By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
FBI reports released under the Freedom of Information Act detail government concerns that terrorists had obtained, or were seeking to obtain, undersea submersibles capable of attacking U.S. ships.
In September 2016, Florida Bulldog requested FBI records about the sale of underwater submersibles to terrorists after reporting on the apparent purchase by one or more 9/11 hijackers of between four and eight K-10 Hydrospeeder submersibles from a Fort Lauderdale marine accessories store.
In all, the FBI released 44 heavily censored pages, many marked as part of the FBI’s huge 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOM. The FBI withheld completely another 52 pages, citing national security, privacy and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.
The records show that as early as August 1998, two years before the deadly bombing of the Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, the FBI’s Tampa office had received information and supporting documentation about a “suspicious” sale of two K-10 submersibles to a Saudi Arabian by a Florida dive shop. Blanked out were the name of the dive shop and the identity of the Saudi and his British representative. The city where the dive shop was located was also censored, citing privacy.
The 44 pages that were released are so highly censored that it is difficult to ascertain a clear picture of what happened, but none of the cited incidents dovetail with Bill Brown’s experience the morning after Sept.11, 2001 when a gaggle of federal agents showed up at his now-closed Fort Lauderdale store, The Nautical Niche, 2301 S. Federal Highway.
Brown said agents told him his phone number was prominent on a dead hijacker’s cell phone list. “We want to know his association with you,” Brown said he was told.
Brown doesn’t recall which of the 19 hijackers were mentioned that morning. “I gave them complete access to our computer and everything I had,” Brown said. “We come to find out…they were customers of mine.” He said agents later told him the submersibles he sold were sent “all over,” including Singapore, where the sale was traced back to its recipient and that “a significant cell” of terrorists was broken up as a result.
FBI isn’t talking
The FBI has declined to discuss the matter.
In a recent interview, Brown said that about two weeks after the story ran last year the FBI contacted him again, as it has done periodically since 2001. He said a couple of agents took him to lunch. “We spent 98 percent of the time just off topic,” he said. “The guy just kind of mentioned it [the story] and brushed it off like it was no big deal.”
It has long been known that U.S. officials have been concerned that terrorists had targeted ports and ships. The released FBI reports include new details about those concerns.
On Aug 12, 2002, the FBI relayed to Tampa Special Agent in Charge James Jarboe information from the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF) in Washington regarding a terrorist threat:
“For information of Tampa Division, following the receipt of terrorist threat information [Blank] … all JTTFs were tasked to contact dive training schools and retail shops to determine if they had experienced any suspicious activity by individuals who may be associated with terrorist groups and/or countries with significant terrorist activity. Several of the JTTFs reported information regarding scuba training and equipment purchases.”
That information is not known, but the report goes on to recount the 1998 episode involving the sale of the two K-10 Hydrospeeders for the Saudi man via the unnamed British citizen from London. “Review of the purchase of underwater sleds in 1998 and the activities of [blank] are suspicious in nature relative to the maritime threats,” the report says.
1998 ‘priority’ report
In an Oct. 15, 1998 “priority” report from Squad 6 at the FBI’s Tampa office sent to agents in New York, London described the devices as “prototype underwater sleds commonly used by the Navy Seals.” The sleds were capable of underwater speeds of up to 30 knots, or about 35 miles per hour. A copy of a check for $35,000 to pay for the sleds, drawn on the account of an American company whose name was censored, was sent to the FBI.
The purchaser “also inquired about buying extra batteries which could be changed under water and inquired about rebreathing systems which would made [sic] the sleds undetectable from the surface as there would be no air bubbles,” the 1998 report said.
An Oct. 2, 2001 report says an informant reported that the two submersibles, capable of carrying explosives, “were confiscated at the port of New York” before they could be shipped to the United Arab Emirates. Other reports indicate the submersibles were never shipped.
Tampa was asked to reinvestigate in 2002 by the National Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Agents in Los Angeles interviewed individuals who complained that the purchased sleds were never received. A woman, apparently an attorney representing the Saudi purchaser, said he “wanted the sea sleds for his scuba outings. [She] described his interest in obtaining the sea sleds as another ‘toy’ for him to play with.” Ultimately, however, she had no records or documentation about the matter.
What happened remains unclear due to the heavy censorship, but the FBI later concluded the sleds were never shipped and that there were “no outstanding criminal issues” involving the Saudi purchaser. The investigation was closed in 2003.