An interview with former FBI special agent Ken Williams, author of the Phoenix Memo

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Two months before the attacks of 9/11, FBI special agent Ken Williams sent the bureau's headquarters a memo, today known as the Phoenix Memo, to inform them of the potential presence in Arizona of terrorists attending civil aviation schools. To discuss his memo and other intelligence failures that led to 9/11, Ken Williams accepted our proposal for an interview which we are today offering our readers.

We would like to thanks Ken Williams for his time and kindness.

Undicisettembre: You are the author of the very famous Phoenix Memo; would you like to tell us something about it?

Ken Williams:
Back in 1999 I was working a source of information, a human informant who now is deceased, he was a former terrorist with an organization of prominence, I can’t tell you what organization he was in but he was a former terrorist. I recruited him to work for US intelligence and he reported to me that there were two individuals residing in Prescott, Arizona, organizing a chapter of an organization called al-Muhajiroun, which in English translates into “The Immigrant”. Al-Muhajiroun was formed in 1983 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and it was a pretty radical Sunni Islamic group, they were recruiting mujahideen to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Al-Mujahiroun caused problems for the Saudi government in the mid-80s and were ultimately outlawed and banned in 1986. They left Saudi Arabia and set up their headquarters in London. Once the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden emerged as a prominent figure, Al-Mujahiroun called themselves “the eyes, the ears and the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda”.

These guys in Prescott were attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which is a very prestigious civil aviation university, their main campuses are located in Daytona Beach, Florida, and they have a satellite campus in Prescott. Prescott is a small town a hundred and fifty miles north of Phoenix, it was the first territorial capital of Arizona, a cowboy town, a place where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday lived back in the 1800s; and if this type of stuff can appear in Prescott, Arizona, they can appear anywhere, in any small town, anywhere in the world.

These guys would travel several times a week to Phoenix to recruit young men into al-Qaeda, they would also travel to Tempe, Arizona, which is home to Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the United States, which is attended by many Middle Eastern students from the Gulf area. So, these guys were doing their homework, they were recruiting people at the university and mosques in Phoenix and Tempe. One of these guys was a Lebanese national in the United States on a student VISA by the name of Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, he was studying aviation security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; the second man was named Ghassan al-Sharbi who was a Saudi student, also on a student VISA, who was studying electrical engineering.

These individuals were the real deal according to the informant and when we started looking at these guys, we saw they were propagating materials in the mosques that were supportive of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. This was my first case with these type of people with this radical ideology in the USA. Based on that and other activities we observed here in Arizona I came to the conclusion “I think al-Qaeda is trying to do something with airplanes or civil aviation here in the United States.”

In November 1999 we had a separate incident on an American West Airlines flight, there were two Saudis, PhD students one by the name of Mohammed al-Qudhaeein and the other by the name of Hamdan al-Shalawi, who started asking flight attendants and crew strange questions about the capability of the aircraft, questions like “How much fuel does the plane carry? How many people are on the flight?” In one occasion one of the individuals got up and started walking towards the cockpit of the airplane and tried the handle of the door, when challenged by flight attendants he said he made a mistake and thought that was the entryway into the bathroom. It made the crew so anxious and concerned that they phoned into the cockpit and told the pilot what was going on, the pilot landed in Columbus, Ohio. The plane was originally going from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington DC; while in Columbus they contacted the FBI and the local police department and they removed these individuals from the aircraft and questioned them. They immediately went on the offensive claiming it was racial profiling. They didn’t show up in any intelligence databases, they had no criminal history and therefore they couldn’t be detained any further; they were put back on the airplane and continued to Washington where they were met by members of the Saudi embassy and the Council of American Islamic Affairs and held a press conference on the steps of the US Capitol alleging racial profiling and discriminatory actions on behalf of the airline and law enforcement.

I saw that incident; I saw those guys that were attending Embry-Riddle University and there were other investigations that I’m not in liberty to speak about because they are still classified and have not been talked about in the 9/11 Commission Report. I also saw other individuals who had the same radical ideology that were studying civil aviation related materials. I decided on July 10th 2001 to author a communication and point out my observation, my concerns and my suspicions and asked my headquarters to address it with the broader intelligence community, not only in the United States; when I asked them to discuss it with the CIA, I was assuming it would have been discussed with our friendly allies too. I just wanted to see if any intelligence information was being collected that supported my theory that al-Qaeda might be sending people to the United States to study aviation related materials.

This is a kind of a “Reader’s digest” version of the whole thing.

