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Context of '1987-1998: California Al-Qaeda Cell Serves as Vital Communications Hub'

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Khaled Abu el-Dahab.Khaled Abu el-Dahab. [Source: Egyptian government]In the mid-1980’s, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, an Egyptian medical student, joins the militant group Islamic Jihad, and also meets Ali Mohamed. Mohamed convinces el-Dahab to move to the US and become a sleeper cell agent. El-Dahab does so in 1987, moving to Santa Clara, California, where Mohamed has a residence. El-Dahab marries an American woman, becomes a US citizen, and gets a job at a computer company. In 1987, a female acquaintance of el-Dahab enters his apartment unannounced and finds several men there cleaning rifles. She decides it is something she does not want to know about, and breaks off contact with him. In 1990, Mohamed and el-Dahab travel together to Afghanistan. They are financially supported by a network of US sympathizers, including two Egyptian-American doctors. Beginning in 1990, El-Dahab’s apartment becomes an important communications hub for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad cells all over the world. For much of the 1990’s, the Egyptian government cut direct phone links to countries like Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan in an effort to disrupt communications between radical militants. So Dahab acts as a telephone operator for the Islamic Jihad network, using a three-way calling feature to connect operatives in far-flung countries. He communicates with bin Laden’s base in Sudan (where bin Laden lives until 1996). He receives phone calls from the likes of Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also visits California twice (see Spring 1993; Late 1994 or 1995). He distributes forged documents and makes money transfers. He is trained to make booby-trapped letters, enrolls in a US flight school to learn how to fly gliders and helicopters, and recruits additional US sleeper agents (see Mid-1990s). He helps translate US army manuals and topographical maps into Arabic for al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad training. El-Dahab will move to Egypt in 1998 and get arrested in October of that year. He will confess his role in all of this in an Egyptian trial in 1999. The Egyptian government will sentence him to 15 years in prison (see 1999). [New York Times, 10/23/2001; London Times, 11/11/2001; San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ali Mohamed helps Ayman al-Zawahiri enter the US for a fundraising tour and acts as his head of security during his stay. At the time, al-Zawahiri is known to have been the head of the militant group Islamic Jihad since the late 1980’s. He is also al-Qaeda’s de facto number two leader, though this is not widely known. This is apparently his second visit to the US; having previously paid a recruiting visit to the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn in 1989 (see 1986-1993). The exact timing of this second visit is disputed, but New Yorker magazine will report that “people at the FBI” assert “al-Zawahiri arrived in America shortly after the first bombing of the World Trade Center” in February 1993. Al-Zawahiri stays at Mohamed’s residence in Santa Clara, California, posing as a representative of a charity organization. It is said that not much money is raised. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] Al-Zawahiri will make another apparently more successful fundraising trip to the US in either late 1994 or sometime in 1995 (see Late 1994 or 1995).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ali Mohamed

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

A young Ayman al-Zawahiri dressed as a Westerner.A young Ayman al-Zawahiri dressed as a Westerner. [Source: Public domain via BBC]Ali Mohamed helps Ayman al-Zawahiri enter the US for another fundraising tour and acts as his head of security during his stay. At the time, al-Zawahiri is known to have been the head of the militant group Islamic Jihad since the late 1980’s. He is also al-Qaeda’s de facto number two leader, though this is not widely known. This is apparently his third visit to the US after recruiting and fundraising trips in 1989 and 1993 (see Spring 1993) . [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] Al-Zawahiri travels on a passport forged by Mohamed and uses a false name. He pretends to be a doctor for a charity raising money for refugees in Afghanistan, but in fact raises money for his Islamic Jihad group. Some donors know his true purpose, and others do not. According to one security expert, he is also in the US “to see whom he could recruit here, what could be done here—preparing the establishment of a base.” Mohamed and Khaled Abu el-Dahab (see 1987-1998), the two known members of a Santa Clara, California, based al-Qaeda sleeper cell, host al-Zawahiri in Santa Clara and escort him to nearby mosques in Santa Clara, Stockton, and Sacramento. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/2001; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001] He spends weeks in the US, traveling to other states such as Texas and New York to raise money from mosques there as well. He raises as much as $500,000. El-Dahab is later told some of the money collected is used later in the year to fund bombing of Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing 17 diplomats (see November 19, 1995). [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/2001] Accounts on the timing of the trip are vague, and differ as to whether it took place in late 1994 or some time in 1995. Perhaps coincidentally, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden’s brother-in-law, is arrested in mid-December 1994 in Morgan Hill, California, approximately 30 miles from Santa Clara. The FBI finds and quickly translates literature in Khalifa’s luggage advocating training in assassination, explosives, and weapons, bombing churches, and murdering Catholic priests, but seemingly inexplicably, they deport him a few months later (see December 16, 1994-May 1995). Two directors of President Clinton’s National Security Council’s counterterrorism team later will claim that they did not learn of al-Zawahiri’s trips until 1999, and even then they only learned about it by accident and were unable to get the FBI to reveal any more about the trips (see 1999).

