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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Man Who Paved The Road To 9/11

Former Green Beret Ali Mohamed Built The Critical Infrastructure Al Qaeda Used For the September 11 Attack

By J.M. Berger

CLICK HERE for this story with full formatting, hypertext annotations and illustrations.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is widely regarded as the Justice Department's top gun on al Qaeda. He appeared before the 9/11 Commission in June 2004 to outline his views on the terrorist network's most critical components.
Fitzgerald spent almost an entire page of his five-page prepared statement[1] discussing one man -- Ali A. Mohamed, a senior al Qaeda associate who infiltrated the U.S. Army and played tag with the FBI for nearly a decade before being stopped.

Sidebar: Who is Ali Mohamed?

Fitzgerald did not spare a single word for Ramzi Yousef. He mentioned blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman only once -- as a tangent to Mohamed. Fitzgerald spent more time discussing Mohamed than talking about Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's chief ideologist and purported second-in-command.

The emphasis could not have been more clear. Yet the final report of the 9/11 Commission did not reflect Fitzgerald's concern. The report barely mentioned Mohamed, spending a great deal of capital on Yousef, even as its findings dismissed the World Trade Center bomber as a "freelance" terrorist only loosely affiliated with al Qaeda.

While Yousef likely played a critical role devising the plot that eventually became the September 11 attack, Ali Mohamed was the utility player who created al Qaeda's terrorist infrastructure in the United States -- a series of connections, ideas, techniques and specific tools used by the plot's hijackers and masterminds.

Although Mohamed was arrested in 1998, his infrastructure remained not only intact but virtually unmonitored until after 9/11. Even as his network was dragged into the light, his role in facilitating the attacks remained obscure, in no small part because Mohamed himself has been locked away from the public and the judicial system, his pre-9/11 plea deal with the government now frozen in secret, semi-permanent limbo.

Despite the secrecy surrounding his terrorist career and subsequent detention, Mohamed's operations and connections in the United States intersect with the September 11 plot -- not just once but repeatedly.


Immediately after the September 11 attack, Ali A. Mohamed -- like many other terrorist inmates -- was placed into a maximum security detention setting, cut off from the outside world and from all media reports.

Shortly afterward, he was interrogated by his FBI handler, Special Agent Jack Cloonan. Cloonan asked the al Qaeda trainer to tell him how they did it.

"I don't believe he was privy to all the details, but what he laid out was the attack as if he knew every detail," Cloonan said in a 2006 documentary.[2] "This is how you position yourself. I taught people to sit in first class." Mohamed described teaching al Qaeda terrorists how to smuggle box cutters onto airplanes.

"It was just kind of eerie," Cloonan said.

Cloonan believes that Mohamed did not have direct knowledge of the plot.

"I think he probably understood that the World Trade Center was a target at some point, but he wouldn't have known of the plot as it unfolded," Cloonan said. "Remember he was basically in our custody since 1998."

It may or may not be true that Mohamed had no knowledge of the specific 9/11 plot.[3]

But the Egyptian terrorist did know the tactics used by the hijackers. He knew the specific location of the private post office boxes where the hijackers received mail in the United States.

He knew al Qaeda was sponsoring flight training for terrorists. He knew of at least one specific terrorist operation centered on a suicide airplane attack. And he knew at least three terrorist pilots personally.

He was linked to at least one of the specific schools visited by the 9/11 hijackers. He knew the internal procedures of the security company that maintained two checkpoints used by hijackers at Boston's Logan Airport.

And Mohamed was one of the primary sources for the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike In U.S."

Whether or not Mohamed knew the particulars of the 9/11 plot, he knew a lot. Businesses and institutions exploited by Mohamed and his close associates were re-used by virtually all of the 9/11 hijackers as they prepared for the attack.

Almost all of these investigative leads were discovered, reviewed and then forgotten or dismissed by the FBI prior to September 11. Even after the attacks, after the law enforcement investigation and two independent probes of pre-9/11 intelligence failures, virtually none of this material has been presented to the public in coherent form.


Ali Mohamed joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad some time around 1984; he reported to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. His very first terrorist assignment was design strategies to hijack planes from the Cairo airport.[4]

Over the course of the next several years, Mohamed refined his techniques and pass them on to others. By 1992, he was formally training al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan in hijacking techniques, including where to sit and how to smuggle small weapons onto planes -- including utility knives like those used in the September 11 plot.[5]

Mohamed trained terrorists on behalf of al Qaeda in locations from Afghanistan to New Jersey, from London to Somalia. Ramzi Yousef -- who with his uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohammed came up with the first draft of the 9/11 plan -- was a student at al Qaeda's Afghanistan camps during the years Mohamed was teaching hijacking tactics there.[6]

His uncle traveled in and out of Pakistan during the same period, although his precise movements are somewhat less thoroughly documented.

