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Context of 'September 14, 2001: Revealed: Saudi Students May Attend Florida Flight Schools Without Background Checks'

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Destruction at the Khobar Towers, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.Destruction at the Khobar Towers, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. [Source: US Air Force]Explosions destroy the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers and wounding 500. [CNN, 6/26/1996] Saudi officials will later interrogate the suspects, declare them guilty, and execute them—without letting the FBI talk to them. [PBS Frontline, 2001; Irish Times, 11/19/2001] Saudis will blame Hezbollah, the Iranian-influenced group, but US investigators will still believe Osama bin Laden was involved. [Seattle Times, 10/29/2001] US intelligence will be listening when al-Qaeda’s number two leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calls bin Laden two days after the bombing to congratulate him on the operation (see June 27, 1996). The New York Times will report that Mamoun Darkazanli, a suspected al-Qaeda financier with extensive ties to the al-Qaeda Hamburg cell, is involved in the attack. [New York Times, 9/25/2001; New York Times, 9/29/2001] Bin Laden will admit to instigating the attacks in a 1998 interview. [Miami Herald, 9/24/2001] Ironically, the bin Laden family’s construction company will be awarded the contract to rebuild the installation. [New Yorker, 11/5/2001] In 1997, Canada will catch one of the Khobar Towers attackers and extradite him to the US. However, in 1999, he will be shipped back to Saudi Arabia before he can reveal what he knows about al-Qaeda and the Saudis. One anonymous insider will call it “President Clinton’s parting kiss to the Saudis.” [Palast, 2002, pp. 102] In June 2001, a US grand jury will indict 13 Saudis for the bombing. According to the indictment, Iran and Hezbollah were also involved in the attack. [US Congress, 7/24/2003]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Al-Qaeda, Mamoun Darkazanli

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In the wake of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (see June 25, 1996), the Saudi government continues to stonewall about their knowledge of radical militants in the country. Official inquiries about bin Laden go unanswered and the Saudis give no help to a US probe about the bombing. But often the US does not even ask the Saudis questions for fear of upsetting the Saudi government. Former US officials will later claim that even after the bombing, the CIA instructed officials at its Saudi station not to collect information on Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia. [US News and World Report, 12/15/2003] It is not known how long this policy will continue, but there is evidence it continues until 9/11. In August 2001, former CIA agent Robert Baer will attempt to give the CIA a list of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but the CIA will show no interest in it (see August 2001). Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers will reportedly come from Saudi Arabia.

Entity Tags: Saudi Arabia, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi intelligence minister until shortly before 9/11 (see August 31, 2001), will later claim that al-Qaeda attempts to smuggle weapons into Saudi Arabia to mount attacks on police stations. The plot is uncovered and prevented by Saudi intelligence, and two of the unsuccessful gunrunners, future hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, are watchlisted. [Salon, 10/18/2003; Wright, 2006, pp. 266, 310-311, 448] However, Almihdhar and Alhazmi continue to move in and out of Saudi Arabia unchecked and will obtain US visas there in April 1999 (see 1993-1999 and April 3-7, 1999). The US is supposedly informed of Almihdhar and Alhazmi’s al-Qaeda connection by the end of 1999 (see Late 1999). Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an associate of Almihdhar and Alhazmi (see January 5-8, 2000), is implicated in a plot to smuggle four Russian antitank missiles into Saudi Arabia around the same time, although it is unclear whether this is the same plot or a different one. The Saudi authorities uncover this plot and the US is apparently informed of the missile seizure in June 1998. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 152-3, 491]

