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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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