By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Five years after the existence of the FBI’s Operation Encore was disclosed, the bureau has identified the suspect that agents wanted to charge with helping two al Qaeda hijackers shortly after their arrival in the U.S. 21 months before 9/11.
“The FBI is seeking to indict Mohdar Abdullah (Mohdar) in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) for providing material support to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. Mohdar is the subject of San Diego’s full field investigation,” say newly revealed parts of an FBI memorandum about “updates and initiatives (as of 5 October 2012).”
Abdullah was well known to the FBI. Among other things, he and other subjects of interest in the case worked with Hazmi in the fall of 2000 at a Texaco gas station in Mesa, CA owned by Osama “Sam” Mustafa. Mustafa’s involvement is outlined in the 2012 report. Mustafa has denied having any terrorist connections, but was convicted in April 2013 in a $17.7-million conspiracy to profit from phony federal income tax refunds. He fled the country before sentencing, but was captured last year in Jordan.
The FBI initially blanked out the identity of its criminal target, citing national security and other reasons when the 2012 report was first provided to Florida Bulldog in 2016. Bulldog had sued to obtain the report under the Freedom of Information Act after it was mentioned briefly in the final report of the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission in 2015. The code name Operation Encore also was redacted at the time.
The FBI released a more complete, though still thickly censored version of the 2012 report last week amid a document dump sparked by President Biden’s Sept. 3 executive order requiring a declassification review of 9/11 documents at the behest of members of Congress and pressure from lawyers for the 9/11 Families who are suing Saudi Arabia in federal court in New York City.
BIDEN CHANGES COURSE
Until Biden’s order, the FBI had kept secret all other documents about Operation Encore, and many other 9/11 records. Trump administration Attorney General William Barr even swore personally under oath last year that those records needed to be hidden because they were a ‘‘state secret’’ whose release would likely cause “significant harm to national security.”
President Biden’s order, however, reversed the government’s course and instructed the FBI to make public “in full or in part” numerous records about Operation Encore and 9/11.
The first document Biden ordered disclosed was an April 4, 2016 report about Operation Encore. It was made public, in somewhat redacted form, on the 20th anniversary of the 2001 attacks. The report contained a variety of new information about the movements and contacts of the future hijackers.
The October 2012 report says Abdullah played “a key role in facilitating the daily lives and assisting future American Airlines Flight 77 hijackers” Hazmi and Mihdhar. Numerous Operation Encore documents that have now been made public provide significant new details about the FBI’s findings regarding Abdullah. What they do not address, however, is why Abdullah was ultimately not indicted, or explain why the FBI failed to make a prosecutable case.
New information disclosed in the 2012 report says, “Mohdar was also a family friend and associate of Anwar Aulaqi and they may have spent time together with the hijackers.”
U.S. government officials have said Aulaqi, also spelled Anwar al-Awlaki, was an important al Qaeda organizer. He was killed in Yemen in a U.S. drone strike ordered by President Obama in September 2011.
AULAQI AND 9/11 SUSPECT
Aulaqi, born in the U.S in 1971 to parents from Yemen, was the imam at a San Diego mosque used by the two hijackers. He later landed in Falls Church, VA, where he led services at another mosque attended by Hazmi, Mihdhar and a third member of their hijack team, Hani Hanjour.
One new FBI report says Aulaqi organized paintball outings for mosque members. “Some of the people who went paint balling took it very seriously and talked of it being training for jihad.” Aulaqi didn’t talk about the paintball shooting as being training for jihad, but Abdullah did, according to at least one person agents interviewed. “Mohdar was one of the paint ballers who yelled ‘Allah Akbar’ and acted like he was training for jihad,’’ says the heavily censored 2006 report.
The records show that Abdullah was under investigation for assisting the hijackers within days of 9/11. He was initially held as a material witness, and on Sept. 19, 2001 he was charged with immigration fraud for claiming to be a Somali asylee when he was from Yemen. He pled guilty and was deported to Yemen in 2004.
While incarcerated in an immigration facility, the report says, Abdullah “bragged to two fellow inmates that he assisted the hijackers.’’ Abdullah has denied making such statements, and prosecutors cast doubt “about their value as witnesses,” the 2012 report says.