Entity Tags: Saudi General Intelligence Presidency, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Nawaf Alhazmi, Turki al-Faisal, Khalid Almihdhar, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s special unit focusing on bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996), later will claim that before 9/11 members of the bin Laden family in the US are nearly completely off limits to US law enforcement. Author Douglas Farah, a former longtime Washington Post reporter, later will write that “All the bin Ladens living in the United States were granted Saudi diplomatic passports in 1996.… In 1998, when the FBI’s New York office actually sought to investigate some of the bin Laden family’s activities in this country because of suspicions of ties to terrorism, the State Department forced them to shut down the entire operation. Because the bin Laden’s were ‘diplomats’ and as such enjoyed diplomatic immunity, making such investigations illegal.” Scheuer will comment about the 1998 investigation, “My counterparts at the FBI questioned one of the bin Ladens. But then the State Department received a complaint from a law firm, and there was a huge uproar. We were shocked to find out that the bin Ladens in the United States had diplomatic passports, and that we weren’t allowed to talk to them.” Scheuer believes that these unusual diplomatic privileges may help explain how the bin Ladens will be able to depart so quickly just after 9/11 (see September 13, 2001; September 14-19, 2001). Farah later says he interviewed Scheuer about this and claims to have found a second source to verify the information. [Farah, 12/5/2004; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 6/6/2005] The issue of diplomatic passports for the bin Laden family has generally not been reported in the US media, although a 2005 New Yorker article will mention in passing that in 1996, “the State Department stymied a joint effort by the CIA and the FBI to question one of bin Laden’s cousins in America, because he had a diplomatic passport, which protects the holder from US law enforcement.” [New Yorker, 2/8/2005] This is a probable reference to the 1996 investigation of Abdullah Awad bin Laden (although he is bin Laden’s nephew, not cousin (see February-September 11, 1996)). It is unclear what connection there may be, if any, between that investigation and this 1998 investigation.

Entity Tags: Bin Laden Family, Michael Scheuer, Douglas Farah, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Salem Alhazmi receives a new passport from Saudi Arabia. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 10/2001, pp. 40 pdf file] According to the 9/11 Commission, the passport contains an “indicator of extremism” that is “associated with al-Qaeda.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 9, 33 pdf file] According to author James Bamford, this is a “secret coded indicator, placed there by the Saudi government, warning of a possible terrorist affiliation.” [Bamford, 2008, pp. 58-59] Alhazmi will use the passport to obtain a US visa the same day (see April 3-7, 1999). The Saudi government will reportedly use this indicator to track Alhazmi and other Saudi hijackers before 9/11 “with precision” (see November 2, 2007).

Entity Tags: Salem Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar receives a new passport from Saudi Arabia. According to the 9/11 Commission, the passport contains an “indicator of extremism” that is “associated with al-Qaeda.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 9, 33 pdf file] According to author James Bamford, this is a “secret coded indicator, placed there by the Saudi government, warning of a possible terrorist affiliation.” [Bamford, 2008, pp. 58-59] Presumably, this indicator is placed there because Almihdhar is on the Saudi government watch list at this point due to his radical ties (see Late 1999). The Saudi government will reportedly use this indicator to track Almihdhar and other Saudi hijackers before 9/11 “with precision” (see November 2, 2007).

Entity Tags: Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hamza Alghamdi.Hamza Alghamdi. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]Future 9/11 hijacker Hamza Alghamdi flies from Iran to Kuwait on October 8, travels to Qatar the next day, and enters Saudi Arabia on October 13. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 32-33 pdf file] According to the 9/11 Commission, he is accompanied on the flight from Iran to Kuwait by fellow hijacker Mohand Alshehri. The 9/11 Commission will mention this flight in a section of its final report suggesting co-operation on travel between Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda—Iran may have helped al-Qaeda by allowing operatives to transit Iran on their way to and from Afghanistan without stamping their passports (see After October 12, 2000). According to a detainee who may have been tortured, Alghamdi was in Afghanistan in the summer of 2000 (see Summer 2000); according to militant leader Luai Sakra, he was in Turkey at around this time (see Late 1999-2000), so it is unclear where Alghamdi and Alshehri are coming from. In any case, there are no direct links between this flight and actions by Iranian operatives, although the commission will note in this context that a senior Hezbollah operative visited Saudi Arabia around this time, and planned to help people in Saudi Arabia travel to Iran. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240] The 9/11 Commission’s statement that the hijackers took this flight will be based on intelligence reports from the NSA, mostly drafted shortly after 9/11. Another source for the paragraph that mentions this flight will be “operative’s claimed identification of photos of two Sept. 11 hijackers,” dated August 2002, although it will not be clear if this applies to this trip by Alghamdi and Alshehri. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529; Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3]

