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Context of '2:30 p.m. September 11, 2001: New York FBI Agent Recognizes the Name of a Hijacker during a Conference Call with FBI Headquarters'

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The FBI opens an intelligence investigation to find future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, despite protests from the FBI New York field office that FBI headquarters has wrongly insisted on an intelligence investigation, when a criminal investigation would be more appropriate and have a better chance of finding him. The Justice Department’s office of inspector general will later conclude that “the designation of the Almihdhar matter as an intelligence investigation, as opposed to a criminal investigation, undermined the priority of any effort to locate Almihdhar.” Upon learning of the decision, Steve Bongardt, an investigator working on the USS Cole bombing investigation, writes to headquarters agent Dina Corsi to express his frustration. He points out that she is unable to produce any solid documentary evidence to support her view of the “wall,” a mechanism that restricts the passage of some intelligence information to criminal agents at the FBI (see Early 1980s and July 19, 1995), and that her interpretation of the “wall” is at odds with the purpose for which it was established. He adds: “Whatever has happened to this—someday someone will die—and wall or not—the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’ Let’s hope the [Justice Department’s] National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, UBL [Osama bin Laden], is getting the most ‘protection.’” [US Congress, 9/20/2002; New York Times, 9/21/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 307-9 pdf file; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] Both the Justice Department’s office of inspector general and the 9/11 Commission will later back Bongardt and say the investigation should have been a criminal investigation, as the “wall” procedures did not apply. The inspector general will comment that Bongardt “was correct that the wall had been created to deal with the handling of only [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] information and that there was no legal barrier to a criminal agent being present for an interview with Almihdhar if it occurred in the intelligence investigation.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 351 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission will remark that Corsi “misunderstood” the wall and that, “Simply put, there was no legal reason why the information [Corsi] possessed could not have been shared with [Bongardt].” It will conclude: “It is now clear that everyone involved was confused about the rules governing the sharing and use of information gathered in intelligence channels. Because Almihdhar was being sought for his possible connection to or knowledge of the Cole bombing, he could be investigated or tracked under the existing Cole criminal case. No new criminal case was needed for the criminal agent to begin searching for [him]. And as the NSA had approved the passage of its information to the criminal agent, he could have conducted a search using all available information. As a result of this confusion, the criminal agents who were knowledgeable about al-Qaeda and experienced with criminal investigative techniques, including finding suspects and possible criminal charges, were thus excluded from the search.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271, 539]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Steve Bongardt, Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), National Commision on Terrorist Attacks, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Dina Corsi, FBI Headquarters, Khalid Almihdhar, FBI New York Field Office

