The Secret World of 9.11

Crucial details in the biography of "Professor” Abdussattar Shaikh, the San Diego man called the "best chance to uncover the Sept. 11 plot before it happened” by the Joint Congressional 9.11 Intelligence Committee, are untrue, mis-leading, or false, a MadCowMorningNews investigation has discovered.

Like the senior Al-Qaeda operative just indicted for planning to blow up U.S. financial landmarks, alleged to have operated freely in this country using his student status "as cover to conceal the true purpose of his subsequent trips to the United States," the true identity of Shaikh, a key witness to the 9.11 conspiracy, is shielded from view by bogus claims of academic employment and status.

The practice of using Universities to provide cover for foreign nationals in the U.S.—either as terrorists or as U.S. intel assets, or both—appears to have been widespread; so widespread in San Diego, at least, that the San Diego FBI’s own confidential informants were engaged in it.

MBAAn image boost from a friendly media outlet

The man who had two hijackers living in his house in San Diego while operating at the same time as a confidential informant for the FBI was identified in wire reports as “a retired professor of English at San Diego State,” and “Vice President for International Projects at American Commonwealth University.”

Yet a visit to the various locations around San Diego where he was said to have worked reveals that Abdussattar Shaikh never taught at San Diego State, has never been a Professor of English, and possesses a phony PhD from a bogus diploma mill run by people with U.S. military and intelligence connections.

The "University" for which he was said to be Vice President  for International Projects does not, in fact, exist.

Also: "Abdussattar Shaikh" is not his real name.

The Secret World of 9.11

In the gap between what happens and what gets reported lies the secret history. In sunny San Diego, we discovered, it was visible almost everywhere you looked.

 rug2Just as a handful of highly-suspect flight schools in Florida provided “cover” for Mohamed Atta and his terrorist cadre, a handful of bogus  “Universities” in San Diego provided a cloak of legitimacy to a number of suspected terrorists.

The “University” for which Shaikh was supposed to have handled “international projects,” American Commonwealth University, no longer existed at the time in question. It had been forced out of business by state regulators.

But even during its brief life it existed only as a mail drop, one of a number of interlocking diploma mills. Its old address in a non-descript office building alongside the 805 freeway in San Diego also 'housed' a clutch of other faux citadels of learning: Golden Gate University, Huron International University, and the American Institute of Hypnotherapy, lyonall presumably carrying on the murky legacy of  Amer-Comm U.

The scam schools are run by a cast of characters, many of who play reoccurring roles as what might be called "serial scammers."  Yet they can't be totally dismissed as scam artists:  some of them have U.S. military and intelligence connections.  

Shaikh’s supposed “employer,” American Commonwealth University, for example, began life as William Lyon University, named for and founded by retired Air Force General  William Lyon, a big wheel in California Republican circles as Chairman of the GOP’s “Team California Victory 2004”  and a member of a group of wealthy, high-powered Orange County's Republicans called “The New Majority.”

So Shaikh was an FBI informant, housing at least three suspected terrorists. When the post- 9.11media spotlight swung his way he was said to work for a non-existent University with Republican and mil-intel connections.

Until now, this sham cover story has gone unquestioned in America's no-longer-very-damn free press.

Huh. Imagine that.

The San Diego Union Tribune Spins the Shaikh

Consider how Shaikh was presented to the American people in the media:  The Associated Press labeled Shaikh “a retired San Diego State University English teacher.” The Los Angeles Times said he was  “a retired professor in suburban San Diego.”

Shaikh’s description as “prominent Muslim leader and former San Diego State University English professor”  was based on initial reporting by the hometown San Diego Union-Tribune.

“The retired San Diego State University English professor said he often invites students to live in his five-bedroom house for companionship and to learn other cultures and languages,”  said the Sept 16,2001 San Diego Union Tribune.

It wasn’t true. They admitted the error in a correction.

“Muslim leader Abdussattar Shaikh was misidentified as a retired San Diego State University professor in a story Sunday. In fact, he is a retired educator who taught at Mesa and Miramar colleges and American Commonwealth University in San Diego. The Union-Tribune regrets the error.”  

But the damage had been done, and in most subsequent stories Shaikh was called a “San Diego Professor,”  which was apparently all that was necessary to deflect any closer scrutiny.  

