October 25–November 1, 2001
Connect the Dot-coms
The trail of the saudi-binladin-group.com website that I began following two weeks ago has taken me to a couple of very strange places — including a five-year-old mysterious death that may be al-Qaeda’s first hit on U.S. soil — and a very nervous British businessman who thought he was getting the bargain of a lifetime when he purchased the assets of a British web-design firm that created the domain.
First, a little background.
Last week, I reported that a domain created for the Saudi Binladin Group, the construction conglomerate owned by the family of reputed terrorist Osama bin Laden, was registered on Sept. 11, 2000, and had a preset expiration date of Sept. 11, 2001. The date’s significance and the 1-in-365 odds of the website’s expiration date raise questions about the sincerity of the bin Laden family’s disavowal of its notorious 17th son. Especially when you consider that investigators are looking into what role the Internet played in helping the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks carry out their plan. Representatives of the Saudi Binladin Group failed to return phone calls and two e-mails seeking comment.
Investigators are examining whether the attackers utilized the science of steganography, the hiding of data (in these cases, audio or visual files transmitted over the Internet), as a method of communicating when and where attacks should be carried out. Using a website’s expiration date would be a technically simplified version of steganography, providing planning information for the attacks not on the website itself, but in information available to anyone conducting a "whois" search of companies that register web domain names.
Charles Boncelet, a University of Delaware computer and information sciences professor, is an expert on steganography. Does Boncelet think that happened with saudi-binladin-group.com, which was created by a U.K. web-design firm called Arq Limited?
At first blush, he said no.
"My guess is that it is a coincidence," said Boncelet. Then, later in our conversation, he acknowledged that not only would that have been "a hell of a coincidence," but "it may be more. The date suggests that they would know a year in advance what they would do, if that is how they were trying to communicate."
There are a lot of strange coincidences when it comes to saudi-binladin-group.com.
Which brings us to the mysterious case of Paul Gabelia.
According to a police report, on Sun., Sept. 1, 1996, Fairfax County, Va., police discovered human remains in the trunk of a 1991 silver Mercury Sable sedan that had been on fire. The body’s feet and knees were bound with wire, and jumper cables were wrapped around its neck. Its hands appeared to be free.
A search of motor-vehicle records showed that the car belonged to an Alexandria, Va., attorney named Paul Gabelia and his wife, Nam Dong Kim. At 2 a.m., Sept. 2, Detective R.J. Murphy arrived at the couple’s home, knocked on the door and was greeted by an Asian female wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt who appeared to have just woken up.
The woman walked past the front door, into the kitchen, shut off the garage light and opened the front door.
"You’re here about my husband," said the woman, Gabelia’s wife Nam Dong Kim. She opened the door and let the officers in. Kim told the police that her husband had left home about 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 1 to attend a business meeting "with some Syrian businessmen," according to the police report. Kim "did not know where this meeting would take place, but stated that Gabelia would frequently meet international businessmen at hotels near National or Dulles airports … [she] stated that Gabelia told her about the Syrians recently and had expressed his suspicion that the source of their money was not legitimate and that he planned to confront them about that."
Kim consented to a search of her house, but she wouldn’t let police examine Gabelia’s computer or a number of life insurance policies. Kim also told police that she and her husband were experiencing "marital difficulties, but, nothing serious and they would argue occasionally." She added that she and her two children had gone to bed about 11:30 p.m. and that she was worried.
Kim "was cooperative and appeared truthful," Murphy noted in his report.
The next day, medical examiner Frances Field found the cause of death to be strangulation.
On Sept. 4, 1996, Murphy conducted another interview with Kim, this time at police headquarters. What she told him next may bring us back to the saudi-binladin-group.com, or so says the family attorney, Walter Diercks.
Kim told police her husband had printed out a draft of a complex limited-partnership agreement to take with him to his meeting. (A Gabelia friend later provided police with copies of these drafts, which he obtained from Gabelia’s computer. The deals Gabelia had outlined, if completed, would enable a company to hide its assets overseas, primarily in the Netherlands Antilles or the Cayman Islands.)
At police headquarters, the report states that Kim repeated that her husband "was concerned about the origin of the money for this proposed business deal with ARC Limited.’ One subject that Gabelia was going to meet with was supposedly from Syria, while the second subject’s nationality was unknown, but he spoke with a middle eastern accent. Gabelia was also concerned with how the subjects obtained his name and phone number." Kim also told police that for Gabelia, this was a "million dollar deal" and a "deal of a lifetime." Police interviews with Gabelia’s sister revealed that she too was told by Gabelia that he was concerned about this pending business deal.