Screen shot from Intelfiles DVD STK1
While in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Mohamed wrote the core al Qaeda training manual, a compendium of information on how to commit terrorist acts that would later become known as the Encyclopedia of Jihad. Many of Mohamed's trainees were eventually taught to be trainers themselves.


Hijacking was only part of the story, however. Mohamed was also directly linked to several initiatives to recruit and train pilots for al Qaeda.

At least three of Mohamed's close associates were trained as pilots.

Mohamed lived and worked in Santa Clara, California through much of the 1990s. His neighbor and close working partner was Khalid Abu El-Dahab, another Egyptian, who helped Mohamed recruit at least 10 American citizens as terrorists working for Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al Qaeda.

Dahab had taken flight training on behalf of EIJ. After his capture and interrogation by Egyptian authorities in 1998, Dahab claimed the training was intended for an improbable-sounding plan to stage a prison break at one of Egypt's most secure prisons -- using hang gliders.[7]

L'Houssaine Kherchtou, an al Qaeda member trained by Ali Mohamed, was also trained as a pilot on orders from al Qaeda. In 1993, Kherchtou attended a meeting in which al Qaeda operatives discussed air traffic control systems.[8] There are indications al Qaeda may have intended to use Kherchtou as a suicide pilot.

Although Kherchtou wasn't formally clued about these plans for his future, he did suspect the terrorist network was working on some sort of aerial attack.

"(Kherchtou) observed an Egyptian person who was not a pilot debriefing a friend of his, Ihab Ali, about how air traffic control works and what people say over the air traffic control system, and it was his belief that there might have been a plan to send a pilot to Saudi Arabia or someone familiar with that to monitor the air traffic communications so they could possibly attack an airplane," Patrick Fitzgerald told a New York court in 2001.[9]

The Egyptian "person who was not a pilot" was never identified. The other man at the meeting -- Ihab Ali -- is a different story.

Yet another of Ali Mohamed trainees, Ihab Ali provides one of the tightest links between Ali Mohamed and September 11.


Ihab Ali was born in Egypt, but his family moved to Orlando, Fla., while still in high school. Recruited into an al Qaeda-linked extremist network in Texas during the late 1980s,[10] Ihab Ali helped Ali Mohamed move Osama bin Laden from Afghanistanto the Sudan in 1991. Later, Mohamed groomed Ihab Ali to become a terrorist trainer himself.[11] The two remained in close contact until Mohamed's arrest.[12]

In 1993, Ihab Ali signed up for flight training at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma.[13] He obtained a commercial pilot's license and subsequently flew a transport craft on behalf of al Qaeda, along with Kherchtou. (It was not a successful venture; the pair crashed the plane in Khartoum.)[14]

Documents found on Ali Mohamed's computer led the FBI to Ihab Ali, who was arrested in May 1999[15] and eventually indicted -- on September 11, 2000.[16]

FBI agents traveled to the Airman school and made queries, which were soon forgotten. An INTELWIRE search of address records found that Ali had even listed the Norman school as his home address at one point. The address would take on paramount importance in the September 11 plot.

In the most crucial link, the school was visited by 9/11 cell commander Mohammed Atta and hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi in June or July 2000.

Atta had inquired about the school prior to his arrival in the U.S. When he came to America, he listed the school as his home address on a cell phone application.[17] For reasons unknown, Atta and Shehhi eventually decided to attend school in Florida instead.

Several months later, yet another al Qaeda member would enroll at the Norman school -- Zacarias Moussaoui.

Like Atta, he contacted the school before entering the country. Like both Ihab Ali and Atta, Moussaoui adopted the tactic of listing the flight school's address as his own.

And -- like Atta -- Moussaoui had been sent to the United States by al Qaeda's 9/11 masterminds, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh.

Although virtually no one now believes the early allegation that Moussaoui was the "20th hijacker," he was clearly wired into al Qaeda -- and the same part of al Qaeda that was patiently and relentlessly marching toward September 11.

Moussaoui came to the attention of the FBI and was arrested in August 2001, but bureaucratic obstacles delayed a search of his laptop computer, despite anxious efforts by FBI agents on the scene.

