Failure To Communicate

In January 2000, FBI agents tailing a suspected Qaeda operative in San Diego thought they'd gotten a break. Their target was spotted chatting with the manager of Sam's Star Mart, a local Texaco station. The agents later called the manager, hoping he would tell them about the conversation, and maybe point them toward other suspicious characters. But the man wanted nothing to do with them. "It would be a strain" to come in for an interview, he told them, and refused to give the agents his home address. Faced with a reluctant witness, the agents called it a day and dropped the matter. Looking back, maybe that wasn't the best call. Had the G-men hung in just a little longer, they might have run across one of the manager's recent hires at the Star Mart: Nawaf Alhazmi, a young Saudi national who was already planning for the day 20 months later when he would hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon.

This is just one of dozens of revealing --snapshots to be found in last week's mammoth congressional report on the failures of 9/11. Many of the stories spelled out in its 900 pages are by now, nearly two years after the attacks, familiar: the FBI agent in Phoenix who reported to Washington that large numbers of possible terrorists were signing up for flight school; the bureau lawyers in Washington who refused to let agents search the computer of accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; the CIA's failure to tell the FBI that two of the future 9/11 hijackers had entered the country 20 months before the attacks. Yet the report comes closer than ever before to answering the painful, lingering question: could the attacks have been prevented?

The investigation turned up no damning single piece of evidence that would have led agents directly to the impending attacks. Still, the report makes it chillingly clear that law-enforcement and intelligence agencies might very well have uncovered the plot had it not been for blown signals, sheer bungling--and a general failure to understand the nature of the threat. Richard Clarke, who served as White House coordinator for counterterrorism under President Clinton, told congressional investigators that in 2000, he visited a half-dozen FBI field offices and asked agents what they were doing about Al Qaeda. "I got sort of blank looks of, 'What is Al Qaeda?' " he said.

Last week FBI Director Robert Mueller responded to the report, declaring the bureau "a changed organization" that now makes fighting terrorism its top priority. But the bureau has yet to solve two of the biggest 9/11 mysteries laid out in the report. Did the hijackers depend on a hidden network of supporters in the United States, operatives who may still be at work helping to plan future attacks? An even more intriguing--and politically explosive--question: did some Saudi-government officials secretly assist the hijackers? The most potentially damaging evidence of a possible Saudi connection is contained in a 28-page section of the report--labeled "Certain Sensitive National Security Matters" --that the Bush administration refused to declassify. NEWSWEEK has learned several important details included in that still-secret section. The classified part of the report draws apparent connections between high-level Saudi princes and associates of the hijackers. Especially suspicious is the role of an enigmatic Saudi named Omar al-Bayoumi. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that al-Bayoumi may have visited with a Saudi official--later accused of having terrorist ties--just before meeting the 9/11 plotters. A White House official last week refused to discuss why the administration wouldn't declassify the Saudi section--but insisted that anybody who thinks George W. Bush is protecting foreign officials who might have been implicated in 9/11 is "either nuts or venal."

The search for answers may lead investigators back to San Diego and to the story of al-Bayoumi. In the years before the 9/11 attacks, the surfside California town was a prime destination for Islamic extremists. Tall and gregarious, al-Bayoumi had moved to California in the mid-'90s and had quickly become a fixture in the city's Muslim community. He made friends with fellow Saudis who went to the area, showing up at parties and soccer games, usually with a video camera at the ready. But there were things about him that didn't add up. He told friends he was a business student at San Diego State, but school officials told NEWSWEEK that they had no record of him. He also seemed to have access to an unlimited supply of cash. One day he arrived at a local mosque, plunked down a check for $400,000 and bought it. He explained that he was acting as the agent of a wealthy Riyadh businessman.

Al-Bayoumi had crossed paths with the Feds before. In 1998, FBI documents obtained by NEWSWEEK show, agents received a tip that he had been sent a suspicious-looking package from the Middle East, a box filled with wires--and that large numbers of Arab men routinely met at his apartment. His landlord noticed that one day al-Bayoumi, who drove around in an old junker, arrived home with a new Mercedes. The FBI opened a terrorism investigation but dropped the probe the following year.