As police continued their investigation, however, they found that Kim had underplayed their marital difficulties. Things were so bad that Gabelia was drinking heavily and living in the basement. Police also learned that Gabelia had been out of work, had run up more than $100,000 in credit card debt and had taken out more than $1 million worth of insurance policies with Kim as the beneficiary. Those factors, combined with matches found in the car that seemed similar to Boy Scout matches from the Gabelia house and forensic evidence that seemed to indicate that the fire originated in the trunk while it was closed, led the police to conclude that Gabelia’s death was most likely a suicide, not a murder; it is recorded as "suspicious" because no suicide note was ever found.
And there was one more factor cited by police.
They could never find a company called ARC Limited.
But that was not the end of the Paul Gabelia story.
Kim sued one of the insurance companies, which eventually settled the case for $450,000. But it was still not over.
On Oct. 3, 2001, Diercks was reading a Wall Street Journal story that depicted the letterhead of the ARC, the Advice and Reformation Committee, which was signed by Osama bin Laden. The letter appointed a now-jailed terrorist, Khalid al-Fawwaz, as head of ARC’s London office.
Remembering ARC Limited, Diercks seized on the acronym and asked Fairfax Police and the FBI to reopen the Gabelia investigation. Last week, someone who read my piece about saudi-binladin-group.com, which was posted on the WorldNetDaily website (www.worldnetdaily.com), tipped me off that on Oct. 12, the Washington Post reported that local police and the FBI were reexamining the Gabelia case.
A quick Internet search led me to Diercks, who said he was "shocked" to hear about Arq Limited, the web-design firm that registered the saudi-binladin-group.com domain.
"This is too much of a coincidence," said Diercks. "What is really ironic here is that sure, they told him it was ARC Limited, but Gabelia took the information down phonetically. Maybe it was Arq Limited, with a q.’ This guy spent a great deal of time in Saudi Arabia, working in construction. No way he would not have crossed paths with the bin Ladens."
Diercks disputed the police contention that Gabelia killed himself. He offered a statement from a Korean construction company stating that Gabelia was about to sign a deal to provide legal services for about $100,000. Diercks also questioned how anyone could examine a body, find a jumper cable wrapped so tightly around a person’s neck that it left deep furrows in the skin, and say it was a suicide.
Gabelia’s family, he said, is not seeking money. The insurance case is over.
"They just want the truth," he said, adding that he will ask the FBI to investigate Arq Limited.
Julie Hersey, a master police officer with the Fairfax County Police Department, said that contrary to what was reported in the Washington Post, the department was not reopening the Gabelia investigation.
"We said we are always interested in new information, but this case was definitely not reopened," Hersey said.
When I told her about Arq Limited, saudi-binladin-group.com and its Sept. 11, 2001, expiration date, Hersey paused.
"We definitely should know this information," she said.
FBI spokesperson Cindy McCraw said the case was closed as far as the FBI was concerned. "We didn’t find any link, any reason to reopen it," she said, adding that the Washington Post story was "inaccurate." As for saudi-binladin-group.com, she said I should contact the FBI tip line.
Diercks is not surprised that law enforcement has closed this case.
"They don’t want to admit the mistakes they made years ago," Diercks said of law enforcement. "They would just look stupid."
Those were the first words out of the mouth of a British gentleman named Peter Wordley when I told him about Arq Limited’s connection to saudi-binladin-group.com and Walter Diercks’ contention that perhaps Arq Limited may be the ARC Limited connected with the death of Paul Gabelia.
Last week, Wordley’s company, JPC Internet, purchased the physical remains of Active8 Solutions, which used to be Arq Limited. When I asked Wordley for a translation, he told me "hell’s teeth" is roughly the equivalent of the U.S. expression "holy shit."
Arq Limited and, later, Active8 Solutions, were both competitors and business partners with JPC Internet, Wordley said. Recently it became clear that the company was in deep financial trouble, so Wordley worked out a deal to buy the company’s desks, computers and its one viable website, www.bath.co.uk, a local guide. Wordley said after I had called the company last week looking for comment, people there began looking around and found out about the Saudi Binladin Group domain.
Then, earlier this week, I called him about Gabelia.
"I am beginning to wonder," said Wordley, who’s considering contacting Scotland Yard or the FBI. "We thought we were getting the bargain of the century. We bought the computers and the desks and the website that, on the open market, would have cost us a lot of money, but it cost us an absolute snit [another British term, meaning very little]. I am beginning to think, Hell, I should move.’ But I have nothing to hide. I am flabbergasted."