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The Agent

Did the C.I.A. stop an F.B.I. detective from preventing 9/11?

by Lawrence Wright

On October 12, 2000, in the deep-water port of Aden, Yemen, the U.S.S. Cole, a guided-missile destroyer weighing eighty-three hundred tons, was docked at a fuelling buoy. The Cole, which cost a billion dollars to build, was one of the most “survivable” ships in the U.S. Navy, with seventy tons of armor, a hull that could withstand an explosion of fifty-one thousand pounds per square inch, and stealth technology designed to make the ship less visible to radar. As the Cole filled its tank, a fibreglass fishing boat containing plastic explosives approached. Two men brought the skiff to a halt amidships, smiled and waved, then stood at attention. The symbolism of this moment was exactly what Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had hoped for when he approved a plan to attack an American naval vessel. “The destroyer represented the West,” bin Laden said later. “The small boat represented Muhammad.”

The shock wave from the blast shattered windows onshore. Two miles away, people thought there had been an earthquake. The fireball that rose from the waterline swallowed a sailor who had leaned over the rail to see what the men in the skiff were up to. The blast opened a hole, forty feet by forty feet, in the port side of the ship, tearing apart sailors belowdecks who were waiting for lunch. Seventeen of them perished, and thirty-nine were wounded. Several sailors swam through the blast hole to escape the flames. The great man-of-war looked like a gutted animal.

It was Al Qaeda’s second successful strike against American targets. In August, 1998, operatives had bombed the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania simultaneously, killing two hundred and twenty-four people. Yet an important part of the Cole plot had failed: Fahd al-Quso, a member of A1 Qaeda’s support team in Aden, was supposed to videotape the blast for propaganda purposes, but he slept through a morning alarm and did not set up his camera in time. Quso was in a taxi at the moment of the explosion, and he immediately went into hiding.

Shortly after the attack, Ali Soufan, a twenty-nine-year-old Lebanese-American, was driving across the Brooklyn Bridge when he received a page from the New York office of the F.B.I., where he was employed as a special agent. He was told to report to work at once. At the time, Soufan was the only F.B.I. agent in the city who spoke Arabic, and one of only eight in the country. He had joined the New York office in the fall of 1997, and his talents were quickly spotted by John O’Neill, the head of the F.B.I.’s National Security Division, which is devoted to combatting terrorism. The following February, when bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring war on America, Soufan wrote a trenchant report on Islamic fundamentalism that O’Neill distributed to his supervisors. After the 1998 embassy bombings, Soufan helped assemble the initial evidence linking them to bin Laden. Soufan’s language skills, his relentlessness, and his roots in the Middle East made him invaluable in helping the F.B.I. understand Al Qaeda, an organization that few Americans were even aware of before the embassy bombings. O’Neill, who had joined the F.B.I. twenty-five years earlier, referred to the young agent as a “national treasure.” Despite Soufan’s youth and his relatively short tenure, 0’Neill placed him in charge of the Cole investigation. As it turned out, Soufan became America’s best chance to stop the attacks of September 11th.

Soufan speaks rapidly, and there is still a hint of Lebanon in his voice. He has an open face and an engaging smile, although there are circles under his eyes from too many long nights. Soufan is a Muslim, but he doesn’t follow any particular school of Islam; instead, he is drawn to mystical thought, especially that of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese- American poet. He told me that he has an interest in the Kabbalah, because “it appeared at a time when the political environment for the Jews was so harsh that they used this philosophy to escape their anguish.” When he wants to relax, he watches reruns of “Seinfeld”-he’s seen every episode three or four times-or Bugs Bunny cartoons. One of his favorite writers is Karen Armstrong, whose biographies of Muhammad and the Buddha knit together history and religion in a way that makes sense to him.

Soufan grew up in Lebanon during the calamitous civil war, when cities were destroyed and terrorists were empowered by lawlessness and chaos. His father was a journalist in Beirut, and as a child Soufan helped out at the business magazine his father produced, often carrying galleys to the printshop. In 1987, when Soufan was sixteen, the family moved to the United States. Sou fan’s most vivid initial impression of his adopted country was that it was safe. “Also, it allowed me to dream,” he said.

