Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York World Trade Center’s North Tower ablaze on Sept. 11, 2001

In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.

At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.

A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.

Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.

Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).

“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”

Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:

‘Significant public interest’

“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”

The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.

Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.

Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”

The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:

  • “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
  • “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.’’
  • “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided.”
  • “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”
  • “July – August 2001: Knife purchases”
  • “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
  • “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
  • “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.

Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.

A future king’s involvement

Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.

The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”

Saudi King Salman presenting President Trump the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal on Saturday at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Photo: Al Arabiya English

Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.

The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.

Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

Smoke rising after the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Val McClatchey

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.

Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.

After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.

FBI tries to discredit own report

In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.

Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.

One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.

The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.

In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”

The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.

Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”

On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.

“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”

Prodded by federal judge, FBI finally identifies Sarasota Saudis by name in court

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Six years after news broke that the FBI found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family who’d moved abruptly out of their Sarasota home two weeks before the terrorist attacks – and didn’t tell Congress – the FBI has identified the family publicly.

The disclosure is in a partially declassified Memorandum for the Record that recounts a briefing about the family given by the FBI to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014. “Briefing Title: Al-Hiijjii Family,” the document says.

The FBI reluctantly disclosed the family’s last name – which is correctly spelled al-Hijji – in the wake of a Miami federal judge’s Feb. 27 order that it had failed to show that disclosure would invade the al-Hijjis’ privacy. The original version of the memo, released in November, blanked out the al-Hijji name, claiming privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, came to the FBI’s attention within hours of 9/11 when neighbors contacted them to say the couple abruptly had moved out of their upscale home in the Prestancia development, leaving behind their cars and numerous personal belongings. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Among other things, agents later determined that vehicles driven by 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah – who trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport – had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle.

The FBI kept its investigation secret for a decade, not informing Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the investigation in September 2011. The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The FBI’s disclosure of the al-Hijji name is a small but noteworthy milestone in FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog last June that seeks the release of records of the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. The commission, paid and controlled by the FBI, spent a year conducting an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and evaluating new evidence. It issued a 127-page report in March 2015.

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.

“It makes you wonder if they’re going through all this because there’s an arrangement with al-Hijji and Ghazzawi,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin. “It smacks of a confidential source agreement.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

The FBI filed court papers this month seeking again to dismiss the lawsuit. In them, the FBI said it had reviewed about 900 pages of classified commission records and declassified and released 328 pages in whole or in part. While some records containing new information about 9/11 were disclosed, many of those records were copies of the FBI’s personal services contracts with commission members and staff.

The government’s filings seek to explain to the court why, despite several ostensibly thorough searches, the bureau continues to report finding new Review Commission documents, as recently as March 7 and again on March 13.

Government court papers said the records, like others previously processed, were under the direct control of FBI Director James Comey, who kept the 9/11 Review Commission’s records stored in his office and not in the FBI’s Central Records System.

The March 7 documents were said to include four additional Memoranda for the Record and “a number of transitory records” the FBI thought it had purged last year. The records were being reviewed for possible release.

“In addition, on March 13, 2017, the FBI Director’s Office identified certain hard copy records held in storage, which had not previously been identified or searched, and which it believes may include material responsive to plaintiffs’ requests,’’ said another government filing. “The Records and Information Dissemination Section is currently retrieving these additional records and will review the same.”

Releasing “in context”

The release of the al-Hijji name, while notable, was not complete. There are clear references to the al-Hijjis elsewhere in the April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record, but the names remain redacted.

Here’s how the FBI explains it: “The FBI concedes to releasing the Al-Hiijjiis in this context. This is the summary of information released in a public article.”

The disclosure marks the second time that judicial prodding has caused the FBI to make public names in the memorandum that it previously withheld citing privacy concerns.

In February, the bureau identified Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire as the briefer who told the Review Commission that an explosive April 2002 FBI report stating that agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” was bogus.

The report flatly contradicted FBI public statements that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement,” Maguire said, according to the memorandum. The memo, however, contains nothing to explain the basis for Maguire’s assertions.