Entity Tags: Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Islamic Jihad, Ali Mohamed, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. [Source: CBS News]Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law to bin Laden, is arrested in the US. He is held for visa fraud, but he is believed to be a major terrorist. His arrest takes place at a Holiday Inn in Morgan Hill, California. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001] That is only about 20 miles from Santa Clara, where double agent Ali Mohamed is running an al-Qaeda cell (see 1987-1998). Counterterrorism expert Steven Emerson will later say of Khalifa and Mohamed, “It seems to me that they were probably in contact. I’m basing that only intuitively on the fact that they were in the same area, they were close to bin Laden, and they would’ve had an incentive to stay together.” [Lance, 2006, pp. 167] According to one account, Khalifa is arrested on behalf of the government of Jordan, because he is on trial there. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001] Another account claims that Philippine authorities “tipped off Federal authorities on Khalifa’s movements.” [Filipino Reporter, 4/27/1995] He is traveling on a Saudi passport. He’d flown into the US from London on December 1 and has papers indicating he would be heading back to the Philippines. [Lance, 2006, pp. 158-159] It has been claimed that the CIA helped him get his US visa (see December 1, 1994). There are many reasons for US authorities to suspect Khalifa is a major terrorist figure:
bullet He is arrested with Mohammed Loay Bayazid, one of the dozen or so original members of al-Qaeda. Bayazid had attempted to purchase nuclear material for bin Laden the year before (see December 16, 1994).
bullet Philippine investigators had recently completed a secret report on terrorist funding. The report focuses on Khalifa, and says his activities in the Philippines strongly link with Muslim extremist movements in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Romania, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Albania, the Netherlands, and Morocco. It calls a charity which Khalifa runs a “pipeline through which funding for the local extremists is being coursed.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the report was released just one day before Khalifa’s arrest in the US (see December 15, 1994).
bullet His possessions, which are quickly examined and translated, include a handwritten manual in Arabic detailing how to set up a terrorist curriculum at a school in the Philippines, giving lessons in bomb-making and assassination. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/24/2001]
bullet Khalifa’s business card was discovered in a search of the New York City residence of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman in 1993 (see August 1993).
bullet He is an unindicted coconspirator in the “Landmarks” bombings plot, which would have killed thousands in New York City. The trial is getting underway at this time. Abdul-Rahman will be convicted and sentenced to over 300 years in prison (see June 24, 1993).
bullet A State Department cable from days after his arrest states Khalifa is a “known financier of terrorist operations and an officer of an Islamic NGO in the Philippines that is a known Hamas front.”
bullet An alias is found in his personal organizer that was also used in a bomb-making manual brought into the US by Ahmad Ajaj, Ramzi Yousef’s travel partner, when the two of them came to the US to implement the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see September 1, 1992).
bullet Bojinka plotter Wali Khan Amin Shah’s phone number is found in Khalifa’s possessions. The Bojinka plot, if successful, also would have killed thousands (see January 6, 1995). [Lance, 2006, pp. 158-159]
bullet A number in Pakistan that Ramzi Yousef had used to call the Philippines is found as well. Author Peter Lance will later note that such numbers “should have led the FBI directly to Ramzi Yousef, the world’s most wanted man” at the time. [Lance, 2006, pp. 160]
However, despite this wealth of highly incriminating material, within weeks of his arrest the US will decide to deport him to Jordan (see January 5, 1995). Over the next four months, even more of his links to terrorist activity will be discovered (see Late December 1994-April 1995). But Khalifa will be deported anyway (see April 26-May 3, 1995), and then soon freed in Jordan (see July 19, 1995).

