By Robbyn Swan, FloridaBulldog.org
Among the files of the 9/11 Commission in the National Archives is a slim folder marked “Fouda stills.” The folder is empty, except for a compact disc containing 11 photos, taken from film footage, depicting a man in traditional Pakistani dress, a collection of flight manuals and maps of the Eastern United States.
The photos, never published until now, are the only visual evidence of 9/11 suspects Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh – confessing to their roles in the plots even before they were captured. The confessions, obtained by Al Jazeera journalist Yosri Fouda, have been missing since soon after they were filmed. How the screenshots came to be in 9/11 Commission files is a mystery.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi Binalshibh have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for 15 years – since being moved there from CIA black sites where they had been held since being captured. They still await trial, along with three other men, for their alleged involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The questions of when, and what, and who may have possession of Fouda’s full, filmed interviews are ones that may have ramifications for any eventual trial of the two men.
Twenty years since the attacks, it is hard to recall a time when the names “Osama bin Laden” and “al Qaeda” were unknown to most American adults. Immediately afterward, bin Laden himself denied responsibility. Not until December 2001 would an al Qaeda video emerge in which bin Laden claimed credit for the operation. Even then, though, there was a yawning gap between the al Qaeda chief and the 19 young men who carried out the attacks.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s name and face appeared for the first time on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list a month after the attacks, but only in connection with his alleged role in a separate, 1995, plot to blow up commercial airliners in the Far East.
A week after 9/11, German police issued an international arrest warrant for Ramzi Binalshibh, who had lived with hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi in Hamburg. The Germans said at that point that they knew of no link between Binalshibh and bin Laden. Only late that year, when a martyrdom video he had made surfaced in the rubble of an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan, was the “mysterious character” and possible “20th hijacker” added to the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
Within 45 minutes of the first strike on the World Trade Center, President Bush had promised to “hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” By mid-October, his pledge put American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, where they were to remain for the next 20 years.
THE SCOOP OF A LIFETIME
Yosri Fouda, an Egyptian journalist, was at that time based in London, as bureau chief and chief investigative reporter for the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera. At 36, Fouda had a Master’s in journalism from the American University in Cairo, and had worked both for the BBC’s Arabic-language television service and for the Associated Press. At Al Jazeera, Fouda’s investigative series “Top Secret” had won awards, and made him a pioneering figure in Arab journalism and a celebrity in the Arab world. The Sept. 11 attacks were soon to offer Fouda the scoop of a lifetime.
The account that follows is pieced together from interviews and correspondence with Fouda, British journalist Nick Fielding and material in their book, “Masterminds of Terror.”
In the first week of April 2002, Fouda received an anonymous call on his mobile phone. Over a bad line, speaking in Arabic, the male caller lured him with: “I hope you are preparing something special for the first anniversary, because if you are, we can provide you with some exclusive stuff.”
Four days later, again anonymously, came a fax suggesting a possible three-part documentary to mark the first anniversary of the Sept.11, 2001 attacks. “If you are interested,” wrote the author of the proposal, “we will provide you with addresses of people and locations which will help you bring about this investigation.”
That night came a second call. ”Are you ready to go to Islamabad?” asked the anonymous male voice. Fouda’s instincts told him he had a possible scoop on his hands. Wary of sharing it with anyone, he told his supervisors at Al Jazeera that he was working on a follow-up to a program he had done on detainees being held by the Americans at Camp X-Ray in Cuba. He got a Pakistani visa, and flew to Islamabad.
Once at his hotel, Fouda received a further call. He was to take the night flight to Karachi and check into the Regent Plaza Hotel. There, ensconced in room 232, Fouda finally came face to face with his mystery caller, an al Qaeda representative whom he privately dubbed “Abu Bakr.” Abu Bakr told him that Osama bin Laden, an avid television viewer, had personally instructed that Fouda be taken to meet “the brothers.”Then Abu Bakr departed, leaving Fouda with instructions he was to follow the next day. He was to bring with him no filming equipment, not even a stills camera. He was to leave his hotel by a back door, and take a taxi to another part of the city, where he would be met by another contact.
The cloak-and-dagger operation continued. Once he had followed the first of the directions, Fouda was told to take a motorized rickshaw to a specific address. There, yet another contact was waiting for him with a car, and he was then driven out of Karachi. About five miles outside the city, his contact pulled up beside a parked car. His al Qaeda escorts – for he had no doubt they were al Qaeda – taped thick wads of cotton over his eyes. Then he was driven, so far as he could tell from the street sounds, back towards the city. Fouda, on the back seat, thought about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who two months earlier, also in Karachi, had been abducted and brutally murdered.
