By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/2/2011 11:54:23 PM ET 2011-02-03T04:54:23

A State Department cable released this week by WikiLeaks has revived a lingering debate about whether the 9/11 hijackers may have had a covert “support network” within the United States that was never fully identified by the FBI before its members fled the country.

The February 2010 cable, sent from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar to the State Department, asked that the Department of Homeland Security place a United Arab Emirates citizen on the terrorism “watch list” because of suspected links to the 9/11 attacks. The cable states that the suspect, identified as Mohammed Al-Mansoori, was being investigated by the FBI because he had associated with three Qatari men who had flown out of the U.S. on the eve of the attacks after allegedly spending time casing the World Trade Center and the White House.

The cable was generated by fresh intelligence that the Qataris were planning to return to the U.S. just last year, law enforcement officials told NBC News, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Qataris later abandoned their plans, but the new information prompted the U.S. Embassy in Doha to alert Homeland Security officials to the fact that their U.A.E. associate should be added to the watch-list "as an individual who may pose a threat to civil aviation in the U.S. and abroad," the cable states.

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U.S. law enforcement officials stressed Wednesday that there was no active investigation of the Qataris and Mansoori. They said that the information about the four men was just one of many leads that were thoroughly investigated at the time and never led to terrorism charges. No evidence has since emerged in detainee interrogations or elsewhere linking Mansoori or the three Qataris -- identified in the cable as Meshal Al Hajri, Fhad Abdulla and Ali Al Fehaid -- to the 9/11 plot, one senior official said.

'This adds to the concerns'
Eleanor Hill, the former staff director for the congressional joint inquiry that investigated the 9/11 attacks in 2002, said the State Department cable reinforces questions that she and others had at the time about the thoroughness of the FBI’s investigation..

“This adds to the concerns that we had eight years ago,” she said.  “One of the issues we had was did all the (the hijackers) just show up here or was there in fact a support network that was helping them” prepare for the attacks?

Hill said she doesn’t specifically recall receiving information about the Qataris or Mansoori. But she pointed out that the congressional inquiry ultimately concluded that such a support network had existed, helping the hijackers open up bank accounts, find housing, obtain drivers’ licenses and otherwise prepare for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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The FBI “kept focusing on whether these people knew about the plot or the attacks,” said Hill. “But our view was, they didn’t need to know about the plots and attacks. The issue was, were they sent to the country and told to help” the hijackers. Given al-Qaida’s penchant for secrecy and compartmentalization, it was likely the members of the network were never told the ultimate purpose of their mission, she added.

The 9/11 commission raised similar questions in its 2004 report, particularly focusing on several associates of two of the 9/11 hijackers in Southern California. (One of them was Anwar Awlaki, a radical imam later deported who has since resurfaced as a major recruiter for al-Qaida in Yemen and a top target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.) 

But asked specifically about the Qataris and Mansoori, Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 commission’s executive director, said in an email: “In 2004, the commission did not have information reliably linking these people to the 9/11 plot. As best we can remember, we were aware of a lead with some of these elements.  At that time it had been further investigated and, from what we could learn, it had not panned out.”

The broader issue of a possible support network, which is  likely to get more attention as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches later this year, surfaced this week when the London Daily Telegraph published the WikiLeaks-obtained  cable, which was sent last February from the U.S.  Embassy in Doha.

The “priority” cable requests that Mansoori be added to a watch list as an individual “who may pose a threat to civil aviation.” It identifies him as an individual who is “currently under investigation by the FBI” for “aiding people who entered the U.S. before the (9/11) attacks to conduct surveillance of possible targets and providing other support to the hijackers.”

Pre-9/11 travels
The cable further identifies the three Qataris as men who flew to the U.S. on Aug. 15, 2001, and then visited the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, the White House and various areas in Virginia. The men flew to Los Angeles on Aug. 24, where their activities raised the suspicion of hotel staff, the cable states: They paid for their room in cash and requested that it not be cleaned. “Hotel cleaning staff grew suspicious of the men because they noticed pilot type uniforms, several laptops and several cardboard boxes” addressed to various countries in the Middle East as well as Afghanistan, it said. The men also had a smashed cellular phone in the room and computer  printouts listing pilot names, airlines, flight numbers and flight times, according to the cable.

“A subsequent FBI investigation revealed that the men’s plane tickets were paid for and their hotel reservations in Los Angeles, Ca. were made by a convicted terrorist,” the cable states. The investigation also revealed that the men spent a week in California, with Mansoori  traveling to different destinations in California.

The Qataris were initially booked to fly from Los Angeles back to Washington on Sept. 10, 2001, on an American Airlines flight, but never boarded. (That same plane was hijacked the next day by the 9/11 hijackers and crashed into the Pentagon.)  Instead, the Qataris boarded another flight on Sept. 10 from Los Angeles to London. They then flew home to Qatar two days later.

Current and former FBI officials involved in the 9/11 investigation said the bureau was flooded with hundreds of leads after the attacks that ultimately went nowhere. The case of the Qataris falls into that category, they said.

But FBI officials were unable to explain why the cable, sent in February 2010, would have described Mansoori as being “currently under investigation” or say who the “convicted terrorist” was who paid for the Qatari’s plane's tickets.

The cable's author, however, may not have had his facts entirely correct. News reports in 2002 and 2003 identified a Qatari  terror suspect who lived in Chesapeake, Va. Fahed Alhajri, a sportscaster for Qatari television who left the country in 2003after being convicted in a student visa fraud scheme. Alhajri, who initially aroused suspicion when he was discovered to have had photos of Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center in his apartment, as well as a datebook with only one entry -- on Sept. 11.

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Convicted of visa fraud, not terrorism
According to the reports, he also had paid for the Los Angeles hotel room and plane fare of his brother -- Meshal Alhajri, one of the Qataris identified in the cable -- and two friends, according to the reports. But a May 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer story -- and court records – show that Fahed Alhajri was convicted of visa fraud, not terrorism.

A senior U.S. law enforcement official said that the counterterrorism division of the FBI has requested that officials responsible for the 9/11 probe review the matter. The bureau’s response may be hampered by the fact that most of the agents involved in the initial probe have left the agency, the official said.

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The official also said that, unlike the Qataris,  Mansoori remained in the U.S. and was questioned by the FBI in the course of a years-long investigation into his activities. Although the bureau never developed sufficient information to charge him, he was deported by U.S. officials several years after the attacks. “I don’t think people were in love with him,” the official said, implying that the FBI continued to have suspicions about him.

After the State Department cable last year, it was “safe to say” he was added to the U.S. government’s watch-list, the official said.

The three Qataris, however, have never been questioned by the FBI, the official added.

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