Who Is Ken Williams?

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1994: FBI Watches Suicide Bomber Train in Arizona, Fails to Take Action
By 1990, Arizona became one of the main centers in the US for radical Muslims, and it remains so through 9/11. For instance, a terrorism expert will later call the principal mosque in Tucson, Arizona, the focal point of “basically, the first cell of al-Qaeda in the United States; that is where it all started.” A number of future al-Qaeda leaders live in Arizona in the early 1990s, including Mubarak al Duri, al-Qaeda’s chief agent attempting to purchase weapons of mass destruction, and Wadih El-Hage, bin Laden’s personal secretary who will later be convicted for a role in the 1998 US embassy bombings (see August 7, 1998). The founder of the mosque, Wael Hamza Julaidan, is later considered one of the founders of al-Qaeda and its logistics chief. Around 1991, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour moved to Arizona for the first time (see October 3, 1991-February 1992) and he will spend much of the rest of the decade in the state. The FBI apparently remains largely oblivious of Hanjour, though one FBI informant claims that by 1998 they “knew everything about the guy.” [New York Times, 6/19/2002; Washington Post, 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521] In 1994, the Phoenix FBI office uncovers startling evidence connecting Arizona to radical Muslim militants. According to FBI agent James Hauswirth, they are told that a group of “heavy duty associates” of al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman have arrived in the area, fleeing New York in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They are in the area to train a recruit as a suicide bomber. The recruit apparently is an FBI informant. FBI agent Ken Williams, who will later author the July 2001 “Phoenix memo,” orders surveilance of the training. The informant is driven to a remote stretch of desert and instructed in how to use explosives. A device is thrown at a car, but it fails to explode. The FBI secretly videotapes the entire incident. One of the two men is later positively linked to Abdul-Rahman. But apparently the investigation into the people involved fails to make progress. Hauswirth later blames this on a lack of support from higher-ups in the Phoenix office, recalling, “The drug war was the big thing back then, and terrorism was way on the back burner.” Additionally, also in 1994, a key FBI informant will begin monitoring local radical militants (see October 1996). However, terrorism will remain a low priority for the Phoenix, Arizona, FBI office (see April 2000-June 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 209-210]

October 1996: Phoenix FBI Agent Has First Suspicions of Local Flight Students
Harry Ellen, a businessman who converted to Islam, has high credibility with Muslims in Arizona because of his work on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He has had important meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1994, he began working as an FBI informant. Ken Williams, the Phoenix FBI agent who will later write the July 2001 “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001), is his handler. In October 1996, Ellen tells Williams that he has suspicions about an Algerian pilot who is training other Middle Eastern men to fly. He later recalls, “My comment to Williams was that it would be pitiful if the bad guys were able to gain this kind of access to airplanes, flight training and crop dusters. I said, ‘You really ought to look at this, it’s an interesting mix of people.’” Ellen had previously begun spying on a man known as Abu Sief, which apparently is his alias. Sief had come to Arizona from New Jersey in 1993, and bragged about having close ties with al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef (when Yousef’s computer is seized in the Philippines in 1995, there is a mention of a contact in Tucson, Arizona, but it is unknown if this is a reference to Sief or someone else (see January 7-11, 1995)). Sief attended a New Jersey mosque that many of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers also attended. Ellen soon sees the unnamed Algerian pilot meeting with Abu Sief. He tells this to Williams and later will claim, “I told him to be very concerned about air schools.” However, Ellen will claim that Williams responds by telling him to “leave it alone.” So he does. Ellen later believes that Williams should have sent the gist of his Phoenix memo at this time, instead of four and a half years later. Hani Hanjour is living in Phoenix by this time and taking flight training nearby (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Ellen later will say he did not know Hanjour directly, but he knew some of his friends and relatives. Ellen and Williams will have a falling out in late 1998 on an unrelated manner, and Ellen’s flow of information will stop. [Washington Post, 5/24/2002; New York Times, 5/24/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 211, 352-355, inset 21]

1998: FBI Agent Starts First Investigation into Arizona Flight Students
The FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, investigates a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport. FBI agent Ken Williams initiates an investigation into the possibility of Islamic militants learning to fly aircraft, but he has no easy way to query a central FBI database about similar cases. Because of this and other FBI communication problems, he remains unaware of most US intelligence reports about the potential use of airplanes as weapons, as well as other, specific FBI warnings issued in 1998 and 1999 concerning Islamic militants training at US flight schools (see May 15, 1998; September 1999). Williams will write the “Phoenix memo” in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). He had been alerted about some suspicious flight school students in 1996, but it is not clear if this person was mentioned in that previous alert or not (see October 1996). [US Congress, 7/24/2003 pdf file]

