, if you read enough of these conversations, you first get clued in to the fact that maybe ‘bottle of milk’ doesn’t mean ‘bottle of milk.’ And if you follow it long enough, you develop a sense of what they’re really talking about. But it’s not possible to do unless you have the verbatim transcript.” (PBS 2/3/2009) Scheuer will also complain that the summaries “are usually not timely.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) Author James Bamford will say that the summaries are “brief” and come “once a week or something like that.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Alec Station’s desire for verbatim transcripts will intensify when it discovers the NSA is intercepting calls between bin Laden and his operations center in Yemen (see December 1996). However, the NSA constantly rejects its requests. Scheuer will later say: “We went to Fort Meade to ask then the NSA’s deputy director for operations [Barbara McNamara] for the transcripts, and she said, ‘We are not going to share that with you.’ And that was the end.” He will add that McNamara “said that the National Security Act of 1947 gave her agency control of ‘raw’ signals intelligence, and that she would not pass such material to CIA.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) McNamara will tell the 9/11 Commission that “She does not recall being personally [asked] to provide… transcripts or raw data” for counterterrorism, but if people wanted raw data, “then NSA would have provided it.” (9/11 Commission 12/15/2003, pp. 5)

A close-up of Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen.A close-up of Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS / Nova]Al-Qaeda begins using an important communications hub and operations center in Yemen. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 2-3, 16, 188) The hub is set up because al-Qaeda is headquartered in Afghanistan, but requires another location that has access to regular telephone services and major air links. It is located in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, in the neighbourhood of Madbah. Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of Osama bin Laden’s who fought in Afghanistan, runs the hub and lives there with his family. (Bamford 2008, pp. 7-8) Terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna will say that the hub is used as a switchboard to “divert and receive calls and messages from the [Middle East] region and beyond.” (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 2-3, 16, 188) FBI agent Mark Rossini will say, “That house was a focal point for operatives in the field to call in, that number would then contact bin Laden to pass along information and receive instruction back.” (PBS 2/3/2009) Author James Bamford will add: “[T]he house in Yemen became the epicenter of bin Laden’s war against America, a logistics base to coordinate attacks, a switchboard to pass on orders, and a safe house where his field commanders could meet to discuss and carry out operations.” Bin Laden himself places many calls to the house, and it is used to coordinate the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar also lives at the house at some point in the late 1990s with his wife Hoda, al-Hada’s daughter. (Bamford 2008, pp. 8)

The NSA discovers a communications hub al-Qaeda uses to coordinate its global operations. The hub was set up in May 1996 by Ahmed al-Hada, a close associate of Osama bin Laden (see May 1996), and is discovered at some time in the next six months. (Bamford 2008, pp. 16) According to a PBS documentary, the NSA discovers the hub by monitoring bin Laden’s calls from his satellite phone in Afghanistan (see November 1996-Late August 1998): “Once he starts dialing from Afghanistan, NSA’s listening posts quickly tap into his conversations.… By tracking all calls in and out of Afghanistan, the NSA quickly determines bin Laden’s number: 873-682505331.” According to CIA manager Michael Scheuer, bin Laden’s satellite phone is a “godsend,” because “[i]t gave us an idea, not only of where he was in Afghanistan, but where al-Qaeda, as an organization, was established, because there were calls to various places in the world.” As bin Laden’s phone calls are not encrypted, there is no code for the NSA to break. Instead, NSA voice interceptors and linguists translate, transcribe, and write summaries of the calls. In addition, human analysts plot out which numbers are being called from bin Laden’s phone and how frequently. (PBS 2/3/2009)

