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Context of 'Late August 1998: CIA Apparently Arrests Top Militant Leaders by Accident'

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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).

A Renditions Branch is established at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Its job is to find militant leaders and then assist their abduction. The US government has been rendering suspects for four years (see 1993), and the CIA has had a dedicated program for this since the summer of 1995 (see Summer 1995). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 276) Although some specific rendition operations are known (see Summer 1998, July 1998-February 2000, and Late August 1998), the total before 9/11 is not. Estimates vary, but generally fall into a similar range:
bullet Citing a public statement by CIA Director George Tenet, 9/11 commission deputy executive director Chris Kojm will say “70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9/11;”
bullet Shortly after this, Tenet himself will confirm there were “over 70” renditions; (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Tenet will also say “many dozen” suspects were rendered before 9/11; (Central Intelligence Agency 3/24/2004)
bullet The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say that the Branch is involved in “several dozen” renditions before 9/11; (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 728 pdf file)
bullet Michael Scheuer, a CIA manager responsible for operations against Osama bin Laden, will say that between 1995 and May 1999 “[t]he operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people…” (Scheuer 7/1/2006)

Essam Marzouk, an explosives expert and training camp instructor, goes to Kosovo to support the Muslim cause there. He is there at some time between March and August 1998, though how long he stays exactly is unknown. During this same time, he also goes to Afghanistan and trains the men who will bomb two US embassies in Africa in August (see June 16, 1993-February 1998). He is closely linked to both al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad. (Armstrong and Matas 11/15/2001; Ha and Freeze 9/7/2002) He will be arrested in Azerbaijan in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998). It has not been reported who he met in Kosovo or what he did there exactly.

Ibrahim Eidarous (the picture has been edited to cover a window reflection on his face).Ibrahim Eidarous (the picture has been edited to cover a window reflection on his face). [Source: Bureau of Prisons]Mahmoud Jaballah is an Islamic Jihad operative living in Canada, and all his communications are being monitored by Canadian intelligence. He has already been monitored frequently contacting Ibrahim Eidarous and Adel Abdel Bary, two Islamic Jihad operatives living in London and working closely with Khalid al-Fawwaz, Osama bin Laden’s de facto press secretary. He also has been in frequent contact with Ahmad Salama Mabruk, a member of Islamic Jihad’s ruling council living in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Thirwat Salah Shehata, another ruler council member with Mabruk in Baku at the time (see May 11, 1996-August 2001).
Canadian Communications Relay - In the days before al-Qaeda’s African embassy bombings (see a080798embassy), he serves as a communications relay between the operatives in London and Baku. Canadian intelligence (CSIS) will later comment, “The ability to relay communications through a third country is invaluable to a clandestine operation, providing a more secure means of communication and decreasing the likelihood of being detected.”
Calls on August 5 - On August 5, two days before the embassy bombings, Jaballah contacts Shehata in Baku three times. This is the day Islamic Jihad releases a statement vowing revenge on the US for the recent extradition of Islamic Jihad members from Albania (see August 5, 1998). (Canadian Security Intelligence Service 2/22/2008 pdf file)
Calls on August 6 - There are at least two monitored calls on August 6, directly between London and Baku. Their contents are not revealed, but one is about three minutes long. (United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 27 4/4/2001)
Calls on August 7, Hours before the Bombings - On August 7, the morning of the bombings, Mabruk contacts Jaballah and tells him that Eidarous should contact him at Shehata’s phone number. There is no further elaboration except that Mabruk says the matter is “very important.” Shortly afterwards, Jaballah calls Eidarous’s cell phone and relays the message from Mabruk. (O'Neill 9/19/2001; Bell 10/15/2005) The exact timing of these calls are not specified, but at 2:14 a.m. London time, there is a call from Baku to London. (United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 27 4/4/2001) At 4:45 a.m. London time, a fax claiming responsibility for the embassy bombings is sent from Baku to a shop near Eidarous and Abdel Bary in London. The fingerprints of Eidarous and Abdel Bary are later found on a photocopy of the fax. It is also known that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring the phones of Mabruk, Eidarous, and Abdel Bary, because Osama bin Laden’s phone has been monitored since 1996 and he had frequently called all three of them (see November 1996-Late August 1998). The NSA noticed a surge of phone calls involving them several days before the embassy bombings (see July 29-August 7, 1998). The two embassy bombings take place within about ten minutes of each other around 10:30 a.m. local time in East Africa. This time zone is three hours later than London time, which means the bombings take place around 7:30 a.m. London time. The fax claiming responsibility for the bombings is actually sent to London about three hours before the bombings take place. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 7/13/1999; O'Neill 9/19/2001)
Fax Names Nairobi and Dar es Salaam Bombings in Advance - The fax takes credit for the embassy bombings in the name of the “The Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places,” a previously unused name. It states that “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque (Mecca) from their grip.” It specifically calls the bombing in Nairobi the “Holy Ka’ba operation,” and bombing in Dar es Salaam is called the “Al-Aqsa Mosque operation.” It adds that two men from Saudi Arabia carried out the Nairobi bombing and that one man from Egypt carried out the Dar es Salaam bombing. This in fact is what happens several hours later. The operatives in London then fax the statement to a number of press agencies after the bombings, including Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. (United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 27 4/4/2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38 5/2/2001; Hirschkorn 5/2/2001) So Canadian and US intelligence had an opportunity to give an advanced warning about the bombings. It is not known why they do not do this.