Newsweek dubbed him a "tested undercover asset." He was labeled a "trusted informant for the FBI."

What no U.S. media outlet has reported (until now) is that Abdussattar Shaikh is nothing of the kind. The American people weren't even told his real name, we discovered. A profile on Indian-born Shaikh in his hometown Indian newspaper India-West reported Shaikh's real name is "Abdussattar Chhipa."

When people change their names, its nearly always for a reason.

"State-Sponsored Crime can be highly efficient."

We contacted the California Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education enquiring about Abdussattar Shaikh’s PhD. Deborah Godfrey asked us to hold while she checked, then came back and said there was nobody by that name in her records.

usiu_logo2 “There is no definitive source for records from that ‘school,’” she stated. “ The transcripts I have came from someone’s garage.”

At one time both ‘schools’ cited in Shaikh’s resume—American Commonwealth and United States International University—had been run by Dr. Richard Crews, an M.D. from Harvard, whose pedigree includes stints as Chief of Psychiatry at Womack military hospital and  "Chief of Mental Hygiene Consultation Services” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of America’s Special Forces.

Being "President" of bogus Universities must have suited him: in addition to the two already mentioned, he helmed Columbia Pacific University, which  awarded Mars & Venus’s John Gray his doctorate in snake-oil, which the California Attorney General denounced as a fraudulent "diploma mill" when he shut it down in the late ‘90’s.

But not without a fight.

A sticky GOP wicket

“At one time there was no law in this field at all,” explained California’s Deborah Godfrey.  

 crews“When we first tried to take action against Columbia Pacific, all the way back in 1989 we immediately encountered the wrath of then-Governor Pete Wilson. There was an atmosphere full of reprisals. We were attacked just for doing our jobs, accused of being vindictive."

When Governor Wilson appointed a task force to investigate the industry, we learned, it was packed with owners of the bogus schools.

Dr. Richard Crews was the chairman of the committee.

Helping to explain this laissez-faire Republican attitude toward crime might have been a story we found detailing Gov. Wilson’s flying around on private jets which had been paid for by special interest groups. All but one of the biggest contributors seemed predictable: the California Winegrape Growers, the California Independent Oil Producers, Merchants and Manufacturers Assn. of California.

Named right along with these traditionally big-spending lobbyists, however, was tiny (read: non-existent) William Lyon University, which soon thereafter changed its name to American Commonwealth University, the moniker trotted out by Shaikh's FBI handlers to provide their boy Abdu with a plausible legend, or 'cover.'

Why did clean-cut Pete Wilson go to bat for a bunch of scam schools ten years ago? Was it just for the cash? A free ride on one of General Lyon's jets? (Lyon owns Martin Aviation, the FBO and biggest charter operator at John Wayne Airport.)

Might Wilson and Orange County GOP big-wig Gen William Lyon be playing parts in some larger operation, one MALAWI-W1which necessitated having a few 'diploma mills' on hand?  

Despite bad publicity, the cluster of phony universities in San Diego  soldiered on, staying one step ahead of flat-footed state bureaucrats by scattering to places like Montana and Wyoming, and changing their names faster than you can say "CIA front." They seem rather like the hundreds of tiny “airlines” through which the CIA once concealed the biggest airline in the world.

For example, Columbia Pacific, John Gray’s alma mater, has also been  “Columbia Commonwealth University,” and “Commonwealth Pacific University," and is still in operation, as best we can tell, under a charter from Malawi, a country in Africa tucked in between Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania.

Technocrats come from all over the globe today, but Malawi has not, to put it charitably, been known for a strong tradition of educational achievement. In fact, Malawi's President-for-Life was just in the news for refusing to move into his country's new $300 million Presidential palace, because he reportedly believed it was haunted.

How technocratic is that?

"Bribes replaced apples a long time ago."

If Abdussattar Shaikh isn't who authorities claimed he is…who is he?

The answer to that questions remains unknown. And we're only just learning of Shaikh's curious association with another shadowy Middle-eastern man living in San Diego…Sam Koutchesfahani, an Iranian exile and arms dealer for the Shah.