An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden.An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden. [Source: Inmarsat]During this period, Osama bin Laden uses a satellite phone to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The phone—a Compact M satellite phone, about the size of a laptop computer—was purchased by a student in Virginia named Ziyad Khaleel for $7,500 using the credit card of a British man named Saad al-Fagih. After purchasing the phone, Khaleel sent it to Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s unofficial press secretary in London (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998). Al-Fawwaz then shipped it to bin Laden in Afghanistan. (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001) It appears US intelligence actually tracks the purchase as it occurs (see November 1996-Late December 1999), probably because an older model satellite phone bin Laden has is already being monitored (see Early 1990s). Bin Laden’s phone (873682505331) is believed to be used by other top al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Atef. Al-Fawwaz also buys satellite phones for other top al-Qaeda leaders around the same time. Though the calls made on these phones are encrypted, the NSA is able to intercept and decrypt them. As one US official will put it in early 2001, “codes were broken.” (Sale 2/13/2001; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002) The Los Angeles Times will report that the monitoring of these phones “produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts over two years.” (Braun et al. 10/14/2001) Bin Laden’s satellite phone replaces an older model he used in Sudan that apparently was also monitored by the NSA (see Early 1990s). Billing records for his new phone are eventually released to the media in early 2002. Newsweek will note, “A country-by-country analysis of the bills provided US authorities with a virtual road map to important al-Qaeda cells around the world.” (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002) The countries called are:
bullet Britain (238 or 260). Twenty-seven different phone numbers are called in Britain. Accounts differ on the exact number of calls. Khalid al-Fawwaz, who helps publish statements by bin Laden, receives 143 of the calls, including the very first one bin Laden makes with this phone. Apparently most of the remaining calls are made to pay phones near him or to his associates. He also frequently calls Ibrahim Eidarous, who works with al-Fawwaz and lives near him. (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002; O'Neill and McGrory 2006, pp. 111)
bullet Yemen (221). Dozens of calls go to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is run by the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see Late August 1998). (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; McDermott 9/1/2002; Bamford 2008, pp. 8)
bullet Sudan (131). Bin Laden lived in Sudan until 1996 (see May 18, 1996), and some important al-Qaeda operatives remained there after he left (see February 5, 1998). (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Iran (106). Newsweek will later report: “US officials had little explanation for the calls to Iran. A Bush administration official said that US intelligence has believed for years that hard-line anti-American factions inside Iran helped bin Laden’s organization operate an ‘underground railroad’ smuggling Islamic militants to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.” (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Azerbaijan (67). An important al-Qaeda operative appears to be based in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Loeb 5/2/2001) This is most likely Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who is very close to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda cell there. He kidnapped by the CIA in Baku in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998).
bullet Kenya (at least 56). In the embassy bombings trial, prosecutors introduce evidence showing 16 calls are made on this phone to some of the embassy bombers in Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), apparently all before a raid in August 1997 (see August 21, 1997). The defense introduces evidence showing at least 40 more calls are made after that time (see Late 1996-August 1998). (Hirschkorn 4/16/2001)
bullet Pakistan (59).
bullet Saudi Arabia (57).
bullet A ship in the Indian Ocean (13).
bullet The US (6).
bullet Italy (6).
bullet Malaysia (4).
bullet Senegal (2). (Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002)
bullet Egypt (unknown). Newsweek reports that calls are made to Egypt but doesn’t say how many. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002)
bullet Iraq (0). Press reports note that the records indicate zero calls were made to Iraq. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; Fielding and Gadhery 3/24/2002) 1,100 total calls are made on this phone. Adding up the above numbers means that the destination of over 100 calls is still unaccounted for. (Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002) The use of this phone stops two months after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. However, it appears bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to use other satellite phones occasionally after this time. Shortly after 9/11, James Bamford, an expert authority on the agency, says “About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him.… He may still use [satellite phones] occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing.” (Sieberg 9/21/2001) According to a different account, bin Laden will attempt to use a different phone communication method, but US intelligence will soon discover it and continue monitoring his calls (see Late 1998 and After).

Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, discovers that al-Qaeda has established a communications hub and operations center in Sana’a, Yemen, and that there are frequent calls between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see May 1996 and November 1996-Late August 1998). (Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) According to Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer, the CIA learns of this “communications conduit” through a CIA officer detailed to the NSA and stationed overseas. According to Scheuer, the NSA “refuse[s] to exploit the conduit and threaten[s] legal action against the agency officer who advised of its existence.” Despite the threat, the officer continues to supply the information. Scheuer asks senior CIA officials to intervene with the NSA, but this only leads to “a desultory interagency discussion without resolution.” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) Author James Bamford will say: “Scheuer knew how important the house [the operations center in Yemen] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA,… Barbara McNamara, and asked for transcripts of the conversations coming into and going out of the house. And the best the NSA would do would be to give them brief summaries every… once a week or something like that, you know, just a report, not the actual transcripts or anything. And so he got very frustrated, he went back there and they still refused.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Because of the lack of information, the CIA will actually build its own listening post to get some of the information the NSA is concealing from it (see After December 1996).