Canadian intelligence has been monitoring Mahmoud Jaballah, an operative in Canada serving as a communications relay between high-ranking Islamic Jihad figures (see May 11, 1996-August 2001). He is monitored as he relays a series of phone calls between operatives in London and Baku, Azerbaijan, in the days and hours before the African embassy bombings on August 7, 1998 (see August 5-7, 1998 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). He is in communication with Thirwat Salah Shehata and Ahmad Salama Mabruk in Baku; both belong to Islamic Jihad’s nine member ruling council. On August 8, Mabruk again calls Jaballah and tells him to contact an operative in London to give him Mabruk’s latest phone number. He asks Jaballah to tell others not to contact him anymore, since he and Shehata will soon be leaving Azerbaijan and their phone numbers there will no longer work. Shehata does leave Azerbaijan shortly thereafter, but soon contacts Jaballah through an intermediary to tell him of his new location in Lebanon. However, he says he does not have a telephone there and falls out of contact with Jaballah after that. (Canadian Security Intelligence Service 2/22/2008 pdf file) Shehata and Mabruk have just been directly implicated in the embassy bombings, since they sent the fax taking credit for the bombings to bin Laden’s press office in London several hours before the bombings. Phone calls to them monitored by Canadian intelligence make their role clear (see August 5-7, 1998). However, there is no known attempt to apprehend the two of them in Baku, or Shehata later in Lebanon. Mabruk is captured in Baku later in the month, but this stems from a Mossad tip to arrest someone else, and Mabruk is unexpectedly at the scene of the capture and picked up as well (see Late August 1998). Shortly after 9/11, the US will include Shehata on a list of the 12 most wanted terrorist suspects. Since then his whereabouts are unknown, but there have been no reports that he has been captured or killed. He is considered to be involved in funding al-Qaeda. (Rahim 5/22/2003) In 2005, MSNBC will suggest he is being held in a loose house arrest by the Iranian government with a number of al-Qaeda leaders (see Spring 2002).

Essam Marzouk.Essam Marzouk. [Source: Public domain]In mid-August 1998, the Mossad intercepts a phone call indicating that an Egyptian militant named Ihab Saqr is planning to meet an Iranian intelligence agent in a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, in one week’s time. Saqr is believed to be Ayman al-Zawahiri’s chief of staff. The Mossad is very interested in the Iranian connection but they have no presence in Azerbaijan, so they contact the CIA. The CIA leads a capture operation, with one Mossad agent, Michael Ross, also in attendance. The CIA captures Saqr and two men he is meeting with, but neither of them turn out to be Iranian. The other men are Essam Marzouk and Ahmad Salama Mabruk. Marzouk is an al-Qaeda explosives expert who has just trained the men who bombed two US embassies in Africa earlier in the month. He had been living in Canada and Canadian intelligence has long been suspicious about his militant ties. Mabruk is a known member of Islamic Jihad’s ruling council. The US quickly renditions Saqr, Marzouk, and Mabruk to Egypt. Marzouk is sentenced to 15 years in prison, Mabruk is sentenced to life in prison, and Saqr’s fate in Egypt is unknown. (Bell 10/15/2005; Ross and Kay 2007, pp. 214-224) The US discovers a treasure trove of information about al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad in Mabruk’s laptop (see Late August 1998). But it is unclear why the US was seemingly in the dark and only arresting these figures by chance, because US intelligence had long been monitoring calls between Osama bin Laden and Mabruk in Baku (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Furthermore, Canadian intelligence had also monitored many calls between Mabruk and an Islamic Jihad operative in Canada. (Note that some accounts place the timing of this capture in July 1998, but Canadian intelligence is monitoring Mabruk’s communications up through and after the embassy bombings in August (see August 5-7, 1998 and August 8, 1998 and Shortly After).)

Journalist Simon Reeve will write in the 1999 book The New Jackals that shortly after the African embassy bombings, “With the help of one, possibly two, medium-level moles within [al-Qaeda], Americans arrested and questioned 20 of bin Laden’s closest associates and began inquiries in 28 countries.” Reeve does not say how he knows this, but his book is heavily sourced by interviews with US intelligence officials. The notion that the US had moles within al-Qaeda runs counter to the usual official US position after 9/11 that al-Qaeda was nearly impenetrable. (Reeve 1999, pp. 204) Top bin Laden associates arrested during this time include:
bullet Mamdouh Mahmud Salim (see September 16, 1998);
bullet Khalid al-Fawwaz, Ibrahim Eidarous, and Adel Abdel Bary (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998);
bullet Ihab Saqr, Essam Marzouk, and Ahmad Salama Mabruk (see Late August 1998);
bullet Ali Mohamed (see September 10, 1998); and
bullet Wadih El-Hage (see September 15, 1998).


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