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A portion of Khalid Almihdhar’s New York identification card. The address is a Ramada Inn hotel, which was owned by Marriott at the time.
A portion of Khalid Almihdhar’s New York identification card. The address is a Ramada Inn hotel, which was owned by Marriott at the time. [Source: 9/11 Commission]The FBI’s New York office technically began an investigation to locate 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar on August 29, but in fact the one inexperienced agent assigned to the search, Robert Fuller, is busy for several days and only begins the search at this time (see August 29, 2001). Within a day, Fuller identifies connections between Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and widens the search to look for both of them. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004; New York Observer, 11/28/2004] The FBI will later claim that it searches aggressively. An internal review shortly after 9/11 will find that “everything was done that could have been done” to find them. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001] However, FBI agents familiar with the search will later describe it as unhurried and routine. A report by the Office of the Inspector General completed in late 2004 will conclude, “[T]he FBI assigned few resources to the investigation and little urgency was given to the investigation.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004] In conducting his search, Fuller takes the following steps on September 4-5:
bullet He requests that Almihdhar’s name bed added to the INS watch list, called LOOKOUT. He describes Almihdhar as a potential witness in a terrorist investigation. He later claims that he identifies him only as a witness, not a potential terrorist, to prevent overzealous immigration officials from overreacting. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He contacts the Customs Service and verifies that Almihdhar has been placed on its watch list. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He requests a local criminal history check on Almihdhar and Alhazmi through the New York City Police Department. The request turns up nothing. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He will claim that he requests a criminal history check in the NCIC, which is a computer database frequently used by every level of law enforcement. However, the Bergen Record will report that he “never performed one of the most basic tasks of a police manhunt. He never ran Almihdhar or Alhazmi through the NCIC computer. That simple act would have alerted local cops to look for the suspected terrorists.” At least four separate incidents involving Alhazmi were recorded in the NCIC database (see September 5, 2001). [Bergen Record, 7/11/2002; Bergen Record, 5/18/2004; US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He requests a credit check. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He requests that a national motor vehicle index be searched. However, a July 2001 police query on Alhazmi’s car that is in that index is not found (see September 5, 2001).
bullet On September 5, Fuller and another agent contact the Marriott hotels in New York City, since Almihdhar had indicated when he entered the US in July 2001 that his destination was a Marriott hotel in New York. Later this same day he is told Almihdhar had never registered as a guest at any of the six Marriott hotels there. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004]
bullet He will claim that he conducts a search in the ChoicePoint database, a commerical databases on personal information about US citizens. He will claim he searches the database and fails to find any information on them, but the chairman of ChoicePoint will later confirm the database did have information on the hijackers before 9/11, but the FBI did not ask to search the database until shortly after 9/11 (see September 4, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 539; US Department of Justice, 11/2004; New York Observer, 11/28/2004]
bullet There are additional searches he could make that he apparently fails to do. For instance, he apparently fails to check car registration databases. Alhazmi did own a car (see March 25, 2000), and the 9/11 Commission will note: “A search on [his] car registration would have unearthed a license check by the South Hackensack Police Department that would have led to information placing Alhazmi in the [greater New York City] area and placing Almihdhar at a local hotel for a week in early July 2001. The hijackers actively used the New Jersey bank accounts, through ATM, debit card, and cash transactions, until September 10.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 539]
bullet Additionally, even though the two were known to have previously entered the US through Los Angeles, drivers’ license records in California are not checked.
bullet He also fails to check national credit card and bank account databases.
All of these would have had positive results. Alhazmi’s name was even in the 2000-2001 San Diego phone book, listing the address where he and Almihdhar may have been living up to as late as September 9, 2001 (see Early September 2001). [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Newsweek, 6/2/2002] There appears to be no further mention of any further work on this search after September 5, except for one request to the Los Angeles FBI office made on September 10 (see September 10, 2001). The 9/11 Commission will note: “We believe that if more resources had been applied and a significantly different approach taken, Alhazmi and Almihdhar might have been found. They had used their true names in the United States. Still, the investigators would have needed luck as well as skill to find them prior to September 11.… Many FBI witnesses have suggested that even if [they] had been found, there was nothing the agents could have done except follow [them] onto the planes. We believe this is incorrect. Both Alhazmi and Almihdhar could have been held for immigration violations or as material witnesses in the Cole bombing case. Investigation or interrogation of them, and investigation of their travel and financial activities, could have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot. The simple fact of their detention could have derailed the plan. In any case, the opportunity did not arise.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 272]

Entity Tags: Robert Fuller, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Nawaf Alhazmi, 9/11 Commission, Khalid Almihdhar, ChoicePoint

