Members Only: Al Qaeda’s Charter List Revealed After 13 Years in US Hands

A fascinating bit of evidence about al Qaeda’s early days emerged yesterday during the trial of alleged al Qaeda operative Khaled al-Fawwaz – what federal prosecutors call a list of 170 charter members of the Islamic terrorist organization, including the defendant. The FBI says U.S. forces recovered the list from a building in Kandahar, Afghanistan, two months after the invasion to retaliate for 9/11. The document, in U.S. hands for 13 years and being made public only now, was shown to the jury for the first time Wednesday. 

The document and testimony to vouch for its contents by a former al Qaeda member certainly dug a big hole for al-Fawwaz, a kind of forgotten man incarcerated for more than 16 years awaiting his day in court.

On the 26th floor of the Manhattan federal courthouse on Monday, FBI Agent Jennifer Hale Keenan explained how she discovered the purported membership list inside a three-foot-long, rectangular, metal locker filled with binders, notebooks, training manuals, maps, and videos. As the locker with its original shipping labels intact was wheeled before the jury, Keenan said it was one of 22 containers of al Qaeda booty to arrive December 15, 2001, at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. The embassy, where she was based, became a clearinghouse for enemy materials retrieved by troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Keenan forwarded the document to an FBI office in northern Virginia established after 9/11 to review such materials. There, FBI Agent Debbie Doran, got a hold of the five-page list, typewritten in Arabic, labeled “top secret” by its author.   Doran, a counter-terrorism investigator seasoned from the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings case, told the jury she had seen similar lists before. Translated into English, the list is a who’s who of original al Qaeda suspects, mostly named by their aliases and with notes about their location or status — for example, “Kabul,” “returned to his country” or “martyred in Chechnya.” 

Bin Laden is the first name on the list followed by his original number two’s — military leaders Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri (#2), who drowned on a Lake Victoria, Tanzania, ferry accident in 1996, and Mohamed Atef (#3), who was killed in a U.S. military strike in Afghanistan in late 2001. Atef is nicknamed Abu Hafs “al-Komendan,” which means commander, said L’Houssaine Kherchtou, an al Qaeda defector testifying for the government.

Kherchtou, an articulate English speaker from Morocco, is probably the most important al Qaeda cooperating witness living under U.S. protection. Based on his five years with the group from Afghanistan to Sudan to Kenya, he identified more than 15 men on the membership list often paired with their photographs.

Kenya embassy bombers Mohamed Odeh (#36) and Mohamed al-‘Owhali (#119) and East Africa cell facilitator Wadih el Hage (#34), who were all convicted in a 2001 trial, are listed by aliases “captured in USA.” Men who drove and detonated separate bomb trucks outside the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, are listed (##120, #146) by aliases as “martyred in USA bombing 1998.” Men still on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for the bombings conspiracy, such as East Africa cell leader Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (#7, known as “Saleh”) and Saif al-Adel (#8), a senior leader involved with training camps, are listed.  So are a number of operatives killed by the U.S. military in the past decade.

The ninth name on the list is “Hamad al-Kuwaiti,” an alias for al-Fawwaz, prosecutors say. The thirteenth name, “Anas al Subai,” is an alias for his former codefendant, Anas al-Libi, who died on Jan. 2.

Al-Fawwaz’s defense attorneys fought in motions and sidebars to prevent the jury from seeing the list, because, they say, it “lacks authenticity.”

“We do not expect that the government will be able to identify the author of the list,” defense attorneys Bobbi Sternheim and David Kirby wrote in one motion. “We do not know who wrote it, when or for what purpose it was written, whether it actually is an al Qaeda list or a list of some other organization or group of individuals…or whether it was written by someone associated with al Qaeda or by a journalist or intelligence agent trying to keep track of people they believed to be al Qaeda members.”

Defense attorneys tried to preclude prosecutors from mentioning the list in opening statements, but U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan allowed it, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin cited the list as part of the proof al-Fawwaz was a “trusted lieutenant” who “worked for years directly and personally for Osama bin Laden.”

The list states al-Fawwaz was “captured in England 1998,” which is correct. At the request of the U.S., the U.K. arrested al-Fawwaz in September 1998 pursuant to the indictment accusing him of participating from 1991 to 1998 in al Qaeda’s global conspiracy to kill Americans. While in U.K. custody, he fought extradition for 14 years until his 2012 transfer to New York. (One of two suspects arrested with him died in UK custody, and another pleaded guilty to terror conspiracy charges in New York last September).

Prosecutors say al-Fawwaz, a 52-year-old Saudi national, served bin Laden on three continents – Europe, Asia, and Africa. He is best known for functioning as a kind of press secretary for bin Laden, who helped arrange Peter Arnett’s 1997 CNN interview with bin Laden in Afghanistan and John Miller’s 1998 interview for ABC. Both Arnett and Miller testified Monday that this was so and that they met with al-Fawwaz in London.

Prior to those TV interviews, prosecutors say, al-Fawwaz distributed bin Laden’s August 1996 declaration of war on America. In his opening, Lewin held up 17 signed copies of the call to arms he said were found in al-Fawwaz’s desk drawer.

“Tragically, its murderous words have been followed by murderous actions,” Lewin said. A second fatwah, published in February 1998 allegedly with al-Fawwaz’s help, targeted American civilians.

Al-Fawwaz’s defense maintains he headed a London-based group seeking to reform the Saudi monarchy, the Advice and Reformation Committee. Prosecutors say ARC was a front. The defendant “pretended he was a peaceful Saudi dissident,” Lewin told the jury, “But that was a lie.”

Beyond booking interviews and disseminating fatwahs, in 1997 al-Fawwaz allegedly procured a satellite phone for bin Laden and Atef to communicate with terrorist cells around the world (until they found out the NSA was listening).  In a previous trial, prosecutors called this “the jihad phone.”

Perhaps more seriously, prosecutors say, in 1993 and 1994, al-Fawwaz went to Nairobi to establish the East Africa cell behind the embassy bombings that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured four thousand people.

Relying on Kherchtou’s testimony, prosecutors bolstered a new accusation against al-Fawwaz previewed in opening statements – that he once led one of the original al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

“Hamad,” said Kherchtou, using the nickname for al-Fawwaz on the membership list, was the “emir” in charge of the al-Sadeeq camp, near Khost, in the summer of 1991, when Kherchtou was there. On Wednesday, he identified the defendant as “Brother Hamad.”

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

Editor’s note — An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Anas al-Libi died in December. We regret the error. 

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About the Author(s)

Phil Hirschkorn

Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and New York-Based Journalist covering Al Qaeda and terrorism trials for 15 years