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Richard S. Ehrlich: Bangkok And The 9/11 Attacks

Bangkok And The September 11th Attacks


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Three Saudi hijackers, who died in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, escaped CIA surveillance by travelling to an al Qaeda meeting in Bangkok before flying to America, according to the U.S. government's 9/11 Commission Report.

The CIA's failure to continue following the suspects in and out of Bangkok was described in the 585-page report under a section titled: "A Lost Trail in Southeast Asia".

Another al Qaeda operative successfully smuggled a razor-sharp box cutter through Bangkok's international airport while testing a plan, later abandoned, to simultaneously hijack several passenger planes from Asia.

Other al Qaeda operatives used meetings in Bangkok to extended their Islamist organization's deadly influence throughout Southeast Asia, the commission said.

They usually arrived in Buddhist-majority Thailand on flights from neighboring Muslim-majority Malaysia and departed without raising an alarm.

But in late 1999 America's National Security Agency, monitoring "a suspected terrorist facility in the Middle East," picked up telecommunications indicating several members of "an operational cadre" linked to al Qaeda would travel to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, in January 2000.

They included three Saudis -- Nawaf al Hazmi, his younger brother Salem al Hazmi, and Khalid al Mihdhar.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the two Hamzi brothers and Mr. Mihdhar helped hijack American Airlines flight 77 on its route from Washington DC to Los Angeles, and crashed it into the Pentagon, killing 184 "non-terrorists", including the plane's occupants.

"He [Mihdhar] was located leaving Yemen and tracked until he arrived in Kuala Lumpur on January 5, 2000. Other Arabs, unidentified at the time, were watched as they gathered with him in the Malaysian capital," the commission said.

"On January 8, the [CIA] surveillance teams reported that three of the Arabs had suddenly left Kuala Lumpur on a short flight to Bangkok. They identified one as Mihdhar" but were unable at the time to determine the full name of Mr. Hazmi and his younger brother.

"In Bangkok, CIA officers received the information too late to track the three men as they came in, and the travelers disappeared into the streets of Bangkok," the commission said.

At the CIA's headquarters in the U.S., "the head of the [Osama] Bin Laden unit kept providing updates, unaware, at first, even that the Arabs had left Kuala Lumpur, let alone that their trail had been lost in Bangkok. When this bad news arrived, the names were put on a Thai watchlist so that Thai authorities could inform the United States if any of them departed from Thailand," the commission said.

"Several weeks later, CIA officers in Kuala Lumpur prodded colleagues in Bangkok for additional information regarding the three travelers. In early March 2000, Bangkok reported that Nawaf al Hazmi, now identified for the first time with his full name, had departed on January 15 on a United Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

"As for Khalid al Mihdhar, there was no report of his departure [from Bangkok] even though he had accompanied Hazmi on the United flight to Los Angeles," it noted.

"No one outside of the Counterterrorist Center was told any of this. The CIA did not try to register Mihdhar or [Nawaf] Hazmi with the State Department's TIPOFF watchlist -- either in January, when word arrived of Mihdhar's [U.S.] visa, or in March, when word came that Hazmi, too, had had a U.S. visa and a ticket to Los Angeles," the report said.

"No one alerted the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] or the FBI to look for these individuals," the commission said.

"The trail had been lost in January 2000 without a clear realization that it had been lost, and without much effort to pick it up again."

Another senior al Qaeda operative, "Khallad" Tawfiq bin Attash -- currently in U.S. custody -- probed Bangkok's international airport.

On Dec. 31, 1999, "Khallad flew from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. The next day, he flew to Hong Kong aboard a U.S. airliner. He flew in first class, which he realized was a mistake because this seating assignment on that flight did not afford him a view of the cockpit," the commission said.

He was "testing security by carrying a box cutter in his toiletries kit onto the flight to Hong Kong.

"At the [Bangkok] airport, the security officials searched his carry-on bag and even opened the toiletries kit, but just glanced at the contents and let him pass.

"Khallad returned to Bangkok the following day," the commission said.

"In Bangkok, Khallad took [Nawaf] Hazmi and Mihdhar to one hotel, then went to another hotel."

The terrorists later exited Bangkok on different flights.

Some of them "thought it would enhance their cover as tourists to have passport stamps from a popular tourist destination such as Thailand," the commission said.

"As for [Nawaf] Hazmi and Mihdhar, they had left Bangkok a few days before Khallad and arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000," the report said.

Other al Qaeda fighters who came and went through Bangkok during January 2000 included Ibrahim al Thawar, also known as Nibras, who later piloted an explosives-laden boat alongside the USS Cole warship in the port of Aden.

Mr. Nibras came to Bangkok with Fahd al Quso, a Yemeni who was later arrested as a co-conspirator for the USS Cole attack which killed 17 of the ship's crew in October 2000.

"Nibras and Quso delivered money to Khallad in Bangkok during Khallad's January 2000 trip," it said.

In June 2001, a Yemeni "coordinator for 9/11," Ramzi Binalshibh, also passed through Bangkok on his way to Europe where he was an al Qaeda cell member in Hamburg, Germany, the commission said.

In Spain, just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Binalshibh met Mohamed Atta, who piloted American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

"Before Binalshibh left Spain, he gave Atta eight necklaces and eight bracelets that Atta had asked him to buy when he [Binalshibh] was recently in Bangkok, believing that if the hijackers were clean shaven and well dressed, others would think them wealthy Saudis and give them less notice."

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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