9/11 could have been stopped in San Diego

Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi lived in Clairemont and Lemon Grove

Former FBI agent Jim Bernazzani is speaking out about intelligence failures before 9/11.
  • Former FBI agent Jim Bernazzani is speaking out about intelligence failures before 9/11.
  • Image by Cheryl Gerber

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.

Bayoumi: Local Muslims suspected him of spying.

Bayoumi: Local Muslims suspected him of spying.

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.”

Hazmi — hijacker of plane that crashed into Pentagon; lived in San Diego ten months; answered Bayoumi’s cell phone when landlord called

Hazmi — hijacker of plane that crashed into Pentagon; lived in San Diego ten months; answered Bayoumi’s cell phone when landlord called

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.

Mark Rossini, formerly of the FBI, says an unsent CIA memo could have prevented the attacks.

Mark Rossini, formerly of the FBI, says an unsent CIA memo could have prevented the attacks.

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.”

Mihdhar — hijacker of plane that crashed into Pentagon; lived in San Diego four months.

Mihdhar — hijacker of plane that crashed into Pentagon; lived in San Diego four months.

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.

USS Cole after the October 12, 2000, bombing

USS Cole after the October 12, 2000, bombing

Rossini said the FBI would have conducted “a logical investigation” had Miller’s memo — called a “central intelligence report” — been sent. Agents would have obtained warrants through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington.

“We would’ve been on them like white on rice. These are things that could’ve happened; should’ve happened. It happens all the time. The CIA informs us so-and-so is spying and they’re coming to America, follow them. Okay, we got it. And you don’t send [Miller’s] memo? In March [2000] this cable says they came to America and you still don’t tell the FBI?” asks Rossini.

The FBI was kept in the dark about Mihdhar and Hazmi because the CIA knew the bureau would either not allow the agency to conduct an intelligence operation on U.S. soil or insist on monitoring it “and pull the plug” when FBI agents thought necessary, said Rossini.

“That’s what they [CIA] were afraid of, and that’s why Doug’s memo didn’t go. [Central intelligence reports] are sent every single day between the CIA and FBI on a variety of subjects. There’s [central intelligence reports] all the time. Take all the [central intelligence reports] 30 days before Doug’s memo and 30 days after Doug’s memo and look at their titles and their subjects and you tell me if any of them had the importance that the [report] of Doug’s had, would’ve had, and does have. Why was that one held back? No one has ever said,” said Rossini.

About 3000 people died and more than 6000 were injured in the 2001 terrorist attacks. In the days after 9/11, former FBI agent James Bernazzani became deputy director for law enforcement at the Counterterrorism Center, a multi-agency office run by the CIA that included the FBI. The center was in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden. Now retired and a counterterrorism professor at Tulane University’s Homeland Security Studies, Bernazzani recently began speaking out about Miller’s memo and the intelligence failure that ensued when the CIA blocked its transmission to the FBI.

Bernazzani and Rossini are good friends and have known each other for many years. Bernazzani became Rossini’s boss when he transferred to the Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Virginia, after the attacks. In a telephone interview from New Orleans, Bernazzani recounted how he learned of Miller’s memo in 2002 when a troubled Rossini walked into his office. According to the Office of the Inspector General report, when questioned, Rossini and Miller had no recollection of Miller’s unsent memo and also claimed they did not remember that Mihdhar was the subject of the memo. Rossini said the CIA’s strict confidentiality rules forced him to lie, and he knew that the information about Mihdhar had been obtained through covert means.

“I had been told by individuals I worked with at the CIA not to say anything. ‘The people you’re going to speak with don’t have clearance to know what we do here,’ I was told. It’s a very sensitive subject. I had no protection. I was not allowed a lawyer and was not given assurance that anything I said would not be used against me. There was also a CIA minder taking notes,” said Rossini.

But Rossini’s conscience gnawed at him, and he was bothered by what he knew. If the CIA had not blocked Miller’s memo, the 9/11 attacks could have been stopped. The CIA knew 20 months before the attacks that Mihdhar was an Al Qaeda terrorist and had a visa to enter the U.S.; and the agency knew 18 months before the attacks that Mihdhar and Hazmi —whom they knew was also a terrorist — had arrived in Los Angeles.