When the Peacock Throne went pffft  Koutchesfahani moved to San Diego, where as one of a large number of Iranians-in-exile, many with former CIA ties, he turned his attentions to a variety of enterprises. Sam's included infiltrating Middle Eastern men into the U.S. illegally…for the better part of a decade.

“For more than six years in the 1990s, people from the Middle East came to San Diego County on bogus student visas,” reported a  September 21, 2001 San Diego Union-Tribune story headlined “Terrorists may have exploited student visas.”

“Through an underground network led by a Rancho Santa Fe man, nearly 100 Middle Easterners paid local community college teachers and administrators for counterfeit admission papers and grades, which bragging2allowed them to get student visas.”

(The final figure was "more than 200," according to Sam's plea bargain.)

“At the center of the scam was a Rancho Santa Fe man, Sam Koutchesfahani, whose family roots and wealth were deep in Iran. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud and was sentenced to a year in prison. Koutchesfahani was the owner of a rented house in Rancho Santa Fe where 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult took their lives in 1997.”


"Sam & Fifi at the Moonlight Beach Lodge."

Koutchesfahani, according to court documents,  bribed college and university instructors in the San Diego area to procure phony student visas for middle-eastern men he was helping insert into the U.S.

Could that have been part of Abdussattar Shaikh's job description too? If not, we are forced to believe the government's story, which portrays him as just the unluckiest sumbitch in recent American history.

"Unwittingly" housing two of the 19 terrorist hijackers… how unlucky is that?

We learned of a link between Shaikh and Koutchesfahani from a man who worked at a motel in Encinitas during the mid-90’s. While he worked there it had been sold to a group, which included Koutchesfahani, led by a Lebanese man who apparently has so far completely escaped scrutiny, Tamer Tamer Salomah.

Here we recalled the convenience store in Venice where Mohamed Atta and Marwan hung out, abandoned the day after the 9.11 attack by its owner, who was also Lebanese.

Today Joe Cicchese is the general manager of a hotel and convention center complex in Corvallis, Oregon. Ten years ago, while going to school in San Diego and working as a motel clerk, he met Sam Koutchesfahani.

“I just happened upon your article where you mentioned Sam Koutchesfahani, with the Heaven's Gate cult in his home and all,” he wrote us.   

“I worked for Sam and his wife Fifi in 1994-95. Back then they were using the last name of Fahani. The motel was called the Moonlight Beach Lodge. It has changed names twice since; today its called the Portofino Inn. When Tamer bought the place, he brought Sam in to work on the premises. Sam said he was "a silent partner" so his name may not appear on the title.”

We lost no time in phoning Mr. Cicchese to ask for his recollections.

A violent character in a dubious enterprise

Said Cicchese, “Neither one of them knew how to run a hotel. That’s what I told the FBI when I contacted them in October 2001 with info on Sam and his bribes to admit middle-eastern students to Universities in San Diego they did not qualify to attend.  But I never heard back from them on whether or not my info proved fruitful.”

So, who was Sam Fahani/ Koutchesfahani?

“He told me he did arms deals for the Shah,” Cicchese replied.  “And I believed it, because he was a really violent character. He and I didn’t get along too well, because I didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t know the first thing about motel management.”

“Then one day he called me into his office because he was pissed about something,” Cicchese continued, “ and he told me he was going to beat me with a tire iron.”

“Later that day I had to leave the front desk for some reason, and I saw Sam walking towards me up the center drive running through the motel, and he had a tire iron in his hand!”

GiveUsMoney“And a customer came up to him and asked him about something, and Sam kept looking back and forth between the customer and me the whole time he talked with him. If that customer hadn’t stopped him, I think he was going to hit me with it.”

If neither Tamer nor Sam knew anything about motels, why did they buy it?

“I heard them talking about using it to house some students,” Cicchese explained. “Tamer taught at some international University in San Diego with a lot of foreign students, and they were going to use the motel to house them.”  

We asked, “United States International University?”

Cicchese said, “Yeah. That’s the one.”

So one link between Sam Koutchesfahani and Abdussattar Shaikh is participation in some kind of covert operation involving bogus universities in San Diego.

Clunker cars on campus at Auld Lang Syne

We discovered that Koutchesfahani also boasts a bogus PhD as well. He has a doctorate in psychology (we like to think that perhaps his specialty is anger management) from a diploma mill called “Newport University.”

