By Robbyn Swan, FloridaBulldog.org
An FBI analysis of phone records, undertaken in 2007 and published by Florida Bulldog for the first time, links the subjects of the Bureau’s probe into the apparent Saudi role in the 9/11 attacks to a key communications hub used by Osama bin Laden.
The analysis shows that on March 2, 2000 – eighteen months before the 9/11 attacks – the phone of a young Somali/Yemeni student in San Diego exchanged a series of calls with a phone number in Yemen that had also been contacted hundreds of times by bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists. The March calls, never before publicly revealed, were the first to the hub from California. In the weeks before, two Saudi government employees had repeated telephone contacts with the student. Those contacts, FBI agents came to suspect, were “set up calls” to prepare for the first hijackers’ arrival in the U.S.
Evidence of the relationship among the two Saudis, Fahad al Thumairy and Omar al Bayoumi, and the student, emerges from thousands of pages of FBI files released in recent months under an Executive Order issued by President Biden in September 2021. Most of the documents, once deemed “state secrets” by the Trump administration, reflect the work of agents involved in Operation Encore, a follow-up investigation to the FBI’s original 9/11 investigation, PENTTBOM. Operation Encore’s existence was first revealed by Florida Bulldog in 2016.
Operation Encore was set up in 2007 in part to examine whether three Saudi men – Thumairy, Bayoumi and Musaed al Jarrah, a mid-level official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington – had provided hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi with assistance when they arrived in California in January 2000. If so, had the trio “wittingly provided such assistance” with the knowledge that the pair “were in the U.S. to commit an act of terrorism”?
In spite of the FBI’s further investigative efforts, U.S. Attorneys for the Southern District of New York concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the three Saudis. The FBI, for its part, officially closed the case file in 2021. “All leads,” the final memo asserts, “have been completed.”
‘HISTORY…TO BE REWRITTEN’
The story that emerges from the newly released files, however, appears far from complete. And, the material relating to Thumairy, Bayoumi and the “set up calls,” contains just the kind of “additional information” and “contradicting statements” the FBI’s closing memo suggested it had resolved. The discovery of the Yemen call, moreover, resulted in a flurry of analysis and interviews over five years – the results of which are still censored in their entirety from the Encore closing memo.
The story that unfolds would appear to negate the 9/11 Commission’s “impression” that “Hazmi and Mihdhar sought out and found” the young men they associated with in San Diego. 9/11 survivor Sharon Premoli, who was severely injured in the collapse of the WTC’s North Tower, believes that with the story that emerges here, “History is about to be rewritten.”
In October 2006, while reviewing data gathered from its ACS (Automated Case Support) system, FBI agents in San Diego came upon a previously unknown call made on March 2, 2000, while Hazmi and Mihdhar were settling into life in San Diego. The call came from a number in Yemen – +9671200578 – that had been used for years before 9/11 as a communications hub for al Qaeda.
Sometime in 1996, the National Security Agency – which intercepts electronic communications worldwide – had identified the number as one that Osama bin Laden called often from his satellite phone in Afghanistan. The number rang at a house in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, owned by a man Bin Laden had known since the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. The number became a priority target for the NSA, and its coverage of calls to and from it, reports have said were “cast iron.”
The discovery, for example, that both Osama bin Laden and one of the bombers in the 1998 attacks at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had called the number before and after the attacks, had proved a vital element linking the attack to al Qaeda. The daughter of the house’s owner, U.S. intelligence also learned, was married to a man named Khalid — future 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar.
There is no clue in the FBI files as to why the March 2 call to the al Qaeda hub remained undiscovered until 2006. There is nothing to explain how or when the call made it into the FBI’s ACS system, or what specifically moved agents to begin a review of the files in 2006. While a record of the call should have been in NSA files, official investigations had shown it had not shared information about similar calls with the FBI. Agency veterans have said that the NSA didn’t always know what it had, or share what it knew. The NSA did not respond to questions about the calls.
When they did discover the March 2 call to the hub, FBI agents swiftly linked it and two other calls that day, to the phone’s owner in San Diego. Further work revealed contacts between the student, and Operation Encore subjects Bayoumi, Thumairy and Jarrah.
AIDARUS AND THE FBI
The San Diego phone belonged to a 25-year-old Somali/Yemeni student, Fathi M. Aidarus, whose name and phone number the FBI failed to redact from the documents it has made public. He currently resides on the Arabian peninsula. He has not responded to Florida Bulldog’s repeated requests for an interview.
Aidarus was interviewed by the FBI back in late 2001, when his name and number were found during searches of two of the hijackers’ other San Diego friends, Omer Barkarbashat and Mohdar Abdullah. Abdullah had been instructed by Bayoumi to help the hijackers get acclimated in the U.S. and had done so.
When interviewed in 2001, another 2006 report notes, Aidarus had admitted having been friends with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, but his “knowledge of the two 9/11 hijackers was not further exploited” by his interviewers. Now, agents raced to find him. What they learned over the coming months would become an integral part of Operation Encore – though it was never enough to charge Aidarus with any crime, much less show that he was a willing participant in the 9/11 plot.
