HARS - High value information Alert and Reporting System
I Reported an International Terrorist
The following story is a true, real-life, first-person account of an encounter with an international terrorist, which occurred prior to “9/11”. It illustrates the mentality of the time and lack of recognition of terrorist threats – much has changed since then. It also leads one to ponder if effective law enforcement information sharing infrastructure had been in place, how the outcome might have been different. And, what if the power of the public could have been harnessed? There are lessons to be learned from this account and VitaStar Solutions is grateful to the person who lived this story, allowed us to write his story and permission to share it with others.
Preceding the horrific acts September 11, 2001, the terrorists where busy with earnest preparations and the positioning of the terrorist team members. Some had been in the United States for awhile and in the spring of 2001 others were arriving. The investigations of the 9-11 Commission and the information contained in their “911- Commission Report”, in June 2004, identified some of the early movements of terrorists. Four of the terrorists had arrived in the United States at the Orlando International Airport (OIA). Saeed Alghamdi arrived on June 27, 2001. He had no return ticket, spoke little English and listed no address on his arrival record, yet he gained entry. Five weeks later, on August 2, 2001 another would-be hijacker, Mohamed al Kahtani arrived at OIA and like Alghamdi, he lacked a return-trip ticked and a U.S. address. However, this time a Customs and Boarder Protection inspector, Jose Melendez-Perez of Orlando correctly performed his job and refused entry to Kahtani. The Commission would later praise Jose Melendez-Perez for doing his job. The two other terrorists who entered the U.S. through OIA were Waleed Alshehri and Satam Al Suquami who arrived on April 23, 2001. These are the known terrorists who were on the hijacked aircraft used on September 11th. Were other terrorists in the United States supporting the terrorist plan? The Commission noted that Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the terrorist attack, and Al Suquami stayed at a Lake Buena Vista (near OIA) hotel July 10-12 with a third, unidentified man.
Referring to conditions, which allowed to terrorist to plan, operate, and to enter the United States, the 9-11 Commission stated “The most important failure was one of imagination”. The report finding suggested the terrorists exploited inadequacies in the U.S. intelligence analysis capability. However, the weaknesses are more fundamental and pervasive, for it deals with the basic human nature of a person’s mind not to recognize the uncommon or unthinkable.
As the terrorists arrived in Central Florida, there was another incident where a suspicious and peculiar-acting person was identified and reported as an international terrorist. The words “international terrorist” were used in this urgent alert, and yet the authorities were unable to comprehend the possibilities and danger. Was this because of a lack of “imagination”? One man did his job and refused entry to a suspicious person and was praised as a hero. Another man, with imagination, reported an international terrorist at the Orlando International Airport, and the 9-11 Commission was not interested in interviewing him. Was the Commission burdened with the same limitations as they identified in their findings?
The following is the report of another terrorist encounter in Central Florida. If the Federal agencies that received this urgent alert had investigated, might this have provided a critical opportunity to discover the 9-11 plot in time?
Was the encounter with the “international terrorist” identified in the following story with the same person the authorities had identified as the “missing terrorist”?
It is human nature not to easily recognize a reality contrary to our foundation of experience. Training can help our “professionals” overcome this mental debilitation, but nothing can replace firsthand experience. Experience allows us to acquire the mental-mindset to permit insightful observations, rapid analysis of the observations, and quick, creditable decisions. In combat, this can be directly equated to life and death. The inexperienced soldier can easily get his squad in trouble or an inexperience pilot can put his aircraft at risk, if he/she does not have the sense and reflexes born of experience. Can this explain how I could report an international terrorist and encounter extreme difficulty having my encounter taken seriously? But, this was prior to the horrific terrorist acts at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and over the skies in Pennsylvania. I hasten to forestall some initial questions. I did not report a “suspicious person” or a “troublesome observation” -- my exact, literal words were “International Terrorist”!
