No Connection Found Between ‘Cell’ Members and 19 Hijackers, Officials Say
By Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 23, 2001; Page A01
The groups, called “cells” by the FBI, are under intensive government surveillance. The FBI has not made any arrests because the group members entered the country legally in recent years and have not been involved in illegal activities since they arrived, the officials said.
Government officials say they do not know why the cells are here, what their purpose is or whether their members are planning attacks. One official even described their presence as “possibly benign,” though others have a more sinister interpretation and give assurances that measures are in place to protect the public.
Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the Base,” is a loose confederation of extremist Islamic groups led by Saudi fugitive millionaire Osama bin Laden, whom President Bush and other government officials have publicly charged with responsibility for the New York and Washington attacks.
There has been widespread fear and speculation about other al Qaeda groups in the United States, but officials say they have no specific information about their plans.
“They are so good at compartmentalizing,” an official said yesterday, noting and anguishing over the difficulty of finding clear links among the cells. The officials declined to identify the cities where the al Qaeda groups are located.
Investigators are finding a highly unusual degree of discipline and patience in the groups, which usually number fewer than a dozen individuals. One of the central questions the FBI has been struggling with is why the groups have stayed in the United States. One official speculated that they could be here to gather intelligence or to support or execute terrorist attacks. It is also possible, the official said, the cells are here to earn money because the United States is one of the few countries where entry is easy and jobs are readily available.
The members of al Qaeda have a level of commitment and zeal that is not easily understood in the United States. While in training, they sign an agreement called a bayat. They agree to go to a country on which a jihad has been declared and wait to be called upon to undertake a task, according to testimony at the recent New York City trial of bin Laden associates who were convicted of bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“You swear to agree about the jihad, listen to the emir . . . and do whatever work they ask you in group, you have to do it,” said the government’s prime witness, Jamal Ahmed Mohamed al-Fadl. “If they ask me to go anywhere in the world for specific mission or target, I have to listen. . . . They say when you make bayat and you agree about the al Qaeda and about the war, anything.”
The domestic al Qaeda groups operate in a similar fashion to the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks: They stick together, moving among inexpensive hotels, motels and apartments, and keeping largely to themselves.
Although officials have not connected these groups to the hijackers, they have made a connection among the four teams of hijackers. The FBI has identified Mohamed Atta, the 33-year-old Egyptian who authorities say piloted one of jetliners that hit the World Trade Center, as the main figure connecting the four teams of hijackers that commandeered the planes. One official called him “the axle” who apparently coordinated the attacks.
The members of the al Qaeda groups in the United States were in some cases initially identified by the CIA through intelligence gathered abroad that connected specific individuals to bin Laden or the al Qaeda network. Under an agreement, the CIA passes this information to the FBI, which then launches investigations and surveillance within the United States. Over the last two years, the CIA has provided the FBI with approximately 100 names of people associated with the al Qaeda network who have entered the country legally in most cases.
Over the years, some of the al Qaeda members and other identified associates of terrorist groups in the United States have been subjects of investigation, but their cases were closed because no crimes were uncovered.
At least two of the hijackers, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, were on a watch list generated by this CIA-FBI liaison a month before the attacks. Officials said that those names were not connected to any other known bin Laden associates in the United States, including the four or five operating cells.
“There was no pattern, nothing seemed to fit with information we had, and there was no intelligence or suggestion that some plot was afoot,” an official said.
The investigation is hampered because the CIA and FBI have had little success over the past decade in infiltrating the tightly knit cells of Islamic fundamental terrorists who often are linked by blood or marriage. Most of all, they join in a strict view of their religion, which is cemented by vows they take when they join.
At any one time, the CIA has had fewer than six informants within the groups that have been associated with bin Laden, said a senior intelligence official. The FBI at most had a “handful,” according to a former FBI official with extensive experience in counterterrorism.
“They are unlike the mafia, which built loyalty out of criminal enterprise, but where personal and even family relationships could be overcome with money or deals with those in prison,” the former FBI official said. The Islamic fundamentalists, he said, “would have to give up their religious beliefs to become sources [for the FBI], and that is potentially more dangerous than threat of death.”
He said the terrorists believe that death in fighting in a religious war against their enemies puts them in eternal heaven. Turning against their religious vows, by informing authorities about their activities, damns them to eternal hell.
“In order to enter a [terrorist] cell,” he said, “someone inside must vouch for the bona fides of the newcomer. Walking in cold is very hard.” He also said that religious leaders, called emirs, in the United States and abroad solidify the spiritual ties, reminding the terrorists their eternal fate rests in remaining true to their cause.
One of the bureau’s few informants supplied the tip that thwarted a 1993 attempt to blow up the United Nations headquarters building after the first World Trade Center bombing had taken place.
“The trouble was we used him [the informant] and he got burned,” the official said. Identified, “he had to retire. . . . We gave him a new identity and he’s gone,” the official added.
“The ability of the FBI to penetrate is very limited. . . . The fundamentalist Islamic community is very tight and different from other Muslims in the community,” said a former senior bureau official with long experience in the counterterrorism field.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, CIA coverage of bin Laden groups and other Muslim terrorist operators was helped because they regularly talked over cell phones, often bragging about what they were about to do or what they had done, according to former intelligence officials.
In addition, during the 1980s, “we could always find a participant who would turn in the others for $1 million, a new identity and a house in California,” he said. “That has all changed. Now they are ready to commit suicide.”
Today, the U.S. foreign intelligence community’s direct coverage of bin Laden has been through intercepting communications. The other major sources are reports from foreign intelligence services through liaison relationships maintained primarily by CIA and more recently by FBI agents stationed overseas.
In a New York trial of the embassy bombing conspirators, testimony emerged about bin Laden’s radio-telephone conversations over a special satellite system that were intercepted by U.S. intelligence. Once that testimony was published, “conversations on that circuit ended,” an intelligence official said yesterday.