There’s some reasons why I took so long since 1999 when I opened up the case on these two guys in Prescott and the individuals on the American West flight and the time frame when I sent the communication in. For a period of time, I was taken off the case and placed on an arson investigation. At the time we had an individual by the name of Mark Warren Sands who was lighting fires on houses under construction in the Mountains Preserve property in the Phoenix metropolitan area; the Phoenix Police Department came to the FBI to ask for investigative resources to assist them in trying to find the perpetrators of this arsons, which we ultimately did: he was successfully arrested, prosecuted and he spent over twenty years in prison. But that took my eyes off the al-Qaeda guys for a year’s period of time; I got back on the investigation on Mr. Soubra and Mr. al-Sharbi in May or June of 2001 and when I went back to refresh my files, I came up with the idea of this communication that is now known as the Phoenix Memo.

Mark Sands really took the eyes of the FBI off these al-Qaeda operatives in our area of responsibility.

The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus in Prescott

Undicisettembre: Did investigators after 9/11 interview you about your memo? The Commission, the FBI, anyone else?

Ken Williams: I did not hear anything from FBI headquarters. I sent it on July 10 2001, the attacks took place on September 11th 2001 and in the bureaucratic world of government that is not really a long period of time. The FBI has three classification of communications: “routine” which is communication for consideration and you take action when you can do so, “priority” which is a bit higher than routine and means “hey, I have something here, possibly some threat information”, and then “immediate” that means “there’s a ticking time bomb, something is ready to go, we have to drop everything that we are doing and get on this right away”. I sent the Phoenix Memo as “routine” communication because by the time I sent it, it was an investigative theory that I had, I did not have any specific information from an informant or a technical source saying “these guys are ready to commit a terrorist attack”. It wasn’t a “priority” communication because I just wanted the information I developed sent out to the intelligence community for discussion and to see if anybody else had any other informant reporting about other subjects that were learning how to fly airplanes or who were studying aviation related subject material.

The rest is history. I wish I sent it as “priority” or “immediate” but I was following the procedures at the time and I didn’t have any specific information of any specific criminal activity they were planning. It was just a theory based on an accumulation of information that I had amassed in Arizona.

Undicisettembre: How come the Saudis, even the Saudi government, tried to help the terrorists in doing what they did?

Ken Williams: That’s a very interesting question. A lot of us here in the west don’t take the time to understand how the Saudi government and the Saudi society function. It’s a religious state, but it’s also a secular state because there’s a monarchy: the two have to learn how to try to live together. From what I’ve learned from academics and from my training with the US government, the monarchy has to sometimes cooperate with the religious extremists trough the Ministry of the Islamic Affairs to placate them so that the monarchy survives; if they don’t placate the religious extremists in their society the kingdom can be overthrown. You didn’t this before 9/11, but after 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq you saw al-Qaeda starting to attack the Saudi kingdom, they said enough “We want to overthrow the king of Saudi Arabia.”

Before 9/11 you did not see that because, based on what I read by academics, the Saudi government placated them by allowing them to do certain things and supporting them in recruiting mujahideen to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, that was also the West’s attempt to put a hit on the USSR and a lot of western countries supported the mujahideen. The US actively supported providing funds and weaponry to these guys who were fighting the Soviets.

It should be nothing new to Western governments that this is how the Saudi government functioned back in those days and I believe that now with pressure on them they have agreed to cooperate in trying to stop that terrorist activity. And that’s why I believe that the 9/11 family victims are being pushed back on by the United States government in obtaining cooperation to put heat on the Saudi government to face up to their culpability with several of their employees being involved with providing support to the hijackers in the United States before 9/11.

Undicisettembre: You are also in the Operation Encore and your name appears in the very famous New York Times article about it. Based on what you know as a part of this investigation, do you think the US government is doing everything they can to clarify what the role of the Saudis was, or are they trying to shield them somehow?

Ken Williams: I was not involved with Operation Encore before my retirement, I retired from the FBI in 2017 after thirty years of service. I became aware of Operation Encore post retirement after going to work for the plaintiff attorneys as an investigator and a consultant for the law firm of Kreindler and Kreindler. I can’t get into any specifics because the information is under an FBI protective order, but what I can assure you and your readers is this: there is something out there that needs to be followed up on by the US government. I do believe they are shielding the Saudi government for whatever reason. I do believe that more criminal investigation, despite what is going on with the civil investigation right now that I’m part of, should be done on this case: this is the largest murder that has taken place in the history of the United States. What you have here is a murder investigation that is unsolved, there are people that have to be held responsible for their actions that led up to that horrible day.

I’m outraged that these people, the victims of 9/11 and their families, are not getting more cooperation from the United States government in their litigation against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is really an American story, these people, with assistance of attorneys, got the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, also known as JASTA, enacted. JASTA allows American citizens to sue foreign governments that are responsible, or culpable in one form or another, for civil damages. To get push back from their own government that invokes state secrets and so forth as reasons why they can’t help American citizens is a real travesty. What I tell colleagues and friends and people in the media like yourself is that when policies and procedures that are in place to protect secrets, that are originally designed to protect Americans, turn around and start hurting Americans they need to be changed. Our Congress and our legislators have to look at the system and to what the FBI, the Department of Justice and the CIA are doing and say “Hold on, we have to re-evaluate what is going on here because these policies and procedures that we have in place to protect secrets are now hurting the same citizens that they are supposed to protect.”