Soufan lived in Pennsylvania, and he never suffered from prejudice because he was a Muslim Arab. In high school, he won many academic awards. He attended Mansfield University, in central Pennsylvania, where he was elected president of the student government. In 1997, he received a master’s degree in international relations from Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. He initially planned to continue his studies in a Ph.D. program. But he had developed a fascination with the U.S. Constitution- in particular, with its guarantees of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and the right to a speedy trial. ‘People who are born into this system may take it for granted,” he said. “You – don’t know how important these rights are if you haven’t lived in a country where you can be arrested or killed and not even know why.” Like many naturalized citizens, Soufan felt indebted for the new life he had been given. Although he was poised for an academic career, he decided-”almost as a joke,” he says-to send his resume to the F.B.I. He thought it was nearly inconceivable that the bureau would hire someone with his background. Yet in July, 1997, a letter arrived instructing him to report to the F.B.I. Academy, in Quantico, Virginia, in two weeks.

Upon graduation, Soufan went to the New York bureau. He was soon assigned to the 1-40 squad, which concentrated mainly on the Islamist paramilitary group Hamas, but, in 1998, on the day after the East African embassy bombings, O’Neill drafted him into I-49, which had become the lead unit in the F.B.I.’s investigation of Al Qaeda.

O’Neill was one of a few top managers in the F.B.I. who recognized early the danger that Al Qaeda posed to America. His intensity was unyielding, and his manner was often abrasive; he could be brutal not only to those under him but to superiors who he felt were not fully committed to an investigation. Soufan proved to be a tireless ally, willing to work nights and holidays. “0’Neill adored him, and Ah felt the same way,” Carlos Fernandez, an agent who knew both men well, observed. “They were equals, in many ways. If you say something to All, hell remember it, word for word, ten years from now. John was also great at remembering names and connecting the dots. They could go on for hours, putting things together.” The fact that a novice like Soufan had direct access to O’Neill aroused some resentment among the other agents, but the bureau had nobody else with his skills and dedication. “John and I often talked about the need to clone Ali,” Kenneth Maxwell, an F.B.I. official who was then Soufan’s superior, told me.

The afternoon of the Cole bombing, Soufan and a few dozen other agents flew to Yemen to begin looking for evidence that could be used against A1 Qaeda in court. (A larger contingent, which included O’Neill, was held up in Germany for a week, waiting for permission to enter the country.) Yemen was a particularly difficult place to start a terrorist investigation, as it was filled with act
ive Al Qaeda cells and with sympathizers at very high levels of government. On television, Yemeni politicians called for jihad against America. When the agents landed in Aden, the day after the attack, Soufan looked out at a detachment of the Yemen Special Forces, who wore yellow uniforms with old Russian helmets; each soldier was aiming an AK-47 at the U.S. plane. A jittery, twelve-man hostage-rescue team, which had been sent along to protect the F.B.I. agents, responded by brandishing their M4s and handguns. Soufan realized that everyone might die on the tarmac if he didn’t do something quickly. He opened the plane’s door. One Yemeni soldier was holding a walkie-talkie. Soufan walked directly toward him, carrying a bottle of water as the guns followed him. It was a hundred and ten degrees outside.

“You look thirsty,” Soufan said, in Arabic, to the officer with the walkie-talkie. He handed him the bottle.

“Is it American water?” the officer asked.

Soufan assured him that it was, adding that he had American water for the other soldiers as well. The Yemenis considered the water such a precious commodity that some would not drink it. With this simple act of friendship, the soldiers lowered their weapons.

Soufan divided the agents on the ground into four teams. The first three were responsible for forensics, intelligence, and security, the last was devoted to exchanging information with Yemeni authorities. Just getting permission from the Yemeni government to go to the crime scene-the wounded warship in the Aden harbor-required lengthy negotiations with hostile officials. Security was a great concern, considering that automatic weapons were ubiquitous in the country, especially in rural areas, but Barbara Bodine, the American Ambassador, refused to allow the agents to carry heavy – arms. She was concerned about offending the Yemeni authorities.