9/11 MASTERMIND AND COORDINATOR
The car stopped, and Fouda was led into a building. As he was led upstairs, he counted four flights. A doorbell was rung and he was hustled into an apartment. There his blindfold was removed. In front of him, with a welcoming smile, was a man Fouda immediately recognized from “Wanted” posters as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Then another shock. Further inside the empty apartment, sitting on the floor surrounded by laptops and mobile phones, was Ramzi Binalshibh.
Mohammed rattled off a list of strict conditions under which Fouda would be allowed to interview them. He could not reveal their code names, how they had communicated with him, nor what they looked like. The journalist swore on the Koran to abide by the condition.
Looking for a way to get down to the real business of his visit, Fouda recalled later, he looked Mohammed in the eye and asked: “Did you do it?”
“I am the head of the al Qaeda military committee,” KSM said, “and Ramzi is the coordinator of the Holy Tuesday [Sept.11] operation. And yes, we did it.”
Over the 48 hours that followed, Fouda listened as Mohammed and Binalshibh told how they had plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks. Early in the first session, an al Qaeda cameraman arrived with a Sony mini DV Handycam, a microphone and five blank 60-minute tapes. In lieu of a tripod, he steadied the camera on a large box. Checking the shot through the viewfinder, KSM fussed over his appearance and changed his cloak. As the camera whirred, the two men took turns – more than an hour each – to tell their story.
Much of what the two men told Fouda that day would be reflected by later official accounts – KSM claimed to have been chief operational planner of the attack, Binalshibh its key facilitator and intermediary with the hijackers.
‘MY HAMBURG SOUVENIRS’
Binashibh also produced a dirty grey suitcase. “You are the first outsider to have a look at this,” he told Fouda. “It is my Hamburg souvenirs.”’ They spread the items on the carpet – flight manuals, a how-to-fly textbook and navigation maps of the American eastern seaboard. Later on hat first day, Fouda recalled, he was allowed to film the items himself “from every possible angle.”
On Sunday, April 21, Fouda joined KSM and Binalshibh in prayer. It was time to say goodbye. The two men had previously explained that Fouda would not be allowed to leave with the interview tapes. Now he was told: “We will keep the tapes, for editing purposes, before you have them in a few weeks.” Following a warm handshake with Binalshibh, Fouda was once again blindfolded. Mohammed himself breached security to lead the journalist down the stairs to a waiting car. He was never to meet the Sept.11 plotters again.
Fouda spent the next months working the story. In early June, for the first time, he filled in his bosses at Al Jazeera about the interviews, his on-going investigation, and the program he proposed for the forthcoming first anniversary of 9/11. At his superiors’ insistence, he also briefed Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the channel’s chairman and a member of the Qatari royal family. The Sheikh, Fouda recalled, pressed him on the tapes of his scoop interviews: “The tapes! When are you going to get hold of them?”
That month, Fouda received several calls from his original contact “Abu Bakr,” but there was no sign of the tapes. With or without them, Fouda decided, the planned documentary must go forward. He had a tiger by the tail. In the U.S., the FBI had announced that mounting evidence pointed to bin Laden “lieutenant” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as having been the chief organizer of the attacks.
In late July 2002, having criss-crossed the globe recreating the hijackers’ travels, Fouda was back in Karachi. There, Al Qaeda middleman “Abu Bakr” began a series of inept extortion attempts. In a first message he delivered, “the mujahedeen” who had supposedly intercepted the tapes demanded a million dollars to produce the tapes. Fouda, concluding that the demand was being made without the knowledge of KSM or Binalshibh, simply handed the message back. At which point “Abu Bakr” burst into tears – once again promising to ensure sure the tapes were delivered to Fouda in the UK.
In the last week of August in London, as Fouda worked to edit his documentary, “The Road to 11 September,” he received a message from a colleague in Qatar. A caller had rung the office, the colleague said, about some tapes Fouda was expecting. “If Al Jazeera is not prepared to pay $17,000,” the caller had said, “others would be willing to pay much more.” According to Fouda, he sent word that “we are not prepared to pay even one penny, and they can do whatever they please with the tapes.”