“[Rossini] walked into my office and tells me that he’s bothered by something and wants to talk about it. He tells me the story about how he and Miller were ordered not to tell anyone about Mihdhar. I told him, ‘Mark, if it ain’t on paper it never happened.’ He excused himself and returned with Miller a few minutes later. Miller had a hard copy of the unsent memo and showed it to me. Holy shit, you know we could’ve at least nailed two of these guys? I’m not saying we could’ve stopped 9/11, because there were 17 others [hijackers]. I don’t know why this memo wasn’t sent to the FBI and by virtue shipped to all field divisions, including San Diego, and check out these guys. We certainly had reasonable suspicion,” said Bernazzani.

He was alluding to the strong possibility that if the FBI had been told about Mihdhar in January 2000, an investigation would have revealed that he was accompanied by Hazmi and the pair would have been tracked to San Diego.

After receiving the memo, Bernazzani said he drove to FBI headquarters “breaking speed records along the way” and gave the document to a high-level counterterrorism official. At the time, the FBI was investigating how Al Qaeda had pulled off the 9/11 attacks without being compromised.

Rossini said he finally spoke out about Miller’s memo when he was questioned by the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility. Officials assured him that he would not be prosecuted or lose his job.

“They asked me why Doug’s memo wasn’t sent. I said, ‘Well, let me tell you.’”

Though the Office of the Inspector General report includes details about the unsent memo, the document does not mention Bernazzani’s claim that he gave a hard copy to a high-ranking FBI official. When asked why the report does not mention this, FBI spokeswoman Carol A. Cratty responded in an email: “There was discussion of the San Diego hijackers in the various 9/11 reports. We don’t have any additional comments. Thank you.”

The CIA also declined to comment about the memo. In an email, agency spokesman Jonathan Liu responded to several questions by pointing to previously released government reports about the 9/11 attacks and wrote, “The agency’s positions are reflected in these materials and we have nothing further to add at this time.”

Rossini resigned from the FBI in 2008 and pleaded guilty to illegally accessing a government database and sentenced to one year of probation. After 9/11 he said he was overwhelmed by the secret he was keeping about Miller’s memo.

“I essentially had a nervous breakdown. You know what it’s like to know this happened? It’s destructive, because it didn’t need to happen. We pride ourselves in having the greatest intelligence organization in the world. And we knew about these people and we didn’t stop them. Thank God for Doug Miller that he took the initiative to write the damn thing,” he said.

The CIA finally told the FBI that Mihdhar and Hazmi were in the U.S. on Aug. 22, 2001, 20 days before the attacks and 16 days after a CIA briefer told president George W. Bush that bin Laden had plans to attack the U.S. mainland. The headline on the CIA memo used to brief Bush said “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” Kurt Eichenwald, author of 500 Days, a well-received book about the decisions made by Bush in the first 500 days after 9/11, wrote in a New York Times opinion article that Bush began getting warnings about an Al Qaeda attack from the CIA in spring 2001. Despite the warnings Eichenwald wrote that “the White House failed to take significant action.”

On August 24, 2001, 18 days before the attacks, Mihdhar and Hazmi were put on a terrorism watch list for the first time. Had their names been on the list earlier, the FBI might have had another opportunity to find Mihdhar, and perhaps Hazmi, two months before the attacks. Mihdhar left the U.S. on June 10, 2000, for Yemen to see his new-born daughter. He returned on July 4, 2001, flying to JFK Airport in New York. Mihdhar’s name could have been flagged on the passenger manifest if his name was on the watch list. Also, the FBI had another opportunity to apprehend Hazmi if his name had been entered in the National Crime Information Center computer. The terrorist was stopped on April 1, 2001, in Oklahoma for speeding. The officer ran his name but it came back clean. Hazmi was fined $138 and dutifully mailed in his payment.

San Diego County sheriff Bill Gore was in charge of the FBI office in San Diego in 2001. He said in a previous interview that “it wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist” to find Mihdhar and Hazmi before 9/11 if the CIA had alerted the FBI.

“But you can’t find somebody when you’re not looking for him and had no reason to look for him,” he said.