Though of Yemeni heritage, Aidarus appears from records to have been born in Mogadishu, Somalia. In the early 1990s, at 16, he had emigrated to Toronto, Canada. He later attended university in Ottawa, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1999. Later that year, having secured a job offer from a security firm in San Diego, he became eligible for a three-year H1B visa for specialist workers. Aidarus drove to San Diego, crossing the border at Ogdensburg, NY, on Oct. 23. He would settle into an apartment on Beadnell Way, a short walk from the Islamic Center of San Diego – where many of those associated with the future hijackers attended prayer — acquire a phone, and begin his job.
As they examined these details in 2007, FBI agents noted how Aidarus’s movements had intersected or mirrored those of other subjects in whom they were interested. He and Mohdar Abdullah, for example, had lived in Ottawa at the same time. Aidarus held two Canadian passports, and they suspected that he might be trying to mask his entries to the U.S. or, like Abdullah, might have engaged in some sort of visa fraud.
Most importantly, agents had uncovered an unusual series of calls placed from Aidarus’s phone. These calls seemed to link Aidarus with Saudi citizen Omar al Bayoumi, two Saudi embassy officials – Fahad al-Thumairy and Musaed al-Jarrah – and Anwar Awlaki, who had been an Imam at a mosque that hijackers al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar attended in San Diego, and later at a mosque Hazmi attended in Virginia. (Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, became a senior al Qaeda figure after 9/11. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.)
‘PATTERN OF CONTACT’
“During a three day period at the end of December 1999,” agents reported, “approximately two-and a half weeks prior to the arrival of al Midhar and al Hazmi, al Thumairy made a number of phone calls in that the pattern of contact, including individuals and frequency, does not appear to have been duplicated prior to nor after this date.”
The list of calls covered the period from Dec. 27 to 29, 1999. Over that time, and sometimes within minutes of each other, Thumairy had made 21 calls to the individuals named above – eight of them to Aidarus.
“Prior to 12/27/1999 and after 12/29, 1999,” the report goes on, “al Thumairy does not appear to have had additional telephonic contact with [Aidarus]. [Aidarus] had just two months prior to this contact moved from Ottawa, Canada to San Diego, California. It is still unclear why a Somali/Yemeni student living in San Diego would receive eight calls over a three-day period from a Saudi Imam located in Los Angeles. Nor is it clear how the two would have first been introduced.”
Phone calls were also being exchanged 10,000 miles away in Malaysia that week, as al Qaeda members – including Hazmi and Mihdhar – responded to an instruction from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to gather in Kuala Lumpur. There, the two hijackers would receive a final briefing before heading for the U.S.
In addition to the series of calls involving Aidarus, Saudi diplomat Thumairy also received a call from Malaysia in those final days of December. In that call, a source told Operation Encore agents, a caller asked to speak to Thumairy “regarding the imminent arrival of ‘two brothers … who needed their assistance.’ “ The “two brothers“according to the source were Hazmi and Mihdhar.
While Aidarus’s phone contacts with Thumairy ended in December, the records make clear that his contacts with Omar Bayoumi then took off. He made seven calls to Bayoumi between January and March 2000. Mihdhar and Hazmi had arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. By early February, they had met Bayoumi and relocated to San Diego.
And then there were the March 2, 2000 calls to and from Aidarus’s phone to the al Qaeda hub.
QUESTIONS FOR AIDARUS
Armed with this detail, the Encore agents and members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) put together a detailed list of questions for Aidarus. By that time, he had married, had two children, and earned a master’s degree in computer science. In 2006, Aidarus and his family had left California, moved back to Canada, and he had taken a job just over the border in Niagara Falls, NY.
It was there, at his office, in July 2007, that Aidarus was confronted by agents from the FBI, JTTF and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Then and in three subsequent interviews over the next 15 months, Aidarus gave differing replies to questions about the phone calls, his relationships with hijackers and the other men involved in the calls.
Notes of the interviews reflect that Aidarus was tearful at first, then – after consulting an attorney and insisting the attorney be present at future interviews – said he was willing to cooperate. He then stopped responding to agents’ requests for contact. When Aidarus took a new job, and moved back to San Diego, one of the New York agents flew out to confront him again. In late September 2008, agents intercepted Aidarus on the sidewalk and he agreed to meet them at his home later in the day.
Aidarus at first told agents that, on his arrival in San Diego in 1999, he had rented a small one-bedroom apartment where he lived alone. When pushed, he remembered he had had a Saudi roommate – whose name he could not fully recall – from January to May, 2000. Later still, he recalled being asked by Bayoumi to host two visiting Saudi imams who had come to San Diego in the last two weeks of December 1999.
The FBI knew Aidarus had exchanged a dozen calls with Bayoumi, but he at first claimed he did not know him well, that the older man had only approached him to discuss his “business model.” Later he said that Bayoumi – in a request that mirrored what he had asked of Abdullah – had “told him to help the hijackers get around … because they did not read or write English and needed assistance in comprehending the locality.” Aidarus said Bayoumi told him he “was responsible for” Hazmi and Mihdhar.