I suffer from the same human propensity to be “slow of thought” when I encounter an event or circumstance that is far removed from my repertoire of experience. I see, interpret, and act based on my personal experience, and with a degree of embarrassment and self-recrimination – I am “normal”. The following is my report.
It was about six months prior to the “9/11” terrorist acts, on a late, lazy Saturday afternoon I went to the US Post Office, on Post Office Boulevard, near the Orlando, Florida International airport. As I passed through the swinging doors and entered the customer service area I felt a strange unexplainable, uneasy sensation. I scanned, looking for an explanation. There was one postal clerk serving a customer, one customer waiting, and now I was the third customer. I thought how strange there was only one postal clerk present since there are usually at least two, perhaps there was another in the back? Regardless, my “be alert” feeling persisted. I could not hear the discussion between the postal clerk and the first customer, but evidently there was an issue requiring a little time to resolve. Finally, the first customer departed and the man in front of me, who had evidently been watching the first customer, and was a little irritated with the delay, stepped up to the counter. The man immediately erupted with a hostile string of questions. He spoke rapidly in an accusatory manner and his heavy British-English accent caused me to strain to understand what he was saying. He demanded to know why there was only one postal clerk present when customers were waiting. The clerk attempted to explain that one clerk had called-in sick and another had a small personal emergency which had caused his absence. The customer continued his confrontational, verbal assault and spate out another question, “Was the Post Office a part of the Federal Government? The postal clerk was visibly apprehensive and did not answer the question. The man’s verbal assault then focused on how big businesses and the US Government abused and took advantage of the working class, taking advantage of them at every opportunity. By now, I had already decided that if he made one physical move against the postal employee I would be on him in an instant – and I was prepared and tensed-for-action, carefully watching and listening. I am a Vietnam Veteran and a retired USAF officer and this was my post office and my government being verbally attacked.
The accented stranger completed his business and turned to depart. For the first time he faced toward me and I noted he was very dark skinned, black-African in appearance, about 5’ 9” tall, approximately 150 pounds and was wearing baggy-style clothes. Most curious was the down-filled, puffy, ski-jacket style of the coat he was wearing, open in the front. He walked toward the door and stopped, fumbling with some papers. In a few moments I completed my business with the postal clerk, turned, and started toward the door – he was still standing in the customer service area. On an impulse I stopped in front of him and made a benign, non-confrontational, non-political remark. He jerked in response and immediately started spewing forth an adrenaline-pumped speech, which required little participation from me. I strained to understand him through his heavy accent. He was extremely agitated and his malice was directed at the U.S. Government. I tried to interject a few questions, prompted by concern and curiosity, trying to determine the nature and intent of the foreign intruder, but his replies were evasive. He said he worked for a foreign company which he would not identify. I stood outwardly composed and inwardly in awe of the pent-up anger and hostility which verbally spilled about me. Finally, as if he hadn’t already captured my full attention and apprehension, he suddenly jerked his hand up, and with his finger pointing at his face he growled “Look at this face! I won’t tell you my name, but you’ll see this face again! Remember it!” I plainly understood the exchange had ended and I turned, exited the building and got into my car. As I started to pull away I saw him exit the post office and get into a mid-sized, tan-ish colored car.
I was only three blocks away when my mental facilities punched through barrier walls and I was able to think out of the bounds of normality. “THAT was an international terrorist”, I immediately concluded. As an engineer, I pride myself on logic and analytical thinking in the problem-solving process. I am also acutely aware of the powerful benefits of observation. Here is what I noted:
- Heavy British-English accent (typical of a person from a foreign country who learned English as a second language – I base this on my experience as a world traveler).
- Admitted working for a “foreign company” which he would not identify.
- Probably not in the US long if he didn't know the Post Office was part of the US Federal Government.
- Displayed hatred of US Government.
- Sympathized with the plight of common workers and attributed their oppression to the US Government.
- Clearly conveyed the notion I would see his face again. I logically inferred this would be “in the news”, which would only be a result of “for cause”.
