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May 23, 2002
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THE NATION
Terrorist Ties Cited in Memo
* FBI: Agent's July report, shared with CIA, 'was very specific. It named names,' one official says.

 
 
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Coverage of the attack on America and the first six months of its aftermath.


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By ERIC LICHTBLAU and JOSH MEYER, TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- A Phoenix FBI agent who wrote a memo last year warning about suspicious Middle Easterners at flight schools had developed detailed information before Sept. 11 linking Arizona students to Osama bin Laden and to a radical British Islamic group, and he shared some of his concerns with the CIA, law enforcement sources said Wednesday.

Agent Kenneth Williams suspected that a group of about eight Middle Eastern men in the Phoenix area were not merely studying at flight schools but also had shown a keen interest in airplane engineering and airport construction and security, according to sources familiar with the closed-door briefings Williams gave members of Congress this week.

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His review also determined that one of the Arizona flight school students appeared to have communicated through a middleman with one of Bin Laden's top aides, Abu Zubeida, and that several of the students under suspicion had links to a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. The Britain-based group is dedicated to the establishment of a global Muslim state and has vocally supported Bin Laden and other terrorists. The still-secret memo that Williams prepared in July, warning that the FBI should canvass flight schools around the country for possible terrorist ties, has become Exhibit A in the eyes of some members of Congress who accuse the Bush administration and the intelligence community of missing possible warning signs before Sept. 11. Scrutiny has focused on who knew about the Phoenix memo and why the document never made it above middle FBI management before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Vice President Dick Cheney, asked Wednesday on CNN's "Larry King Live" whether Williams was prophetic, said: "I think he was." Cheney acknowledged that "there's a lot we can do" to improve the flow of intelligence information, but he said much of the recent criticism connected to the Williams memo represents "Monday morning quarterbacking."

Indeed, administration officials say they had no tangible warnings that could have led them to predict that an attack was imminent. And Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who is helping lead the congressional inquiry into the attacks, said in an interview after a classified briefing with Williams on Wednesday that "no smoking gun" has emerged to dispute that claim.

But the new details suggest for the first time that the CIA may have had advance knowledge of some of the suspicions generated from Arizona. And the details also appear at odds with authorities' contention that Williams was only pursuing "a hunch"--not actual evidence--in warning about the risk of flight schools.

"This was not a vague hunch," according to a congressional source familiar with a classified briefing Williams gave to lawmakers. "He was doing a case on these guys. He put in all the history about this pattern of radical Muslims and [Bin Laden having] links to Arizona. He talked about fatwas [religious edicts] targeting U.S. airports. He noted that one guy was asking about airport security--that's specific information, not guesswork." The memo "was very specific. It named names," the official said.

Officials at the FBI and the CIA declined to discuss the issue Wednesday.

But, asked about the CIA's role in the Phoenix case before Sept. 11, an official said "FBI headquarters requested some name traces on some Middle Eastern individuals that they had concerns about." While the details of that request remain unclear, "it could have been that they had some individuals in Arizona who came up on their radar screen that they were interested in," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

The CIA's knowledge of the case appears to have gone beyond a fairly routine request by the FBI for the CIA to come up with information on suspected individuals. Williams also discussed his concerns regarding the Arizona flight schools with field-level intelligence counterparts at the CIA, according to a government official familiar with what Williams told members of Congress.

The FBI's initial inquiries to the CIA last year regarding the Phoenix suspicions did not produce any positive links to terrorists, the official said.

But after Sept. 11, the CIA confirmed that at least two of the flight school students under suspicion in Arizona had links to Al Qaeda, and evidence indicated that one person had communication through a third party with "a very close associate of Bin Laden"--namely Zubeida, the official said. The nature of that communication was not disclosed.

Williams also told lawmakers that his interest in the flight school issue was piqued last year because Bin Laden had known ties to Arizona, the official said. This was an apparent reference to Egyptian Essam al Ridi, a Bin Laden operative who trained to be a pilot in the United States and purchased a used military aircraft in Arizona for Bin Laden in 1993 for $210,000. He then flew the Saber-40 twin-engine passenger jet to Sudan.

One focus of Williams' memo is the suspected link between Arizona flight students and the radical group Al-Muhajiroun, which loosely means "The Emigres," according to several sources familiar with the memo.

Authorities in Britain long have investigated the group and its leader, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, a London-based Muslim cleric who has dubbed himself the "mouth, eyes and ears of Osama bin Laden." Those investigations focused on whether Al-Muhajiroun was one of many front organizations for Al Qaeda and whether it had engaged in any terrorist activities, including recruiting and sending young Muslim militants to Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. It has openly issued calls to arms against the U.S. and its allies.

A former FBI official who recently left the bureau said that, had the Phoenix memo not hit a dead end at FBI headquarters before Sept. 11, it could have led to significant information about Al Qaeda terrorist cells within the United States, including Al-Muhajiroun supporters.

The former FBI official said Al-Muhajiroun itself was not under active investigation but that anyone associated with it had drawn FBI scrutiny because of their suspected ties to other radical organizations, including Al Qaeda.

"It is a radical group with radical ideological leanings," the former official said. "So it would be naive to think that, even if the group says it engages just in political or public relations activity, that that's all it does and that none of its members are involved in other types of logistical, financial or direct support of terrorist activity. You can be a member of Al-Muhajiroun and it would be very likely that you were a member or supporter or sympathizer of Al Qaeda."

Steven Emerson, a terrorism consultant to Congress, said the group recruits young militants in England and claims to provide them with military training there and elsewhere. Efforts to reach the group, which has a Web site filled with virulent anti-American rhetoric, were unsuccessful.

The detailed nature of the case laid out by the memo is likely to intensify questions from members of Congress about whether the intelligence community missed warning signs that could have headed off a possible attack. But Goss, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, cautioned against any rush to judgment.

"I haven't got any smoking gun. I haven't even got a cap pistol," he said. In general, Goss said, "I have not found a single instance of omission yet where someone had something they should have sent to someone else or anything that is an obvious failure. The next question is, were the procedures in the FBI appropriate, and I can't answer that question. All those questions are going to be answered in our report" later this year.

Goss refused to discuss the substance of the briefing his panel got from Williams and the FBI but said that "our time this morning was astonishingly well spent."

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