By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Justice Department has notified a federal judge in New York that within days it expects to release another 1,000 pages of declassified FBI documents about Operation Encore, the bureau’s sub rosa investigation of possible Saudi government complicity in 9/11.
The release of those records will be in response to President Biden’s September executive order mandating a sweeping declassification review of “certain documents concerning the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” To date, more than 700 FBI documents have been released totaling more than 2,700 pages.
Biden’s order effectively overturned a 2020 decision by Trump administration Attorney General William Barr to invoke the rarely used state secrets privilege to keep records about Operation Encore hidden from the public.
Thursday’s notification letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn from the New York U.S. Attorney who is overseeing the government’s participation in the extensive civil lawsuit brought against Saudi Arabia by 9/11 victims also states, “It is anticipated that there may be further releases of information into mid-April, due to continuing coordination with a number of foreign governments and ongoing interagency review.”
In addition, because records produced publicly will contain redactions required by the Privacy Act, the FBI will create separate sets of documents that remove those redactions for use by lawyers for the 9/11 families and victims.
FBI DOCUMENTS FROM GRAND JURY
Expected to be included in the coming releases are “passages containing analysis of telephone, banking, financial, credit and communication records” obtained via a grand jury subpoena. Earlier this month, Netburn granted a government request to make public those grand jury materials.
A grand jury in New York was part of the Encore investigation that focused on what agents believed was a support network for two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.
Hazmi and Mihdhar were part of a five-member al Qaeda team that on 9/11/01 hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 after leaving Dulles International Airport and crashed it into the Pentagon, killing 59 passengers and crew, and another 125 people in the building.
Declassified Operation Encore documents previously released included significant new information about a trio of Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs officials operating inside the U.S. who are suspected of aiding Hazmi and Mihdhar. One of those figures was Mutaib al Sudairy.
A 2010 FBI document says that in Columbus, MO, Sudairy lived “with Ziyad Khaleel for about four months in 2000, Khaleel was a known key communications equipment procurement officer for UBL [Usama bin Laden] and provided satellite phones used in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa.” A 2016 FBI report says Khaleel likewise “managed wire transfers from IARA [Islamic American Relief Agency] to bank accounts controlled by UBL.” It also noted that Sudairy’s phone number was found in the address book of suspected Saudi intelligence agent Omar al Bayoumi after 9/11. Bayoumi was one of a trio of Saudis at the center of the Encore investigation for providing critical assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar shortly after their arrival in the U.S. in January 2000.
BACK TO FLORIDA
The appearance of Khaleel in the FBI’s narrative brings the 9/11 case back once again to Florida. The reason: another of his former roommates, Muneer K. Arafat, was an imam from 2000-2003 at a Sarasota-area mosque run by the Islamic Society of Sarasota/Bradenton. He also later served as imam at the Boca Raton Islamic Center.
Arafat gained notoriety in June 2005 when he testified as a government witness at the high-profile terrorism trial of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. Arafat, who admitted being paid $35,000 by the U.S., claimed Al-Arian tried to recruit him in 1988 into joining a faction of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
According to a Dec. 8, 2003 Florida Department of Law Enforcement report obtained by Florida Bulldog, a source told FDLE and FBI agents, “Arafat was a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, who follows a radical belief…and wishes harm to the United States.”
That same year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Arafat testified about his involvement with Khaleel, who also went by the name Ziyad Sadaqa, before a federal grand jury in December 2002. Arafat, a Kuwaiti of Palestinian descent, was transported from Sarasota to St. Louis to testify following his November 2002 arrest for overstaying his visa, the paper said.
Khaleel/Sadaqa died in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in 2002.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Arafat said he and Khaleel raised $20,000 in 2000 for the Holy Land Relief Foundation. In 2001, the U.S. designated the Holy Land group a terrorist organization, and claimed that its leaders were members of Hamas, the militant Islamic group. The foundation is now defunct.
“Arafat said he opposed terrorism and had no reason to believe that the money that Sadaqa sent to the Holy Land Relief Foundation went for anything other than orphans and medical care,” the newspaper wrote.
AN IMAM’S CONNECTIONS
Arafat’s name and phone numbers were also found in the cell phone address book of Wissam Hammoud following Hammoud’s January 2004 arrest in Sarasota for weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and witness. Hammoud pleaded guilty a year later and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has classified Hammoud as an “international terrorist associate,” lists Hammoud as due for early release in September.
Sarasota private detective Bill Warner has tracked Arafat, 57, for years – ever since Warner’s involvement with U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents and the Sarasota Police Department as a confidential informant in a terrorism investigation that began in June 2002.
“My involvement consisted of supplying surveillance photos, background checks and cell phone records,” Warner said. “I obtained the cell phone records of at least 24 individuals, and phone numbers of who they called, linked to the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton, various used car lot owners in Tampa and Sarasota and Imam Muneer Arafat.
“The FBI office in Sarasota was aware of my activity as the local Sarasota Police Department reported directly to them any information I supplied. ICE investigation became a hot issue as it linked to terrorism and was taken over by the FBI in 2003,” Warner said.
“Imam Muneer Arafat in my opinion and from my experience was a double agent. He worked for (the) FBI as a paid confidential informant from 2002-2003, wearing a wire in support of terrorism investigation in Sarasota Fl. and was part of the advance team in early 2000 for 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah also in Sarasota County,” Warner said.
Arafat is believed to have been deported in 2007. He is now living in Amman, Jordan
They trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport. Atta and Shehhi were at the controls of the two passenger jets that struck the World Trade Center. Jarrah led the al Qaeda team that took over United Airlines Flight 93 and crashed it into a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought back.
According to a 15-page FDLE report from April 2004, Hammoud also told authorities that while Arafat was the spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton in 2000 and 2001 he played soccer on its property with Abdulaziz al-Hijji.
Al-Hijji “brought with him a friend to the soccer games. Hammoud advised that this friend was Adnan el Shukrijumah,” the report says.
Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident, later became a suspected al Qaeda leader. The U.S. had a $5 million bounty on his head until he was killed by Pakistani troops in December 2014.
Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers in 2011, reported that Atta and other 9/11 figures spent time at the Sarasota-area home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a Saudi couple with ties to the royal family who two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington abruptly quit their home – leaving behind cars, clothes, jewelry and food in the refrigerator.
FBI records later obtained by Florida Bulldog during Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation state that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”
A second FOIA lawsuit filed by the Bulldog against the FBI in 2016 uncovered the existence of Operation Encore, which later became both a central focus of the New York lawsuit against Saudi Arabia and President Biden’s September executive order.