By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A fugitive and subject of Operation Encore, the FBI’s once-secret probe of suspected Saudi involvement in 9/11, was captured without fanfare in Jordan last year and returned to the U.S. to start serving an unrelated 20-year sentence for fraud.
Osama “Sam” Mustafa, 57, is identified in the 9/11 Commission report as the owner of Sam’s Star Mart Texaco gas station in La Mesa, CA where Saudi suicide hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi and several subjects of interest in the FBI’s investigation worked in the fall of 2000. Mustafa and station manager Iyad Kreiwesh “have both been the subject of FBI counterterrorism investigations,” the 9/11 report says.
Information about Mustafa is contained in a heavily redacted October 2012 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2016 after it sued under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records of the bureau’s follow-up 9/11 Review Commission. The 2012 report, detailing a number of Operation Encore initiatives, is today a key focus of the massive federal lawsuit in New York by survivors and relatives of the dead that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with helping to finance and encourage the Sept. 11th attacks in 2001.
While Mustafa’s name is excised, the report discusses his May 15, 2012 arrest at his Tampa area home for Treasury check fraud “by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.” Following some censored lines, the report says that on Sept. 17, 2012, while still in Tampa, agents tried unsuccessfully to get Mustafa to talk about 9/11.
“During the proffer, [Mustafa] echoed 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,” the report says.
Operation Encore investigators “anticipate future proffer sessions with” Mustafa “on the [blank] national security issues,’’ the report says. A second proffer session was held with Mustafa later that month. “There was no National Security related information disclosed during the second proffer,” the report says.
Fugitive after trial
Mustafa, a U.S. citizen, was convicted after a five-day trial in April 2013 of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering for his role in a $17.7-million scheme to profit from fraudulent U.S. Treasury income tax refund checks.
Prosecutors argued Mustafa should be jailed because he was a flight risk. He had family in Palestine, spoke Arabic and faced a lengthy prison term. But U.S. District Judge Samuel G. Wilson found “clear and convincing evidence” that Mustafa was not a flight risk and ordered his release on bond. Four months later, while awaiting sentencing, Mustafa cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet in Florida and fled the country.
How Mustafa was able to leave the U.S. still is not known; his passport had been taken away. But at trial prosecutors said that $400,000 in criminal proceeds remained unaccounted for. And before he disappeared, Mustafa sold off substantial assets in violation of the court’s order.
In 2014, Mustafa was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison. He is currently housed at a federal correctional facility in Petersburg, VA. His projected release date is Aug. 2, 2036.
Exactly what information Operation Encore agents thought Mustafa might have about 9/11 is not known. Encore was shut down in 2016 to the dismay of agents assigned to the investigation that had targeted an apparent support network for the 9/11 hijackers inside the U.S. It is not known if the FBI has sought to question Mustafa about 9/11 since his capture.
Lots of questions
But an attorney who represents 9/11 victims in the civil action against Saudi Arabia said his team will attempt to speak with Mustafa, but no timetable has been set.
In addition to the outstanding questions about Mustafa’s escape, little is known about his time on the run or his capture – not even who captured him. Attorneys in Virginia assigned to represent Mustafa, who is currently seeking compassionate release from prison under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act due to health issues, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Mustafa is discussed in Congress’s Joint Inquiry report into the 9/11 attacks. Without naming him, Mustafa is identified as the Palestinian-born owner of the San Diego-area business where future hijacker al-Hazmi worked and where he and fellow hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar spent time socializing with various associates. Other sources say Mustafa was born in Indiana.
Nawaf al-Hazmi, his brother Salem al-Hazmi, and Mihdhar were among five hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon.
The congressional report says the FBI developed information that Mustafa “was associated with members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a known terrorist organization, in San Diego and Chicago.”
Mustafa and the FBI
The FBI also told Congress “it had received reports that the business owner cheered upon learning of the September 11 attacks,” according to the report.
“The FBI conducted several investigations of the business owner prior to September 11. The first was opened in August 1991 upon receipt of reports from the San Diego Police Department that, during a traffic stop, he had stated that the United States needed another Pan Am 103 attack and that he could be the one to carry it out. The business owner also said that all Americans should be killed for what they did to Iraqis,” the Joint Inquiry report says. “The FBI received information in 1994 that he had threatened to kill a former Israeli intelligence officer who resided in San Diego. The business owner informed the Israeli that he was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and that the orders to kill him had come from the PLO.”
The FBI closed its investigation of Mustafa, but reopened it in 1997 “when it received information tying him to a possible terrorist plot based in North Carolina. In February 2001, a stockbroker called the FBI to say that the business owner had closed his account, explaining that he was sending the money to freedom fighters in Afghanistan.” After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the report says, the FBI learned that Mustafa “was associating with Osama Bassnan and [blank], to other possible hijacker associates in San Diego.”
According to court records filed by the 9/11 plaintiffs, Bassnan was an associate of Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind sheikh who died in prison in 2017 while serving a life sentence for his role in supporting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Documents prepared by investigators for the 9/11 Commission in June 2003 further identify Bassnan, sometimes spelled Basnan, as “a very close associate of [suspected Saudi agent Omar] al-Bayoumi” who was “in frequent contact with him while the hijackers were in San Diego.” Bassnan was “a vocal supporter of Usama Bin Laden” and “received considerable funding from [Saudi] Prince Bandar [then the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S.] and Princess Haifa, supposedly for his wife’s medical treatments.”
Sarasota private investigator Bill Warner has said he was contacted by Mustafa via email in 2016 while Mustafa was a fugitive to complain about stories Warner posted about him on Warner’s website. “I told you a million times I had zero knowledge of 9-11 nor did I have any contact with these guys at all except for the time I told this guy, you idiots call Nawaf [al-Hazmi] to run my wife’s car through the car wash,” Mustafa wrote, according to a copy of the email reproduced on the website.