Finally, just days before Part 1 of Fouda’s program was due to be broadcast, a brown envelope was delivered to Fouda’s London office. Inside was a CD containing an audio copy of Fouda’s interview with Binalshibh, and a typed memo containing answers to a list of follow-up questions Fouda had sent after the meeting in Karachi. The envelope contained no actual film footage, no audio of KSM – not even the long sequence of shots Fouda had filmed of the “Hamburg Souvenirs.”
9/11 2002 – BINALSHIBH CAPTURED
Fouda would not see any evidence of his filmed interviews until shown the screenshots from 9/11 Commission files years later.
The Al Jazeera reporter set about splicing Binalshibh’s audio into the second part of his film. Part 1 of “The Road to 11 September” aired on Sept. 5, 2002 – ending with a segment of the Binalshibh tape. Then on the very morning of the anniversary, Sept. 11, 2002, following an armed confrontation in an apartment building in Karachi, Pakistani security forces captured Ramzi Binalshibh. KSM was not with him. Within six months, however, he too would be in custody – seized in a joint operation by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence in the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
In a book on the war on terror, journalist Ron Suskind would later report an exchange that had occurred months earlier, soon after Fouda had briefed Al Jazeera chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al Thani on his interviews with KSM and Binalshibh. Al Thani had reacted, Suskind wrote, by immediately briefing his cousin, the Emir of Qatar, who in turn had promptly picked up the phone and called CIA Director George Tenet.
In the furor following the capture of Binalshibh, Fouda suddenly found himself part of the story. In the U.S. press, he was criticized for having withheld the information on the two terrorists’ confessions until his documentary was broadcast. Arab media and Al Qaeda websites, meanwhile, suggested that Fouda must have supplied the intelligence to the Americans, which had led to the capture of Binalshibh. Fouda vehemently denied it.
“The fat fuck came through,” Tenet reportedly crowed to CIA colleagues later that day as he shared a wealth of detail – including that the interviews had taken place in Karachi. Subsequent effort to find Binalshibh and Mohammed then concentrated on the city. Suskind believed Fouda had no knowledge of these events at the time.
How then did the screenshots from Fouda’s film wind up in 9/11 Commission files?
WHERE ARE FOUDA’S INTERVIEWS TODAY?
Approached last month, both 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow and Dieter Snell, leader of Team 1A – the team responsible for investigating the plot itself – said they had no recollection of where the photos had come from.
It is possible that the screenshots, and perhaps the films themselves, were sold to the Americans. Remember the extortionist’s threat that, if Fouda was not prepared to pay for them, someone else would? At the time, the U.S. was offering multi-million-dollar rewards for information that would lead to the two terrorists’ capture. One can imagine a situation in which Fouda’s footage may have seemed a tempting lead.
There is, too, the possibility that the screenshots – or the entire interviews – were swept up in the raids that netted the Binalshibh and Mohammed in September 2002 and March 2003. In Pakistan, the FBI was reportedly meticulous about what they called “Sensitive Site Exploitation” – gathering up computers, cell phones, everything that fell into U.S. hands, and cataloguing it as evidence for later prosecutions. Just such material was confiscated during the captures of Binalshibh and KSM, though there was no public reference to Fouda’s interviews having been found.
If the screenshots in 9/11 Commission files were taken from Fouda’s actual filmed interviews under such circumstances, we must contemplate the possibility that even as CIA interrogators tortured KSM and Binalshibh – both men were waterboarded multiple times – the U.S. government already had their confessions to the crime on tape.
At Guantanamo Bay today, pretrial arguments in the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh are continuing. Central to the ongoing process is the debate, still unresolved, as to which evidence is untainted by torture and thus admissible. It may yet be determined that even the FBI’s 2007 interrogations of the men, long after they had been subjected to so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” by the CIA, are inadmissible, on the grounds that the men had by then been conditioned to provide answers to please their interrogators.
If Fouda’s filmed interviews exist, what role, if any, might KSM’s and Binalshibh’s “untainted” pre-detention confessions have in any future trial? Neither the office of the Military Commissions nor lawyers for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have responded to Florida Bulldog questions as to whether the interviews Fouda filmed form part of the current case against the two men. David Bruck, incoming lead counsel for Ramzi Binalshibh, said he was not at liberty to respond to questions.
Twenty years since Sept.11, the “forever war” may be over, but the forever legal case rumbles on. And the mysteries persist.
(Robbyn Swan and Anthony Summers are co-authors of “The Eleventh Day,” an authoritative account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Additional research by Jordan Nann.)