Entity Tags: Hamza Alghamdi, Mohand Alshehri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Under interrogation following his capture, al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash will say that after the bombing of the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000), Iran makes a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al-Qaeda. However, Iran is rebuffed because Osama bin Laden does not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia, which has poor relations with Iran. Nevertheless, Iranian officials are apparently willing to assist travel by al-Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan, by not placing telltale immigration stamps in their passports. Such arrangements are particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al-Qaeda. However, information such as this obtained from detainees under interrogation is thought to be unreliable due to the questionable methods used to extract it (see June 16, 2004). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240]

Entity Tags: Iran, Khallad bin Attash, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Salem Alhazmi.Salem Alhazmi. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]9/11 hijacker Salem Alhazmi flies from Saudi Arabia to Beirut.
Tracked by Saudis - According to the 9/11 Commission, Alhazmi’s passport has an indicator of Islamic extremism (see April 4, 1999). Such indicators are used by the Saudi authorities to track some of the hijackers before 9/11 (see November 2, 2007), so the Saudi authorities presumably register his departure.
Alleged Iran Link - The 9/11 Commission will mention this flight in a section of its report dealing with possible co-operation between Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda on travel issues (see October 8-13, 2000, After October 12, 2000, and Mid-November, 2000), but there are no direct links between this flight and Iranian operatives. The co-operation consisted of Iran allowing al-Qaeda operatives to transit Iran without stamping their passports on the way to and from Afghanistan (see After October 12, 2000), so the Commission suggests this flight may be the first step on a journey to Afghanistan. The 9/11 Commission’s statement that Alhazmi took this flight is based on intelligence reports from the NSA, mostly drafted shortly after 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240-1, 529; Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3]
Reason for Presence in Saudi Arabia Unclear - Although several of the hijackers are in Saudi Arabia at this time to obtain visas, it is unclear why Alhazmi would be in the country, as there is no mention of him obtaining a US visa around this time. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 13-16 pdf file]
Returns, Leaves Again - Alhazmi leaves Saudi Arabia again on January 1, 2001, traveling to Yemen. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 10/2001, pp. 116 pdf file] He is presumably tracked by Saudi authorities as he enters Saudi Arabia after returning from Beirut and also as he leaves Saudi Arabia for Yemen.

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Salem Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Waleed Alshehri.Waleed Alshehri. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]Based on intelligence reports, the 9/11 Commission will later say that 9/11 hijackers Wail Alshehri, Waleed Alshehri, and Ahmed Alnami travel in a group from Saudi Arabia to Beirut and then onward to Iran in mid-November 2000. An associate of a senior Hezbollah operative is also on the flight from Beirut to Iran. According to US intelligence, Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran are expecting the arrival of a group at around this time and this group is important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hezbollah. The commission will say that this flight may be part of Iranian assistance to al-Qaeda consisting of allowing operatives to transit Iran without stamping their passports on the way to and from Afghanistan (see After October 12, 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240, 529]
Contradicted by Families' Claims - However, two to three years before the 9/11 Commission publishes these claims, the families of both Ahmed Alnami and the Alshehri brothers will deny they travel anywhere at this time, and say they leave home in December, not the middle of November. After 9/11, Alnami’s father will initially say Alnami has been missing since December 2000 and will later repeat that he left home in December 2000 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. [Washington Post, 9/25/2001; Daily Telegraph, 9/15/2002] The Alshehri brothers’ family will also claim they do not leave until after mid-November 2000. Initially, the father will say that they left “last Ramadan.” [Arab News, 9/17/2001] The month of Ramadan begins on November 27 in 2000. [Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 11/26/2000] Based on a 2002 interview with one of their brothers, the Boston Globe will also later say that they leave in December. [Boston Globe, 3/3/2002] If this is true, the story of their travel with a Hezbollah operative would probably be incorrect.
9/11 Commission's Sourcing - The 9/11 Commission cites intelligence reports, mostly drafted between October and December 2001, as its sources. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240, 529] These reports come from the NSA. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-373]
Alnami Possibly Tracked by Saudi Intelligence - According to the 9/11 Commission, Alnami may have had a passport with an indicator of Islamic extremism (see November 6, 1999). Such indicators were used by the Saudi authorities to track some of the hijackers before 9/11 (see November 2, 2007).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Wail Alshehri, Ahmed Alnami, Waleed Alshehri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Abdulaziz Alomari in a video released in 2002.Abdulaziz Alomari in a video released in 2002. [Source: Al Jazeera]9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari is reported to leave home in Saudi Arabia for Afghanistan at this time. [Saudi Information Agency, 9/11/2002] However, he appears to have already been to Afghanistan, as he obtained a new passport on June 5, made an ATM withdrawal in Karachi, Pakistan, on July 8, and is said to have been seen near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer (see Summer 2000). [US Department of State, 6/18/2001; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 50 pdf file] Several of the other hijackers were in Afghanistan in the summer of 2000 and return to Saudi Arabia briefly at this time to obtain US visas (see, for example, September 4, 2000 and October 24, 2000). However, there is no record of Alomari receiving a visa at this time, so it is unclear why he would return to Saudi Arabia. Salem Alhazmi, with whom Alomari will later travel to the US (see April 23-June 29, 2001), also apparently returns to Saudi Arabia at this time, but does not obtain a visa (see November 2000). Alomari finally obtains a US visa in the summer of 2001 (see June 18, 2001).

