By Aram Roston
It’s been more than eight years since 9/11, but the fallout continues to reverberate throughout today’s New York. The Obama administration’s waffling over how to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the attack’s mastermind, and the continuous, embarrassing delay in rebuilding the towers downtown have kept 9/11 more in the headlines than usual.
Now, as those political battles roll on, a new story about the run-up to 9/11 has emerged—a previously undisclosed, covert C.I.A. effort to recruit a spy to penetrate Al Qaeda a year and a half before the planes crashed into the towers.
The development is intriguing in part because the informant they were after was thought to be secretly gay—a fact that gave intelligence agents leverage in their efforts to turn him against his conservative Islamist circle. But the case may also help answer one of the long-standing mysteries of the 9/11 narrative: why a terrorist known to one part of the U.S. government wasn’t captured by other parts before he boarded a plane and helped carry out the most devastating attacks on the country.
Intelligence officials tell The Observer that the character at the center of the intrigue was an enigmatic but jovial man named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, or “Shakir el Iraqi.” “He was tall as a mushroom, fat and gay,” one source familiar with the case told The Observer, “and the idea was to exploit him as an agent against Al Qaeda”.
The C.I.A.’s pursuit of Mr. Shakir, and the role he could have played in stopping, or at least complicating, the 9/11 plot, is a story that’s never been told, adding yet another piece in the puzzle leading up to the attacks.
Mr. Shakir’s story began on Jan. 5, 2000, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He was there to meet a passenger on an incoming flight from Dubai—a Yemeni-born terrorist named Khalid al-Mihdhar. As it happens, the C.I.A. had its eyes on both of them.
Mr. Shakir didn’t have much, if any, of a file at the time. Few knew much about him, except that he was an Iraqi Arab, in his late 30s, with a dead-end job as a VIP greeter for Malaysian Airlines. But Mr. Mihdhar flashed big on the C.I.A.’s radar. At 25, he was already a deeply seasoned terrorist, with battlefield experience in Bosnia and time spent at various jihadi camps, and the agency knew that he’d come to Malaysia for some kind of special terror summit. The agency had one other key piece of intelligence: a U.S. visa had been stamped in Mr. Mihdhar’s green Saudi passport, meaning he almost certainly had been tapped for some kind of mission in America.
Indeed, it was this multiple-entry visa that would allow Mr. Mihdhar to come to America shortly after the C.I.A. started tracking him, and then, 18 months later, hijack an airliner as part of the 9/11 attacks.
Normally, the C.I.A. would have told the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the visa. That way he might have been arrested, or placed on a watch list, or at least questioned when he stepped into the U.S. Stopping him, some experts think, could well have stopped 9/11.
But the agency didn’t tell the F.B.I. about that visa, an act of omission that has baffled 9/11 buffs ever since.
As the C.I.A. watched, Messrs. Mihdhar and Shakir climbed into a taxi outside the airport and drove to an upscale apartment complex near a golf course. For the next three days, Mr. Mihdhar and about half a dozen other high-level terrorists planned future strikes against America, including the hijackings of 9/11, according to multiple intelligence experts. In anti-terrorism circles, Kuala Lumpur is seen as a critical stop on the road to the attacks.
It’s uncertain whether Mr. Shakir participated in the meetings. But clearly, he was connected. And as the terror summit went on, the C.I.A. became convinced that it had found the perfect mole to help the agency crack the jihadi circle. Mr. Shakir seemed to have excellent contacts among the radical jihadists, and, according to intelligence sources, he certainly didn’t look like a terrorist or a spy.
Another source described Mr. Shakir to The Observer as a potential “access agent,” espionage jargon for an informant whose function is to spot other potential spies and turncoats. Though he may not know secrets or terrorist plots himself, the access agent is likely to know people who do, and is expected to facilitate meetings. As this officer explained, the agency “looked to him as a social broker”.
Mr. Shakir was no James Bond. In fact, he was short and fat and sociable, and was surmised to be gay, which would have opened him up to being flipped. (Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker from Egypt, was also rumored to be gay).
Islamic jihadists don’t take kindly to homosexuality, at least in public. Homosexuality is punishable by death in some Muslim traditions. And yet, of course, it exists throughout the Middle East, in secret. (Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, was laughed at in the West when he told a conference at Columbia University that there were no homosexuals at all in Iran).
Since gays are forced deeper into the closet in the Middle East than in most other parts of the world, threats to expose someone’s sexual orientation could be a powerful motivator. It’s not hard to see how agents could use blackmail as a method to turn a suspect, though one ex–intelligence operative denied it was a common practice. “The gay issue?” he said. “Hostile recruitments almost never work. It is spy novel stuff”.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE C.I.A.’s ambitions to employ Mr. Shakir as its terror mole didn’t pan out. Agents reached out to him and one day even reportedly rifled through his house for anything that they thought might be of use; Mr. Shakir rebuffed them.
