‘Penttbomb 2.0’ and the FBI’s brush-off of reports alleging 9/11 ties to Saudi Arabia

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

September 11, 2001
Photo: Det. Greg Semendinger NYC Police Aviation Unit

FBI officials who briefed the 9/11 Review Commission on the bureau’s sprawling 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOMB steered the discussion away from Saudi Arabia by repeatedly disavowing or downplaying reports by agents alleging terrorist ties to the kingdom.

The FBI’s stance is similar to its repudiation before the commission of a startling April 2002 FBI report that said investigators had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The memo, made public by the FBI in March 2013, flatly contradicted earlier FBI statements that its Sarasota investigation, kept secret for a decade, had found no ties to terrorism.

The FBI’s March 31, 2014 Memorandum for the Record (MFR) about the briefing, stamped “SECRET,” was partially declassified and released to Florida Bulldog last week along with other records. The news organization is suing the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for access to 9/11 Review Commission records it has not released. A trial is scheduled for next month in federal court in Miami.

The FBI, which for more than a year refused to disclose any documents about the 9/11 Review Commission, recently has dribbled out records to comply with FOIA requirements following a judge’s admonishment this month that she was not satisfied with the FBI’s explanations for withholding certain information.

Many other FBI records on the commission continue to be withheld in full, while the bureau has yet to acknowledge the existence of additional documents that appear to exist.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who served as co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, reviewed the MFR and called it “just another chapter in the cover-up.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

“It sounds like the FBI was going through the original reports that were submitted and 10 years later they were trying to change the facts and discredit much of the information that was in their original reports,” he said. “There’s no indication of the basis on which they thought the original reports were inaccurate other than they were poorly written.”

The Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, but was largely controlled by the FBI. Its three members, including Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, were chosen by FBI Director James Comey and paid $84,000 each by the FBI. The commission issued its final report in March 2015.

The March 2014 briefing was given by Jacqueline Maguire, supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Washington field office; Nikki Floris, director of the Analytical Branch of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, and an unidentified FBI supervisory special agent from New York.

Classified until 2039

The briefing’s title and much of its content was redacted from the three-page MFR on grounds of national security. The censored parts are to remain classified until Dec. 31, 2039.

The PENTTBOMB investigation is discussed in a less heavily redacted section. The document notes that PENTTBOMB, the FBI’s code-name for its Pentagon and Twin Towers inquiry was originally assigned to the New York field office, but that the investigation was later moved to FBI headquarters and the Washington field office.

“For 5 years,” the MFR states, “we worked from HQ and worked to prosecute (Zacarias) Moussaoui,” a French citizen who pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring to murder U.S. citizens as part of the Sept. 11 attacks. “From 2006 to the present, it became Penttbomb 2.0 This was broken up into four teams for the four planes. This was the largest investigation in FBI history.”

The memorandum goes on to recount brief summaries of five cases involving individuals “who had interactions with the hijackers.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

The first is Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent who befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, shortly after their arrival in Southern California on Jan. 15, 2000. Here is what the MFR says about Bayoumi, though the wording is heavily garbled and confusing:

“The FBI found Bayoumi had role or at least not a role in terrorist activities, despite the 911 Commissions reporting that he was involved and a Saudi Intelligence Offices. The [FBI’s] 911 IG [Inspector General’s] report [written in November 2004 and made public in June 2006] cleared this individual. He came here for school and everything seems accidental with Bayoumi.”

Factual errors in FBI briefing

But the FBI’s briefing for the 9/11 Review Commission was seriously flawed.

The FBI Inspector General’s 9/11 report did not clear Bayoumi of involvement in 9/11. Rather, it found that a preliminary FBI inquiry of Bayoumi opened three years before 9/11 had been investigated and closed appropriately a year later. The inquiry was started after Bayoumi’s apartment manager reported several suspicious episodes.

Moreover, as Florida Bulldog reported on Dec. 19, a newly released FBI report from October 2012 identified Bayoumi as one of three “main subjects” of an active New York criminal investigation targeting an apparent support network for Mihdhar and Hazmi, who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Among other things, the report said that in June 2012 a team of FBI agents, analysts and a federal prosecutor traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England. The outcome of that 2012 investigation is not known.

The briefing memo also refers to a memorandum written by San Diego’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The subject matter is blanked out for reasons of national security. It says, however, “This was based on early, bad FBI reporting, but it alleged a connection to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent investigations did not collaborate [sic] this.”

The MFR does not explain the basis for the FBI’s statement.