No one linked Moussaoui to Ihab Ali, despite the fact that the FBI had been investigated Ali's attendance at the school less than a year earlier. Ali's flight records had been introduced in the embassy bombing trial in April 2001 -- just four months earlier.

Though indicted prior to September, Ihab Ali never went to trial. His case is simply pending without further explanation in the docket. He is now cooperating with the government. Despite the fact he has never been tried, Ihab Ali today lives in an undisclosed federal prison.[18]


The Airman Flight School was not the only location visited by Mohammed Atta that also turns up in the Ali Mohamed story.

At least nine hijackers lived in New Jersey, at least briefly, between summer 2000 and 9/11. Several witnesses reported -- to both the news media and the FBI -- seeing Atta and Shehhi in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the neighborhood of the al-Salaam Mosque, mainly during the summer of 2000.[19]

Ali Mohamed and many of his terrorist trainees visited the mosque several times in 1989, meeting with members of the nascent New York terror cell. It later became notorious as the home base for Omar Abdel Rahman during the 1990s.

The mosque was located at 2824 Kennedy Ave., Jersey City, the address for the third floor. On the second floor of the building was an Afghanistan "refugees assistance" office used by members of the cell. Mohamed used the office as a distribution node for his terrorist training manuals.[20]

On the ground floor of the same building, with the address 2828 Kennedy Ave., is a business called Sphinx Trading Co., an overseas money transfer, check-cashing and private mailbox service with branches in New Jersey and Cairo, Egypt.

Various terrorist training materials written by Ali Mohamed advise undercover operatives to keep a post office box away from their home, in a location used by others of their nationality, for communication with fellow operatives.[21]

At minimum, two Ali Mohamed-trained members of the New York cell -- El Sayyid Nosair and Siddig Ali Siddig -- are confirmed to have kept mailboxes at Sphinx Trading during the 1990s, as did the blind Sheikh himself.[22]

A decade later, the mailboxes were still being used by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.

Testifying in a sealed proceeding in 2002, a New Jersey policeman said the FBI told him that "several of the hijackers involved in the September 11th event also had mailboxes at that location."[23]

Police searched the office of a New Jersey businessman whose name appeared on the Sphinx Trading Co. incorporation papers and found the names and phone numbers of several hijackers among his papers. The businessman eventually admitted having sold fake identification cards to two of the hijackers.

The police officer testified in 2002 that the FBI had shut down the New Jersey police investigation of these connections, without explanation but amid unconfirmed rumors (reported by the New York Times) that the businessman was himself an FBI informant. All terrorism charges against the businessman were eventually dropped.[24]

Two other men connected to the Sphinx Trading location were arrested on September 11 on suspicion of being connected to the hijacking plot.

Forced off an airplane when all flights were grounded that day, the men were carrying cash, passports, hair dye and box-cutters. Both men had shaved their entire bodies, consistent with instructions followed by the 9/11 hijackers.

They lived half a block away from the Al-Salaam Mosque and Sphinx.

Their neighbors and nearby businesspeople reported having seen Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi on the same block.

One of the two men also kept a mailbox at Sphinx Trading Co.[25]


One of the most intriguing links between Mohamed and 9/11 is also perhaps the least explained.

During the 1990s, Mohamed made various efforts to infiltrate sensitive U.S. locations, presumably in keeping with his ongoing mission to collect intelligence on behalf of al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

In 1995, Mohamed obtained employment with the Burns International Security Co., a private company that provided security services to businesses and government agencies. (Timothy McVeigh once worked for the company's armored car division.)

Mohamed was assigned as a security guard at a Northrop Grumman facility that developed sensitive components used in nuclear weapons. Mohamed sought a security clearance to work in the facility's classified areas, but his application was denied.[26]

Burns is a massive conglomerate with multiple divisions and thousands of employees. It was bought by and became a division of Securitas in 2000. So it's difficult, on many levels, to judge whether Mohamed would have been able to leverage his access usefully. Certainly, the Egyptian's track record with the U.S. Army certainly showed that he was capable of exploiting any kind of access to maximum effect.

Although it would be premature to make a definitive statement about what Mohamed may have accomplished through this job posting, Burns Security did surface on September 11 -- in two different capacities.

A Burns division known as Globe Aviation Services provided checkpoint screening at Logan Airport, including two specific checkpoints used by the 9/11 hijackers.[27] As previously noted, Mohamed did a great deal of work for al Qaeda regarding airline security, including surveillance of airports, devising hijacking schemes and smuggling box-cutters onto planes for use as a weapon.

Burns was also connected to a still-unexplained incident in Virginia. Shortly after September 11, the FBI arrested a Burns employee from the Washington, D.C. area named Mohammed Abdi.