When Soufan and the investigators visited the ship, clumps of flesh were strewn belowdecks, amid the tangled mass of wire and metal. F.B.I. divers, hoping to make DNA identifications of the victims and the bombers, netted body parts floating in the waters around the ship. Looking through the huge blast hole, Soufan could see the mountainous, ancient city of Aden, rising above the curved harbor like a classical ampitheatre. He figured that, somewhere in the city, a camera had been set up to record the explosion, since terrorists regularly documented their work. Although the bombers were likely dead, a cameraman might still be at large.

When O’Neill finally arrived in Aden with the other agents, he was puzzled, upon getting off the plane, ti see the Yemeni soldiers saluting. “I told them you were a general,” Soufan explained to him.

Yemen is a status-conscious society, and, because Soufan had promoted O’Neill to “general,” his counterpart was General Ghalib Qamish, the head of Yemeni intelligence. Every night, when the Yemeni authorities did business, Soufan and 0’Neill spent hours pushing for access to witnesses, evidence, and crime scenes. Initially, the Yemenis told them that, since both of the bombers were dead, there was nothing to investigate. But who gave them money? Soufan asked. Who provided the explosives? The boat? He gently prodded the Yemenis to help him.

A few days after the bombing, the Yemenis brought in two known associates of bin Laden’s for questioning. One was named Jamal Badawi; the other was Fahd al-Quso, the man who had failed to videotape the Cole attack. Both men were Yemeni citizens. QUSO, who ran a guesthouse in Aden for jihadis, had turned himself in after family members were questioned. He did not admit his role in the Cole plot, but he and Badawi confessed that they had recently travelled to Afghanistan, and had met there with a one-legged jihadi named Khallad. Badawi said that he had bought a boat for Khallad, who, he explained, had wanted to go into the fishing business. The Yemenis eventually determined that this was the boat used in the Cole bombing.

When Soufan heard that Quso had mentioned the name Khallad, he was startled: he had heard it from a source he had recruited a few years earlier, in Afghanistan. The source had told him that he had met a fighter in Kandahar with a metal leg who was one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants. When Soufan asked to speak to Quso and Badawi, the Yemenis told him that the men had sworn on a Koran that they were innocent of any crime. For them, that settled the matter.

Soufan and O’Neill knew that General Qamish represented their best hope of gaining any cooperation. He was a small, gaunt man whose face reminded Soufan of Gandhi’s. Despite the tensions between the two sides, Qamish had begun calling his American colleagues Brother John and Brother Ali. One night, O’Neill and Soufan spent many hours asking Qamish for passport photographs of suspected plotters, especially that of Khallad. He said repeatedly that the F.B.I. was not needed on the case, but O’Neill and Soufan pointed out that the sooner they could interrogate suspects linked to the Cole bombing the sooner they might obtain intelligence that could destroy Al Qaeda. The following night, Qamish announced, “I have your photos for you.” Soufan immediately sent Khallad’s photo to the C.I.A. He also faxed it to an F.B.I. agent in Islamabad, Pakistan; the agent showed it to Soufan’s source in Afghanistan, who identified the man as Khallad, the Al Qaeda lieutenant. This suggested strongly that Al Qaeda was behind the Cole attack.

Another break came that same evening, when a twelve-year-old boy named Hani went to the local police. He said that he had been fishing on a pier when the bombers placed their skiff in the water. One of the men had paid the boy a hundred Yemeni riyals—about sixty cents—to watch his Nissan truck and boat trailer, but he never returned. When the police heard Hani’s story, they locked him in jail and arrested his father as well.

After repeated requests, the Americans got permission to interview the boy and to examine the launch site. Hani was scared, but he provided a description of the bombers: one was heavy, and the other was “handsome.” An Arabic-speaking naval investigator named Robert McFadden offered the boy some candy. He then said that the bombers had invited him and his family to take a ride in the boat, which was white, with red carpeting on the floor. When Soufan heard this, he deduced that the bombers had been trying to determine how much weight the skiff could carry.

