The Ali Mohamed-FBI Bungle

It is clear that important new evidence about al Qaeda has been gathered and released by the 9/11 Commission. But it is also clear that the commission did nothing when a Justice Department official, in commission testimony last week, brazenly covered up the embarrassing relationship of the FBI to a senior al Qaeda operative, Ali Mohamed. By telling the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to release Mohamed in 1993, the FBI may have contributed to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya five years later.

The official testifying was Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, who prosecuted two terrorism cases involving Mohamed. As Fitzgerald told the commission, Ali Mohamed was an important al Qaeda agent who "trained most of al Qaeda's top leadership," including "persons who would later carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing."

As for Ali Mohamed's long-known relationship to the FBI, Fitzgerald said only that, "From 1994 until his arrest in 1998, he lived as an American citizen in California, applying for jobs as an FBI translator and working as a security guard for a defense contractor."

Whatever the exact relationship of Mohamed to the FBI, it is clear from the public record that it was much more intimate than simply sending in job applications. Three years ago, Larry C. Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official, faulted the FBI publicly for using Mohamed as an informant, when it should have recognized that the man was a high-ranking terrorist plotting against the United States. In Johnson's words, "It's possible that the FBI thought they had control of him and were trying to use him, but what's clear is that they did not have control." (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/04/01)

Ali Mohamed faced trial in New York in 2000 for his role in the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy and avoided a jury trial. While pleading guilty, Mohamed admitted he had trained some of the persons in New York who had been responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In Mohamed's plea-bargain testimony, as summarized on a U.S. State Department Web site, he revealed that in late 1994 the FBI ordered him to fly from Kenya to New York, and he obeyed. "I received a call from an FBI agent who wanted to speak to me about the upcoming trial of United States v. Abdel Rahman (in connection with the 1993 WTC bombing). I flew back to the United States, spoke to the FBI, but didn't disclose everything that I knew."

One year earlier, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Ali Mohamed had been picked up by the RCMP in Canada in the company of an al Qaeda terrorist. Mohamed immediately told the RCMP to make a phone call to his FBI handler. The call quickly secured his release.

The Globe and Mail later concluded that Mohamed "was working with U.S. counter-terrorist agents, playing a double or triple game, when he was questioned in 1993." His companion, Essam Marzouk, is now serving 15 years of hard labor in Egypt after having been arrested in Azerbaijan, according to Canada's National Post newspaper. As of November 2001, Mohamed had still not been sentenced, and was still believed to be supplying information from his prison cell.

The RCMP's release of Mohamed may have affected history. The encounter apparently took place before Mohamed flew to Nairobi, photographed the U.S. Embassy, and took the photo or photos to bin Laden. (According to Mohamed's confession, "Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber.")

The 9/11 Commission should have had a serious discussion of the U.S. intelligence agencies' relationship to Mohamed. It has been widely reported, and never denied, that after he first came to the United States from Egypt he worked first for the CIA and then the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Mohamed trained the WTC bombers at an Islamist center in Brooklyn, N.Y, where earlier he had been recruiting and training Arabs for the U.S.-supported Afghan War. A British newspaper, the London Independent, has charged that he was on the U.S. payroll at the time he was training the Arab Afghans, and that the CIA, reviewing the case five years after the 1993 WTC bombing, concluded in an internal document that it was "partly culpable" for the World Trade Center bomb.

The commission may have failed to explore these matters for the same reason it suppressed testimony from a former FBI translator, Sibel Edmonds. She said a foreign organization had penetrated the FBI's translator program. Attorney General John Ashcroft has since ordered Edmonds not to speak further about the matter, asserting "state secrets" privilege.

Sadly, the only public commission discussion of Mohamed came from commission member Timothy Roemer, who naively repeated Fitzgerald's statement and went no further: "He comes to the United States and applies for jobs as an FBI translator and as a defense contractor," Roemer said.

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