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What The Commission Missed: Ex-Green Beret Built 9/11 Network

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U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is widely regarded as the Justice Department's top gun on al Qaeda. He appeared before the 9/11 Commission in June 2004 to outline his views on the terrorist network's most critical components.

Fitzgerald spent almost an entire page of his five-page prepared statement[1] discussing one man -- Ali A. Mohamed, a senior al Qaeda associate who infiltrated the U.S. Army and played tag with the FBI for nearly a decade before being stopped.

Fitzgerald did not spare a single word for Ramzi Yousef. He mentioned blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman only once -- as a tangent to Mohamed. Fitzgerald spent more time discussing Mohamed than talking about Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's chief ideologist and purported second-in-command.

The emphasis could not have been more clear. Yet the final report of the 9/11 Commission did not reflect Fitzgerald's concern. The report barely mentioned Mohamed, spending a great deal of capital on Yousef, even as its findings dismissed the World Trade Center bomber as a "freelance" terrorist only loosely affiliated with al Qaeda.

While Yousef likely played a critical role devising the plot that eventually became the September 11 attack, Ali Mohamed was the utility player who created al Qaeda's terrorist infrastructure in the United States -- a series of connections, ideas, techniques and specific tools used by the plot's hijackers and masterminds.

Although Mohamed was arrested in 1998, his infrastructure remained not only intact but virtually unmonitored until after 9/11. Even as his network was dragged into the light, his role in facilitating the attacks remained obscure, in no small part because Mohamed himself has been locked away from the public and the judicial system, his pre-9/11 plea deal with the government now frozen in secret, semi-permanent limbo.

Despite this secrecy, Mohamed's operations and connections can be tracked by painstakingly combing through the public record. The result is clear -- Mohamed's trail of infiltration through the United States intersects with the September 11 plot -- not just once but repeatedly.

(For a short overview of Mohamed's career, see Who is Ali Mohamed at


Immediately after the September 11 attack, Ali Mohamed -- like many other terrorist inmates -- was placed into a maximum security detention setting, cut off from the outside world and from all media reports.

Shortly afterward, he was interrogated by his FBI handler, Special Agent Jack Cloonan. Cloonan asked the al Qaeda trainer to tell him how they did it.

"I don't believe he was privy to all the details, but what he laid out was the attack as if he knew every detail," Cloonan said in a 2006 documentary.[2] "This is how you position yourself. I taught people to sit in first class." Mohamed described teaching al Qaeda terrorists how to smuggle box cutters onto airplanes.

"It was just kind of eerie," Cloonan said.

Cloonan believes that Mohamed did not have direct knowledge of the plot.

"I think he probably understood that the World Trade Center was a target at some point, but he wouldn't have known of the plot as it unfolded," Cloonan said. "Remember he was basically in our custody since 1998."

It may or may not be true that Mohamed had no knowledge of the specific 9/11 plot.[3]

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J.M. Berger is a journalist covering terrorism and extremism. He has produced content for the National Geographic Channel, National Public Radio and more. His first book, "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam," can be pre-ordered through (more...)
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