There was no doubt in my mind, I had just encountered an international terrorist. By now, I was several miles from the post office and felt a terrible guilt that I had failed to react. I called “911” on my cel phone and gave a brief comment about encountering a person who might be a terrorist. After I was asked for my location and responded that I was at the airport, I was told to call the airport security because it was separate from the “911” network. Ouch! I was driving and thought, “what number do I dial to find airport security?” Oh well, “he” was already in his car and driving and 10 minutes had passed and there was little hope of getting anyone to respond to my “unusual call” – I would wait.
As the day progressed, I continued my self-recrimination and went through a broken-record, over-and-over again, repeat of the events earlier in the day, and all the “what-ifs” and actions I might have taken. I had a camera with me and could have taken his picture (surreptitiously), or at least have gotten his license plate number – but I had done nothing.
It was now about three hours and 120 miles later and I was at my mother’s house where I intended to spend the night. I agonized for several hours and finally decided that late or not, I had to do something. I logged onto the Internet and within minutes had several phone numbers for the FBI. It was now about midnight and I quickly found myself speaking to “someone” and informed the person I wanted to report an encounter with an “international terrorist”. After appropriate prompting, I started to relate the encounter earlier in the day. Initially, I was not offended by the questions, many not related to the encounter, because logically, “Interviewing Techniques 101” probably required the need to first determine the credibility of the caller. However, maybe this person had not been a good student and had confused “Interviewing 101” with “Interrogation 101” – and there is a difference. I do not like being interrogated and being put in a defensive posture! As a result, I quickly become alienated. Finally, she couldn’t restrain herself any longer and perhaps because she wasn’t paying attention to my description of the encounter (or maybe she had exceeded her abilities in objective, attentive listening), she asked, “How do you know he was an international terrorist?” Being quite frustrated with the futility of the call, I responded, “Because that is what it said on his name tag”. Then, with little to redeem, I added, “Excuse me Miss, I identified myself at the start, but you did not. Are you perhaps the cleaning lady”? The call quickly concluded.
The next day I called the FBI office in Tampa, Florida and this time found myself talking to an agent adept in conducting a telephone interview. At the end the female agent told me that since the incident occurred at the post office, I needed to talk to a postal inspector. The next day I was back in Orlando and went to the Postal Inspector’s office, which coincidentally was in the same building as the post office where the encounter occurred. The inspector was polite and listened carefully to me, occasionally making a note or two. I expressed my concern that I thought it important to retrieve the video surveillance tape from the day before so it would not be recorded over and lost (I don’t know if they actually record over the tape or archive them for some period of time). I left and although my guilt was not assuaged, I thought I salvaged the situation as best I could under the circumstances.
It was a couple of days after my encounter that I was riding my motorcycle near the OIC Post Office. Typically, I was wearing my leathers and colors, which identified me as a member of a motorcycle club. As I approached a near-by intersection on a Parkway, I was surprised to see about 100 dump trucks parked in the grass along the Parkway. In the midst of these was a tent-like, sun-shield – top with open sides. I inexplicitly reacted without thinking. I drove off the road, between several dump trucks, and rode right into the middle of the sun-tent. The exhaust rumble from my Harley command immediate attention, as well as my unexpected, brazen act. With slow deliberation, I reached forward and turned off the engine. There was dead silence, even though I was surrounded by 20 or 30 muscled, swarthy-looking truckers, who I later learned were striking for higher pay. In a commanding voice I asked, “who is the leader here”. Still, the silence remained unbroken. I repeated my question and someone finally stepped forward and timidly indicated that he was. Perhaps to their surprise, I asked for their help and then told them I wanted their eyes, to help me find the person I was hunting, and gave a description of the Terrorist I encountered two days before. I gave them my contact information, started my bike, and thundered off. No, I was never called.
