Israeli Art Students

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There have been many reports of individuals or groups that supposedly had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but one of the most often repeated concerns a groups of Israeli "art students". It's often suggested that these were actually intelligence operatives who were spying on the hijackers. This article is typical.

Of course if these really were intelligence agents then you might expect them to try and avoid the attention of local authorities. The reality was very different, as the DEA report quoted above states:

Carrying drugs. Passport irregularities. Pestering DEA agents. Perhaps “diagramming the layout of a federal facility”. How does any of this relate to an attempt to monitor Al Qaeda agents? It makes little sense to us.

Still, let’s excuse that. Perhaps only some of the students were Mossad agents. Maybe they were performing several missions, which of course would make them even more important in intelligence terms: that would make sense.

Except there’s a problem with that idea, too. If this really were a major Israeli spying ring, then why would a former Israeli intelligence agent draw US attention to it? (Our emphasis):

We don’t just have the word of one man that such a scheme existed, either. A similar pattern of “art students” selling art for “wildly inflated” prices appeared in Canada, apparently starting in 2002, eventually resulting in arrests a couple of years later. But for “working illegally”, not espionage:

Similar incidents occurred in Australia in 2009:

And here's a New Zealand story from 2010:

Had Mossad simply recycled the same cover story that they’d used in the US, even though it had received so much attention? That would seem to be unwise. Perhaps the story could be reworked, accepting that some of the Israeli art students in the US were involved in an art fraud, but there were Mossad agents along as well, using them as cover...? It doesn’t seem like the best cover, to involve yourself with a group that could draw so much attention, however if we want to keep this story going then it’s the best explanation available.

And of course there’s also the ever-popular “too many coincidences” argument, which in this case points to the locations of the “art students”, and how closely they were located to the 9/11 hijackers:

However, exactly how “improbable” these coincidences might be isn’t entirely clear.

The first problem is that the DEA report details many locations where the Israeli students lived, travelled to or had attempted to sell art. All these, in fact:

(“Possible” indicates the claim is based on statements from a suspect and may not necessarily be true. If you’re interested in particular locations then please, go read the original report.)

This isn’t surprising, as the DEA lists 125 potential suspects who had been travelling all over the country. So surely, if you correlate these addresses with 19 alleged 9/11 hijackers, and other potential suspects, who were also moving around the country, you’d expect the occasional overlap.

Here's a very relevant example:

But fails to point out the many other Calmanovic addresses:

And even if you believe that’s still “too much of a coincidence”, there’s another issue here that’s being carefully avoided. Consider this quote from earlier:

The DEA report (paragraph 76 onwards) explains how Serfaty was picked up and questioned by DEA agents on March 1st, 2001, at which point they discovered that he had these Hollywood addresses. And these are as documented above, but the problem is that Atta wouldn’t move into Jackson Street for another two months.

Clearly Serfaty wasn’t following Atta, then. What’s more, no evidence has been presented to show that Serfaty was still renting these apartments by the time Atta arrived. Other Israelis in the group left in a hurry after the DEA arrests, so it must at least be possible that he did the same:

There are similar timeline issues with claims relating to the other alleged hijackers. While others including Waleed and Wail al-Shehri did live in Hollywood, they all arrived after Serfaty’s March 1st arrest, showing that he wasn’t tracking them.

So was this really an intelligence operation? The Canadian reports of similar art students suggest not: they saw it as a simple scam. And a recent Australian report says "the fake artwork is part of a global fraud scam allegedly involving Israeli nationals, which has been operating in Europe, America and Australia for more than eight years..." The way the students managed to attract the attention of the authorities would hardly be wise for intelligence operatives, and the fact that an Israeli alerted the US about this in the first place also supports the idea that it was just a scam.

Authors pushing this story disagree, though, making heavy use of unsourced quotes like "the Israelis likely had a huge spy operation in the U.S. and that they had succeeded in identifying a number of the hijackers" (source, please go read in full to make sure you understand their case). But from what we've seen they fail to even mention the timeline problems. The DEA report says art student reports arose from "at least the beginning of 2000", months before Atta and al-Shehhi arrived in the US; the "students" who lived in Hollywood again did so before the hijackers arrived; and we've yet to see anything that places them in close proximity at the same time. If there's reason to believe otherwise, let's see it. Because right now there's not even circumstantial evidence to indicate that the art students may have been spying on the hijackers.