More than 20 years after 9/11, two key investigators who made the case their lives’ work have revealed they are still haunted by the fact that the FBI let the terrorists’ spiritual adviser slip away, only to inspire more deadly attacks in the name of Islam.
In an exclusive interview, New Jersey criminal investigator Jim Bush and FBI agent Bob Bukowski, who are both retired, told the Washington Examiner never-revealed details about how they pieced together some of the players behind the plot to hijack four commercial planes and kill 2,977 people. But the case that capped the careers of two seasoned investigators brought both triumph and disappointment, and they are only now learning why Imam Anwar al-Awlaki eluded them in the months after the attack.
“I feel Awlaki was the most important figure in the 9/11 investigation,” Bush said recently, his words tinged with both nostalgia and regret.
Awlaki was a charismatic radical cleric with a passion for prostitutes and whose fiery sermons could turn peaceful Muslims into cold-blooded killers. Bush and Bukowski were working on a branch of the 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOM and based in Paterson, New Jersey. Eleven of the 19 hijackers passed through the Garden State, and the gritty, densely populated city 20 miles west of Manhattan was a hot spot.
Jim Bush's and Bob Bukowski's FBI identification badges. (Jim Bush and Bob Bukowski)
By June 10, 2002, Bush and Bukowski were confident they had enough to nab al-Awlaki, but they were inexplicably told to stand down by the FBI. Between that time and Sept. 30, 2011, when a U.S. drone killed al-Awlaki in Yemen, the imam helped direct some of the world’s most high-profile acts of terrorism. He referred in a video to the so-called “underwear bomber” and Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan as his “students,” and a New York subway bombing plot, the thwarted attacks of the “Fort Dix Six,” and multiple attacks in England all bore al-Awlaki’s dastardly fingerprints.
Years later, Bush and Bukowski finally know the reasons they were prevented from bringing al-Awlaki to justice before he could inspire more followers to kill infidels: incompetence and paintball.
In the days following 9/11, the PENTTBOM team worked out of Paterson, New Jersey. Its mission was to focus on the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 77, which was slammed into the Pentagon, killing 189. They knew early on that a shadowy cleric had played a key role in the plot, but his identity had been elusive. Nine months after the attack, they showed the American-born al-Awlaki’s photo to Eyad Rababah, who was in a Charlottesville, Virginia, jail, suspected of helping two hijackers get IDs and apartments at the behest of the mysterious imam.
“We showed the picture, and he sighs, and he looks at it, and he looks at it, and he goes, ‘That’s the guy. That’s the imam,’” Bush recalled the Jordanian-born Rababah saying after seeing a grainy picture provided by the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office. “It was a 100% identification.”
“I’m like, ‘Wow, this is it. We‘ve got it,’” Bush recalled. “We had him identified by Eyad. We knew that there was enough to hold Awlaki.”
Rababah was a star witness early on, “the first live person that met hijackers,” Bush said. In working backward to find out who helped the 19 dead terrorists, his help was critical. Rababah had turned himself in at the New Haven, Connecticut, FBI field office after learning that Bush and Bukowski were on his trail after tracing him to a forged ID found in one of the hijacker’s cars.
Eyad Rababah. (Albermarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail)
“I know the FBI is looking for me, and I just want to let you know I did meet two of the hijackers,” he told the FBI. It was just 17 days after the 9/11 attacks.
In the ensuing months, Rababah would be tied directly to aiding four of the five hijackers from American Airlines Flight 77: Hani Hanjour, who piloted the hijacked plane, Nawaf al Hazmi, Majed Moqued, and Salem Hazmi. While they were the martyrs who died in the name of their twisted cause, the detectives knew they couldn’t have done it alone.
“You have to look as a detective,” Bush said. “You’ve got to say, ‘How did these guys move around?’ They didn’t speak English. They had to have a network.”
The investigators first established that the hijackers had stayed in safehouses the detectives traced to Rababah and his Syrian roommate, Daoud Chehazeh. Chehazeh had been arrested just before the Rababah turned himself in. Under questioning over several weeks while he was held on charges of ID fraud, Rababah’s claim of innocence began to unravel. One of the apartments he and Chehazeh shared was near a Falls Church, Virginia, mosque where al-Awlaki preached.
Despite claiming they “were not religious,” Chehazeh acknowledged sending Rababah to ask the mosque’s imam for work. Confronted by that admission, Rababah confirmed he met with the imam at the mosque where two future hijackers asked for his help finding them a place to stay.
Daoud Chehazeh. (Alexandria Detention Center)
“Wow, wow, wow, this is going good,” Bush recalled thinking. “We got Rababah at the mosque. We got him talking to Awlaki. We got him to talking to the hijackers after the prayer service.“
The next step was getting Rababah to confirm that the imam he’d met was al-Awlaki. On June 10, 2002, while awaiting deportation to Jordan, Rababah made the jailhouse identification of al-Awlaki. Bush and Bukowski knew they had moved beyond the lower-level layer of logistical support and one ring closer to the senior leadership of al Qaeda. Al-Awlaki was a major player in the plot, and bringing him in could lead even further up the terror chain.