1998: Information on Hijacker Hanjour Apparently Ignored by FBI
An American Caucasian Muslim named Aukai Collins later says he reports to the FBI on hijacker Hani Hanjour for six months this year. [Associated Press, 5/24/2002] The FBI later acknowledges they paid Collins to monitor the Islamic and Arab communities in Phoenix between 1996 and 1999. He also was an informant overseas and once had an invitation to meet bin Laden (see Mid-1998). [ABC News, 5/23/2002; Associated Press, 5/24/2002] Collins claims that he is a casual acquaintance of Hanjour while Hanjour is taking flying lessons. [Associated Press, 5/24/2002] Collins sees nothing suspicious about Hanjour as an individual, but he tells the FBI about him because Hanjour appears to be part of a larger, organized group of Arabs taking flying lessons. [The Big Story with John Gibson, 5/24/2002] He says the FBI “knew everything about the guy,” including his exact address, phone number, and even what car he drove. The FBI denies Collins told them anything about Hanjour, and denies knowing about Hanjour before 9/11. [ABC News, 5/23/2002] Collins later calls Hanjour a “hanky panky” hijacker: “He wasn’t even moderately religious, let alone fanatically religious. And I knew for a fact that he wasn’t part of al-Qaeda or any other Islamic organization; he couldn’t even spell jihad in Arabic.” [Collins, 2003, pp. 248] Collins tells the New York Times that he worked with FBI agent Ken Williams, who will write a July 2001 memo expressing concerns about radical militants attending Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). He says that he quarrels with Williams and quits helping him. It is unknown if Williams ever learns about Hanjour before 9/11. [New York Times, 5/24/2002] Collins closely matches the description of the informant who first alerted Williams to Zacaria Soubra, a flight student who will be the main focus of Williams’ memo (see April 2000). If this is so, it bolsters Collins’ claims that he knew Hanjour, because many of Soubra’s friends, including his roommate (and al-Qaeda operative) Ghassan al-Sharbi do know Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). After 9/11, Collins will claim that based on his experience with the FBI and CIA, he is 100 percent sure that some people in those agencies knew about the 9/11 attack in advance and let it happen. “Just think about it—how could a group of people plan such a big operation full of so many logistics and probably countless e-mails, encrypted or not, and phone calls and messengers? And you’re telling me that, through all of that, that the CIA never caught wind of it?” [Salon, 10/17/2002]

Summer 1998: One of Bin Laden’s Four Holy War Goals Is to Bring Down US Airliners
Bin Laden sends a fax from Afghanistan to Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, a London-based Muslim imam who dubs himself the “mouth, eyes, and ears of Osama bin Laden.” Bakri publicly releases what he calls bin Laden’s four specific objectives for a holy war against the US. The instruction reads, “Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks.” Noting this, the Los Angeles Times will wryly comment that “Bin Laden hasn’t been shy about sharing his game plan.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] In 2001, FBI agent Ken Williams will grow concerned about some Middle Eastern students training in Arizona flight schools. He will link several of them to Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist group founded by Bakri. Williams will quote several fatwas (calls to action) from Bakri in his later-famous July 2001 memo (see July 10, 2001). However, he apparently will not be aware of this particular call to action. These students linked to Bakri’s group apparently have no connection to any of the 9/11 hijackers. In another interview before 9/11, Bakri will boast of recruiting “kamikaze bombers ready to die for Palestine.” (see Early September 2001) [Associated Press, 5/23/2002]

1999: FBI Learns of Militant Group’s Plans to Send Students to US for Aviation Training; Investigation Opportunity Bungled
The FBI receives reports that a militant organization is planning to send students to the US for aviation training. The organization’s name remains classified, but apparently it is a different organization than one mentioned in a very similar warning the year before (see After May 15, 1998). The purpose of this training is unknown, but the organization viewed the plan as “particularly important” and it approved open-ended funding for it. The Counterterrorism Section at FBI headquarters issues a notice instructing 24 field offices to pay close attention to Islamic students from the target country engaged in aviation training. Ken Williams’s squad at the Phoenix FBI office receives this notice, although Williams does not recall reading it. Williams will later write his “Phoenix memo” on this very topic in July 2001 (see July 10, 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry later will conclude, “There is no indication that field offices conducted any investigation after receiving the communication.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003] However, an analyst at FBI headquarters conducts a study and determines that each year there are about 600 Middle Eastern students attending the slightly over 1,000 US flight schools. [New York Times, 5/4/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003] In November 2000, a notice will be issued to the field offices, stating that it has uncovered no indication that the militant group is recruiting students. Apparently, Williams will not see this notice either. [US Congress, 7/24/2003]