Those inmates, and their accounts, are disclosed publicly for the first time in the new FBI reports.
A key witness was Ellsworth Black, a convicted bank robber with a college degree in engineering. The report states Black, who was born in 1954 in Belize, took and passed two polygraph tests about his story, and that he and other witnesses had agreed to testify.
ADMISSIONS OF 9/11 SUSPECT
In a pair of interviews in 2012, Black told agents that guards told him that his cellmate, Omar Basharat, was rumored to be involved in the 9/11 plot. Omar denied his involvement, but told Abdullah the two hijackers told him prior to the attacks that he would one day “will witness something he will not believe.” Omar also identified another inmate, Shamir Abdul, as having knowledge of the 9/11 plot.
Black told agents he spoke directly to Abdullah in the prison yard and through the vent in their adjoining cells. “Abdullah admitted to Black he had advance notice of the 9/11 plot, but never confirmed that he knew specific details or the date on which the attack was scheduled to take place.”
“What we did was to show the U.S. that they are not so powerful,” Abdullah said, according to Black.
A second FBI report says Abdullah “told Black that he is part of a crusade against the West and Israel. He told [Black] that the Roman Empire lasted for 400 years, the United States has only been in existence 200 years, and the U.S. will fall.”
According to the report, Omar, Shamir and Abullah shared a San Diego apartment with Hazmi and Mihdhar for a time. One night while pretending to be asleep, Shamir told Black, he overheard Abdullah and the hijackers talk about “obtaining false identification” and that Abdullah stated he’d arrange for transportation to make it happen.
“Black then said to everyone that many people died on 9/11 as a result of the attacks. Shamir concurred and said I know. Abdullah then said words to the effect of what are you going to do it is done,” the report says.
Abdullah’s reaction wasn’t so calm on 9/11, his former wife told the FBI. Abdullah met and married the 16-year-old convert to Islam in Sept. 10, 2001. The Islamic ceremony was performed in the parking lot of a Denny’s. She recalled he “seemed to be in a rush to get married.”
The couple never lived together, and were divorced in 2003 while Abdullah was incarcerated. But in the week or two before 9/11, she told agents, the usually “nice and easygoing” Abdullah had a “drastic change in behavior… paranoid, nervous, anxious and very preoccupied about something going on in his life. When asked, Mohdar said he had a lot on his mind and it was giving him a headache.”
Abdullah’s ex-wife, whose name was not made public, also told agents that on the morning of Sept. 11, Abdullah came to the residence where his young bride lived with her mother and sister. The television was on and everyone was watching events unfold at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Abdullah watched, then asked to use the phone, the Jan. 7, 2011 report says.
Abullah called someone, speaking only Arabic. His wife couldn’t hear the conversation, but Abdullah “began screaming in Arabic into the phone, and then threw the phone into the wall shattering it,” the report says. Abdullah “then stood in front of the television, which continued to show the events of September 11th terrorist attacks.
“What the fuck, What the fuck?, What the fuck?” Abdullah reportedly yelled at the television in English. He then left the residence, the report says.
His bride didn’t see him again for about two weeks. When she did, Abdullah was “acting more paranoid then in past weeks. (She) asked Mohdar what was wrong and Mohdar raised his finger to his lips and told (her) to stay quiet, saying ‘Shhhh, people are listening and watching. (His wife) stated, ‘What do you mean?’ Mohdar replied, ‘You know.’ It was at that time that Mohdar was taken into custody by the FBI.”
A month later, in February 2011 FBI agents returned for a follow up interview. This time, Abdullah’s ex-wife recanted her story about Abdullah’s Sept. 11 visit. She said Abdullah had not been at the residence that day and “that she could no longer remember the date on which the events she described in the previous interview had taken place. Investigators explained that (her) reversal of statements appeared to be deceptive. (She) stated that she ‘didn’t care’ and would be contacting a lawyer who would be in touch with investigators.”
