US knew about al Qaeda in 1990s: FBI agent
By Deborah Charles
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) – The U.S. government knew
by the 1990s how al Qaeda trained suicide operatives but missed
capturing the man who masterminded the September 11 attacks
about four years before they occurred, an FBI agent said on
FBI agent Michael Anticev said in testimony at a sentencing
trial for September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui that the
U.S. government knew by the mid-1990s that there were several
al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and other countries.
Operatives at the camps were taught how to carry out
terrorist operations, including suicide missions, and were
trained how to avoid detection, he said.
At that time, the U.S. government was tracking several top
al Qaeda members, Anticev said, and between 1996 and 1998 made
an attempt to arrest Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the man who has
been described as the brains behind the September 11
Anticev said the attempt, made “somewhere in the Middle
East,” failed after Mohammed was apparently tipped off.
Anticev was responding to questions from defense attorney
Edward MacMahon, who was trying to refute the government’s
argument that if Moussaoui had not lied to the FBI in the days
before September 11, 2001, the hijackings could have been
The question of Moussaoui’s lies while in custody on
immigration charges from August 16, 2001, are at the heart of a
sentencing trial to determine if he receives the death penalty
for conspiracy in connection with the September 11 attacks.
Moussaoui’s lawyers have said the government will be
hard-pressed to prove Moussaoui could have told the FBI
anything that would have prevented the hijackings.
Another FBI agent said in later testimony that the U.S.
government had no evidence Moussaoui had ever had telephone,
e-mail or physical contact with any of the 19 hijackers while
in the United States.
During cross-examination by MacMahon, agent James
Fitzgerald also said the government had never discovered any of
the hijackers before September 11 even though they used their
real names to get drivers licenses, report crimes, buy
insurance and open bank accounts.
Moussaoui, an admitted al Qaeda member, pleaded guilty in
April to all six conspiracy charges against him. The sentencing
trial is being held to determine if he will be executed for his
crimes or sentenced to life in prison.
When he pleaded guilty last year, Moussaoui said he was not
meant to be part of the attacks on the World Trade Center in
New York and the Pentagon, which killed 3,000 people.
But he said he was part of a broader conspiracy to use
airplanes as a weapon and said he was being trained on a 747
airliner to strike the White House.
The 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent did not speak
while the court was in session, but sat stroking his bushy
beard and smiling at times when FBI agents identified the
September 11 hijackers and explained the overall plot.
In response to questions from MacMahon, Anticev said the
U.S. government was also aware before September 11 that there
had been a plan in the 1990s to blow up 12 U.S. airlines.
“Do you know if the FBI was concerned before 9/11 about the
possibility of al Qaeda using planes as weapons?” MacMahon
“I don’t know if that’s correct,” Anticev replied, but he
said the FBI had been concerned about possible hijackings.