November 1999-August 2001: Suspects with Saudi Embassy Ties Increases Concerns about Radical Militants in Phoenix
Two Saudis, Hamdan al Shalawi and Mohammed al-Qudhaeein, are detained for trying twice to get into the cockpit on a passenger airplane flying from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C. They claim they thought the cockpit was the bathroom, and sue the FBI for racism. After 9/11, the FBI will consider the possibility that this was a “dry run” for the 9/11 attacks, but apparently does not come to a definite conclusion. In late 1999, it is discovered that the two were traveling to Washington to attend a party at the Saudi embassy and their ticket had been paid by the Saudi government. Apparently influenced by their government ties, the FBI decides not to prosecute or investigate the men. Al-Qudhaeein leaves the US. In 2000, intelligence information will be received indicating al-Qudhaeein had received explosives and car bomb training in Afghanistan. As a result, his name is added to a no-fly watch list. In April 2000, FBI agent Ken Williams is investigating Zacaria Soubra, a suspected radical militant attending a flight school in Phoenix, and discovers that the car Soubra is driving is actually owned by al-Qudhaeein. Soubra is friends with al Shalawi and al-Qudhaeein. This and other evidence will influence Williams to write his later-famous July 2001 memo warning about potential terrorists training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). In August 2001, al-Qudhaeein applies for a visa to reenter the US, but is denied entry. It has not been revealed why al-Qudhaeein wanted to reenter the US, or if Williams or anyone else in US intelligence knew about his attempted reentry, or if anyone took action as a result of it. [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 43-44; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Al Shalawi, the other Saudi involved in the cockpit incident, also has a radical militant background. In November 2000, US intelligence discovers he is training in a camp in Afghanistan, learning how to conduct a car bomb attack. One of his friends in Arizona is Ghassan al Sharbi, an al-Qaeda operative who will be captured in Pakistan with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. Al Sharbi is one of the targets of Williams’ July 2001 memo. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]

April 2000: Suspicious Flight School Student Leads to Arizona FBI Investigation
In early April 2000, Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams gets a tip that makes him suspicious that some flight students might be Islamic militants. Williams will begin an investigation based on this tip that will lead to his “Phoenix memo” warning about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001) [New York Times, 6/19/2002] It appears that Lebanese flight school student Zacaria Soubra has been seen at a shooting range with Abu Mujahid, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Abu Mujahid appears to match Aukai Collins, a white American Muslim who had fought in the Balkans and the Middle East, who also goes by the name Abu Mujahid, and is an FBI informant spying on the Muslim community in the area at the time (see 1998). Collins also claims to have been the informant referred to in the Phoenix memo, which again suggests that Collins was the one at the shooting range with Soubra. [Salon, 10/17/2002] On April 7, Williams appears at Soubra’s apartment and interviews him. Soubra acts defiant, and tells Williams that he considers the US government and military legitimate targets of Islam. He has photographs of bin Laden on the walls. Williams runs a check on the license plate of Soubra’s car and discovers the car is actually owned by a suspected militant with explosives and car bomb training in Afghanistan who had been held for attempting to enter an airplane cockpit the year before (see November 1999-August 2001). [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 43-44] On April 17, Williams starts a formal investigation into Soubra. [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams will be reassigned to work on an arson case and will not be able to get back to work on the Soubra investigation until June 2001 (see April 2000-June 2001). He will release the Phoenix memo one month later. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect Soubra had ties to terrorism. For instance, in 2003, an unnamed official will claim, “Soubra was involved in terrorist-supporting activities, facilitating shelter and employment for people… involved with al-Qaeda.” For a time, he and hijacker Hani Hanjour attend the same mosque, though there is no evidence they ever meet. Soubra’s roommate at the time of Williams’ interview is Ghassan al-Sharbi. In 2002, al-Sharbi will be arrested in Pakistan with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. While Williams will focus on Soubra, al-Sharbi will also be a target of his memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003] In 2004, Soubra will be deported to Lebanon after being held for two years. He will deny any connection to Hanjour or terrorism. [Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004]

April 2000-June 2001: Arizona FBI Investigation into Suspect Flight School Students Faces Delays
In April 2000, FBI agent Ken Williams begins investigating an Arizona flight student named Zacaria Soubra with suspicious radical militant ties. Soubra will be the main focus of Williams’s July 2001 memo about suspect Middle Easterners training in Arizona flight schools (see July 10, 2001). But Williams’ investigation into Soubra is greatly slowed because of internal politics and personal disputes. When he returns to this case in December 2000, he and all the other agents on the international terrorism squad are diverted to work on a high-profile arson case. James Hauswirth, another Arizona FBI agent, will later say, “[Williams] fought it. Why take your best terrorism investigator and put him on an arson case? He didn’t have a choice.” The arson case is solved in June 2001 and Williams returns to the issue of Islamic militant flight school students. His memo comes out much later than it otherwise might have. Hauswirth will write a letter to FBI Director Mueller in late 2001, complaining, “[Terrorism] has always been the lowest priority in the division; it still is the lowest priority in the division.” Others insiders later concur that the Arizona FBI placed a low priority on terrorism cases before 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 5/26/2002; New York Times, 6/19/2002]

End Part I