Entity Tags: Abdulaziz Alomari

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar enters Saudi Arabia on a flight from Sana’a, Yemen. [Bamford, 2008, pp. 64] Almihdhar is on the terrorist watch list there (see 1997), and his passport contains an indicator the Saudi authorities use to track terrorists (see April 6, 1999), so the Saudis presumably register his arrival. Almihdhar likely visits the monitored Yemen hub at this time, since it is in Sana’a and his wife, baby, and other family live at the hub (see (May 26, 2001)).

Entity Tags: Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Former CIA agent Robert Baer is advising a prince in a Persian Gulf royal family, when a military associate of this prince passes information to him about a “spectacular terrorist operation” that will take place shortly. He is given a computer record of around 600 secret al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The list includes ten names that will be placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list after 9/11. He is also given evidence that a Saudi merchant family had funded the USS Cole bombing on October 12, 2000, and that the Yemeni government is covering up information related to that bombing. At the military officer’s request, he offers all this information to the Saudi Arabian government. However, an aide to the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, refuses to look at the list or to pass the names on (Sultan is later sued for his complicity in the 9/11 plot in August 2002). Baer also passes the information on to a senior CIA official and the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center, but there is no response or action. Portions of Baer’s book describing his experience wil be blacked out, having been censored by the CIA. [Baer, 2002, pp. 55-58; Financial Times, 1/12/2002]

Entity Tags: USS Cole, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Baer, Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After a complete air flight ban in the US began during the 9/11 attacks, some commercial flights begin resuming this day. However, all private flights are still banned from flying. Nonetheless, at least one private flight carrying Saudi royalty takes place on this day. And in subsequent days, other flights carry royalty and bin Laden family members. These flights take place even as fighters escort down three other private planes attempting to fly. Most of the Saudi royals and bin Ladens in the US at the time are high school or college students and young professionals. [New York Times, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 10/2003] The first flight is a Lear Jet that leaves from a private Raytheon hangar in Tampa, Florida, and takes three Saudis to Lexington, Kentucky. [Tampa Tribune, 10/5/2001] This flight apparently takes place several hours after a private meeting between President Bush and Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US. Some think the idea of the flights were approved at that meeting (see September 13, 2001). For two years, this violation of the air ban is denied by the FAA, FBI, and White House, and decried as an urban legend except for one article detailing them in a Tampa newspaper. [Tampa Tribune, 10/5/2001] Finally, in 2003, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke confirms the existence of these flights, and Secretary of State Powell confirms them as well. [MSNBC, 9/7/2003; Vanity Fair, 10/2003] However, the White House remains silent on the matter. [New York Times, 9/4/2003] Officials at the Tampa International Airport finally confirm this first flight in 2004. But whether the flight violated the air ban or not rests on some technicalities that remain unresolved. [Lexington Herald-Leader, 6/10/2004] The Saudis are evacuated to Saudi Arabia over the next several days (see September 14-19, 2001).

