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Profile: L’Houssaine Kherchtou
a.k.a. Mzungu, Yousef al-Maghrebi, Joe the Moroccan, Abu Zaid Maghrebi, Au Talal
L’Houssaine Kherchtou was a participant or observer in the following events:
Friday prayers outside the Islamic Cultural Institute, on October 19, 2001. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]The Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, has numerous ties to terrorist activities during this period and after 9/11, and the Treasury Department will call the mosque “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe.” It is initially headed by Anwar Shaaban (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995 and December 14, 1995), an opponent of the current Egyptian regime and a supporter of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya militant group, which is run by the ‘Blind Sheikh,’ Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman (see Late 1993-1994).
It recruits fighters for militant Islamic causes and sends them to Afghanistan for training. One of the recruits, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who will testify for the prosecution at the trial of men accused of bombing US embassies in Africa in 1998, will say that he knew Shaaban well, adding: “He was my guide. I went there every weekend to be with him.” After studying with Shaaban for some time, Shaaban arranges for Kherchtou and a group of other men to receive military training in Afghanistan. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001]
There is heavy telephone traffic between the Institute and the New York mosque run by Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, and Italian police say it is a logistical base for the WTC bombing (see Late 1993-1994).
The Algerian militant group Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains influence in the mosque after Shaaban dies in the Bosnian Civil War (see After 1995).
It creates a “cottage industry in supplying false passports and other bogus documents” according to European intelligence officials, and serves as a gateway to Europe for operatives from Afghanistan. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002]
Arab fighters sent to Somalia to assist locals fighting US forces there build a car bomb to attack a UN target. However, the attack fails. Details such as why the bomb fails and the exact operatives involved in the attack are not known, although the names of some al-Qaeda operatives traveling to Somalia at this time, such as Ali Mohamed and Mohamed Atef, are known (see Late 1992-October 1993). [Wright, 2006, pp. 188] Al-Qaeda operative L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who assists the organization’s operations in Somalia, will later say, “They [the members of al-Qaeda] helped some Somalis they wanted to put some explosives in a car and to put it inside a compound of United Nations, and they didn’t succeed to do that.” [Bergen, 2006, pp. 141]
A UN vehicle burning in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 3, 1993. [Source: CNN]Eighteen US soldiers are killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in a spontaneous gun battle following an attempt by US Army Rangers and Delta Force to snatch two assistants of a local warlord; the event later becomes the subject of the movie Black Hawk Down. A 1998 US indictment will charge Osama bin Laden and his followers with training the attackers. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002]
Rocket Propelled Grenades - While rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are not usually effective against helicopters, the fuses on the RPGs fired by the Somalis against US helicopters are modified so that they explode in midair. During the Soviet-Afghan War, bin Laden associates had learned from the US and British that, although it is hard to score a direct hit on a helicopter’s weak point—its tail rotor—a grenade on an adjusted fuse exploding in midair can spray a tail rotor with shrapnel, causing a helicopter to crash. [Los Angeles Times, 2/25/2002]
Possibly Trained by Al-Qaeda - For months, many al-Qaeda operatives had been traveling to Somalia and training militants in an effort to oppose the presence of US soldiers there. Even high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders like Mohammed Atef were directly involved (see Late 1992-October 1993).
Comment by Bin Laden - In a March 1997 interview, bin Laden will say of the Somalia attack, “With Allah’s grace, Muslims over there cooperated with some Arab mujaheddin who were in Afghanistan… against the American occupation troops and killed large numbers of them.” [CNN, 4/20/2001]
Some Al-Qaeda Operatives Leave Somalia after Battle - Al-Qaeda operative L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who supports the organization’s operations in Somalia, will later say that he was told this event also led at least some al-Qaeda members to flee Somalia. “They told me that they were in a house in Mogadishu and one of the nights one of the helicopters were shot, they heard some shooting in the next house where they were living, and they were scared, and the next day they left because they were afraid that they will be caught by the Americans.” [Bergen, 2006, pp. 141]