The name of another “individual with suspected ties to the hijackers” is redacted, but appears from other information in the report to be Osama Basnan, or Bassnan as it sometimes is spelled. The memorandum says he “hated Bayoumi” and was receiving money “for living, school and medical expenses.”

Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1983-2005

“The FBI didn’t see any connection or money going to terrorists,” the MFR says.

Documents prepared by investigators for the 9/11 Commission in June 2003, however, identify Basnan as “a very close associate of al-Bayoumi” who was “in frequent contact with him while the hijackers were in San Diego.” Basnan was “a vocal supporter of Usama Bin Laden” and “received considerable funding from Prince Bandar [then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S.] and Princess Haifa, supposedly for his wife’s medical treatments.”

A 9/11 Commission investigator interviewed Basnan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in October 2003. “The interview failed to yield any new information of note. Instead, in the writer’s opinion, it established beyond cavil the witness’ utter lack of credibility on virtually every material subject.”

The MFR also briefly recounts two other matters involving Saudi nationals.

The first states how FBI briefers told the 9/11 Review commissioners about a pair of Saudi naval officers who had contact with the San Diego-based hijackers. The first several words about the matter were censored citing national security, but the MFR contains no other information about the naval officers.

Saudis on a plane

The second involves “a situation that happened when 2 Saudi individuals were on a plane asking questions about the aircraft. The plane ended up making an emergency landing and [blank]. We do not know what these individuals were doing and we do not have any additional bad information on them.”

In fact, the FBI had plenty of additional information about the Saudis that the briefers appear not to have shared with the 9/11 Review Commission.

The Saudis were Hamdan al Shalawi and Muhammad al-Qudhaieen.

The 9/11 Commission Report published in 2004 says that in November 1999 the pair were detained after the crew of a cross-country America West flight reported that Qudhaieen “had attempted to open the cockpit door on two occasions.”

Both men told investigators that Qudhaieen “was only looking for the lavatory on the plane,” the report says.

The FBI chose not to prosecute the two men who were traveling to Washington to attend a party at the Saudi embassy with tickets paid for by the government of Saudi Arabia.

After 9/11, however, FBI agents in Phoenix “considered whether the incident was a ‘dry run’ for the attacks,” according to the 9/11 Commission report.

Authorities later received information that both men had trained in al-Qaeda training camps.

New FBI document shows active probe of support network for 9/11 hijackers in 2012

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Pentagon after 9/11

The Pentagon after 9/11

As late as October 2012, federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York City were actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support to the 9/11 hijackers and other crimes.

The suspect’s identity and many details of the New York investigation are blanked out of a FBI summary report that discusses “Updates and Initiatives (as of 5 October 2012)” about 9/11. The document was released to Florida Bulldog amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation that seeks access to records of the 9/11 Review Commission.

The report was heavily redacted for national security, privacy and other reasons. But the report’s declassified portions indicate the New York investigation targeted an apparent U.S. support network for two of the 9/11 suicide hijackers – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

“This has never been disclosed before and it’s to the contrary of almost everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks. “It’s interesting that it took them 11 years to get there, and a FOIA to get this information to the public.”

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11

The report, originally classified secret, is marked “declassify on 12-31-2037.”

Sean Carter, a Philadelphia attorney who represents numerous victims of 9/11 in a massive lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, called the release of the 2012 FBI report “a powerful and important disclosure.”

“We’ve been repeatedly told by U.S. officials that all questions of Saudi involvement were resolved by the 9/11 Commission and now you have confirmation that there was an active investigation happening years after the 9/11 Commission shut its doors” in August 2004.

Said Graham: “What we don’t know now is what’s happened since 2012. If the decision was not to proceed, why? And if it was to proceed, what’s the status?”

The FBI declined to comment about its New York investigation or its October 2012 report. “We do not have anything to add to the 9/11 Review Commission report,” the FBI’s National Press Office said last week. Click here to view the 2012 FBI Summary report.

Representatives of Saudi Arabia have long maintained the kingdom had no involvement in 9/11. Over the summer, Congress overwhelmingly overrode President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), allowing 9/11 victims and their kin to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts.

So sensitive even report’s title is a secret

The newly released 2012 FBI report, emblazoned with a logo that depicts the Twin Towers inside a pentagon against a backdrop of an American flag, is mentioned fleetingly in a footnote in the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report. It is so sensitive that even its title is classified “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.” Similarly, the FBI censored from a synopsis the investigation’s code-name citing the same national security exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

“[Redacted] is an investigation into individuals known to have provided substantial assistance to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar during their time in California,” the synopsis says.