The abandoned truck and trailer were still at the launch site. It was a major mistake on the part of Al Qaeda not to have retrieved them. By checking registration records, investigators connected the truck and trailer to a house in a neighborhood of Aden called Burayqah. When Soufan went to the house, which was surrounded by a wall and a gate, he had an eerie feeling: this residence had a striking resemblance to the house in Nairobi where the bomb for the 1998 embassy attack had been made. Inside, in the master bedroom, there was a prayer rug oriented to the north, toward Mecca. The bathroom sink was full of body hair, the bombers had shaved and performed ritual ablutions before going to their deaths. Soufan’s men collected a razor and hair samples, which might provide the F.B.I. with the DNA evidence necessary to establish the identity of the killers. (So far, the investigators at the Cole site had found only a couple of bone fragments that didn’t belong to American sailors.)

Investigators found that another house in Aden had been rented by the terrorists; it was registered to “Abda Hussein Muhammad.” The name was dimly familiar to Soufan. At one point during the Nairobi investigation, a witness had mentioned an Al Qaeda operative named Nasheri who had proposed attacking an American vessel in Aden. Soufan did some research and discovered that Nasheri’s full name was Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein Abda al-Nasheri. The middle names were the same, just reversed. Soufan’s
hunch paid off when American agents discovered a car in Aden that was registered to Nasheri. It was another strong link between A1 Qaeda and the Cole attack.

couple of weeks after the bombing, Yemeni authorities placed Badawi A and Quso, the two Al Qaeda operatives, under arrest, apparently as a precaution. Soufan continued to press General Qamish to let him interrogate the men directly, and finally, after several weeks, Qamish relented.

Soufan spent hours preparing for the encounters, with the goal of finding some common ground with his subjects. Often, the bond centered on religion. “Ali was very spiritual,” Carlos Fernandez recalled. “In Yemen, he was reading the Koran at night. He would talk to these guys about their beliefs. Sometimes, he would actually convince them that their understanding of Islam was all wrong.”

In the interrogation of Badawi, Soufan learned that the skiff had been purchased in Saudi Arabia. Soufan questioned Quso over the course of several days. Quso was small, wiry, and insolent, with a wispy beard that he kept tugging on. Before Soufan could even begin, a local intelligence official came into the room and kissed Quso on both cheeks—a shocking signal that the security services were sympathetic to the jihadis. McFadden, who participated in the interrogations, recalled that Soufan was not intimidated. He said, “Ali was a natural interviewer, and he was able to dislodge Quso from his circle of comfort.” Eventually, Quso began to open up. He had been in Afghanistan, and boasted that he had fought beside bin Laden. He said that bin Laden had inspired him with his speeches about expelling the infidels from the Arabian peninsula-in particular, American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Soufan asked if Quso ever planned to get married. A shy, embarrassed smile appeared. “Well, then, help yourself out,” Soufan urged him. “Tell me something.”

Finally, Quso admitted that he was supposed to film the bombing but had overslept. (The Yemenis later found a video camera at his sister’s house.) He also said that several months before the Cole attack he and one of the bombers had delivered thirty-six thousand dollars to Khallad, the one-legged Al Qaeda lieutenant, in Bangkok. The money, Quso added, was meant only to buy Khallad a new prosthesis.

Soufan was suspicious of this explanation. Why had Al Qaeda sent money out of Yemen just before the Cole bombing took place? Money always flowed toward an operation, not away from it. He wondered if Al Qaeda had a bigger plot under way.

The C.I.A. had officials in Yemen to collect intelligence about Al Qaeda, and Soufan asked them if they knew anything about a new operation, perhaps in Southeast Asia. They professed to be as puzzled as he was. In November, 2000, a month after the Cole bombing, Soufan sent the agency the first of several official queries. On Soufan’s behalf, the director of the F.B.I. sent a letter to the director of the C.I.A., formally asking for information about Khallad, and whether there might have been an A1 Qaeda meeting somewhere in Southeast Asia before the bombing. The agency said that it had nothing. Soufan trusted this response; he thought that he had a good working relationship with the agency.