In late 1993, bin Laden asks Ali Mohamed to scout out possible US, British, French, and Israeli targets in Nairobi, Kenya. Mohamed will later confess that in December 1993, “I took pictures, drew diagrams and wrote a report.” Then he travels to Sudan, where bin Laden and his top advisers review Mohamed’s work. In 1994, Mohamed claims that “bin Laden look[s] at a picture of the American Embassy and point[s] to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber.” A truck will follow bin Laden’s directions and crash into the embassy in 1998. Mohamed seems to spend considerable time in Nairobi working with the cell he set up there and conducting more surveillance. He also is sent to the East African nation of Djibouti to scout targets there, and is asked to scout targets in the West African nation of Senegal. [Los Angeles Times, 10/21/2000; Chicago Tribune, 12/11/2001; LA Weekly, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 6/16/2004] Much of his work seems to be done together with Anas al-Liby, a top al-Qaeda leader with a mysterious link to Western intelligence agencies similar to Mohamed’s. In 1996, British intelligence will pay al-Liby to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi (see 1996), and then will let him live openly in Britain until 2000 (see Late 1995-May 2000). Al-Liby is said to be a “computer wizard” known for “working closely” with Mohamed. [New York Times, 2/13/2001; New York Times, 4/5/2001] L’Houssaine Kherchtou, an al-Qaeda member who later turns witness for a US trial (see September 2000), was trained in surveillance techniques in Pakistan by Mohamed in 1992. Kherchtou will claim he later comes across Mohamed in 1994 in Nairobi. Mohamed, Anas al-Liby, and a relative of al-Liby’s use Kherchtou’s apartment for surveillance work. Kherchtou sees al-Liby with a camera about 500 meters from the US embassy. [Washington File, 2/22/2001] Mohamed returns to the US near the end of 1994 after an FBI agent phones him in Nairobi and asks to speak to him about an upcoming trial. [Washington File, 2/22/2001]
US intelligence begins monitoring telephones connected to the Kenyan branch of the charity Mercy International. By mid-1996, US intelligence began wiretapping telephones belonging to Wadih El-Hage, an al-Qaeda operative living in Nairobi, Kenya, and the NSA is also monitoring bin Laden’s satellite phone. By the end of 1996, the number of monitored phones in Kenya increases to five, and two of those are to Mercy International’s offices. What led investigators to this charity is unknown, and details of the calls have never been revealed. [New York Times, 1/13/2001] The Mercy International office will be raided shortly after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and incriminating files belonging to El-Hage will be found there (see October 1997). It will be discovered that the office worked closely with al-Qaeda. For instance, it issued identity cards for al-Qaeda leaders Ali Mohamed, Mohammed Atef, and even bin Laden himself. [Bergen, 2001, pp. 140; Financial Times, 11/28/2001] An al-Qaeda defector, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, will testify in a 2001 trial that al-Qaeda was heavily interacting with Mercy International’s Kenya branch, and a number of employees there, including the manager and accountant, were actually al-Qaeda operatives. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 8, 2/21/2001] A receipt dated just two weeks before the embassy bombings made a reference to “getting the weapons from Somalia.” [New York Times, 1/22/2000] Most crucially, there were a number of calls between Mercy director Ahmad Sheik Adam and bin Laden. [East African, 2/16/2000] And Adam’s mobile phone was used 12 times by El-Hage to speak to bin Laden or his associates. Presumably, such calls would have drawn obvious attention to the Kenya al-Qaeda cell and their embassy attack plans, yet none of the cell members were arrested until after the attack. The Kenya branch of Mercy International will be shut down by the end of 1998, but in 2001 it will be reported that Adam continues to live in Kenya and has not been arrested. [Agence France-Presse, 12/17/1998; BBC, 1/3/2001]
The British intelligence service MI6 and Moroccan intelligence approach al-Qaeda operative L’Houssaine Kherchtou in an attempt to recruit him. Kherchtou is disillusioned with al-Qaeda and has been under surveillance by the Moroccans for some time. The results of the first meeting are not known, but after it Kherchtou returns to Nairobi, Kenya, where he had helped with a plot to bomb the US embassy and provided his apartment to other conspirators (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and makes contact with other cell members again in early August. He apparently does not know the precise details of the operation, but when the attack happens (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), he realizes who did it. MI6 is aware that he is in Kenya and he is detained at the airport by local authorities and turned over to them. MI6 debriefs him about the embassy bombings, but this information is not immediately shared with the FBI (see Shortly After August 7, 1998), which later takes him into custody (see Summer 2000). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005]
After the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the British intelligence service MI6 obtains some important information about the attacks, but does not share it with the FBI. MI6 obtains the information from a member of the bombing cell, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who already has a relationship with MI6 when the attack happens (see Mid-Summer 1998). Kherchtou tries to flee Kenya after the bombing, but, tipped off by the British, local authorities detain him and hand him over to MI6. He is debriefed in Nairobi, but, although the British say they share the information with the CIA, they do not provide it to the FBI, which is investigating the bombing. FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later comment: “[W]e’ve got hundreds of agents on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania trying to figure out what happened. Let me just say it would have been real helpful if the British had told us they had one of the cell members in custody.” Kherchtou helped plan the bombings (see Late 1993-Late 1994) and is handed over to the FBI in the summer of 2000, later becoming a star prosecution witness at the trial (see Summer 2000 and September 2000). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005]
The FBI extracts a full confession from L’Houssaine Kherchtou, also known as “Joe the Moroccan,” a member of the cell that bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). However, in contrast with methods used on al-Qaeda operatives after 9/11, he is not tortured and the FBI is at pains to treat him well.