Entity Tags: Ramzi Yousef, Steven Emerson, US Department of State, Wali Khan Amin Shah, Philippines, Ahmad Ajaj, Peter Lance, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Jordan, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Khaled Abu el-Dahab travels to Afghanistan to be personally congratulated by bin Laden. He is congratulated for recruiting 10 US citizens of Middle Eastern descent into al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was particularly keen to recruit such people so their US passports could be used for international travel by other al-Qaeda operatives. El-Dahab makes this visit with Ali Mohamed; the two of them make up the heart of an al-Qaeda cell based in Santa Clara, California (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab will reveal this information in a 1999 trial in Egypt. The names of the recruits and other details about them apparently are not publicly revealed, and it is unclear if or when they are ever uncovered. [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/21/2001]

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, Osama bin Laden, Khaled Abu el-Dahab

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The New York Times will later report that Ali Mohamed “[runs] afoul of the bin Laden organization after 1995 because of a murky dispute involving money and [is] no longer trusted by bin Laden lieutenants.” This is according to 1999 court testimony from Khaled Abu el-Dahab, the other known member of Mohamed’s Santa Clara, California, al-Qaeda cell (see 1987-1998). [New York Times, 11/21/2001] Another al-Qaeda operative in another trial will claim that in 1994 al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef refused to give Mohamed information because he suspected Mohamed was a US intelligence agent (see 1994). However, despite these accounts, it seems that Mohamed continues to be given sensitive assignments. For instance, later in 1996 he will help bin Laden move from Sudan to Afghanistan (see May 18, 1996), and he will be in contact with many of operatives in Kenya planning the US embassy bombing there until 1998, the year the bombing takes place (see Late 1994). The Associated Press will later comment that it is “unclear is how [Mohamed] was able to maintain his terror ties in the 1990s without being banished by either side, even after the Special Forces documents he had stolen turned up in [a] 1995 New York trial.”(see February 3, 1995) [Associated Press, 12/31/2001]

Entity Tags: Ali Mohamed, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A large group of Islamic Jihad operatives are sentenced in Cairo in what becomes known as the “Trial of the Albanian Returnees.” Various disclosures are made at the trial about the way Islamic Jihad operated and how it provided support to al-Qaeda by forging travel documents, transferring money, and arranging communications. One of the revelations is that al-Qaeda has a key communication hub in Yemen. Despite this revelation (see Late 1998-Early 2002), al-Qaeda will continue to use it through 2001 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The defendants were arrested not only in Egypt, but also in Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1995, the CIA arranged a deal with Egypt to capture Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt to be tortured and prosecuted (see Summer 1995). Eighty-seven of the defendants are convicted and ten are sentenced to death, including al-Zawahiri, who is tried in absentia. [New York Times, 11/21/2001] One of the convicted is Khaled Abu el-Dahab, who was operating a sleeper cell in California with double agent Ali Mohamed throughout the 1990’s (see 1987-1998). El-Dahab is sentenced to fifteen years in prison (see September 10, 1998). There are credible reports that many of the defendants confessed after being tortured in Egypt and Albania. [New York Times, 11/21/2001; Wright, 2006, pp. 269] The trial nearly eradicates the remnants of Islamic Jihad in Egypt and, according to some of the defendants, leaves only about forty members outside of Egypt. Al-Zawahiri and the other remaining members end up allying even closer to al-Qaeda. The two organizations will formally merge in early 2001 (see June 2001). [Wright, 2006, pp. 336]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, Islamic Jihad, Egypt, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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