A story in the June 09, 1996 SALT LAKE TRIBUNE contained this description of the campus of "Newport University:"

“A couple of clunker cars sit in the driveway of a 40-year-old brick house, which sits squarely in a commercial zone: a hardware store in back, an equipment-rental company in front and a McDonald's expanding up the street.”

”The back yard has an old cedar fence, a rusting clothesline and an overgrown shade tree. Inside the house, a secondhand desk, some office chairs, bookshelves and a pair of torch lamps are assembled in the living room…”  

”Welcome to Newport University, Utah's newest private college.”

But there is yet another, even more incredible link between the two men: Both worked for the San Diego FBI as confidential informants. In court documents in his bribery case we learned to our astonishment that at exactly the same time he was renting a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe to the Heaven’s Gate cultists, Sam Koutchesfahani worked as a confidential informant for the San Diego FBI.

So if nowhere else, Shaikh and Koutchesfahani’s paths crossed in the waiting room of the San Diego FBI, which we picture as looking as strange and exotic as the Wookie Bar from Star Wars.

For a “lone cadre slipping through Europe and America unnoticed,” as Hedrick Smith lied in the opening of  PBS’s Front Line documentary on the 9.11 attack, the hijackers didn't associate with just the poor nobodies you'd expect them to…

Just like in Venice, the people the terrorists in San Diego hung out with were anything but poorly-connected.

More competition for Unluckiest Sumbitch

The San Diego FBI office has endured much embarrassment since the 9.11 attack. They admitted they had been searching for Al-Midhar and Alhazmi since August because of suspected connections to Osama bin Laden.

Three other suspected terrorists who rented rooms in his home—Omer Bakarbashat, Ramez T. Noaman and Yazed Al-Salmi—were arrested as material witnesses in the ongoing terror investigation.  

Congressional investigators allowed that they had some problems with the veracity of Shaikh’s statements. And news reports began to sound slightly less sure about him:

"Little is known about the 65-year-old, Indian-born Shaikh, who has declined several interview requests by The Associated Press, other than to deny his neighbors' reports that suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta visited his home.”

secretHistory.2 But at least three of his neighbors stepped forward to say they'd seen Mohamed Atta at his home on several occasions. So it was soon clear that the Indian-born Shaikh was lying about his meetings with Atta, just as he'd lied (and vociferously) about working for the FBI as a confidential informant.

Neighbor Marna Adair told the FBI that the polite, clean-shaven Atta was frequently at the home of Abdussattar Shaikh between August and early December of 2000. Adair said she identified a photograph of Atta on Sept. 17 to FBI agents who visited her home and showed her three pages of photos.  

Adair, a homemaker whose door is about 50 feet from Shaikh's house and gives a clear view of the driveway, said she is "positive" she saw Atta.   

Another neighbor, Deborah Fortner, remembered seeing Atta as well.  "He was the one that was scary. He's got these piercing eyes. That's something you never forget about him."

The FBI was forced to admit to the Congressional Joint Inquiry into 911 that “the hijackers may have known the informant [Shaikh] months earlier than the informant admitted.”

Like the after-image of innocent people hanging out of 100th story windows in the World Trade Center on the morning of the attack, questions about Shaikh persisted.

But somehow Shaikh’s ‘cover’ held.

Clues to the real story about the hijackers who lived in San Diego were visible in the first stories filed from there about the city’s role in the 9.11 plot. It was a story about  “students:”

“Prominent Muslim leader Abdussattar Shaikh said he thought he was offering shelter to students from Saudi Arabia studying English,” reported the Sept 15, 2001 San Diego Union-Tribune. “FBI agents are trying to piece together the many aspects of the hijackers' lives in San Diego.”  

Every news account quoted Bill Gore, head of the San Diego FBI office, denying that Shaikh was a suspect.  He was not suspected of knowingly harboring the terrorists, Gore told reporters.

Who knows? Maybe the FBI was trying to piece together some of the “many aspects of the hijackers lives…”

Just not all of them.

Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.

1 Response

  1. July 28, 2014

    […] Cicchese, a witness quoted in a recent story in the MadCowMorningNews was threatened with his life in a brief but chilling 4.30 a.m. phone call […]