FBI Informant Says Agents Missed Chance to Stop 9/11 Ringleader Mohammed Atta

Photo: 9/11 whistleblower

On the eve of the eight year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an FBI informant who infiltrated alleged terrorist cells in the U.S. tells ABC News the FBI missed a chance to stop the al Qaeda plot because they focused more on undercover stings than on the man who would later become known as 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta.

In an exclusive interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC World News with Charles Gibson and Nightline, former undercover operative Elie Assaad says he spotted and became suspicious of Atta in early 2001, when he was sent by the FBI to infiltrate a small mosque outside Miami. Atta was there with Adnan Shukrujuman, an al Qaeda fugitive who now has a $5 million U.S. reward on his head.

"There was something wrong with these guys," Assaad, a 36-year-old Catholic native of Lebanon who pretended to be an Islamic extremist, says.

The FBI initially declined to comment but released a statement following the ABC News report, saying: "The 9/11 investigation, the most extensive ever conducted by the FBI, has been reviewed in its totality by the 9/11 Commission, Congress and others. The claims made in the news report and the factual conclusions contained in the story are not supported by the evidence."

The FBI did not specify which claims or conclusions it referred to.

Asaad said he told ABC News the truth and stands by his story.

Watch the undercover agent's exclusive interview with Brian Ross tonight on World News with Charles Gibson and Nightline.

According to Assaad, Shukrujumah, whose father ran the mosque, invited the undercover FBI operative to meet him at his home, but the FBI told him to stay away. Instead, Assad says the agency assigned him to set up and sting what he calls wannabe terrorists, ending any hope of infiltrating the real al Qaeda terrorists.

Former national security official Richard Clarke, now an ABC News consultant, said the case is "yet another example of the way the system broke down prior to 9/11."

"If the system had worked," Clarke said, "we might have been able to identify these people before the attacks."

After 9/11

Assaad, who posed as "Mohammed" – a personal representative of Osama bin Laden, says he's a "million percent positive" the 9/11 attacks could have been stopped if the FBI had gone after Atta and Shukrujumah. But because Atta and his men were suspicious of the FBI undercover operative, and secretive, Assaad says his FBI agent handlers sent him after the easier target – two wannabe terrorists whose cases were easy to crack and who were both eventually convicted and sent to prison.

"I was right, I was a hundred percent right," Assaad says of his suspicions. He says that when he learned that Atta was one of the 9/11 hijackers, when the FBI asked if he could identify any of the attackers, he was "very upset, angry" and cried.

"I curse on everybody," Assaad says. "I destroyed half of my furniture. Uh, I went crazy."

The FBI's focus on stings, which Assaad has worked in at least 10 states and overseas since becoming an operative in 1996, are being questioned by many counter-terrorism authorities, who wonder what the true value of the stings are. Since 9/11, the stings have largely targeted people that are more aspirational than operational.

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