The agent who wrote the controversial report is Gregory Sheffield. Judge Cecilia Altonaga has ruled that FBI disclosure of his name would not invade his privacy. Nevertheless, the FBI has not acknowledged his name.

The FBI kept Sheffield’s report secret for more than a decade before releasing a partially declassified version to the Florida Bulldog in March 2013 amid separate FOIA litigation in Fort Lauderdale. The document, censored on grounds of national security, confirmed previous reporting.

9/11 Review Commission under the FBI’s thumb

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

New York’s World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

A secretive blue-ribbon panel formed by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance – and to assess new evidence – was largely under the sway of the very agency it was tasked to examine.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission originally was envisioned as something very different: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would hold public hearings, take testimony, receive evidence and compel government agencies to turn over information from their files.

Proposed legislation called for a chairman and vice chairman to be appointed by the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, respectively. Staff would be hired without outside interference. The General Services Administration would provide support services.

That’s not what happened.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission, which issued its final report March 25, held no public hearings and had no subpoena power. It was largely spoon-fed information by the FBI, whose personnel was on the commission’s staff and helped edit the final report to improve its “accuracy and clarity,” the report says.

The commission’s interviews and proceedings, its “Memorandums for the Record” and other documents on which the report is based were not made public.

FBI CHIEF PICKS 9/11 REVIEW PANEL

FBI Director James Comey, not the Speaker or the Majority Leader, chose the 9/11 Review Commission’s three members. The report says Comey did so “in consultation with Congress.”

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

The FBI paid the trio – former Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer, and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman –under personal services contracts that also were not made public.

The commissioners selected John C. Gannon as their executive director. Gannon is a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and ex-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The commission and Gannon, “coordinating with the Bureau,” assembled a staff of 12. “All staff members reported administratively to the FBI,” the report says.

The commission’s 127-page report, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the Bureau needed to accelerate its implementation of reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.

The day the report was released, FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a Washington press conference that he was pleased with the commission’s work.

“I think this is a moment of pride for the F.B.I.,” Comey said, according to The New York Times. “An outside group of some of our nation’s most important leaders and thinkers has stared hard at us and said, ‘You have done a great job at transforming yourself.’ They’ve also said what I’ve said around the country: ‘It’s not good enough.’”

But those “outsiders” weren’t independent contractors. Rather, they were de facto FBI employees under the Bureau’s supervision and control, according to federal regulations governing the purchase of goods and services.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), section 37.104, says government personal services contracts create an “employer-employee relationship” in which contractors “are subject to the relatively continuous supervision and control of a government officer or employee.” Supervision can be direct or indirect, but is used to “adequately protect the government’s interest” or “retain control of the function involved,” the regulation says.

The FBI made no one available for an interview about the 9/11 Review Commission. When asked by email if the commission’s proceedings would be made accessible to the public, spokeswoman Kathryn D. Ballew said, “You will need to submit a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.”

A FOIA request seeking that information was filed Wednesday.

9/11 PANELISTS NOT TALKING

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: "I'm not interested in talking to you."

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: “I’m not interested in talking to you.”

Despite repeated requests, none of the commissioners would be interviewed about their report or the commission. Spokespersons for Meese and Roemer said they were not available. Hoffman, reached at his Georgetown office, said, “I’m not interested in talking to you” and hung up.

The Georgetown Security Studies Review interviewed Hoffman on March 27. Hoffman called the FBI “immensely supportive” of the commission.

“They didn’t make one change at all to the findings and recommendations,” said Hoffman. “They really changed very little in the report and in fact only classified slightly more than a dozen pages in a nearly 130 page document.”

However, it is not apparent from reading the report that any pages were classified and omitted from publication.

Commission Executive Director Gannon did not respond to phone or email messages.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chairman of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has accused the FBI of a coverup that has protected Saudi Arabia. He called the idea of an FBI performance review “meritorious,” but said the lack of access to supporting documentation prohibits a public examination of the commission’s work.

“This secret process, the composition of staff and the lack of public hearings to secure a broad range of evaluation of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance raises questions as to whether this report achieved its objective of a thorough and balanced examination of America’s domestic intelligence agency,” Graham said.