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agent Robert Fuller began looking for Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar on September 4, 2001 (see September 4-5, 2001) . Within one day, he found that Almihdhar had not stayed at the New York City hotel he listed as a destination when he arrived in the US in July 2001. Alhazmi and Almihdhar had traveled to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. Immigation records indicated that they claimed to be destined for a Sheraton hotel in Los Angeles. On this day, Fuller drafts an investigative lead for the Los Angeles FBI office, asking that office to search Sheraton hotel records concerning any stays by Almihdhar and Alhazmi in early 2000. However, the lead is not transmitted to Los Angeles until the next day, after the 9/11 attacks have begun. The search will also turn up nothing, since neither of them stayed at a Sheraton hotel. [US Congress, 9/18/2002; US Congress, 9/20/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004; New York Observer, 11/28/2004] Both men had been living in nearby San Diego for much of the previous two years. The San Diego FBI office is not notified about the need for a search until September 12, and even then, they are only provided with “sketchy” information. [Los Angeles Times, 9/16/2001] The FBI handling agent in San Diego is certain they could have been located quickly had they known where to look. The FBI agent running the San Diego office will claim they could have easily found the two hijackers by looking their names up in the phone book (see September 11, 2001). [US Congress, 7/24/2003 pdf file] There is some evidence from eyewitnesses that a few days before 9/11, Almihdhar and two other hijackers are living in the same San Diego apartment that they had been living in off and on for the past two years, the address that was listed for them in the public phone book (see Early September 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses.The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses. [Source: Associated Press]The South Tower of the World Trade Center tilts to the southeast and then collapses. It was hit by Flight 175 at 9:03 a.m., 56 minutes earlier (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/12/2001; MSNBC, 9/22/2001; USA Today, 12/20/2001; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; ABC News, 9/11/2002; National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 44] The first sign of the collapse is visible on floor 82. [National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 87] The angle of the tilt will be disputed after 9/11 (see September-November 2005), as will the time it takes the towers to fall to the ground (see September 12, 2001-September 2005). [Scientific American, 10/9/2001; Eagar and Musso, 12/2001; PBS Nova, 5/2002; National Institute of Standards and Technology, 8/30/2006]

Entity Tags: World Trade Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The North Tower collapses in a matter of seconds.The North Tower collapses in a matter of seconds. [Source: Ray Stubblebine/ Reuters/ Landov] (click image to enlarge)The North Tower of the World Trade Center tilts to the south and then collapses. Its north side was hit by Flight 11 at 8:46, 102 minutes earlier. [CNN, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/12/2001; MSNBC, 9/22/2001; Kim and Baum, 2002 pdf file; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 33] After the antenna starts to move (see (10:28 a.m. September 11, 2001)), the next sign that the top section of the building is moving downward is on floor 98, at the top of the impact zone. [National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 22, 87] The angle of the tilt will be disputed after 9/11 (see September-November 2005), as will the time it takes the towers to fall to the ground (see September 12, 2001-September 2005). [Scientific American, 10/9/2001; Eagar and Musso, 12/2001; PBS Nova, 5/2002; National Institute of Standards and Technology, 8/30/2006] The death toll could have been much worse—an estimated 15,000 people made it out of the WTC to safety after 8:46 a.m. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/8/2002]

Entity Tags: World Trade Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agents in New York quickly set up a temporary field office in an FBI parking garage, where they will be based for the next few weeks, after the attacks on the World Trade Center rendered their original office unusable. The New York office is the FBI’s largest field office, comprising some 1,100 special agents. It is located at 26 Federal Plaza, just a few blocks away from the WTC site. However, the collapses of the Twin Towers (see 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 10:28 a.m. September 11, 2001) disabled its telephone service, thereby rendering it useless. Officials are also concerned that 26 Federal Plaza might be the target of another terrorist attack.
New Facility Is Set Up in 24 Hours - Therefore, “Almost immediately” after the Twin Towers came down, according to the New York Times, the FBI starts relocating to a garage in Manhattan. The block-long, multilevel garage at 26th Street and the West Side Highway is usually used by the FBI to store and repair its fleet of vehicles. But within 24 hours of the attacks on the WTC, a temporary field office is up and running there. The facility is equipped with about 100 laptop computers. Three hundred phone lines are installed, with phones hooked up to a satellite truck positioned outside the garage.
Investigation Is Coordinated from the Temporary Facility - Officials from over two dozen federal, state, and local agencies are then based at the makeshift facility. Barry Mawn, director of the FBI’s New York office, and key federal prosecutors, including Mary Jo White, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, coordinate the work of almost 2,000 investigators from there. The garage will serve as the command center for the first four weeks of the FBI’s investigation of the terrorist attacks. [New York Times, 9/24/2001; Washington Post, 10/20/2001; Kessler, 2002, pp. 5, 424; Journal of Public Inquiry, 3/2002 pdf file] It will be “New York’s nerve center for information about the attacks,” according to the Associated Press. [Associated Press, 9/27/2001] Agents will move back to their original field office at 26 Federal Plaza early in October. [Washington Post, 10/20/2001]