Quso had told Soufan that when he and the Cole bomber went to Bangkok to meet Khallad they had stayed in the Washington Hotel. F.B.I. agents went through phone records to verify his story. They found calls between the hotel and Quso’s house, in Yemen. They also noticed that there were calls to both daces 1 from a pay phone in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In April, 2001, Soufan sent another official teletype to the C.I.A., along with the passport photo of Khallad. He asked whether the telephone numbers had any significance, and whether there was any connection between the numbers and Khallad. The C.I.A. said that it could not help him.

In fact, the C.I.A. knew a lot about Khallad and his ties to Al Qaeda. The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. have long quarrelled over bureaucratic turf, and their mandates place them at odds. The ultimate goal of the bureau in gathering intelligence is to gain convictions for crimes; for the agency, intelligence itself is the object. If the agency had responded candidly to Soufan’s requests, it would have revealed its knowledge of an A1 Qaeda cell that was already forming inside the United States. But the agency kept this intelligence to itself.

“I come from a generation of F.B.I. agents who have always worked closely with the C.I.A.,” Soufan told me. At the time he joined the bureau, law enforcement had become internationalized. In the nineteen-nineties, his mentor, O’Neill, had established close relations with foreign police services, an approach that sometimes encroached on the C.I.A.’s territory. In 1999, 0’Neill sent Soufan and his supervisor, Pasquale D’Amuro, to Jordan, where authorities had discovered that jihadis linked to A1 Qaeda were plotting to bomb tourist sites and hotels. Information that the Jordanians shared with Soufan made him realize that the intelligence that the C .LA. was reporting was deeply flawed. His analysis forced local C.I.A. representatives to withdraw twelve cables that they had sent to agency headquarters. On the floor of the C.I.A.’s station in Amman, Soufan discovered a box of evidence that had been given to the agency by Jordanian intelligence. Such evidence is what the F.B.I. needs in order to mount prosecutions, and no one had examined the box’s contents or turned it over to the bureau. In the box, Soufan found a map of the proposed bomb sites, which proved crucial in the prosecutions of twenty-eight plotters in Jordan, twenty-two of whom were convicted. Soufan’s success embarrassed the C.I.A., deepening the rift between the two institutions. “The C.I.A. people couldn’t stand the fact that Ali’s opinion and analysis were correct,” an F.B .I. counterterrorism official who worked with Soufan told me. “He was an Arabic speaker and an F.B.I. agent on the ground who was running circles around them.”

Nevertheless, the C.I.A. recognized Soufan’s abilities and repeatedly tried to recruit him. “Come over to the Dark Side,” an agency operative once said to him. “You know you’re interested.” Soufan said that he just laughed.

Indeed, some of the C.I.A.’s best information about Al Qaeda came from the F.B.I. In 1998, F.B.I. investigators found an essential clue—a phone number in Yemen that functioned as a virtual switchboard for the terror network. The bombers in East Africa called that number before and after the attacks; so did Osama bin Laden. The number belonged to a jihadi named Ahmed al-Hada. By combing through the records of all the calls made to and from that number, F.B.I. investigators constructed a map of Al Qaeda’s global organization. The phone line was monitored as soon as it was discovered. But the C.I.A., as the primary organization for gathering foreign intelligence, had jurisdiction over conversations on the Hada phone, and did not provide the F.B .I, with the information it was getting about Al Qaeda’s plans.

A conversation on the Hada phone at the end of 1999 mentioned a forthcoming meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia. The C.I.A. learned the name of one participant, Khaled al-Mihdhar, and the first name of another: Nawaf. Both men were Saudi citizens. The C.I.A. did not pass this intelligence to the F.B.I.