Transparency was on the mind of Rep. Peter King, R-NY, when in July 2011 he sponsored the 9/11 Review Commission Act (HR 2623) which sought to create an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold open hearings, compel needed testimony and retain experts and consultants.

The bill went nowhere and died at the end of 2012. Three months later, a provision for a watered-down 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.

All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been stripped out.

House appropriations subcommittee member Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a co-sponsor of King’s bill, inserted the language that established the Review Commission. Wolf, who retired in January, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Kevin Fogarty, an aide to Rep. King, explained that King and Wolf “determined it was more feasible and expedient to move the FBI-focused review” via the appropriations bill. Fogarty did not explain why the new measure gave the FBI funding for and authority over the commission.

“Rep. King has the option of reintroducing HR 2623 should he feel it necessary in the future,” Fogarty said via email.

Following delays caused by sequestration, the 9/11 Review Commission was established in January 2014. While still not fully staffed, commissioners appeared before Wolf’s subcommittee the following March to explain how they planned to operate under their $1 million budget.

COMMISSION RELIED HEAVILY ON FBI

The commission’s report shows it relied heavily on the FBI for information and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. Intelligence Community. In addition to CIA boss John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the approximately 30 interviewees included former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met several times with Director Comey.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

The commission’s work was also informed by travel to eight FBI field offices and six FBI legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, the report says.

At FBI headquarters, commissioners were given more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics ranging from the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code-name for its 9/11 investigation, and the “Sarasota Family.”

The Sarasota family refers to Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, Saudis who became the focus of an FBI investigation shortly after 9/11 when it was learned they’d moved abruptly out of their home in an upscale, gated community south of Sarasota two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.

FloridaBulldog.org, working with Irish author and journalist Anthony Summers, first reported about that investigation, and how the FBI had not disclosed it to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry or the 9/11 Commission, in September 2011.

The story cited a senior counterterrorism agent and a security administrator at the gated community, Larry Berberich, who said that sign-in logs and photos snapped of license tags of entering vehicles fit information on 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, both of whom had attended a flight school about 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport.

The counterterrorism agent also said an analysis of phone records for calls to and from the al-Hijji’s home dating back more than a year found ties to Atta, Jarrah and other terrorist suspects, including former Miramar resident and alleged al Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah.

The FBI acknowledged the probe and said it had found no ties to terrorism, but declined to explain or release additional information.

The FBI’s denial was later contradicted by its own documents that were made public two years ago amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by Broward Bulldog, Inc., FloridaBulldog.org corporate parent. One FBI report, dated April 16, 2002, said investigators determined that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

FBI DISAVOWS OWN SARASOTA DOCUMENT

The 9/11 Review Commission, tasked to examine new evidence, obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file and was briefed by the FBI, which disavowed its April 2002 report saying it was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” the report says.

The report does not name the agent, but its language suggests the commission accepted the FBI’s statements without challenge. The report does not address why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation a secret from two federal inquiries into 9/11.

Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter represents plaintiffs pursuing claims against Saudi Arabia and others for allegedly providing material support to al Qaeda in the years before 9/11. He said the Review Commission failed to seek out new evidence compiled in that civil case, including jailed former al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui’s highly publicized statement in which he accused Saudi Arabia’s royal family of bankrolling the terrorist group.

“To the extent that they were interested in looking at new evidence you would have expected them to reach out to us, and they never did,” Carter said.

Sen. Graham suggested two ways to alleviate concerns about the integrity of the 9/11 Review Commission’s work.

The FBI should “release all material relating to the commission except those that represent a legitimate national security concern.” And Congress, when it receives the commission’s report, should “do so in an open hearing with the opportunity for testimony by other Americans and a full examination of the commission’s procedures, structure and conclusions, Graham said.

Slain al Qaeda chief tied to 9/11; Key figure in FBI’s once secret probe of Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

A top al Qaeda operative reportedly shot dead in a weekend raid by the Pakistan army was a key figure in the FBI’s Sarasota investigation of a Saudi couple that declassified FBI documents say had “many connections” to the 9/11 hijackers.

Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who attended Broward College in the late 1990s, was killed early Saturday morning in a helicopter gunship assault on a hideout in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.

Described by authorities as al Qaeda’s chief of global operations, Saudi-born Shukrijumah was a fugitive from a 2010 federal indictment in New York for his alleged role in plots to attack New York’s subway system and London’s Underground. The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

At the time of his death, the U.S. was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Shukrijumah’s capture. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

BrowardBulldog.org, working with Irish journalists and authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, first reported in September 2011 that Shukrijumah was among a number of terrorist figures that a law enforcement source has said were identified by the FBI as having visited the Sarasota area home of Abdulazziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, prior to September 11, 2001.

They included 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who were at the controls of the passenger jets that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and Ziad Jarrrah, who crashed another jetliner into a Pennsylvania field. Also allegedly at the residence was Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta and three other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

TIE TO SAUDI ROYAL FAMILY

The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their home under suspicious circumstances about two weeks before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The owner of the home at 4224 Escondito Circle was Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a member of the Saudi royal family.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation of the al-Hijjis was never disclosed to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

When the matter finally became public in 2011, FBI officials in Tampa and Miami acknowledged the investigation, but said it had turned up no connection to 9/11 – statements later contradicted by a handful of FBI records made public in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org.

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge is currently reviewing for possible public release more than 80,000 additional pages of classified 9/11 records he ordered the FBI to produce for his inspection last spring.

Sen. Graham said Monday that Shukrijumah’s death forecloses one avenue for learning more about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

“This is another price we’re paying by delaying full disclosure of what happened before and after 9/11,” said Graham. “Had information about what happened in Sarasota been made available a decade ago it might have resulted in our aggressive attempts to interrogate Shukrijumah.”

While the 9/11 Commission found nothing to firmly connect Shukrijumah to the September 11 plot, it did note he was a “well-connected al Qaeda operative” known as “Jafar the Pilot” and that he apparently accompanied Atta on a May 2, 2001 visit to the Miami District Immigration Office. Also present that day was a third man that the commission concluded was United 93 hijack pilot Jarrah, for whom Atta was seeking a visa extension.

“75 PERCENT SURE”

An immigration inspector who dealt with the trio readily remembered Atta when interviewed later. And after looking at Shukrijumah’s Most Wanted photo, she told authorities “she was ‘75 percent sure’ that she could identify the man who was with Atta as Shukrijumah.”

A report by commission staff titled “9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” also noted that “Shukrijumah’s father is a well-known imam in south Florida, having testified on behalf of Sheikh Rahman during his trial for the conspiracy to destroy New York landmarks” in 1995. Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, is serving a life sentence.

Gulshair Shukrijumah, once a prayer leader at a Brooklyn mosque where Rahman preached, moved his family to Miramar in the mid-1990s and became a religious leader at the Masijid al Hijra. He died in 2004.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law also tie Shukrijumah to al-Hijji and pre-9/11 events in Sarasota.

Wissam Hammoud, identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “international terrorist associate,” told an FBI agent and a Sarasota County Sheriff’s detective in April 2004 that al-Hijji introduced him to his “friend” Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001.

Hammoud also told the agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the 9/11 hijackers, the records say.

Hammoud is currently serving 21 years in prison after his 2005 guilty plea in Tampa to federal weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. He reaffirmed his previous statements to the FBI in 2012 interviews. His wife and sister-in-law also corroborated Hammoud’s account.

Al-Hijji, who in 2012 lived in London where he worked for Aramco Overseas – the European subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, told the Daily Telegraph then that Hammoud was his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said by email. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

SHUKRIJUMAH ‘DOESN’T RING A BELL’

In a brief interview outside his office, al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

The FDLE previously declined to release its file on Shukrijumah, a citizen of Guyana.

Shukrijumah’s movements around the time of 9/11 are unclear. The Miami Herald reported in 2011 that the FBI said he’d left the country in the weeks before 9/11. ABC News reported a decade ago that the FBI said Shukrijumah was in the U.S. until shortly after 9/11.

