Mueller Outlines Origin, Funding of Sept. 11 Plot
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said yesterday that investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan.
Mueller also said that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 37, a Kuwaiti-born terrorist, played a key role in planning the attacks. Mohammed was put on the FBI's most-wanted-terrorist list last year for his alleged involvement in a 1995 Manila-based plot to bomb 12 U.S. commercial airliners. He is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
"I think we're confident that he was one of the key figures" in last year's attacks, Mueller said in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Post. Mueller said investigators have focused on Mohammed "for a long time," though until this week the name had not figured publicly in discussions of the Sept. 11 plot.
Mueller's comments were among his most detailed public comments on the origins of the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. In outlining Mohammed's role, Mueller was for the first time drawing a strong connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and a series of other terrorist operations in the 1990s that involved Osama bin Laden and members of his network.
Mohammed is related to Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six and wounded more than 1,000, and the originator of the 1995 Manila plot for which Mohammed was also indicted as a co-conspirator.
Yousef was captured in Pakistan in 1995 after Philippine police discovered his computer in a Manila apartment.
In the interview yesterday, Mueller appeared to stress that the origins of the Sept. 11 plot lay in Afghanistan, among the al Qaeda leadership, not in Hamburg, Germany, where some of the hijackers first congregated. One school of thought within the U.S. intelligence community has emphasized the "Hamburg cell" as the inspiration for the attacks.
"We think the masterminds of it were in Afghanistan, high in the al Qaeda leadership," Mueller said. "Plotters and others - the principals - came together in Germany and perhaps elsewhere."
The new emphasis on Mohammed this week came after he was described by Abu Zubaida, a recently captured, high-ranking al Qaeda leader, as the person who "came up with the plan" to hijack four airliners and target the Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, according to a senior administration official.
Some intelligence officials have their doubts about Zubaida's credibility, particularly after his statements in recent months prompted authorities to issue nationwide alerts on terror threats that didn't materialize. Others say that some of his statements about al Qaeda's operations track with other evidence authorities have been gathering.
Zubaida has suggested to his interrogators that Mohammed was "central" to the plot, the official said. Zubaida, who played an active role in recruiting al Qaeda trainees who came to bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, also played a major role in sending them to different countries after their training was completed.
He therefore had contact with Mohammed, who in Afghanistan was involved in planning for al Qaeda operations, often years in advance of the actual event. Surveillance for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was initially done in 1994, according to court testimony.
Overall, Mohammed served as "a key aide to bin Laden," the senior official said, but below the top echelon of al Qaeda military and political leaders, such as Ayman Zawahiri, whose status is unknown, and Muhammad Atef, who was believed killed in November in Afghanistan in a U.S. bombing raid.
In addition to Zubaida, other Afghan sources and captured al Qaeda fighters have said Mohammed was "a fairly central figure" in terrorist planning, the official said.
Mueller would not discuss anything that has emerged from Zubaida's interrogation, which is taking place at an undisclosed site in Pakistan. Mueller did say investigators are "continuing to trace the monies" and that "persons that have been detained in Pakistan, Zubaida being one of them, could shed some light on that."
A once-secret 1995 FBI intelligence analysis, obtained this week by The Post, describes Yousef and his Manila partner, Abdul Hakim Murad, as belonging to "new Sunni Islamic groups" that "have access to a worldwide network of support for funding, training, and safe haven," but does not mention al Qaeda.
The report, based on interrogation of Murad, mentions bin Laden as the possible source of funding for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and identifies Murad as the person who chose those New York City landmarks as the target for Yousef to hit.
The bureau analysts described Yousef's network as being "composed primarily of former schoolmates and associates from his days in Afghanistan," which, the report says, "provided an arena for paramilitary and terrorist training." Afghanistan also "provided Yousef with an opportunity to recruit new confederates," it says, noting that "hundreds, perhaps thousands of Arab extremists traveled to Afghanistan to participate in the jihad against the Soviet Union."
The report added that Yousef was to travel to Egypt and Algeria after the Manila plot "to train his Muslim brothers in how to make his nitroglycerin bomb and smuggle it aboard an airplane." One technique employed by Yousef, according to the report, was to carry bomb detonators or timing devices for bombs onto airliners in his shoes - a technique that may have been imitated in the case of Richard Reid, who was arrested last year after allegedly trying to blow up an airplane flying from Paris to Miami.
Murad said he also discussed attacks in the United States with Yousef, "including possibly flying a plane filled with explosives into the CIA building," the report says.
Reflecting conclusions contained in the bureau's 1995 report, Mueller said, "You look at Indonesia, you look at Malaysia, you look at the Philippines.
"There are various groups in all of these countries that to a greater or lesser degree believe in the same principles articulated by bin Laden.
"But are they the same group? It's hard to say."
Mueller also drew a distinction between those formal members of al Qaeda "who have actually sworn allegiance in some sort of formal ceremony," and others who work more informally within the bin Laden network.