Abdi was a Somali national. He left that country for America in 1993 -- shortly after Ali Mohamed was rumored to have trained Somali insurgents on behalf of al Qaeda.[28] After moving to the United States, he worked in a food service job at Reagan National Airport, then subsequently for Burns as a security guard at a federal mortgage processing facility.

When the FBI found the car left behind the five 9/11 hijackers who departed from Dulles Airport near Washington, they discovered a map of the D.C. area with Abdi's name and phone number written with a yellow highlighter.

Burns' Globe subsidiary provided security at both Reagan and Logan airports.[29] Investigators discovered Abdi had removed five Burns security guard jackets from his workplace before September 11. He attempted to give them to the Salvation Army three days after the attack.[30]

Like so many others who intersected -- perhaps only coincidentally -- with Ali Mohamed's long trail of associations, Abdi was never convicted of any crime related to terrorism. He was sentenced to four months in prison for check forgery and released under supervision in January 2002.


In 2004, the White House was forced to release a top-secret intelligence briefing that had been delivered to President Bush on August 6, 2001. The Presidential Daily Brief, or PDB, consisted of a one page report on al Qaeda's past efforts and future intentions to stage attacks on U.S. soil.[31]

"If you look to the six or seventeen sentences that are in there, from what I've seen, all that information came from Ali," said FBI Special Agent Jack Cloonan.[32]

The briefing included several references that clearly pertained to Mohamed.

"Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

"Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

"A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks."

The briefing also cited foreign government sources as saying "After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, and "an Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative [ said ] at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike."

The latter piece of intelligence was likely extracted from Mohamed's Santa Clara co-conspirator Khalid Dahab, an American citizen who was captured and interrogated by Egyptian authorities in 1998.


One very specific piece of intelligence provided by Ali Mohamed did not make it onto the President's brief.

Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, a Sudanese national living in the United States, had attempted to mount a suicide airplane attack as early as 1992. Under this early plan, a Sudanese Air Force pilot would steal a military plane, use to bomb the home of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek, then crash the plane into the American Embassy.[33]

Siddig Ali was a member of a Brooklyn-centered terrorist cell led by blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The cell's most dangerous members had been trained by Ali Mohamed in New Jersey in 1989 -- and Siddig had been one of his students.

Mohamed told the FBI about the plot around the same time he was negotiating his plea agreement in 2000, according to Cloonan.[34]

The plot should not have come as news to the FBI. In spring 1993, informant Emad Salem told the FBI all about it. He even testified about the scheme in open court.

Emad Salem was an Egyptian national who infiltrated the Brooklyn group on behalf of the FBI. He had served in the Egyptian army around the same time as Mohamed. (During Rahman's 1993 trial, defense attorneys attempted to ask Salem if he had met Mohamed in Egypt, but the line of questioning was cut off as irrelevant.)

In 1993, Siddig Ali asked Salem to help the pilot find "gaps in the air defense in Egypt so he can drive to bomb the presidential house, and then turn around, crash the plane into the American embassy after he eject himself out of the plane (...) ."

Salem was also asked to assist the pilot in escaping. Salem testified that he informed his contacts in the Egyptian government of the threat. It's unclear whether the pilot was ever arrested, or whether the plot ever went beyond the discussion stage.


Despite the web of linkages between Ali Mohamed and the September 11 plot, it's very difficult to properly evaluate the scope of the intelligence failure. Many of the connections are somewhat ambiguous, but some are not.

There are a number of outstanding questions that remain to be answered. The primary obstacle is that full view of the case has been hopelessly obscured by the level of government secrecy around Mohamed and his dealings with U.S. intelligence services.

Additional complications arise from Mohamed's relationship with the Justice Department both before and after his arrest and the valid concerns faced by his custodians in terms of both protecting Mohamed's life and keeping him securely detained.

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of the linkages and their nature overwhelmingly suggest that Ali Mohamed built a substantial network of prospects, contacts, services and tactics for use by al Qaeda operatives in the United States. And Mohamed has -- without a doubt -- been succeeded by others who now maintain that network.

There is an element of the exceptional around Mohamed. There have been few figures in the known history of espionage to wreak such havoc, and to operate so openly in front of the enemy. He was a prodigy, and his skills help explain his success -- to a degree.

Yet, it is equally certain that U.S. authorities could and should have done more to stop him. Mohamed himself once remarked that "Americans see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear."[35] Mohamed exploited that vulnerability with brazen charm.