For his part, Mohdar Abdullah has spoken several times with FBI Encore agents. In 2011, he said he was introduced to Hazmi and Mihdhar within days of their arrival in the U.S. by Omar al Bayoumi, a suspect Saudi intelligence agent who is identified in the 2012 report as one of a trio of principal subjects of the investigation, aside from Abdullah. Bayoumi is identified in the same report as having “assisted the hijackers with a place to live, opening a bank account and also assigned two individuals to care for them, one of whom was Mohdar Abdullah.”
Bayoumi and Fahad al Thumairy, a consular official and Southern California mosque leader, got their orders to assist the two hijackers from Musaed al-Jarrah, director of Islamic Affairs at Saudi Arabia’s Washington, D.C. embassy, FBI reports say.
Several highly detailed reports about what Abdullah had to say to agents were released, including a pair from January 2014. At one point, Abdullah said he had “many” talks about jihad with the two future hijackers, who he said “praised UBL (Osama bin Laden) as a jihadi.”
Most intriguing are the FBI’s accounts of a pair of surveillance videos taken at Los Angeles International Airport on June 10, 2000 – the day Abdullah drove Mihdhar and Hazmi to the airport so Mihdhar could catch a flight to Yemen to see his wife and infant son. The videos have never been made public.
THE ‘LAX’ VIDEO
A Dec. 9, 2005 message from FBI Director Robert Mueller to the CIA about a “possible support cell” for Hazmi and Mihdhar says the video captured images of Abdullah, the hijackers and “three additional males … who may be accompanying them.” One of those unidentified males was apparently carrying a camera “held at his mid-section , and as he passes through a different magnetometer than the rest of the group, he turns 360 degrees, as if filming the entire surroundings of the hijackers.” An FBI analysis, Mueller wrote, indicated the unidentified men “may have been part of a group of Yemenis who are suspected of knowing or aiding the 9/11 hijackers.”
Abdullah repeatedly denied being able to identify anyone in interviews with the FBI. One report says Abdullah was “angry and upset” when he was first shown the LAX video because he had been told that the unknown individual was there with him and the hijackers. “Additionally, he saw what he believed to be al Mihdhar speaking to the (unknown individual) over the (individual’s) shoulder … which exacerbated Abdullah’s feelings of being used and lied to by al Mihdhar and al Hazmi.”
In a 2014 interview in Sweden, where Abdullah now lives, he mentioned he’d undergone a polygraph examination about his involvement with the hijackers that was inconclusive. Earlier this year, Abdullah was questioned again in Sweden – this time by lawyers for the 9/11 Families. His deposition is classified, as are all other depositions in the case, but one plaintiff’s attorney called Abdullah “an interesting witness. He had a lot to say.”
Mueller’s 15-page message sought to enlist the CIA’s help in questioning 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as well as Ramzi Binalshibh, Rasyad bin Attash and other Guantanamo detainees about who those unidentified men on the “LAX video” might be. Mueller identified two male suspects: Ramez Noaman and another person whose name is redacted.
Mueller states that Noaman “was a material witness in the 9/11 investigation.” On Sept. 28, 2001 Noaman, a student, told the FBI that Abdullah had introduced him to the two hijackers in May 2000. He stated he later befriended the hijackers at a San Diego mosque and “provided interpretation services to aid them in obtaining flying lessons.”
Noaman also told the FBI that his school roommate in Los Angeles was Fuad Omar Bazarah, “a friend and co-worker of Ramzi Binalshibh at the International Bank of Yemen.” Binalshibh, a Yemeni, has been in U.S. custody as an enemy combatant since his capture in Pakistan in 2002. U.S. officials have accused him of being a “key facilitator” of the 9/11 attacks.
Bazarah was deported to Yemen in December 2004. “Noaman’s close association with Barazah, and Barazah’s close association with Binalshibh, makes Noaman’s introduction and relationship to the two hijackers while they were in California appear to more than coincidental,” the message says. “Noaman was also related to [BLANK], believed to be the cameraman in the LAX video.”
“In order to determine if Hazmi and Mihdhar were assisted by a Yemeni support cell in Los Angeles, we request all [Guantanamo] detainees be shown all the photographs listed below for recognition and knowledge,” the message says. The list includes Bazarah, Noaman, Abdullah and eight other Yemenis whose names are redacted. Dozens of specific questions were attached.
It is not known if that U.S. effort yielded any positive information.