August 13-15, 2001: Zacarias Moussaoui trains at the Pan Am International Flight School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he pays $8,300 ($1500 by credit card and the remainder in cash) to use a Boeing 474 Model 400 aircraft simulator. After just one day of training most of the staff is suspicious that he's a terrorist. They discuss "how much fuel [is] on board a 747-400 and how much damage that could cause if it hit[s] anything." They call the FBI with their concerns later that day. [New York Times, 2/8/02, Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] They are suspicious because:
1) In contrast to all the other students at this high-level flight school, he has no aviation background, little previous training and no pilot's license. [
Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02]
2) He wants to fly a 747 not because he plans to be a pilot, but as an "ego boosting thing." [New York Times, 10/18/02] Yet within hours of his arrival, it is clear he "was not some affluent joy-rider." [New York Times, 2/8/02]
3) He is "extremely" interested in the operation of the plane's doors and control panel. [
Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] He also is very keen on learning the protocol for communicating with the flight tower despite having no plans to actually become a pilot. [New York Times, 2/8/02]
4)
He is evasive and belligerent when asked about his background.  When an instructor, who notes from his records that Moussaoui is from France, attempts to greet him in French, Moussaoui appears not to understand, saying that he had spent very little time in France and that he is from the Middle East. The instructor considers it odd that Moussaoui did not specify the Middle Eastern country. [Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune, 12/21/01; Washington Post, 1/2/02]
5) He tells a flight instructor he is not a Muslim, but the instructor senses he is lying, badly, about it. [New Yorker, 9/30/02]
6) He says he would "love" to fly a simulated flight from London to New York, raising fears he has plans to hijack such a flight. [
Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] His original e-mail to the flight school similarly stated he wanted to be good enough to fly from London to New York. [New York Times, 2/8/02]
7) He pays for thousands of dollars in expenses from a large wad of cash. [New York Times, 2/8/02]
8) He seemed to be trying to pack a large amount of training in a short period of time for no apparent reason. [New York Times, 2/8/02]
9) He mostly practices flying in the air, not taking off or landing (although note that reports claiming he didn't want to take off or land at all appear to be an exaggeration). [New York Times, 2/8/02, Slate, 5/21/02, Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune, 12/21/01, New York Times, 5/22/02]
Failing to get much initial interest from the FBI, the flight instructor tells the FBI agents, "Do you realize how serious this is? This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!" [New York Times, 2/8/02]

August 15, 2001: Based on the concerns of flight school staff (see August 13-15, 2001), Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested and detained in Minnesota on the excuse of an immigration violation. [Time, 5/27/02, some reports say the 16th because the arrest happened late at night] The FBI confiscates his possessions, including a computer laptop, but don't have a search warrant to search through them. But when arresting him they note he possesses two knives, fighting gloves and shin guards, and had prepared "through physical training for violent confrontation." An FBI interview of him adds more concerns. For example, he is supposedly in the US working as a "marketing consultant" for a computer company, but is unable to provide any details of his employment. Nor can he convincingly explain his $32,000 bank balance. [MSNBC, 12/11/01, Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] An FBI report states that when asked about his trips to Pakistan, the gateway to Afghanistan, "the questioning caused him to become extremely agitated, and he refused to discuss the matter further." The report also notes "Moussaoui was extremely evasive in many of his answers." [CNN, 9/28/02] His roommate is interviewed on the same day, and tells agents that Moussaoui believes it is "acceptable to kill civilians who harm Muslims," that Moussaoui approves of Muslims who die as "martyrs", and says Moussaoui might be willing to act on his beliefs. [Washington Post, 5/24/02] But Minnesota FBI agents quickly become frustrated at the lack of interest in the case from higher ups. [New York Times, 2/8/02] For instance, on August 21 they e-mail FBI headquarters saying it's "imperative" that the Secret Service be warned of the danger a plot involving Moussaoui might pose to the President's safety. But no such warning is ever sent. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02, New York Times, 10/18/02] (Also note that there is another report [Boston Herald, 9/14/01] of a terrorist arrest that sounds almost the same as the Moussaoui story. The only differences are that this unnamed man was arrested in Boston, not Minnesota, and was called Algerian instead of French, though it notes he had a French passport. It is very possible this is a slightly garbled, early version of the same Moussaoui case.)

August 22, 2001: The French give the FBI information requested about Zacarias Moussaoui. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] The French say Moussaoui has ties with radical Islamic groups and recruits men to fight in Chechnya. They believe he spent time in Afghanistan (see 1999). He had been on a French watch list for several years, preventing him from entering France. A French justice official later says "the government gave the FBI 'everything we had" on Moussaoui, "enough to make you want to check this guy out every way you can. Anyone paying attention would have seen he was not only operational in the militant Islamist world but had some autonomy and authority as well." [Time, 5/27/02] A senior French investigator later says "Even a neophyte working in some remote corner of Florida, would have understood the threat based on what was sent." [Time, 8/4/02] The French Interior Minister also emphasizes, "We did not hold back any information." [ABC News, 9/5/02] But senior officials at FBI headquarters still maintain that the information "was too sketchy to justify a search warrant for his computer." [Time, 8/4/02]