However, the C.I.A. did share the information with Saudi authorities, who told the agency that Mihdhar and a man named Nawaf al-Hazmi were members of Al Qaeda. Based on this intelligence, the C.I.A. broke into a hotel room in Dubai where Mihdhar was staying, en route to Malaysia. The operatives photocopied Mihdhar’s passport and faxed it to Alec Station, the C.I.A. unit devoted to tracking bin Laden. Inside the passport was the critical information that Mihdhar had a U.S. visa. The agency did not alert the F.B.I. or the State Department so that Mihdhar’s
name could be put on a terror watch list, which would have prevented him from entering the US.

The C.I.A. asked Malaysian authorities to provide surveillance of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, which took place on January 5,2000, at a condominium overlooking a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The condo was owned by a Malaysian businessman who had ties to Al Qaeda. The pay phone that Soufan had queried the agency about was directly in front of the condo. Khallad used it to place calls to Quso in Yemen. Although the C.I.A. later denied that it knew anything about the phone, the number was recorded in the Malaysians’ surveillance log, which was given to the agency.

At the time of the Kuala Lumpur meeting, Special Branch, the Malaysian secret service, photographed about a dozen Al Qaeda associates outside the condo and visiting nearby Internet cafés. These pictures were turned over to the C.I.A. The meeting was not wiretapped; had it been, the agency might have uncovered the plots that culminated in the bombing of the Cole and the September 11, 2001, attacks. On January 8th, Special Branch notified the C.I.A. that three of the men who had been at the meeting—Mihdhar, Hazmi, and Khallad—were travelling together to Bangkok. There Khallad met with Quso and one of the suicide bombers of the Cole. Quso gave Khallad the thirty-six thousand dollars, which was most likely used to buy tickets to Los Angeles for Mihdhar and Hazmi and provide them with living expenses in the U.S. Both men ended up on planes involved in the September 11th attacks.

In March, the C.I.A. learned that Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles two months earlier, on January 15th. Had the agency checked the flight manifest, it would have noticed that Mihdhar was travelling with him. Once again, the agency neglected to inform the F.B.I. or the state Department that at least one Al Qaeda operative was in the country.

Although the C.I.A. was legally bound to share this kind of information with the bureau, it was protective of sensitive intelligence. The agency sometimes feared that F.B.I. prosecutions resulting from such intelligence might compromise its relationships with foreign services, although there were safeguards to protect confidential information. The C.I.A. was particularly wary of O’Neill, who demanded control of any case that touched on an F.B.I. investigation. Many C.I.A. officials disliked him and feared that he could not be trusted with sensitive intelligence. “O’Neill was duplicitous,” Michael Scheuer, the official who founded Alec Station but has now left the C.I.A., told me. “He had no concerns outside of making the bureau look good.” Several of O’Neill’s subordinates suggested that the C.I.A. hid the information out of personal animosity. “They hated John,” the F.B.I. counterterrorism official assigned to Alec Station told me. “They knew that John would have marched in there and taken control of that case.”

The C.I.A. may also have been protecting an overseas operation and was afraid that the F.B.I. would expose it. Moreover, Mihdhar and Hazmi could have seemed like attractive recruitment possibilities—the C.I.A. was desperate for a source inside Al Qaeda, having failed to penetrate the inner circle or even to place someone in the training camps, even though they were largely open to anyone who showed up. However, once Mihdhar and Hazmi entered the United States they were the province of the F.B.I. The C.I.A. has no legal authority to operate inside the country.

In the end, the C.I.A.’s failure to inform the F.B.I. may be best explained by the fact that the agency was drowning in a flood of threats and warnings, and simply did not see the pivotal importance of this intelligence. Whatever the reason for the C.I.A.’s lapse, many F.B.I. investigators remain furious that they were not informed of the presence of Al Qaeda operatives inside America. Mihdhar and Hazmi arrived twenty months before September 11th. Kenneth Maxwell, Soufan’s former supervisor, told me, “Two Al Qaeda guys living in California—are you kidding me? We would have been on them like white on snow: physical surveillance, electronic surveillance, a special unit devoted entirely to them.” Of course, the F.B.I. had other opportunities to prevent September 11th. In July, 2001, an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix suggested interviewing Arabs enrolled in American flight schools; a month later, the bureau’s Minnesota office requested permission to aggressively investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, who later confessed to being an Al Qaeda associate. Both proposals were rejected by F.B.I. supervisors. But Mihdhar and Hazmi were directly involved in the September 11th conspiracy. Because of their connection to bin Laden, who had a federal indictment against him, the F.B.I. had all the authority it needed to use every investigative technique to penetrate and disrupt the Al Qaeda cell. Instead, the hijackers were free to develop their plot until it was too late to stop them.