That’s why I am very animated about this and I got involved with assisting the law firm. I retired in May 2017 and in October I was contacted by the attorneys representing the victims of 9/11 and they asked me if I would be willing to assist as an investigator and a consultant on their case, I said “Absolutely, but let me check with my former employer.” I called the FBI and I was notified by the office of General Council of the FBI, which is the attorneys that run the FBI and tell us what we can or can’t do from a legal point of view, that they did not want me to assist the victims of 9/11 in their law suit against the government of Saudi Arabia. The first reason I was given was [Ken Williams reads this quote from the original document – editor’s note] “There’s other litigation involved in the US government going on and any cooperation that you provide might negatively impact that case. The Trump administration is also trying to have good relations with Saudi Arabia and they do not want you to give a deposition or cooperate with the council for the families.”

After being told that, after having been a loyal employee of the FBI for thirty years I called the law firm back and told them “Hey listen, they don’t want me to help you out” I didn’t know at that time that it was going to become the big deal that it is now. When I told that to the attorneys, they thanked me for my time and attention, but I felt horrible, I felt like I did something wrong. I hadn’t been able to help them for another nine months and then out the blue the law firm called me back and at that point I said “Yes, I’m going to help you” because for me it was inconceivable that someone in the US government would tell me not to help my fellow countrymen out. I decided to get on-board with the law firm and I’ve been working with them ever since to try to bring these people justice and to get a judgment against the government of Saudi Arabia for their complicity in the terrorist attack of 9/11.

Undicisettembre: If we link together all that we discussed so far and even what happened at the Alec Station with Doug Miller’s memo being blocked, do you think 9/11 could have been avoided if things were handled properly?

Ken Williams: I think there’s a very good likelihood. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think things would have been handled differently, it might have been prevented or stalled for a period.

You have to remember in the mid-90s the US intelligence community found out terrorists were planning a planes operation called “Operation Bojinka” where they were going to detonate a number of planes, there was also a plot to fly a plane into the CIA headquarters. So, there was information out there.

So, yes, had things been handled differently we might have been able to at least delay the operation or prevent it entirely. The Ghassan al-Sharbi I mention in the Phoenix Memo was arrested in March 2002 in Faisalabad, Pakistan, with Abu Zubayda who at the time was considered one of the highest-ranking individuals for al-Qaeda and was one of the most hunted men in the world like bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, he was ranked number three in al-Qaeda during that time period. If you are Abu Zubayda and you are on the lam and hiding out from the West’s intelligence services you are not letting any random individual hide out in your hideaway with you. To me we were on the right track, this informant of mine pointed me in the right direction. Another thing I want to highlight is that Ghassan al-Sharbi and Zakaria Soubra were driving a car registered to Mohammed al-Qudhaeein who was one of the individuals on the America West Airlines flight.

We found that out when the war started and we went into Afghanistan and we retrieved caches of information from CD’s, hard drives, documents and so on; we identified Hamdan al-Shalawi as having attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in order to conduct an operation similar to the Kobar Towers bombing.

This all happened when I was taken off the case in Prescott, Arizona, and put on the arson case. This was when Hani Hanjour and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 hijackers, entered the Phoenix metropolitan area to go to flight school and lived here for a period of time.

So, again, yes. I think if things were handled differently, if information was shared, if I didn’t get taken off the case, at the very least we would have delayed something or disrupted it so much that we could have prevented it. At the very same time of these events, I’m telling you about, FBI agent Harry Samit in Minneapolis identified Zacarias Moussaoui who was going to a flight school, very interested in flying but not very interested in learning how to land. Everything was coming together.

I think the information developed by myself, and the Phoenix FBI office, and our being on top of the guys I have mentioned to you today (Soubra, Al-Sharbi, Al-Shalawi and Al-Qudaheen) was possibly reported back to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. This, coupled together with the fact that the FBI was after Moussaoui in Minneapolis, has caused myself and some of my retired colleagues to wonder and ask ourselves: “Did we speed something up? How many more of these pilots did bin Laden train? Were there more than just four?” Maybe they felt, but this is pure speculation, that the wheels were starting to fall off the car and they had better get things going now otherwise they were not going to be able to do anything.

It’s a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

One thing I want to highlight is that every country’s intelligence services are doing their very best to protect its citizens from terrorists and terrorist attacks, but we have to be right all of the time, the terrorists have all the time in the world to sit and plan and only need to be right once to murder and cause great destruction. We’ve seen that happen time and time again. When we watch the horrors of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and we see them cutting people’s head off, we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are people out there who are having visions of one day becoming martyrs like the nineteen hijackers who murdered thousands of people on September 11, 2001. We have to always be vigilant to identify it, to attack it and to neutralize it, otherwise we are going to have another day like 9/11.

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