On August 29, 2001 — 13 days before the attacks — the FBI opened an intelligence investigation to locate Mihdhar and assigned a single agent to the case. The Office of the Inspector General report described him as “relatively inexperienced.” It was his first intelligence investigation.

Upon learning from immigration records that Mihdhar and Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles in January 2000 and claimed they were staying at a Sheraton Hotel, the agent wrote a memo on September 10, 2001, to the FBI office in Los Angeles asking agents to check hotel records. The memo was not sent until the next day, September 11, 2001.

There are two versions of how Mihdhar and Hazmi ended up in San Diego. The oft-heard one is that they were lured here by Bayoumi’s description of the weather during their supposedly random restaurant encounter on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, told interrogators he chose to send the terrorists to San Diego after finding a copy of the San Diego phone directory at a Karachi, Pakistan, flea market.

Either way, Mihdhar and Hazmi ended up here, and the FBI had several missed opportunities to find them before the attacks. Most of the misses can be attributed to the CIA’s lack of cooperation; but not one. In 2000, who would have imagined that Al Qaeda was in San Diego and sleepy Lemon Grove? And who would have imagined that two terrorists approved by bin Laden himself for the most audacious attack ever on the U.S. homeland were living with an FBI informant?

Shaikh — member of San Diego Police Commission, FBI informant, took hijackers into his Lemon Grove home.

Shaikh — member of San Diego Police Commission, FBI informant, took hijackers into his Lemon Grove home.

Abdussattar Shaikh, who had been an unpaid FBI informant for six years in 2000, rented a room to Mihdhar for about a month and Hazmi for seven. The Office of the Inspector General report noted that Shaikh told his FBI handler that the pair were quiet and “good Muslims.” He gave the handler their first names only and the agent never got their full names. The report said that if the agent had been more curious about the two men living with his informant, their names could have been checked through government databases that may have identified them as terrorists. According to the Office of the Inspector General report, the bureau cut ties with Shaikh in July 2003 and paid him $100,000 for his services. Shaikh did not respond to messages left on his answering machine.

Mt. Vernon Street, Lemon Grove. Abdussattar Shaikh’s house (left). Though Shaikh was a paid FBI informant, an L.A. Times reporter found out Shaikh had boarded two hijackers before the bureau did.

Mt. Vernon Street, Lemon Grove. Abdussattar Shaikh’s house (left). Though Shaikh was a paid FBI informant, an L.A. Times reporter found out Shaikh had boarded two hijackers before the bureau did.

Fifteen years after 9/11, Mihdhar, Hazmi, and Shaikh are still the subject of discussion by Shaikh’s neighbors. Two of them are a couple who was sitting on the porch of their Lemon Grove home on the night of September 14, 2001, waiting for the FBI. It was almost 11 p.m. when four black SUVs arrived and began driving slowly up and down Mt. Vernon Street.

The couple had reported Shaikh, their next door neighbor, to the FBI after learning that he had boarded two of the 9/11 terrorists. They watched the parade of vehicles on the street for several minutes before the SUVs pulled into the 200-foot driveway that can be mistaken for a dead end street.

The couple had given the FBI its first big investigative lead, but agents were having trouble finding their home; a strange occurrence, given that Shaikh was, after all, an FBI informant. They had learned about Shaikh’s ties to Mihdhar and Hazmi earlier in the evening when they allowed a Los Angeles Times reporter who interviewed Shaikh to use their phone to call the downtown newsroom hours after deadline. The reporter had staked out Shaikh’s house for five hours before the man returned from mosque. The CIA and a handful of FBI agents had known since early 2000 that Mihdhar and Hazmi were in the U.S. But in the weeks leading up to the attacks the FBI had no clue where they were. It was not until the Times tracked the pair to Shaikh’s house that agents discovered where they had lived.

“We sat here watching the FBI that night driving back and forth looking for our house and Shaikh’s house. These were the guys looking for the terrorists,” said the husband in a recent interview.

So began America’s war on terror after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

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Pearl Harbor could have been stopped in San Diego too. They recently tore down the radio towers off 94 that received the first intel about a Japanese attack.

Generals chose to ignore the intelligence collected by those tasked to monitor it.

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