September 11, 2001, the cataclysmic horror of terrorism had darkened our skies and indelibly stained American soil with American blood. Several days later I recalled my international terrorist encounter and wondered, was there a relationship? What should I do, if anything? Soon I was back at the same Postal Inspector’s office where I intended to remind them of my encounter about six months earlier. There was only one person in the office who could speak to me. We stood in the lobby while I delivered my reminder. He responded with a comment that jabbed me deeply and renewed my distress about the inability of people to think logically with an unencumbered mind. He said, “Oh, if it is a terrorist matter, we turn that over to the FBI”. Stinging my sensibilities was the months-earlier FBI comment, “Oh, if that happened at the post office, that is a matter for the postal inspector” – and there was also the “911” pass-the-buck response. Recalling these comments, my heart plunged into helpless despair and disappointment – where are the “warriors”?
I am not prone to hysteria and attempt to restrain myself from analyzing and interpreting observations when I am not “the expert” in the field where the observation occurred. However, I am a strong advocate of careful observation and reporting information to the appropriate authorities. There is strength in numbers and the eyes and ears of a clear-headed, alert American public can be a powerful law-enforcement tool – and in this case, an anti-terrorist tool. But, for the full benefits to be realized, “Interviewing 101” needs to be upgraded, and “Logic 101” and “Advanced Logic Techniques” needs to be added to basic training of all agencies that might have a bearing on anti-terrorism efforts in the U.S.A. Also, intra-organization and inter-agency information coordination impediments must be overcome and rapid-analysis and response must be achieved. These, in addition to educating the public can be a potent weapon in the new war.
I have no desire to cast any negativity toward any person or agency. In many disciplined fields, it is considered beneficial to prepare an “after-action” report so that any weaknesses or failures to meet objectives can be properly addressed in order to improve the effectiveness of the process and allow future efforts to closer achieve the mission goals and objectives. I hope this story helps.
In time of peace, our experienced warriors become misplaced misfits. In time of war, we pay the price for our complacency and scramble to find new warriors – I have personally observed this. I fear this is a prophetic cycle, which we are doomed to endlessly repeat. Will we forget the lessons of the past or will we be given yet one more chance?
After “9/11”, on September 27th, I was visiting a friend in Highpoint, North Carolina. We were watching the TV late in the evening, and tuned to each channel as it focused on the terrorist investigations. One channel showed several artists drawings of persons wanted for questioning in regards to the terrorist activities. One picture was a likeness to the person I had encountered in the Post Office. His name was given as Mohammed Abde and he was wanted for questioning concerning forged checks. I wondered if this was the same person I had encountered. I also wondered if the Post Office had captured the recording from the video surveillance camera in the Post Office.
I will most likely never encounter another international terrorist, but if I were to have another encounter and were to make a telephone call to report it, I suspect the call would be received and responded to very differently now that the inconceivable has become reality. However, nothing will relieve my guilt knowing that I might have done more. Even more distressing is wondering how many other observations and encounters occurred prior to September 11th in addition to mine, and had the same outcome as mine. Where are the Warriors?
This encounter was reported to two FBI units and to the United States Postal Service and to a U.S. Senator. There was one perfunctory interview with the FBI and Postal Inspector after the incident, which I had caused to happen. After “9/11” there was another interview with the FBI and the Post Inspector and each show little interest. It was also reported to the “9/11” Commission, who showed no interest.
This true story illustrates the tremendous importance of the public potential to help “Get The Bad Guy”. It is useless speculation to wonder what might have happened if the encounter of this story had been acted upon. We may also wonder if there had been an information sharing infrastructure with the public in place, might the Terrorist of this story been apprehended. It is prophetic, that the person in this story made a singular, feeble, but applaudable effort, to get the description of the Terrorist out, in an effort to locate him. The High value information Alert and Reporting System (HARS) would have provided him with the means get his observations into the law enforcement arena and the powerful public eyes to be quickly focused on locating the International Terrorist of this story. Would have it made a difference? Might it make a difference in the future?