The report lists three of the “main subjects” of the probe – the name of one, however, was censored for national security. Fahad-al-Thumairy was a Saudi diplomat and imam at Los Angeles’ King Fahd Mosque when the two future hijackers, who spoke little or no English, first arrived in the U.S. in January 2000. The report says Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of them during their time in Los Angeles.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

Omar al-Bayoumi, the second subject, was a suspected Saudi agent who befriended Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California. The report says Bayoumi “was living in San Diego on a student visa, despite not attending classes, and receiving a salary from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for job duties he never performed.” Bayoumi has told authorities he accidentally met the two hijackers at a Los Angeles restaurant shortly after their arrival.

Like in the case of the identity of the third subject, a sentence or two mentioning Thumairy and Bayoumi were also redacted. Still, the final sentence of the synopsis offers a teaser that indicates the third individual was highly placed: “There is evidence that [redacted] and tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers.”

The four-page report goes on to say that the trio “provided (or directed others to provide) the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licenses. [Redacted] seeks to prove these subjects provided such assistance with the knowledge that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were here to commit an act of terrorism.”

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

The 9/11 Review Commission, which disclosed the existence of the 2012 FBI summary report, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and to evaluate new evidence. Its final report, in March 2015, said its work included a review of the FBI’s ongoing effort to probe “lingering allegations that the circle of 9/11 conspirators may be wider.” The Review Commission ultimately concluded, however, that it saw nothing “to change the 9/11 Commission’s original findings regarding the presence of witting assistance” to Hazmi and Mihdhar.

The 9/11 Review Commission’s public report, however, does not mention the existence of the federal criminal investigation in New York, its status at the time, or a variety of related matters cited in the 2012 FBI report.

According to the partially declassified report the New York investigation was discussed at a Sept. 24, 2012 meeting at the FBI’s New York City office. Present were FBI agents, an unidentified a Manhattan Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and a Department of Justice attorney.

The report says that at the request of an unnamed official, the New York prosecutor “will explore potential charges for [redacted], including providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers, as well as lesser crimes, which investigators could present at a future interview with [redacted].”

Copenhagen connection

The report then discusses assistance provided two weeks earlier of the FBI’s legal attaché in Copenhagen. Much of the discussion was excised, again for national security considerations, but the missing information appears to be about a U.S. request to the Danish government for cooperation and/or extradition.

“Legat Copenhagen advised that [redacted]. Upon resolution of the claim and its likely rejection [redacted] will coordinate with SDNY [the Southern District of New York.]”

scotlandyardThe action that month followed a June 2012 visit to London by a team that included New York FBI agents, analysts from FBI headquarters in Washington and the assistant U.S. attorney. The trip’s purpose: “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England, the 2012 report says.

British authorities arrested Bayoumi on an immigration charge for a few days shortly after 9/11. The FBI has said agents found nothing then to connect Bayoumi to terrorism and no evidence that his assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar “was witting.” The 9/11 Commission reached a similar conclusion in 2004.

Other statements about the London trip are mostly censored, once again for reasons including national security. One short segment, however, says the Bayoumi evidence included documents that officials were having translated “to determine relevancy.” Apparently, those records went untranslated by law enforcement for more than a decade.

The report contains several bullet points about individuals with ties to Hazmi and/or Mihdhar. All of the names are redacted, but one name is discernable from the available information: former Tampa resident Osama “Sam” Mustafa.

Prior to 9/11 Mustafa owned a gas station in a suburb of San Diego where future hijacker Hazmi worked for about a month in the fall of 2000. Mustafa previously had been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation that yielded no evidence of criminal conduct, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report.

The 2012 FBI report recounts Mustafa’s May 15, 2012 arrest in Tampa for Treasury check fraud filed by a U.S. Attorney in Virginia. Court records say the case involved a $17 million tax-refund fraud scheme, and that Mustafa was found guilty in April 2013. Four months later, while out on bond, Mustafa removed a monitoring bracelet and vanished. In June 2014, Mustafa was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison. He remains a fugitive.

Tampa man denied knowledge of terrorism

According to the report, federal authorities in Tampa had offered Mustafa a deal on Sept. 17, 2012. “During the proffer [Mustafa] echoed [a] previous statement he had made, denying any knowledge of the hijackers’ terrorist affiliation and providing no additional details of use to investigators. [Mustafa] seemed optimistic about the charges he was facing. [Redacted] investigators anticipate future proffer sessions with [Mustafa] on the [Redacted] national security issues.”