Whatever the truth, Shukrijumah appears to have quickly risen through the ranks of al Qaeda, eventually assuming a position that NBC News reported was once held by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Pakistani forces reportedly caught up with Shukrijumah early Saturday morning in an an area that until recently was a key Taliban stronghold in Pakistan, according to the London Daily Mirror.

“In an intelligence borne operation, top al-Qaeda leader Adnan el Shukrijumah was killed by (the) Pakistan Army in an early morning raid in Shinwarsak, South Waziristan today,” the military said in a statement, the Mirror said. The remote region borders Afghanistan.

“His accomplice and a local facilitator were also killed in the raid,” the statement said.

Reuters reported that in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, all phone lines and mobile phone signals were shut down overnight and the roads were blocked in anticipation of the army’s strike.

A military official told the Mirror that security forces first heard that Chinese hostages were held at the location where the assault took place, learning only later about Shukrijumah’s presence and planning a larger operation.

The Mirror reported that two intelligence officers said militants opened fire on the Pakistani military and Shukrijumah was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Shukrijumah’s wife and four children were reportedly taken into custody.

One soldier was killed and another wounded, the paper reported.

FBI records say Sarasota Saudis who fled home had “many connections” to individuals tied to 9/11

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
BrowardBulldog.orgsept11

©2013 Broward Bulldog, Inc. 

A Saudi family who “fled” their Sarasota area home weeks before September 11th had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” according to newly released FBI records.

The information runs counter to previous FBI statements. It also adds to concern raised by official investigations but never fully explored, that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has not yet been told.

One partially declassified document, marked “secret,” lists three of those individuals and ties them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. Accomplice Ziad Jarrah took flying lessons at another school a block away.

Atta and al-Shehhi were at the controls of the jetliners that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jarrah was the hijack-pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

The names, addresses and dates of birth of the three individuals tied to the flight school were blanked out before the records were released to BrowardBulldog.org amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation.

National security and other reasons are cited for numerous additional deletions scattered across the 31 released pages. Four more pages were withheld in their entirety.

The records cast new light on one of the remaining unresolved mysteries regarding Florida’s many connections to the 9/11 attacks: what went on before the attacks at 4224 Escondito Circle, the home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family before the attacks.

The documents are the first released by the FBI about its once-secret probe in Sarasota. Information contained in the documents flatly contradicts prior statements by FBI agents in Miami and Tampa who have said the investigation found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012  Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, has said the FBI did not disclose the existence of the Sarasota investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.

The records also show for the first time that Graham’s former colleague, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., queried Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller about the Sarasota investigation six days after its existence was disclosed in a story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald on September 8, 2011.

The story told how concerned residents in the gated community of Prestancia tipped the FBI after the attacks to the al-Hijjis’ sudden departure in late August 2001. The family left behind three cars, clothes, furniture, diapers, toys, food and other items.

It also reported that a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia’s former administrator, Larry Berberich, said an analysis of gatehouse security records – log books and snapshots of license tags – had determined that vehicles either driven by or carrying several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.

Phone records revealed similar, though indirect, ties to the hijackers, said the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In contrast, the newly released FBI records include a pair of two-page reports, written in response to the story, that reiterate the bureau’s public position that its investigation turned up nothing.

One report, written on stationery of the Justice Department’s 9/11 prosecution unit, notes “the FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community, given the lack of connection to the hijackers.”

But the counterterrorism source, who has personal knowledge of the matter, called that assertion “not true.”

The Escondito Circle home where al-Hijji lived with his wife, Anoud, and their small children was owned by her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd. Prince Fahd, a prominent racehorse owner, died in July 2001 at age 46.

Al-Hijji, who following 9/11 worked for the Saudi oil company Aramco in England, could not be reached by phone or email last week. Aramco staff said there was no longer anyone by that name in the London office.

Last year, al-Hijji told a reporter his family did not depart their Sarasota home in haste but left so he could take a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He denied involvement in the 9/11 plot, which he called “a crime against the USA and all humankind.”