In Yemen, the security situation deteriorated rapidly. Soufan and the other F.B.I. agents were quartered at the Aden Hotel, crammed in with other U.S. military and government employees, including Marine guards, and billeted three and four to a room; several dozen slept on bedrolls in the hotel ballroom. Gunfire erupted outside the hotel so frequently that the agents slept in their clothes, with their weapons at their sides. Agents learned from a mechanic in Aden that, after the bombing, some men brought to his shop a truck similar to the one used by the bombers; the men wanted to have metal plates installed in such a way that they could direct the force of an explosion. Certainly, the most tempting target for such a bomb would be the Aden Hotel. It wasn’t clear that the Yemeni government troops who were guarding the hotel with machine-gun nests would truly protect the Americans. “We were prisoners,” an agent recalled.

One night, shots were fired on the street while O’Neill was running a meeting inside the hotel. The marines and the hostage-rescue team adopted defensive positions. Soufan ventured out, unarmed, to talk to the Yemeni troops.

“Hey, Ali!” O’Neill called out. “Be careful!” He raced down the steps of the hotel to make sure Soufan was wearing his flak jacket. Frustration, stress, and danger, along with the enforced intimacy of their situation, had brought the two men even closer. O’Neill had begun to describe Soufan as his “secret weapon.” Speaking to the Yemenis, he called him simply “my son.”

Snipers covered Soufan as he approached a Yemeni officer, who assured him that everything was O.K.

“If everything is O.K., why are there no cars on the street?” Soufan asked.

The officer said that there must be a wedding nearby. Soufan looked around and saw that the hotel was surrounded by a large number of men in traditional dress-some in Jeeps, all carrying guns. They were civilians, not soldiers. They could be intelligence officers, or a tribal group bent on revenge. In either case, they easily outnumbered the Americans. Soufan was reminded of the 1993 uprising in Somalia, which ended with eighteen American soldiers dead, and one of the bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The hotel backed up to the harbor, and the Americans were essentially trapped.

After Soufan went inside and offered his assessment of the situation, O’Neill ordered the marines to deploy two armored vehicles to block the street in front of the hotel. The night passed without further incident, but the next day O’Neill moved the investigators to the U.S.S. Duluth, stationed ten miles away, in the Bay of Aden. That proved to be a dangerous mistake. The next morning, when O’Neill and Soufan were flying back to town, their helicopter suddenly lurched into violent evasive maneuvers. The pilot 1 reported that an SA-7 missile had locked in on them. O’Neill decided to send most of the investigators home; those who remained returned to the deserted hotel.

Just before Thanksgiving, the F.B.I. pulled O’Neill out of Yemen, apparently as a concession to Ambassador Bodine, who felt that the F.B.I. presence was straining diplomatic relations between America and Yemen. Soufan stayed on, but the threats in Aden became so acute that he and the other agents moved to the American Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The investigation was losing its momentum.

In the spring of 2001, Tom Wilshire, a C.I.A. liaison at F.B.I. headquarters, in Washington, was studying the relationship between Khaled al-Mihdhar, the Saudi Al Qaeda operative, and Khallad, the one-legged jihadi. Because of the similarity of the names, the C.I.A. had thought that they might be the same person, but, thanks in part to AL Soufan’s investigations in Yemen, the agency now knew that they were not, and that Khallad had orchestrated the Cole attack. “O.K. This is important,” Wilshire said of Khallad, in an e-mail to his supervisors at the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center. “This is a major-league killer.” Wilshire alr


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