And then Mr. Mihdhar and the other terrorists fled Malaysia. When a F.B.I. agent drafted a memo at the time about Mr. Mihdhar’s U.S. visa and the possibility of his heading stateside, the C.I.A. shut the agent down, convincing him not to alert his bosses or colleagues. “Please hold off for now,” an officer wrote.
Mr. Mihdhar disappeared altogether, as if he’d never existed, along with another known terrorist named Nawaf al-Hazmi. When the C.I.A. picked up their trail months later, it led to the U.S., where the men had traveled; in fact, the two were living in a bland apartment complex in San Diego, where, it turns out, they were advancing their September hijack plans.
Yet even then, the agency kept the F.B.I. in the dark about Mr. Mihdhar. As the 9/11 Commission later wrote, “None of this information—about Mihdhar’s U.S. visa or Hazmi’s travel to the United States—went to the FBI..."
When it finally did get to the F.B.I., in August 2001, just weeks before the attacks, it was too late. In the end, Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
It was a dramatic oversight; the F.B.I. might have foiled the bombings if that information had been shared earlier on. Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission’s co-chairman, pointed out that Mr. Mihdhar “was using his own name, so once they were after him, once you were looking for him in the country, it wouldn’t have been that hard to find him”.
John Farmer, the former senior counsel at the commission, tended to agree. Had they found them—Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi—he said, “it is much more likely that the whole operation would have been compromised. Mission security was very important to Al Qaeda leaders, to the point that if they were that concerned, I think it is certainly possible that they would have called it off completely”.
So the question has always been quite simple: Why wasn’t the Mihdhar information shared with the F.B.I.? “That is one of the big mysteries. Why was the information not passed on?” Mr. Farmer toldThe Observer. Mr. Farmer is also the author of a recent book about the attacks, Ground Truth. “And the explanations aren’t good,” he added.
The 9/11 Commission, in its exhaustive report, never explained why such important intelligence disappeared into the C.I.A.’s black hole. (Complicating matters, the C.I.A. initially claimed it did tell the F.B.I.) One reason for the lapse, insiders have speculated, is that C.I.A. analysts concealed it out of spite—they simply hated the F.B.I. Cliques in national security agencies, of course, can rival those in high school.
But the C.I.A.’s antipathy for the F.B.I. as an explanation has never fully satisfied observers, and that is where Mr. Shakir plays into the story. Telling the F.B.I. about Mr. Mihdhar would have blown the lid on the Shakir gambit—and recruitments are the most sensitive operations in the spook world. The C.I.A., as one source put it, “did not want the bureau messing up the operation.” He added, “The bureau might have demanded everything: ‘Who is this guy? Let’s target him!’”
Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, said he couldn’t rule out the Shakir story and would like to hear more. “We looked at the issue very hard and with some care,” he told The Observer, “including the documentary record, but I would be glad to evaluate any new evidence that might surface”.
Mr. Kean, the commission co-chair, said, “It’s a great story.” But he pointed out that no one raised Mr. Shakir during the investigation. “I can’t say it is not true, but it would have been unusual if they withheld that information from the 9/11 Commission. I just have no way of knowing whether it is true, whether part of it is true or whether none of it is true”.
The C.I.A. declined to comment.
In any case, it appears the recruitment of Mr. Shakir failed. Shortly after the Malaysian summit disbanded, he fled the country, which further raised the C.I.A.’s suspicions about him. The C.I.A. later explained in internal records that his “travel and past contacts linked him to a worldwide network of Sunni extremist groups and personalities,” including “senior al-Qaeda associates”.
Weeks before the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. added him to its watch list, along with Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi. They also finally got around to briefing the F.B.I.
RECENTLY, THERE WAS A strange twist in the story. Years after 9/11, and after the Bush administration sought to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks, Mr. Shakir briefly grew quite famous in neoconservative circles.
The C.I.A.’s attempt to recruit him in Malaysia was never disclosed, nor was his alleged homosexuality. But word did leak out among intelligence officials that he was tied to the Kuala Lumpur summit, and neocons were intrigued by the fact that he was an Iraqi. Hawks eager to retroactively justify the Iraq invasion thought he might be the one to do it since he had met Mr. Mihdhar. And there seemed to be an Iraqi fedayeen officer with a name similar to Mr. Shakir’s.
In 2004, the story broke on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, positing that Mr. Shakir could constitute “a direct link between Iraq and the al Qaeda operatives who planned 9/11”. Such a link was the Holy Grail for neoconservatives, especially after it became clear that Iraq had no WMD.
It was a desperate push to tie the Iraqi dictator to 9/11 and it failed, notably because whatever Mr. Shakir was, he was no Iraqi agent and he was no fedayeen officer.
The last anyone saw of Mr. Shakir was right after the 9/11 attacks. Briefly in 2001, he was picked up in the Middle East, first by the Qatari authorities, and then in Amman, Jordan. But he was quickly released. No public pictures of him exist. Today, his whereabouts are unknown.
Aram Roston is an Emmy Award–winning investigative reporter and author of The Man Who Pushed America to War, a biography of Ahmad Chalabi
The New York Observer