One bullet item in the FBI report is entirely censored. Others with declassified information:

  • On Sept. 24, 2012, two or more individuals were sentenced in federal court in the Southern District of California to five years’ probation and a $2,500 fine each. All information identifying those individuals, explaining what their case was about and how they are tied to 9/11 was blanked out, mostly for privacy considerations.
  • In August 2012, Los Angeles’ Joint Terrorism Task Force confirmed the address of an unidentified individual “who was known to have extremist views, and was identified as having met with Omar al-Bayoumi in private on the same day as Bayoumi’s alleged ‘chance’ first meeting with 9/11 hijackers” Hazmi and Mihdhar. “[Redacted] planning to approach [redacted] for an interview of his role aiding Bayoumi in facilitating the hijacker’s arrival and settlement in California, for which [redacted] has never provided an adequate explanation.”
  • The FBI wanted to interview another subject who helped facilitate “the day-to-day life” of Hazmi and Mihdhar in San Diego. The subject “is reported to be very concerned about his presence on U.S. no-fly lists.”

The 2012 FBI report takes a longer look at Mohdar Abdullah, who “played a key role facilitating the daily lives and assisting future Flight 77 hijackers.” His story is recounted in a section of the report titled “Details on Mohdar Abdullah and his connection [redacted].” National security is cited for that redaction, and for much of the first couple of sentences in the section.

Also removed from the report are several sentences detailing “the immediate goal of” investigating Abdullah, whom the 9/11 Commission Report previously said worked at the gas station where Hazmi was employed.

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002 Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002
Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

According to the 9/11 Commission, Abdullah was a Yemeni student in his early 20s who was “fluent in both Arabic and English,” sympathetic to extremist views “and was perfectly suited to assist the hijackers in pursuing their mission.” When FBI agents searched his possessions after the attacks, they found a notebook “belonging to someone else with references to planes falling from the sky, mass killing and hijacking,’’ the 9/11 Commission report says. Abdullah was detained as a material witness and later “he expressed hatred for the U.S. government and ‘stated that the U.S. brought ‘this’ on themselves.’ ”

Newly declassified information in the 2012 FBI report says that shortly after Feb. 4, 2000, Abdullah was one of two individuals tasked by Bayoumi to assist the two future hijackers. A partially censored sentence then says, “Anwar Aulaqi and they may have spent time together with the hijackers.”

Aulaqi, also known as Anwar al-Awlaki, was an American who was imam of the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque in San Diego, where Hazmi and Mihdhar worshipped. U.S. officials later identified him an al Qaeda recruiter who helped plan terrorist operations. Aulaqi was killed in Yemen in September 2011 by a U.S. Hellfire missile drone strike.

Man allegedly bragged about helping hijackers

The 2012 FBI report says, “After September 11, 2001 Mohdar (Abdullah) was investigated by the FBI for assisting the hijackers. On September 19, 2001 he was arrested by FBI San Diego on charges of immigration fraud for his claim of being a Somali asylee (Mohdar is Yemeni.) Mohdar pled guilty to the immigration charges and was deported to Yemen in 2004.

“While Mohdar was detained in an immigration facility he bragged to two fellow inmates that he assisted the hijackers. The FBI and the SDNY have debriefed these individuals. Both are cooperative, but there is some prosecutorial concern about their value as witnesses,” the report says.

Much of the rest of the section about Mohdar Abdullah is blanked out citing a FOIA exemption that protects confidential sources and personal privacy.

The 2012 FBI report was among about 200 pages of 9/11 Review Commission records recently released to Florida Bulldog. On Nov. 30, the Bulldog reported that records showed agents investigating 9/11 did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that the hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family. A story last week reported how the FBI had censored its documents to remove information about how much it paid the Review Commission’s three members and staff.

The FBI’s information release included two other documents describing briefings given to the Review Commission. One involved a Feb. 25, 2014 Washington Times story that said the FBI had “placed a human source in direct contact” with Osama bin Laden in 1993 and learned bin Laden was looking to finance attacks against the U.S. The heavily censored document recounts statements by retired FBI agent Bassem Youseff, who explained the source did not have direct contact with bin Laden.

The second document recounts a briefing by FBI agents titled, “Overview of Additional Evidence Regarding the 9/11 Attacks.” “It was explained that in preparation for trials of individuals held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the FBI has gone back to review evidence/information already in hand to see if additional evidence can be found for the prosecutions of these individuals.”

Most of the two-page report was censored for national security and other reasons, except for this sentence, “None of this identifies new participants in the 9/11 attacks but hardens the existing known connections to the plot.”

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