Entity Tags: FBI New York Field Office, Barry Mawn, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mary Jo White

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After the 9/11 attacks are over, the New York FBI office learns that one of the hijackers was Khalid Almihdhar. One of the FBI agents at the office, Steve Bongardt, had attempted to get permission to search for Almihdhar in late August, but was not allowed to do so. He wrote an e-mail on August 29 (see August 29, 2001) predicting that “someday someone will die… the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’” He will later testify that upon seeing Almihdhar’s name on one of the passenger flight manifests, he angrily yells, “This is the same Almihdhar we’ve been talking about for three months!” In an attempt to console him, his boss replies, “We did everything by the book” (see 2:30 p.m. September 11, 2001). Now that Bongardt is allowed to conduct a basic Internet search for Almihdhar that he had been denied permission to conduct before 9/11, he finds the hijacker’s address “within hours.” [Washington Post, 9/21/2002; US Congress, 12/11/2002 pdf file] The FBI field office in San Diego also was not notified before 9/11 that Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi had been put on a no-fly watch list on August 24, 2001 (see September 4-5, 2001). Bill Gore, the FBI agent running the San Diego office on this day, will make reference to the fact that Alhazmi’s correct phone number and address were listed in the San Diego phone book, and say: “How could [we] have found these people when we didn’t know we were looking for them? The first place we would have looked is the phone book.… I submit to you we would have found them.” [US Congress, 12/11/2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Steve Bongardt, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, Bill Gore, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI New York Field Office

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Dina Corsi.Dina Corsi. [Source: FBI]A number of FBI agents in New York are told the names of some suspected hijackers during a conference call with FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, and one of the agents, Steve Bongardt, is enraged when he recognizes one of these men, Khalid Almihdhar, as someone the FBI has been investigating. Most agents from the FBI’s New York office have assembled at a temporary field office at 26th Street and the West Side Highway (see After 10:28 a.m. September 11, 2001). But members of the FBI’s I-49 squad, which is focused on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s central command, have returned to their office at 290 Broadway. Three of them now participate in a conference call with FBI headquarters. Along with Bongardt, Kenneth Maxwell, the agent in charge of counterterrorism in New York, and John Liguori, a supervisor at the New York office, are on the call. Those at headquarters who are on it include Michael Rolince, head of the FBI’s international terrorism operations section, supervisor Rod Middleton, and analyst Dina Corsi. Maxwell begins the discussion, asking: “What do we know? Do we recognize any of the hijacker names?” Corsi says they have some names of suspected hijackers and starts reading these out. When she mentions Almihdhar, Bongardt interrupts her, asking: “Khalid Almihdhar? The same one you told us about? He’s on the list?” [Graff, 2011, pp. 313; Soufan, 2011, pp. 290-291] “This is the same Almihdhar we’ve been talking about for three months!” he yells angrily. [Washington Post, 9/21/2002] “Steve, we did everything by the book,” Middleton explains. “I hope that makes you feel better; tens of thousands are dead!” Bongardt retorts. Maxwell then tries to calm his colleague down. He presses the mute button on the phone and tells Bongardt: “Now is not the time for this. There will be a time, but not now.” [Graff, 2011, pp. 313; Soufan, 2011, pp. 290-291] Sometime tonight, Bongardt will submit a request to the FBI information center. “Within hours,” he will later recall, the center gets back to him after finding Almihdhar’s address in San Diego, California, simply through searching “public resources.” [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Intelligence, 9/20/2002]