But his skills -- formidable as they were -- do not represent a complete explanation of his career. There is more to the story.

Look for additional installments of the Unlocking 9/11 series on INTELWIRE through the fall and winter of 2006.

[1] Statement of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, United States Attorney, Northern District Of Illinois, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, June 16, 2004
[2] All Cloonan material in this story is drawn from National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in America, original air date Monday, August 28, 2006. INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger was lead researcher for the documentary.
[3]Mohamed's possible relationship to Khalid Shaikh Mohamed will be examined in a forthcoming INTELWIRE story.
[4] National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in America, original air date Monday, August 28, 2006
[5] Op cit.
[6] See INTELWIRE report: Unlocking 9/11; Who Called The Shots In WTC 1993?,
[7] Islamic Jihad 'Confessions' Described, FBIS-NES-1999-0309, March 6, 1999
[8] See also Report Warned Of Suicide Hijackings,, May 17, 2002,
[9] US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, February 21, 2001
[10] St. Petersburg Times, Pilot led a quiet life in Orlando, Chuck Murphy, October 28, 2001
[11] USA v Ali Mohamed, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023 (LBS), Plea Hearing, October 20, 2000
[12] US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, May 2, 2001
[13] US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, April 4, 2001
[14] St. Petersburg Times, Pilot led a quiet life in Orlando, Chuck Murphy, October 28, 2001
[15] New York Times, A 6th Suspect Said to Be Tied To bin Laden Is in Custody, Benjamin Weiser, May 22, 1999
[16] Docket, 1:00-cr-00919-LAK* USAv. Ali
[18] USA v. Zacarias Moussaoui, 1:01cr455, March 7, 2006
[19]Associated Press, Mysterious pair in custody perplexes federal investigators, Wayne Parry, November 11, 2001; The Jersey Journal, Neighborhood tired of suspicions and fear, Falasten M. Abdeljabbar, December 18, 2001
[20] US v Omar Abdel Rahman, et al, S5 93 Cr. 181 (MBM),, July 13, 1995
[21]"Manchester Manual," US v. Usama bin Laden et al, S(7) 98 Cr. 1023
[22] John Kifner, "Kahane Suspect Is a Muslim With a Series of Addresses," New York Times, November 7, 1990; Author research of address records; Transcript, Sealed Bail Hearing, US v. El-Atriss, November 19, 2002
[23] Ibid. The transcripts were unsealed after a lawsuit by several organizations including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Transcript provided by attorney Louis Pashman, representing New Jersey media plaintiffs, for National Geographic Presents Triple Cross, op cit.
[24] New York Times, 4 Transcripts Are Released In Case Tied to 9/11 Hijackers, Robert Hanley and Jonathan Miller, June 25, 2003; Associated Press, Judge releases transcripts in Sept. 11 fake IDs case, Wayne Parry, June 24, 2003
[25] The men were eventually deported, but not charged with terrorist acts. See Associated Press, Mysterious pair in custody perplexes federal investigators, Wayne Parry, November 11, 2001; New York Times, Fear and Loathing, Laura Mansnerus, October 28, 2001; New York Times, Ex-Suspect Expects Deportation, Benjamin Weiser, September 19, 2002; New York Times, Former Hijacking Suspect Deported, December 31, 2002
[26]Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in America, international edition
[27]INTELWIRE Exclusive document, TSA: Security Screening of the 9/11 Hijackers
[28] Human Events, Somali immigrant tied to hijackers by D.C. map worked at Reagan Airport, and as Burns guard, Timothy Carney, October 15, 2001. Sources conflict on whether Ali Mohamed actually went to Somalia, or whether he simply supported al Qaeda's efforts to train tribal leaders there in some more remote capacity. At any rate, al Qaeda's infiltration of the country in 1992 and 1993 is undisputed, as is Mohamed's active role with al Qaeda in Africaduring this period.
[29] Washington Post, Va.Man Probed For Link To Attack, Bond Is Denied For Alexandrian, Brooke A. Masters and Dan Eggen, September 27, 2001
[30] Washington Post, Va.Man With Possible Sept. 11 Tie Is Sentenced, Brooke A. Masters, January 12, 2002
[32]National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in America, original air date Monday, August 28, 2006
[33] See INTELWIRE report:
[34]National Geographic Presents Triple-Cross, bin Laden's Spy in America, original air date Monday, August 28, 2006
[35] US v Omar Abdel Rahman, et al, S5 93 Cr. 181 (MBM), Exhibit Nosair JJJ-1, videotape of Ali Mohamed

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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