The records as released do not identify al-Hijji or anyone else by name, citing various exemptions that protect persons’ names in law enforcement records. The names are apparent, however, because the documents describe unique, known events and were released in specific response to a request for information about the investigation at the al-Hijji’s residence.

An April 16, 2002 FBI report says “repeated citizen calls” led to an inspection of the home by agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force.

“It was discovered that the [  family name deleted  ] left their residence quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge,” the report says.

“Further investigation of the [  name deleted  ] family revealed many connections between the  [  name deleted   ] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” the report says. huffman

The report lists three of those individuals. While their identities remain secret, the first person on the list was described as “a [ name deleted ] family member.”

That person and a second individual were said to be flight students at Huffman Aviation – the flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport attended by hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi.

The third person on the list “lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation” and was “arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” the report says.

The next paragraph, which ends the report, is blanked out entirely. The document cites two reasons: an Executive Order that allows matters “to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” and the National Security Act, which lets the CIA director exempt his agency’s operational files from the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI Special Agent Gregory Sheffield wrote the April 2002 report, according to the counterterrorism officer. His name is blanked out, too.

A notice on the document indicates the censored information regarding the three individuals associated with the terrorist attacks is scheduled to remain classified for another 25 years – until March 14, 2038.

The FBI released the records as a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org inches toward trial this summer in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The suit was filed in September after the FBI rejected both a request for its investigative records and an appeal of that request.

Thomas Julin, the news site’s attorney, called the FBI’s release of records that it had previously determined to be exempt from disclosure “highly unusual.”

“The government initially took the position that it had no documents. It hasn’t explained why things changed,” said Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.

Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez, who represents the FBI, declined comment.

The released FBI records are in two tiers: reports and other material written in 2001-2002 and memos, letters and email that followed publication of the first story about the matter in September 2011.

A number of pages recount information provided to the FBI by mail carriers and others, including a Sept. 18, 2001 observation that the al-Hijji’s appeared to have “left in a hurry.”

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

A Sept. 25 report talks of bank records that agents had obtained. The report was referred to the counterterrorism division’s Usama Bin Laden Unit/Radical Fundamentalist Unit.

One of the reports written in September 2011, after the existence of the Sarasota investigation was revealed, discusses briefly the unnamed “family member” who took flight lessons at Huffman Aviation.

“[ Name deleted ] was interviewed multiple times after 9/11 and identified Atta and al-Shehhi as individuals [ phrase deleted  ] flight training at Huffman. However, investigation did not reveal any other connection between [ name deleted ] and the hijackers and the 9/11 plot,” the report says.

FBI 302 reports about those interviews were not made public.

Senate Judiciary chair Leahy’s inquiry is disclosed in a declassified Nov. 22, 2011 response letter written by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich.

Weich called the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks “comprehensive and unprecedented.” He assured Leahy that agents found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the al-Hijjis.

Similarly, Weich denied Sen. Graham’s assertion that the FBI had not turned over its Sarasota records to Congress. The bureau, he stated, made all of its records available and suggested they may have been overlooked by investigators.

“The FBI is unable to ascertain whether these investigators reviewed records concerning the Sarasota family. The FBI also has not identified any specific requests by the investigators concerning the Sarasota family,” the letter says.

“You can’t ask for what you don’t know exists,” said Graham.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Documents the FBI now has released do not mention other known aspects of the Sarasota investigation, including troubling information provided to the FBI by al-Hijji’s former friend, Wissam Hammoud.

Hammoud, 47, is a federal prisoner classified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “International Terrorist Associate.” He is serving a 21-year sentence for weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in a previous case against him.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org last year state that shortly after his 2004 arrest Hammoud told agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero,” may have known some of the hijackers, and once introduced him to fugitive al-Qaeda leader and ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.

When reached last year, al-Hijji acknowledged having known Hammoud well. He did not, however, respond to a question about Hammoud’s allegations and said Shukrijumah’s name did not “ring a bell.”

What the FBI did about Hammoud’s allegations is not known.

Other FBI documents about Sarasota are known to exist, but were not released – including a report Graham says he read last year but can’t discuss because it is classified.