But al-Awlaki was not arrested, and the reasons would not be known to Bush and Bukowski for years. The pushback from the FBI started as Bush and Bukowski began their long drive back to New Jersey from Charlottesville. Bukowski knew another FBI agent was working on a different case involving al-Awlaki, but he didn’t know much more than that.
“I’m not going to step on anybody’s toes,” Bukowski recalled. “I don’t know what they are doing, and they don’t know what I’m doing. But at least we figure, ‘Let’s give him a call and tell him what has happened.’”
Bukowski told FBI Special Agent Wade Ammerman they had gotten a major break in the terror investigation, and that they had enough to arrest al-Awlaki. Ammerman said he wanted to meet Rababah to verify the account but would get back to them.
He never did. When an exasperated Bukowski called his bureau colleague back, he was stunned to hear Ammerman question their evidence.
“He goes, ‘I don’t know, I don’t believe he’s really identifying him,’” Bukowski said.
What the investigators did not know was that Ammerman was overseeing a separate terror investigation into what became known as the “Virginia Paintball” case. A cancer researcher and self-described Muslim scholar named Dr. Ali al-Timimi had allegedly inspired a group of young men from Virginia who used paintball to train for holy war to go to Pakistan to join the terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Al-Awlaki was working as an informant for the FBI in that case, and nabbing him for 9/11 would blow his cover, the two investigators later discovered.
“We knew that there was enough to hold Awlaki,” Bush said ruefully. “They didn’t want to for the reasons we know now.”
“The Washington field office did not want Awlaki identified so they could use him as an asset for the paintball case in which Awlaki didn’t know the players,” he said.
Still, a week after Rababah positively identified al-Awlaki to Bush and Bukowski, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego issued a warrant for his arrest for falsely stating on his passport that he was born in Yemen when in fact he was born in New Mexico. Al-Awlaki had been in Yemen since March 2002, but he was nabbed at New York’s JFK Airport on Oct. 10. Bush and Bukowski suspect Ammerman summoned him back to help with the paintball case.
Ammerman allegedly told customs agents to let al-Awlaki go. Days later, the cleric visited al-Timimi’s Virginia home asking for help recruiting men for jihad. Al-Timimi’s defense attorneys insist their client declined to help and unsuccessfully sought evidence showing al-Awlaki was wearing a wire and trying to entrap al-Timimi.
Al-Timimi was convicted of 10 felonies and received a life sentence in 2005. He was sent to the federal supermax prison in Colorado. A decade later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remanded al-Timimi’s case on the grounds that the FBI withheld evidence that it used al-Awlaki as an informant.
His case is still under appeal. Al-Timimi was released from prison in September 2020 and is now under home confinement in Virginia awaiting resolution of his case. Jonathan Turley, al-Timimi’s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the new revelations from Bush and Bukowski.
“We are obviously concerned by such reports but, given the ongoing litigation before in the federal courts, we do not feel that it would be appropriate to comment on such new evidence or allegations at this time,” Turley said.
Documents obtained by Judicial Watch suggest that Ammerman had not gone rogue. Senior FBI leadership, including then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, were aware of the decision to pull back al-Awlaki’s arrest warrant.
When reached by phone, Ammerman said he recently retired from the FBI office in Covington, Kentucky, and was contemplating writing a “non-fiction book that would have to be cleared through FBI channels.” He declined further comment.
“It is not wise for me to discuss these matters as I am bound by [nondisclosure agreements],” he said.
The handling of al-Awlaki by the FBI has never been fully explained.
As for Bush and Bukowski, they still wonder why they were left in the dark while carrying out the most important investigation of their careers. Not only have they since learned the FBI had crystal clear images of al-Awlaki that would have made Rababah’s identification even more conclusive, they now know the FBI surveilled the cleric as he consorted with prostitutes and as he attended a Department of Defense luncheon at the still damaged Pentagon during a Muslim outreach event in February 2002.
FBI surveillance footage of Anwar al-Awlaki in Virginia on Feb. 5, 2002. (Judicial Watch)
“Knowing Awlaki’s involvement with the hijackers and their support network, it would logically seem to me more important to understand, disrupt, and hold accountable the people involved that perpetrated the largest terrorist attack and murder on U.S. soil instead of assisting in an investigation that he didn’t have a connection with,” Bush said.
Ten years and 19 days after 9/11, the 6-foot-1, 135-pound al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a U.S. Hellfire missile launched from a drone. In the intervening decade, he had emerged as one of the world’s most wanted men and most feared terrorists. Bush and Bukowski don’t mourn al-Awlaki, but they wish they had been the ones to bring him to justice.
“Why did we not have probable cause to arrest Awlaki,” Bukowski recently wondered, “but we had probable cause to drone him?”
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