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A Phoenix Field Office Special Agent Spotted bin Laden's Strategy: New 9/11 Clue

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

After discovering existing intelligence that no one at the CIA had paid attention to, Margaret Gillespie, the FBI analyst detailed to the bin Laden station at the Counterterrorist Center (CTC), on August 23 requested that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi be added to the Department of State's watch-list for denying visas to individuals attempting to enter the United States. By now, U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had determined that at least al-Mihdhar was still likely in the United States, and that there was no evidence that al-Hazmi had left.

The new flurry of activity prompted FBI headquarters to request that the New York and Los Angeles field offices undertake a search for the men. In a lackadaisical and non-priority computer search, the FBI's New York field office finds no evidence of either. The Los Angeles field office received the search request on September 11, 2001.

The CTC requested that the State Department, Customs, and INS add Mihdhar and Hazmi to watch lists. The three existing watch lists were State's VISA/VIPER for visas, the TIPOFF system (the equivalent of today's no fly list) and the Treasury Enforcement Communication System, an investigative tool that would prompts inspectors at airport and border entry points to delay and scrutinize travelers of interest. Though CTC explicitly stated that the two men be watch listed immediately and denied entry into the United States, none of this is applicable to domestic travel.

On August 24, both Hazmi and Mihdhar were entered into the three watch lists. Each was a warning of "possible travel to the U.S." On August 31, a new listing for Mihdhar was placed in an INS and Customs lookout database, describing him as "armed and dangerous." On September 4, the State Department also used its authority to revoke al-Mihdhar's visa for his participation in terrorist activities. The next day it entered the September 4th notice of revocation of Mihdhar's visa into the INS lookout system. State identified al-Mihdhar as a potential witness in an FBI investigation.

Though the main specific fear of an attack on July 4th had passed (not coincidentally the date that al-Mihdhar returned to the United States from Yemen, via Saudi Arabia), in late August, separate elements of the FBI possessed information about Zacarias Moussaoui; were in possession of a July 10 memo from an FBI Phoenix Field Office special agent, which reported suspicions that radical Islamists were engaged in flight training in the U.S.; and the information about Khalid al-Mihdhar and of Nawaf al-Hazmi.

Stills from Osama bin Laden’s personal collection of videos of himself. An FBI agent in Phoenix spotted bin Laden's strategy in the summer of 2001, but FBI HQ didn't respond. Pentagon via Reuters-Landov

That July 10 memo expressed concern, based on his first-hand knowledge, that there was a coordinated effort underway by Osama bin Laden to send students to the United States for civil aviation-related training. He noted that there was an "inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest" in this type of training in Arizona and expressed his suspicion that this was an effort to establish a cadre of individuals in civil aviation who would conduct future terrorist activity. The Phoenix memo requested that FBI Headquarters consider implementing four recommendations:

  • Accumulate a list of civil aviation university/colleges around the country
  • Establish liaison with the schools
  • Discuss the theories contained in the Phoenix memo with the rest of Intelligence Community
  • Consider seeking authority to obtain visa information concerning individuals seeking to attend flight schools.

FBI headquarters took no action requested by the Phoenix Field Office prior to 9/11.

The Joint Inquiry later found that the Minneapolis Field Office knew nothing about the Phoenix memo or of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. The Phoenix office had never heard about Moussaoui or the two. The FBI agents in New York who were informed on August 23 that the two had entered the United States knew nothing about Moussaoui or the Phoenix memo. And the Chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI Headquarters later told to the Joint Inquiry that no one at FBI Headquarters connected all three events.

For all of the later talk of the CIA not sharing with the FBI or vice versa, about some "wall" that existed between the intelligence community and law enforcement, about the need to reform FISA to make it more relevant to terrorism, and about the need for more authorities to conduct domestic surveillance, none of these specifically stood in the way of greater information-sharing within the FBI itself. That was a failure of competence, focus and imagination—none of which can be addressed through reform and new authorities.

Follow the Newsweek live tweet of September 11, 2001 (based upon the new book On That Day) starting at 4:45 a.m. EST @Roadto911.

Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.