The Bulldog’s FOIA lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge William Zloch to order the FBI to produce all records of its Sarasota investigation, including the records seen by Graham.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and  Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

Mysterious “wife” of 9/11 hijacker visited Broward County Courthouse as terrorists struck

By Dan Christensen and Robbyn Swan, BrowardBulldog.org 

Mohamed Atta (blue shirt) passing through airport security in Portland, Maine on the morning of 9/11. Behind him is hijacker Abdulaziz al Omari

A woman who identified herself as the wife of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijack leader, appeared at the Broward County Courthouse the same day the terrorists struck seeking to clear up Atta’s traffic record.

FBI agents later took Atta’s court file into evidence, and interviewed the window clerk who spoke with his “wife,” according to officials at the Broward court clerk’s office.

It is not publicly known if the agents ever identified Atta’s “wife” or located her for questioning.

There are no reports that Atta, an Egyptian, ever married.

A spokesman for the FBI in Miami declined to talk about the matter late last week.

“No further information is being released at this time,” said James P. Marshall.

Although it is well known that several of the mostly Saudi 9/11 hijackers lived in South Florida and that Atta received a traffic ticket in west Broward, the courthouse appearance has not previously been reported by the news media.

The FBI disclosed it, however, in a once secret chronology of Atta and the other hijackers of American Airlines Flight #11 – the plane that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center eleven years ago on Tuesday.

“A woman claiming to be Atta’s wife arrived at Broward County Courthouse on 9/11/01 and attempted to clear his record,” the document says without elaboration.

ATTA’S TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS 

That day 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, including Atta, used four hijacked jetliners to kill nearly 3,000 people in coordinated suicide attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.  One plane crashed in Pennsylvania before it could reach its target in the nation’s capital.

According to the 9/11 Commission report, Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, the hijacker-pilot of the United Airlines jet that slammed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, moved into an apartment at 10001 W. Atlantic Blvd. in Coral Springs on April 11, 2001.

On April 26, at 11 p.m., Atta was driving a red, 1989 Grand Prix when he was stopped by deputies manning a Broward Sheriff’s traffic checkpoint in the 6800 block of University Drive in Tamarac. He presented an international driver’s license, the 9/11 report says, but was nevertheless given a citation for driving without a valid license – a criminal violation.

Atta was ordered to appear May 28 at Broward’s West Satellite Courthouse on Pine Island Road in Plantation.  Atta failed to appear, and a week later a warrant was issued for his arrest.

On May 2, Atta and Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker later at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed into a Pennsylvania field amid a passenger uprising, went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Lauderdale Lakes to obtain licenses.

Law enforcement missed a chance to arrest Atta two month later when he was stopped for speeding by a Delray Beach policeman in a residential neighborhood in the 700 block of Lindell Boulevard.  The officer was unaware of the Broward warrant, and Atta got off with a warning.

The state finally suspended Atta’s license on August 23.

MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER

Broward Clerk’s supervisor Renea Gaskin was on duty at the courthouse when Atta’s “wife” appeared, apparently minutes before Atta piloted American 11 into the World Trade Center.

“She stated that she was his wife and wanted to take care of any outstanding tickets,” said Gaskin. “I remember her being dressed in Arab garb.”

The woman went away without getting what she wanted. The citation required a mandatory court appearance by Atta.

The woman actually spoke to another clerk who left the office years ago. Gaskin and others there can only remember her first name, Crystal.

Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said the courthouse was shut down a few hours later amid the ensuing confusion and fear.

The Justice Department publicly identified Atta and the other hijackers two days after the attacks. The news set off a shockwave at the clerk’s office.

“It was like ‘Oh my God, It’s his wife! She was just in here to take care of his ticket.’ We were shocked,” Gaskin recalled.

The FBI arrived quickly. Crystal was interviewed. Atta’s file was obtained by Special Agent Theresa Ann Harris, said clerk supervisor Mary Mossey.

Atta is long dead, but the case against him is alive at the courthouse where it is officially classified as “pending.”

A warrant is also outstanding for Atta’s arrest.

“No one closed it,” said Mossey.

Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

 

 

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