Entity Tags: Bandar bin Sultan, Bin Laden Family, Federal Aviation Administration, Bush administration (43), Richard A. Clarke, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Colin Powell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In interviews with the Boston Globe, flight instructors in Florida say that it was common for students with Saudi affiliations to enter the US with only cursory background checks and sometimes none. Some flight schools, including some of those attended by the hijackers, have exemptions that allow the schools to unilaterally issue paperwork that students can present at US embassies and consulates so they can obtain visas. Saudi Arabia is possibly the only Arab country with such an exemption. [Associated Press, 7/17/2002]

Entity Tags: Saudi Arabia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Abdulaziz al-Muqrin.Abdulaziz al-Muqrin. [Source: Agence France-Presse]A suicide bombing at a housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, kills 17. Most of the victims are Muslims working in Saudi Arabia. US and Saudi officials believe the bombing was masterminded by Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, believed to be al-Qaeda’s top figure in Saudi Arabia. [BBC, 12/6/2004]

Entity Tags: Abdulaziz al-Muqrin

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan says that before 9/11 the Saudi government was “actively following” most of the 19 hijackers “with precision.” Prince Bandar, formerly Saudi ambassador to the US, also says that the information Saudi Arabia had may have been sufficient to prevent 9/11: “If US security authorities had engaged their Saudi counterparts in a serious and credible manner, in my opinion, we would have avoided what happened.” A US official says that the statement made by Prince Bandar should be taken with a grain of salt. [CNN, 11/2/2007] Saudi officials had previously said that they watchlisted two of the Saudi hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, in the late 1990s (see 1997 and Late 1999) and their interest in Nawaf Alhazmi may have led them to his brother, Salem. All three of these hijackers were also tracked by the US before 9/11 (see Early 1999, January 5-8, 2000, Early 2000-Summer 2001 and 9:53 p.m. September 11, 2001).
Saudi Tracking - Almost a year after Prince Bandar makes this claim, author James Bamford will offer information corroborating it. Bamford will write that Saudi officials placed an indicator in some of the hijackers’ passports and then used the indicator to track them. The Saudis did this because they thought the hijackers were Islamist radicals and wanted to keep an eye on their movements. [Bamford, 2008, pp. 58-59] Details of the tracking by the Saudis are sketchy and there is no full list of the hijackers tracked in this manner. According to the 9/11 Commission, Almihdhar and the Alhazmi brothers had indicators of Islamist extremism in their passports. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 33 pdf file] Two other hijackers may also have had the same indicator. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 564]
The three who had the indicator are: -
bullet Nawaf Alhazmi, who obtained a passport containing an indicator in the spring of 1999 (see March 21, 1999), and then left Saudi Arabia (see After Early April 1999).
bullet Khalid Almihdhar, who obtained passports containing an indicator in the spring of 1999 and June 2001 (see April 6, 1999 and June 1, 2001), and then repeatedly entered and left Saudi Arabia (see After Early April 1999, Late 2000-February 2001, May 26, 2001, and July 4, 2001).
bullet Salem Alhazmi, who obtained passports containing an indicator in the spring of 1999 and June 2001 (see April 4, 1999 and June 16, 2001), and then repeatedly entered and left Saudi Arabia (see After Early April 1999, November 2000, June 13, 2001, and (Between June 20 and June 29, 2001)).
The two who may also have had the indicator are: -
bullet Ahmed Alhaznawi, who obtained a passport possibly containing an indicator before mid-November 2000 (see Before November 12, 2000) and then repeatedly entered and left Saudi Arabia (see After November 12, 2000, (Between May 7 and June 1, 2001), and June 1, 2001).
bullet Ahmed Alnami, who obtained passports possibly containing an indicator in late 2000 and spring 2001 (see November 6, 1999 and April 21, 2001) and then repeatedly entered and left Saudi Arabia (see Mid-November, 2000 and May 13, 2001).
What the indicator actually looks like in the passports is not known.

Entity Tags: Bandar bin Sultan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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