Relaxing Surroundings, Respectful Treatment - FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later say of the initial interrogation, which took place in Morocco, “The setting was beautiful, it was this grand house with stables out back, gazelles bouncing in the background, palm trees, three-course meals.” Kherchtou had a relationship with the British intelligence service MI6 (see Mid-Summer 1998 and Shortly After August 7, 1998), but had broken off contact with it and has to be lured to Morocco, where his debriefing is headed by Patrick Fitzgerald. Cloonan will later describe the questioning: “We advised [Kherchtou] of his rights. We told him he could have a lawyer anytime, and that he could pray at any time he wanted. We were letting the Moroccans sit in on this, and they were dumbfounded.… The Moroccans said he’d never talk. He never shut up for 10 days.” Fitzgerald denies Kherchtou a plea bargaining agreement, and says he must plead guilty to conspiracy to murder, for which he may receive a life sentence, though Fitzgerald promises to ask the judge for leniency. However, Cloonan will later say, “His wife needed money for medical treatment in Khartoum, and al-Qaeda had failed to provide it.” It is Cloonan’s “in” with Kherchtou, who is also sure that the US will not torture him. When Kherchtou wavers, Cloonan steps in. As he recalls: “I said, ‘Joe, you understand English, so I’d like you to go out and pray on this with your two Moroccan brothers.’ I thought Fitzy was going to give birth. Joe went out and prayed and came back and said yes.” He provides the FBI with details of the plot and becoming a star witness at the trial (see September 2000). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005; Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Invaluable Information - Kherchtou’s information, provided at a time when the US knows comparatively little about al-Qaeda, is, in Cloonan’s assessment, invaluable. “He told us about a lot of things,” Cloonan later says. “We learned how they recruited people, their front organizations, how they used NGOs [non-governmental organizations], false passports, what they thought about kidnapping, how they developed targets, did their surveillance, a day in the life of Osama bin Laden, what weapons they used, what vehicles they drove, who was the principal liaison with the Sudanese government, that there was a relationship between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, how they did their training exercises, their finances, and their membership.” After the trial, he enters the witness protection program in the US. Four of his onetime associates will receive life sentences as a direct result of his information. [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
FBI Use Kherchtou as Example of Successful Interrogation Tacticss - FBI officials will later compare this outcome favorably to procedures used by other US agencies after 9/11. For example, following the detainee abuse scandals after 9/11, FBI manager Tom Harrington will write that the FBI has “been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques.” Cloonan will later contrast Kherchtou’s treatment with that of al-Qaeda training manager Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in December 2001, when the US sent al-Libi to Egypt to be tortured and interrogated, but some of the information he provided there turned out to be false (see December 19, 2001 and January 2002 and After). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005]
Courtroom drawing of L’Houssaine Kherchtou. [Source: C. Cornell/ CNN]Al-Qaeda defector L’Houssaine Kherchtou (see Summer 2000) tells the FBI that between 1992 and 1995 he trained in Nairobi, Kenya, to be a pilot for al-Qaeda. His training ended when he began to drift away from al-Qaeda in 1995. Kherchtou, who began working with MI6 before the African embassy bombings (see Mid-Summer 1998), is a key prosecution witness at the bombing trial in early 2001, where he repeats the information in public. He will later go into the witness protection program. [Washington File, 2/22/2001; American Prospect, 6/19/2005]
At the trial of al-Qaeda operatives accused of participating in the 1998 US African embassy bombings, it is disclosed that an unnamed al-Qaeda operative had requested information about air traffic control procedures. This information is provided to the FBI by a co-operating witness, L’Houssaine Kherchtou (see Summer 2000), and is mentioned by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who says that Kherchtou “observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali [Nawawi], about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system, and it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane.” Nawawi is a Florida-based al-Qaeda operative and pilot who is arrested in 1999 (see May 18, 1999). The identity of the Egyptian is not disclosed, although both Kherchtou and Nawawi are associates of former Egyptian army officer Ali Mohamed, who used Kherchtou’s apartment to plot the Nairobi embassy bombing (see Late 1993-Late 1994 and January 1998). [United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 8, 2/21/2001] Mohamed also conducted surveillance of airports in the early 1980s with a view to hijacking an airliner, and subsequently worked as a security adviser to Egyptair, where he had access to the latest anti-hijacking measures. [Lance, 2006, pp. 11-12] Jack Cloonan, one of the FBI agents who debriefed Kherchtou, will later receive the Phoenix Memo (see July 27, 2001 or Shortly After), which states that an inordinate amount of bin Laden-related individuals are learning to fly in the US (see July 10, 2001). [American Prospect, 6/19/2005] However, he will not apparently make the connection between the memo’s premise and the information from Kherchtou.
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