Key bin Laden aides met in Tucson in the late ’80s

23 July 2004: Two key al-Qaeda operatives apparently became acquainted in Tucson in the late 1980s, when the Islamic Center of Tucson admits it was a magnet for extremists.

Osama bin Laden’s top agent for procuring weapons of mass destruction lived in Tucson during that time, according to the 9/11 commission’s final report, released yesterday. In Tucson he became acquainted with Wadi al Hage, the report said. Al Hage is in federal prison for al-Qaeda bombings of U.S.
embassies in Africa.

The highly anticipated, 567-page report also refers to more than a dozen other people who lived in Arizona from the 1990s through Sept. 11, 2001, and who were targeted in terrorism investigations after hijackers smashed jetliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. A footnote alludes to “a number of important al-Qaeda figures” who “attended the University of Arizona in Tucson or lived in Tucson in the 1980s and early 1990s.”

Some of the links to Tucson were already public. New references in the report direct readers to footnotes that say the information is based on intelligence reports, including 2002’s “Arizona: Long- Term Nexus for Islamic Extremists,” done jointly by the CIA and the FBI.

That report and other intelligence sources used to elaborate on the Tucson connection have not been made public.

Congressional findings and public testimony previously disclosed that Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who piloted a hijacked airliner into the Pentagon on Sept.
11, 2001, trained at Arizona flight schools starting as early as 1996.

He lived mostly in the eastern part of the Phoenix area, including at one point in 2001 with fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi.

Hanjour studied English in 1991 at the University of Arizona’s Center for English as a Second Language.

Some of the Arizona activity predates the federal government’s declaration of al-Qaeda as an official “enemy of the state” in the mid-1990s.

In the report’s new references to Tucson and Arizona links, specific time frames are not always mentioned.

The operatives mentioned as having lived in Tucson during the 1980s or
1990s:

Hani Hanjour.

Mubarak al Duri (who is referred to as Mubarak Douri in the report’s text and Mubarak al Duri in a footnote), reportedly bin Laden’s principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction. Though he is referred to as such, no details on what he did for bin Laden or when he lived here were revealed.

Muhammad Bayazid, described as an al-Qaeda arms procurer and trainer who reportedly tried to obtain material for nuclear weapons 10 years ago in Sudan. That reference is in a footnote.

Wadi al Hage (spelled Wadih el-Hage in earlier Tucson Citizen reports).
Federal prosecutors in 1998 suggested al Hage may have played a role in the stabbing death of Tucsonan Rashad Khalifa in January 1990.

Wail Julaidan, described in the report only as a Saudi extremist with ties to al-Qaeda.

Tucson was first linked to bin Laden’s network in the embassy-bombing trial.

Essam Al-Ridi, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen, told prosecutors he was approached by al Hage about buying an aircraft for bin Laden capable of flying between Pakistan and Sudan without refueling, according to the Citizen archive.

Al-Ridi said al Hage identified himself as one of bin Laden’s personal secretaries.

He testified he was paid $200,000 for finding a mothballed T-39 jet in Tucson, making it flightworthy and flying it to Khartoum, Egypt.

The jet crashed during a test flight in Khartoum, he told authorities.

Al Hage and other bin Laden operatives were in Arizona at a time when bin Laden was considered a U.S. intelligence asset in Afghanistan, helping insurgents fight the Soviets. Most or all of them left the state before al-Qaeda emerged as a terrorist threat to the United States, but they had established a foothold.

By the mid-1990s, the report notes, investigators believe Hanjour and others were being directed by al-Qaeda leaders to Arizona to enroll in aviation training, some “without being told why.”

When they got to Arizona, they were not alone.

“It is clear that when Hanjour lived in Arizona in the 1990s, he associated with several individuals holding extremist beliefs who have been the subject of counterterrorism investigations,” the report states. “Some of them trained with Hanjour to be pilots.”

“Others had apparent connections to al-Qaeda, including training in Afghanistan,” the report adds.

The commission report also addresses the so-called “Phoenix Memo,” a July 10, 2001, e-mail warning FBI headquarters about numerous Middle Eastern men training at Arizona flight schools.

The detailed message from a Phoenix-based agent, Ken Williams, was ignored by higher-ups at the bureau.

Even if the FBI had acted on the recommendations, including a request for intelligence checks on all foreign students attending civil aviation schools around the country, the commission report concludes, “we do not believe it would have uncovered the (Sept. 11) plot.”

However, the commission added, a better handling of the memo may have “sensitized” the FBI to clues during the next few months, including an investigation of a key lead, Minnesota flight-training student Zacarias Moussaoui.

Besides filling in more history of al-Qaeda’s early history in Arizona, the
9/11 report adds detail to Hanjour’s activities and his web of Arizona associates.

Most of those figures have been targets of media research, and most have come up in FBI interrogations since the Sept. 11 investigation began.

Islamic leaders in the state told the Tucson Citizen yesterday that the report is old news.

“These are the same names that we have been asked about since 9/11,” said Mohammed As’ad, director of the Islamic Center of Tucson.

He said the bin Laden associates filtered in and out of the mosque because it was the only mosque in town.

“They kept to themselves in their own little group,” As’ad said. “They were not involved in anything going on in the general (Muslim) community.”

Deedra Abboud, executive director of the Center for Islamic American Relations in Phoenix, told the Citizen, “People on the board of that mosque at that time were either fanatical or had that kind of mind-set. They might have attracted like-minded people.

“Since the 1990s, those people filtered out.”