In January 2000, al-Bayoumi visited the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles. Law-enforcement officials believe al-Bayoumi may have had a closed-door meeting with Fahad al Thumairy, a member of the consulate's Islamic and Culture Affairs Section. Last March, al Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and was later barred from entry to the United States, reportedly because of suspected links to terrorism.

After meeting al Thumairy, al-Bayoumi went straight to a restaurant, where he first encountered two fellow Saudis: Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who had re--cently arrived from Malaysia, where they had attended the now infamous Qaeda planning summit in Kuala Lumpur. Al-Bayoumi took them to San Diego, got them an apartment and fronted them their first two months' rent.

As it turned out, Almihdhar and Alhazmi later rented a room from another friend of al-Bayoumi's, Abdussattar Shaikh, a local businessman who, amazingly enough, happened to be a longtime FBI informant. Shaikh claimed he was never suspicious of his two Saudi borders; the FBI never bothered to ask him about them. (After the attacks, the informant's FBI handler explained he was never concerned about Alhazmi and Almihdhar because "Saudi Arabia was considered an ally." He also said that he never asked Shaikh about Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden because that was "not an issue in terms of my assignments.")

Two months before September 11, al-Bayoumi suddenly left San Diego and moved to study in Birmingham, England. On Sept. 20, he was picked up by New Scotland Yard and extensively interrogated by British and U.S. officials. Al-Bayoumi claimed he had helped Alhazmi and Almihdhar in the spirit of Muslim brotherhood, and said he had no idea they were terrorists. Al-Bayoumi insisted that he had met the two men by accident when he happened to overhear them speaking in Arabic at a restaurant near the Los Angeles airport. But the congressional report notes that one FBI source recalled that al-Bayoumi said he drove to Los Angeles that day "to pick up visitors." The congressional report quotes the FBI's "best source" in San Diego saying that al-Bayoumi "must be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power." One former top FBI official who helped oversee the al-Bayoumi investigation went one step further: "We firmly believed that he had knowledge [of the 9/11 plot]," he told NEWSWEEK, "and that his meeting with them that day was more than coincidence."

The FBI opened an intense investigation of al-Bayoumi's time in the United States. Agents visited every place he was known to have gone, and compiled 4,000 pages of documents detailing his activities, according to internal FBI reports. The Feds discovered that al-Bayoumi had once claimed to be an employee of Dallah Avco, a Saudi aviation-services company suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda. The firm's owner, Saudi billionaire Saleh Abdullah Kamel, has denied the accusation. Ultimately, though, neither the Brits nor the FBI said they could find enough evidence to charge him as an accomplice, and he was released. But the classified section of the report, NEWSWEEK has learned, indicates that the Saudi Embassy in London pushed for al-Bayoumi's release--another possible indicator of his high-level connections. Al-Bayoumi returned to Riyadh. In interviews with the Arab press, he has continued to profess his innocence. Last week Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, denounced any alleged Saudi connection to the 9/11 plot as "blatantly false."

Soon after the attacks the FBI also began probing many others suspected of aiding the terrorists. FBI officials had once depicted the hijackers as "loners" who stayed out of sight. In fact, the report found, before September 11 agents had investigated at least 14 people who had met with and had dealings with the hijackers. One intriguing figure identified by title, but not by name, in the classified version of the report is a San Diego imam who acted as a "spiritual advisor" to Alhazmi and Almihdhar. The FBI had investigated the cleric, Anwar Aulaqi, once before, suspecting he had ties with terrorists who had tried to blow up New York landmarks in the '90s. But the Feds dropped the probe. The bureau later discovered that Aulaqi moved to Falls Church, Va., at about the same time as Alhazmi and another of the hijackers, Hani Hanjour. Aulaqi later left for England; the bureau has yet to charge him with any crime.

Aulaqi is still well remembered back in San Diego. Lincoln Higgie, an antiques dealer who lived across the street from the mosque where Aulaqi used to lead prayer, told NEWSWEEK that he distinctly recalls the imam knocking on his door in the first week of August 2001 to tell him he was leaving for Kuwait. "He came over before he left and told me that something very big was going to happen, and that he had to be out of the country when it happened," recalls Higgie. If only the FBI had sources like that.