Entity Tags: John Liguori, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dina Corsi, Steve Bongardt, Michael Rolince, Rod Middleton, Khalid Almihdhar, Kenneth Maxwell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Pasquale D’Amuro.Pasquale D’Amuro. [Source: Concordia]The FBI’s New York field office and FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, argue over which of them should lead the bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks and, against precedent, FBI Director Robert Mueller decides to put the headquarters in charge of it.
New York Office Usually Deals with Al-Qaeda Attacks - In the days after the attacks, a major confrontation arises over which facility should be the office of origin for the case. [Graff, 2011, pp. 333-334; Wired, 6/14/2017] The FBI operates under an “office of origin” system, which means that whichever of its 56 field offices opens an official case on a particular subject or group subsequently manages all related matters. The method prevents work being duplicated, and ensures that institutional expertise learned during previous investigations is retained and built on, rather than having to be relearned by a new office when another incident occurs. Under the system, the FBI’s New York office has become the office of origin for al-Qaeda cases and normally deals with al-Qaeda attacks. The office retains most of the bureau’s “institutional knowledge” on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It led the FBI’s investigations of the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 74; Soufan, 2011, pp. 82] Mueller, though, wants to run the investigation of the 9/11 attacks from FBI headquarters.
New York Official Objects to Running the Investigation from Washington - He goes to the FBI’s temporary New York field office (see After 10:28 a.m. September 11, 2001) and talks with senior officials there, including Barry Mawn, director of the New York office, Kenneth Maxwell, an assistant special agent in charge at the New York office, and Pasquale D’Amuro, assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism at the New York office. He explains why he wants FBI headquarters to be the office of origin. Mawn objects, saying the New York office has been the office of origin for the entire al-Qaeda case so far. It has the relevant expertise, investigative capabilities, and files to lead the investigation, he points out, and is also near the Ground Zero crime scene. But Mueller refuses to back down. He says he won’t run the investigation from the headquarters over a conference call. “I want to look someone in the eye,” he comments. [Graff, 2011, pp. 333-334] By October, he will have made the decision to run the investigation from Washington. This is the first time an “operational investigation” has been based at FBI headquarters, according to the Washington Post. [Washington Post, 6/14/2004]
Domestic Terrorism Squad Will Be Assigned to the Case - The case will soon be given the codename PENTTBOM, using the FBI’s standard system for naming cases. This stands for “Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing.” It is unclear why “BOM” is included in the name, since no bombs were used in the 9/11 attacks. Some agents will later guess that, in the initial confusion, the person who opened the case file incorrectly thought a bomb had been involved. [Graff, 2011, pp. 319-320] D’Amuro will be transferred to Washington and become the leader of the entire case. Instead of being run by one of the FBI’s experienced al-Qaeda squads, I-49 and I-45, a New York domestic terrorism squad called I-44 will be moved to Washington to handle the case. Mary Galligan, who previously spent time as the on-scene commander in the investigation of the attack on the USS Cole, will lead this squad. Some members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force will also move to Washington to work on the case.
Former Director Will Disagree with the Decision to Run the Case from Headquarters - Investigators will be based in a large room in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, where FBI headquarters is located. Two thousand agents will work on the case full-time, following thousands of leads as they pursue information about the attacks. Agents will conduct over 180,000 interviews and review millions of pages of documents. They will log over 155,000 items of evidence and put together a massive timeline, detailing the activities of the alleged 9/11 hijackers in the United States. The investigation will become the largest the FBI has ever conducted. [Washington Post, 6/14/2004; Graff, 2011, pp. 334] However, Louis Freeh, Mueller’s predecessor as FBI director, will criticize Mueller’s decision to run it from FBI headquarters. “I don’t think you can run counterterrorism cases out of headquarters,” he will say. “I think you have to coordinate them out of headquarters,” he will explain, “but you can’t prepare a criminal case for a field presentation in a US district court in headquarters.” [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]

Entity Tags: Barry Mawn, Robert S. Mueller III, Kenneth Maxwell, Pasquale D’Amuro, Mary Galligan, Louis J. Freeh, PENTTBOM, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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