Aidarus’s description of his friendship with Mihdhar and Hazmi also evolved. At first he claimed the hijackers never visited his apartment, then that they came regularly to the apartment to visit his Saudi roommate, then that they had regularly visited him, that he had played soccer with the pair, gone to Starbucks and the San Diego Zoo. He said he thought the pair were just “students,” that he could not have imagined they would have been involved in terrorist activity because they were “not smart.” And that he vomited when he saw their pictures on television after the attacks.
Aidarus claimed he had known Mohdar Abdullah “only casually” – yet Abdullah had reached out to him by email as recently as 2004. As to Anwar Awlaki, who had traded calls with Thumairy and Bayoumi in the same period as himself, Aidarus said he did not know him well. Awlaki was “too political,” Aidarus said, and he himself was “not particularly interested in such things.” Later he admitted that he had attended a dinner given by Awlaki at the Masjid ar Ribat mosque, where Awlaki served as Imam.
QAEDA HUB IN YEMEN
As for Thumairy, with whom – records showed – Aidarus had shared eight phone calls, he denied knowing him as anything but a “guy who worked at the Saudi Embassy”. He also denied having received or made any phone calls to or from Thumairy, Bayoumi or Awlaki during December 1999. He suggested rather that the calls might have been made by the two Imams whom Bayoumi had asked him to house, by his Saudi roommate, or Khalid al-Mihdhar. Al- Mihdhar was not yet in the U.S. at that time.
And the March calls to the al Qaeda hub in Yemen? Those, too, Aidarus denied having made or received. He said he did not know anyone in Yemen. He suggested that the calls must have been made by his Saudi roommate, calling his “folks.” He did not have a reply, agents noted, when questioned as to why the “folks” of a Saudi national would be residing in Yemen.
In his final interview, Aidarus recalled having had an argument with Mihdhar for having twice used his phone to call Yemen. The first time, Aidarus said, al Mihdhar paid him in cash for the call. The second time, however, after making a call that lasted 30 minutes, Mihdhar had not paid him back. If true, this might account for the March 2 call. There is no record, though, of the second call Aidarus claims Mihdhar had made from his phone.
Attorneys involved in the long-running civil case brought by 9/11 victims and survivors against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are also now examining the newly released files. Though they have been provided with more fully released versions of many documents, the lawyers are prevented by a strict court order from revealing any additional details. They therefore cannot confirm or deny our identification of Aidarus or the details of his story.
Asked to comment on the contacts reported here, Jodi Westbrook Flowers, lead attorney for Motley Rice, one of the firms representing the families in the case, was nonetheless, categorical.
These pages, she told Florida Bulldog, “detail Saudi Arabian material support in the lead-up to the attacks that includes a host of suspicious calls with known al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden communications hubs in Yemen and Malaysia … [and] confirms what the Plaintiffs have alleged for years on the extent of Saudi Arabian involvement in sponsoring al Qaeda extremists prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks.”
Neither the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, nor lawyers acting for the Kingdom in the civil case, responded to a request for comment.
FBI’S PUSH FOR ANSWERS
Agents’ efforts to unravel Aidarus’s story did not end with his last interview in September 2008. They had noted the “inconsistencies” and that certain answers Aidarus had given contradicted those of other witnesses they had interviewed. It seemed significant to the FBI that witnesses had described Aidarus as “very organized, rapidly soliciting information from individuals and committing it to memory.” One source, agents reflected, “went so far as to state that he seemed ‘trained’…”
The FBI’s push for answers about Aidarus’s phone contacts included repeated attempts between 2007 and 2011 to question Mohdhar Abdullah. Aidarus’s name and phone number had been in Abdullah’s wallet when Abdullah was detained after 9/11, and he, too, had befriended the hijackers at the behest of Omar Bayoumi. In the end, the only relevant information Abdullah provided was the suggestion that someone bearing a name similar to Aidarus’s had been the hijackers “closest friend” in San Diego.
The documents as released contain no further information about Aidarus, the Thumairy calls or the contact with the Yemen al Qaeda hub. A May 2021 closing memo on the case is marked by a lengthy redaction at the point at which a summation of the FBI’s findings on the call to Yemen would logically be included. It is hard to imagine that – if agents had discovered an innocent explanation for the call – there would be need for such a redaction. The FBI has declined to comment on any of the matters reported here.
Aidarus lives in the Middle East. Mohdhar Abdullah lives in Sweden. Both Omar al Bayoumi and Musaed al Jarrah were identified during the course of Operation Encore as having been employees of Saudi intelligence. Long-time Saudi embassy official Fahad al-Thumairy was expelled from the U.S. in 2003, because of suspected ties to extremism. The three men are currently believed to reside in Saudi Arabia.
“For years, the FBI did everything to thwart our pursuit of justice,” survivor Sharon Premoli said when asked about this story. “But now, thanks to President Biden’s Executive Order, the Saudis can no longer claim they were exonerated by the 9/11 Commission Report. The documents and the FBI implicate Saudi Arabia.”
(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.)