The CIA builds a ground station to intercept calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations centre in Yemen. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) According to author James Bamford, the station is “in the Indian Ocean area, I think it was on Madagascar.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) The NSA is already intercepting the calls, but refuses to share the raw intelligence with the CIA (see February 1996-May 1998 and December 1996), which is why the agency has to build the station. However, the CIA is only able to get half the conversations, because its technology is not as good as the NSA’s. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) Bamford will add, “they were only picking up half of the conversations, apparently it was downlink, they weren’t able to get the uplink, you need a satellite.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Presumably, Bamford means the CIA is getting the half of the calls featuring the person talking to bin Laden, but cannot hear the Afghan end of the conversation. To get the other half of the Afghanistan-Yemen calls the CIA would need a satellite. (PBS 2/3/2009)

The CIA again asks the NSA for part of the transcripts of calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations center in Yemen. The NSA has been intercepting the calls for some time (see Between May and December 1996), but refuses to share the intelligence with Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, in usable form (see December 1996). During the calls, the al-Qaeda operatives talk in a simplistic code, but the NSA apparently does not decrypt the conversations, and only gives Alec Station meaningless summaries of the calls (see February 1996-May 1998). Without the transcripts, Alec Station cannot crack the code and figure out what the operatives are really talking about. As a result, the CIA built a duplicate ground station in the Indian Ocean, and is replicating half of the NSA’s intelligence take on the calls (see After December 1996). However, it cannot obtain the other end of the calls without a satellite. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will say, “We would collect it [one end of the calls], translate it, send it to NSA, and ask them for the other half of it, so we could better understand it, but we never got it.” Author James Bamford will comment: “And so the CIA, Mike Scheuer, went back to NSA and said look,… we’re able to get… half the conversations here, but we still need the other half, and NSA still wouldn’t give them the other half. I mean this is absurd, but this is what was going on.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009)

Calls are made using Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is involved in the embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). According to MSNBC, two of the calls from bin Laden’s phone are made “days before” the bombings. The NSA is intercepting calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone at this time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and his phone is used to make dozens of calls to the Yemen communications hub from 1996 to 1998, but it is unclear what is done with the intercepts, as the NSA is sometimes unwilling to share information with other US intelligence agencies (see Between 1996 and August 1998, December 1996, Between 1996 and September 11, 2001, and Before September 11, 2001). (Los Angeles Times 10/10/2001; MSNBC 2/14/2002; Hosenball and Klaidman 2/18/2002; McDermott 9/1/2002) The communications hub is run by veteran mujaheddin Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of one of the embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Al-Owhali stays at the hub in the months before the bombing and obtains a fake passport in Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/9/1998 pdf file) The NSA continues to intercept calls to and from the hub after the embassy bombings (see Late August 1998 and August 4-25, 1998).

Through its own monitoring of Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, the CIA determines that he intends to travel to a training camp in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The CIA has to use its own equipment to do this because of a dispute with the NSA, which refused to provide it with full details of its intercepts of bin Laden’s calls (see December 1996). Although the CIA can only get half of what the NSA gets, shortly after the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), it determines that bin Laden will travel to Khost the next day. On that day, the US launches several missile strikes, one of which is against Khost (see August 20, 1998), but bin Laden does not travel there, evading the missiles. Some will later claim that bin Laden changes his mind on the way there for no particular reason, but there will also be allegations that the Pakistani ISI warned him of the upcoming attack (see July 1999). (Wright 2006, pp. 283)

Following the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), CIA managers ask Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, what it most needs to improve the agency’s capabilities against al-Qaeda. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will later say that he raises “our dire need for verbatim reports derived from electronic collection.” This is a reference to his desire to get verbatim transcripts of calls to and from al-Qaeda’s operations hub in Yemen, in particular ones between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The NSA has the transcripts, but is refusing to provide them to the CIA, and the two agencies have been at loggerheads over the issue for nearly two years. Alec Station needs the transcripts, not the summaries the NSA provides, because the operatives talk in code on the phone and this code cannot be cracked based on the summaries, only using the transcripts (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, and After December 1996). Other senior CIA officers have similar trouble getting transcripts from the NSA. Higher officials order the NSA to comply, and they do, but only for less than 12 requests. Then the system returns to the way it was, with NSA only sharing summaries. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) The reason for the change back is unclear, although bin Laden stops using his satellite phone around this time (see Late August 1998).

