Captain's Quarters Blog

« Reform Starts With A Giant Step | Main | Italians Hid Iraqi 'Insurgents' »

August 25, 2005
Able Danger: The Strange Spanish Interlude

The 9/11 Commission claimed to have discounted the testimony of Captain Scott Phillpott in July 2004 on Able Danger specifically because of his assertion about when his team identified Mohammed Atta as a potential al-Qaeda terrorist in the United States. The official timeline for the Commission on Atta starts on June 3, 2000, when INS records the first of only three entries for Atta in Newark, New Jersey. Captain Phillpott insists that his team ID'd Atta in the US in January or February 2000, months earlier.

I covered the timeline issues in my Daily Standard column and in my follow-up post yesterday. I argued that the Commission's weak sourcing for the Atta timeline, essentially based on nothing but INS records and the testimony of two captured terrorists, reopens not only the question of when Atta first established his cell here but the long-debated Czech intelligence that has Atta meeting with the Iraqis in Prague. While we have information that the Commission apparently did not -- that the Germans had captured Iraqi spies working an extensive operation during the same time the AQ plotters worked on the 9/11 attack in Germany -- their stated reasons for discounting the Prague meeting and its critical Iraqi connection include relying on Atta's supposed habit of traveling under his own name.

However, the trip to Spain that Atta undertook in July 2001 creates new problems. Atta went to Spain twice, actually; when he met Ramzi Binalshibh in January 2001 in Germany, he traveled through Madrid to get there. The second time on July 7, Atta traveled to Zurich but stayed in Spain, as far as anyone can tell.

But why Spain? The terrorists knew Germany much better than Spain, and presumably could find better cover there. The Commission, predictably, relied on one source for the answer -- Atta's co-conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh (page 244):

In early July, Atta called Binalshibh to suggest meeting in Madrid, for reasons Binalshibh claims not to know. He says he preferred Berlin, but that he and Atta knew too many people in Germany and feared being spotted together. Unable to buy a ticket to Madrid at the height of the tourist season, Binalshibh booked a seat on a flight to Reus, near Barcelona, the next day. Atta was already en route to Madrid, so Binalshibh phoned Shehhi in the United States to inform him of the change in itinerary.

Atta arrived in Madrid on July 8. He spent the night in a hotel and made three calls from his room, most likely to coordinate with Binalshibh. The next day, Atta rented a car and drove to Reus to pick up Binalshibh; the two then drove to the nearby town of Cambrils. Hotel records show Atta renting rooms in the same area until July 19, when he returned his rental car in Madrid and flew back to Fort Lauderdale. On July 16, Binalshibh returned to Hamburg, using a ticket Atta had purchased for him earlier that day.According to Binalshibh, they did not meet with anyone else while in Spain.

So we have the two terrorists going into unfamiliar territory at the height of tourist season, when making travel arrangements are the most difficult. In fact, Binalshibh had to contact Shehhi to recast the arrangements after Atta had already left. Why go through all of this hassle, unless (a) there were other people that Atta needed to meet, and/or (b) Germany was too dangerous for Atta? The Spanish government insists that Atta met with more than just Binalshibh in that trip, a fact that the Commission only includes as a footnote on page 530. They discount this information even though the Spaniards used it to indict several people on terror charges, preferring the testimony of Binalshibh instead.

If the meeting was only between Atta and Binalshibh, why risk operating in the open in unfamiliar territory to make that connection? Atta probably thought that after the German arrests, Germany was no longer safe for him to visit. Indeed, as far as is known, Atta never returned to Germany after the arrests of the Iraqi spies. He flew around it but never in or through it. His risk of operating in a new country -- the Commission report itself mentions no travel through Spain in its report before July 2001 for any of the plotters -- had to have been outweighed by other considerations, and not the thin excuse that Binalshibh offered.

Either Atta had more than one meeting scheduled for Spain, which would explain his 12-day absence from the United States just when he should have been organizing the muscle hijackers and training them for their roles, or he had good reason to avoid Germany, and probably both. If Atta went to Prague, Iraqi spy Samir al-Ani could have told him that the network had been sufficiently disrupted by German counterintelligence that he could not safely operate there again.

Again, this hypothesis would fit the known facts better than the Binalshibh explanation, which makes Madrid a whim on the part of Atta, and one Binalshibh blithely indulges despite the risk that excessive travel places on himself. It also highlights the real possibility that Iraqi intelligence had connections to the plot and the plotters in at least some support capacities.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 25, 2005 7:45 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry is

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Able Danger: The Strange Spanish Interlude:

» Let's get it on! from NIF
Today's dose of NIF - News, Interesting & Funny ... It's Stop the ACLU Thursday [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 7:38 AM

» The Connections Missed from Single Malt Pundit
As the Able Danger scandal continues to unfold with more witnesses coming forth to say that the Department of Defense did ID September 11 ringleader Mohammad Atta, Captain Ed is doing an excellent job of analyzing the holes in the 9/11 Commission’... [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 8:57 AM

» The Connections Missed from Single Malt Pundit
As the Able Danger scandal continues to unfold with more witnesses coming forth to say that the Department of Defense did ID September 11 ringleader Mohammad Atta, Captain Ed is doing an excellent job of analyzing the holes in the 9/11 Commission’... [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 8:58 AM

» Able Danger: The Strange Spanish Interlude from BlogSpy.NET
We found this blog entry very interesting so we've added a Trackback to it on our site. [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 10:41 AM

» The Gorelick Wall & Sandy Berger, Update XIII from Flopping Aces
Although this is just a theory, the fact that Atta never again set foot in Germany after the arrests of the Iraqi agents is very telling. [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 12:59 PM

Design & Skinning by:
m2 web studios

blog advertising


Proud Ex-Pat Member of the Bear Flag League!