August 23-27, 2001: In the wake of the French intelligence report on Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 22, 2001), FBI agents in Minnesota are "in a frenzy" and "absolutely convinced he [is] planning to do something with a plane." One agent writes notes speculating Moussaoui might "fly something into the World Trade Center." [Newsweek, 5/20/02] Minnesota FBI agents become "desperate to search the computer lap top" and "conduct a more thorough search of his personal effects," especially since Moussaoui acted as if he was hiding something important in the laptop when arrested. [Time, 5/21/02, Time, 5/27/02] FTW They decide to apply for a search warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). "FISA allows the FBI to carry out wiretaps and searches that would otherwise be unconstitutional" because "the goal is to gather intelligence, not evidence." [Washington Post, 11/4/01] Standards to get a warrant through FISA are so low that out of 10,000 requests over more than 20 years, not a single one was turned down. When the FBI didn't have a strong enough case, it appears it simply lied to FISA. In May 2002, the FISA court complained that the FBI had lied in at least 75 warrant cases during the Clinton administration, once even by the FBI Director. [New York Times, 8/27/02] However, as FBI agent Coleen Rowley later puts it, FBI headquarters "almost inexplicably, throw[s] up roadblocks" and undermines their efforts. Headquarters personnel bring up "almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause." One Minneapolis agent's e-mail says FBI headquarters is "setting this up for failure." That turns out to be correct (see August 28, 2001). [Time, 5/21/02, Time, 5/27/02]

August 27, 2001 (B): An agent at the FBI headquarters' Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) tells the FBI Minnesota office supervisor that the supervisor is getting people "spun up" over Moussaoui. The supervisor replies that he is trying to get people at FBI headquarters "spun up" because he is trying to make sure that Moussaoui does "not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center." He later alleges the headquarters agent replies, "[T]hat's not going to happen. We don't know he's a terrorist. You don't have enough to show he is a terrorist. You have a guy interested in this type of aircraft - that is it." [Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] Three weeks earlier, Dave Frasca, the head of the RFU unit, had received Ken Williams' memo expressing concern about terrorists training in US flight schools (see July 10, 2001) and he also knew all about the Moussaoui case, but he apparently wasn't "spun up" enough to connect the two cases. [Time, 5/27/02] Neither he nor anyone else at FBI headquarters who saw Williams's memo informed anyone at the FBI Minnesota office about it before 9/11. [Time, 5/21/02]

August 28, 2001 (D): A previously mentioned unnamed RFU agent (see August 27, 2001 (B)) edits the Minnesota FBI's request for a FISA search warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui's possessions. Minnesota is trying to prove that Moussaoui is connected to al-Qaeda through a rebel group in Chechnya, but the RFU agent removes information connecting the Chechnya rebels to al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly, the FBI Deputy General Counsel who receives the edited request decides on this day that there isn't enough connection to al-Qaeda to allow an application for a search warrant through FISA, so FISA is never even asked. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 10/17/02] According to a later memo written by Minneapolis FBI legal officer Coleen Rowley (see an edited version of the memo here: Time, 5/21/02), FBI headquarters is to blame for not getting the FISA warrant because of this rewrite of the request. She says "I feel that certain facts ... have, up to now, been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mis-characterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons." She asks, "Why would an FBI agent deliberately sabotage a case?" The superiors acted so strangely that some agents in the Minneapolis office openly joked that these higher-ups "had to be spies or moles ... working for Osama bin Laden." Failing to approve the warrant through FISA, FBI headquarters also refuses to contact the Justice Department to try and get a search warrant through ordinary means. Rowley and others are unable to search Moussaoui's computer until after the 9/11 attacks. Rowley later notes that the headquarters agents who blocked the Minnesota FBI were promoted after 9/11. [Sydney Morning Herald, 5/28/02, Time, 5/21/02] FTW

September 11, 2001 (J): Zacarias Moussaoui watches the 9/11 attack on TV inside a prison, where he is being held on immigration charges. He cheers the attacks. [BBC, 12/12/01] Within an hour of the attacks, the Minnesota FBI uses a memo written to FBI headquarters shortly after Moussaoui's arrest to ask permission from a judge for the search warrant they have been desperately seeking. Even after the attacks, FBI headquarters is still attempting to block the search of Moussaoui's computer, characterizing the WTC attacks as a mere coincidence with suspicions about Moussaoui (the person still trying to block the search is later promoted). [Time, 5/21/02] However, a federal judge approves the warrant that afternoon. [New Yorker, 9/30/02] Minnesota FBI agent Coleen Rowley notes that this very memo was previously deemed insufficient by FBI headquarters to get a search warrant, and the fact that they are immediately granted one when finally allowed to ask shows "the missing piece of probable cause was only the [FBI headquarters'] failure to appreciate that such an event could occur." [Time, 5/21/02] The search uncovers information suggesting Moussaoui may have been planning an attack using crop dusters, but it doesn't turn up any direct connection to the 9/11 hijackers. However, they find some German telephone numbers and the name "Ahad Sabet." The numbers allow them to determine the name is an alias for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Atta's former roommate, and they find he wired Moussaoui money. They also find a document connecting Moussaoui with the Malaysian Yazid Sufaat, a lead that could have led to hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (see September-October 2000). [New Yorker, 9/30/02, MSNBC, 12/11/01] Rowley later suggests that if they would had received the search warrant sooner, "There is at least some chance that ... may have limited the Sept. 11th attacks and resulting loss of life." [Time, 5/27/02]