The CIA sends an officer from its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to the NSA to review raw transcripts of intercepted communications between terrorists. However, the officer is only there for a “brief period” and is subsequently withdrawn and not replaced, damaging the CIA’s ability to exploit the information gleaned from the intercepts. The CIA only previously received summaries of intercepted calls, not the transcripts themselves, and had been arguing for years that it needed the actual transcripts to better understand the material (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, After December 1996, and Late August 1998). After the single officer leaves the NSA, which intercepts calls between the US-based 9/11 hijackers and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen around this time (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), the reason the CIA gives for not replacing him is “resource constraints.” In 2005, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General will regard this failure as so serious that it will recommend an accountability board be convened to review the performance of the CTC managers responsible, and will suggest that officers should have been detailed to the NSA “on a consistent, full-time basis.” (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xxiii pdf file) The CIA and NSA are obtaining information about people in the US from phone companies to support “black ops” at this time (see After July 11, 1997).

The CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, reduces the FBI’s access to NSA material tracking al-Qaeda members. The FBI had previously used such intercepts to map al-Qaeda’s global network (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA intercepts at least one call from the 9/11 hijackers in the US to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen after this (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and (August 2001)), but does not tell the FBI. Authors Joe and Susan Trento will comment that by doing this and withholding the hijackers’ identities from the FBI, “the CIA effectively ended any chance in the months leading up to 9/11 of discovering that [Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi] were actually al-Qaeda agents destined to play major roles in the 9/11 attacks.” The CIA repeatedly fails to tell the FBI what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, January 5, 2001 and After, and June 11, 2001). (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 194) There is a long history of the NSA not wanting other US government agencies to have access to NSA material about al-Qaeda (see December 1996, Late August 1998, Between 1996 and August 1998, and Before September 11, 2001).

A redacted summary of a report by the CIA’s inspector general into some aspects of the agency’s pre-9/11 performance is released. The report’s main points are:
bullet No CIA employees violated the law or were guilty of misconduct in the run-up to 9/11;
bullet However, some officials did not perform their duties in a satisfactory manner. The report recommended accountability boards be convened to review their performance, but former CIA Director Porter Goss decided against this recommendation in 2005 (see October 10, 2005);
bullet There was no “silver bullet” that could have prevented 9/11, but if officers had performed satisfactorily, they would have had a better chance of stopping the attacks;
bullet The CIA had no comprehensive strategy to combat al-Qaeda before 9/11 (see After December 4, 1998 and Between Mid-December 2002 and June 2004);
bullet Management of counterterrorism funds was poor (see 1997-2001);
bullet Arguments between the CIA and NSA negatively impacted counterterrorism efforts (see December 1996, Late August 1998, and 2000);
bullet Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was well-known to the CIA before 9/11, but his case was badly handled (see 1997 or After);
bullet There were numerous failures related to the CIA’s monitoring of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see Mid-January-March 2000, 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, Mid-July 2004, (After January 6, 2000), and March 5, 2000);
bullet The CIA also missed “several additional opportunities” to watchlist Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (see January 8, 2000 and August 23, 2001). Such watchlisting could have led to them being denied entry, or being placed under surveillance in the US;
bullet The CIA was confused about whether it was authorized to assassinate Osama bin Laden or not (see Mid-August 1998, December 24, 1998, December 26, 1998 and After, February 1999, February 1999, and December 1999);
bullet There were various problems with assets and operations linked to foreign services. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005 pdf file)
The media picks various angles in commenting on the report (see August 21, 2007), which is criticized by current CIA Director Michael Hayden (see August 21, 2007) and former Director George Tenet (see August 21, 2007).

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