The 9/11 attacks could have been derailed in San Diego, had the CIA not spiked a memo alerting the FBI about an Al Qaeda terrorist who was coming to the United States and ended up living here in 2000.
Former FBI agent Mark Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, said CIA officials blocked the memo to the FBI because the agency was complicit with Saudi intelligence agents who were trying to recruit Khalid al-Mihdhar and/or Nawaf al-Hazmi. Mihdhar and Hazmi, both Saudis, lived in Clairemont and Lemon Grove in 2000 and were in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi and former Clairemont resident who many local Muslims suspected of being a Saudi spy, was assigned to shadow Mihdhar and Hazmi, said Rossini. When asked if Bayoumi was also supposed to recruit the terrorists, Rossini said, “Of course he was. How else could he just bump into them and get them an apartment? That’s the whole point. It’s an outrage.”
Bayoumi’s story was told in the San Diego Reader’s July 27 issue. He emerged as the most enigmatic character in the 9/11 saga. Bayoumi claimed that he met Mihdhar and Hazmi by accident in a Los Angeles restaurant on February 1, 2000, and persuaded them to move to San Diego. On February 4, 2000, he was helping the pair fill out a rental application and move next door to him at a Clairemont apartment complex. He also helped the terrorists open a bank account and paid their first month’s rent, for which he was promptly reimbursed. Bayoumi claimed he was simply doing a favor for fellow Muslims. Investigations by the FBI and 9/11 Commission concluded that Bayoumi did not have prior knowledge of the attacks and the assistance he gave the terrorists was unwitting. Neither body addressed the possibility that he may have been ordered by Saudi intelligence to recruit the pair, though their reports acknowledged that Bayoumi was suspected of being a Saudi agent who kept tabs on local Saudis.
A report released by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General in 2004 said Bayoumi became of peripheral interest to the FBI in 1995 in another terrorism investigation and again in 1998, when the FBI learned he may have been a Saudi agent. But a possible connection to Saudi intelligence alone did not justify an investigation of Bayoumi, because Saudi Arabia was considered a friendly nation, said the report.
Rossini, whose job was counterterrorism, is the first law-enforcement official who investigated the 9/11 attacks to call Bayoumi a Saudi spy. Rossini lives in Europe and was interviewed by phone while visiting family in New York City.
The unsent memo was mentioned in the report by the Office of the Inspector General, which investigated the bureau’s role leading up to the attacks. The report documents how a CIA analyst stopped the FBI agent who wrote the memo from sending it to his superiors. The analyst also ordered Rossini and the memo writer not to even informally tell FBI headquarters about the memo’s contents: a two-paragraph note that said Mihdhar was a member of Al Qaeda and had a U.S. visa. Had the CIA allowed the memo to be sent, Rossini said, he is “200 percent” confident that the 9/11 attacks “would have been stopped.”
Rossini and other retired FBI agents have identified the memo’s author as Doug Miller. Miller acted on January 5, 2000, when he read a CIA cable that said Mihdhar was at an Al Qaeda summit in Malaysia. Miller’s concern was that Mihdhar had a U.S. visa. The FBI is responsible for terrorism investigations in the U.S., and Miller wanted to alert fellow agents that a known Al Qaeda terrorist had authorization to enter the U.S. but nobody knew when or where. (Rossini and Miller are given the pseudonyms Malcolm and Dwight, respectively, in the Office of the Inspector General report.)
There was another reason why the FBI would be interested in Mihdhar. The bureau had opened a criminal investigation into the October 12, 2000, bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. The CIA had information that the man who planned the bombing was at the Malaysia meeting, thus tying Mihdhar to a criminal investigation. However, the CIA learned months later that the bombing mastermind had not been at the meeting.
After more than a decade of dissecting 9/11 and relying on his experience as a counterterrorism investigator, Rossini said the only conclusion he could reach is that the CIA blocked delivery of Miller’s memo because the agency was involved in a clandestine operation on U.S. soil with Saudi intelligence. It is illegal for the CIA to conduct intelligence operations in the United States.
“There’s every reason to believe, circumstantially, that the Saudis were trying to recruit from the middle of the cell with the help of the CIA or the permission of the CIA. The reason why [the memo] was suppressed was because the CIA was working with the Saudi intelligence service; circumstantially everything points to that. It’s not conspiracy. It’s just logic. [The CIA] gave them a free hand to recruit or investigate or contact these boys that were coming to the U.S. to find out what they were doing and what they were up to,” said Rossini.
Had the FBI been notified about Mihdhar’s visa, the FBI would have opened an investigation to begin tracking the terrorist when he arrived at a U.S. airport. Mihdhar and Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000, but the CIA did not learn this until March 5, 2000, when the agency also learned about Hazmi’s presence in America. The CIA again failed to alert the FBI, and the terrorists were not put on a watch list even though they were operational. The U.S. intelligence community had no idea where Mihdhar and Hazmi were.
Mihdhar and Hazmi would not have been difficult to find even if the CIA had waited until March 2000 to notify the FBI about their presence. Hazmi’s name and address were listed in the San Diego telephone directory. His number, which is still out of service, was issued on March 4, 2000, one day before the CIA learned he was in the U.S.