1997, 22/23 September Yemen: 9/11 travel warnings given

Machine installation

Sunday to Wednesday I worked four-long days inside the YemPak factory. The machine testing then operator and maintenance training had been completed by Tuesday morning, so the rest were long, monotonous days inside another windowless factory. But this was an important and previously unknown customer who had paid the list price for our most expensive machine at a machinery exhibition in Chicago five-months earlier.

An Italian service engineer was at the YemPak factory for the first couple of days, measuring up and planning the installation of a £1+ million printing press. We knew each other from industry shows and crossing paths at customers. As he was leaving on the Monday morning he stopped to say that there was something strange about this customer - principally that they knew nothing about printing and that they had no apparent product to package or sell. This was the third such caution I had heard - first the salesman in Chicago, then the senior technician who had refused to travel to Yemen and now from Nicolas, a well respected and widely travelled Italian engineer. I was by far the youngest of this group and new to the role of field service; I saw nothing more than what I thought to be cultural differences, or ‘oddities’, and I certainly wasn’t experienced enough to judge how odd or unusual this situation was.

The factory floor was around the size of a football field with the northern end of the building occupied by brick built offices, toilets, rest rooms, etc. I was very specifically told not to enter or even approach that end of the building. They explained that the offices were being prepared for the installation of complex electronic equipment associated with computer graphics and laser cut printing plate manufacture. I remember being told that there are wires everywhere; it did seem odd, but not suspicious.

During the machine testing I asked for some of the customer’s own printing plates for the operators to practice on. I recall there was a guarded reaction when I first asked, excuses were made and I was told none were available. The next day there were a set of standard test-image print plates available for training but I was not told where these had come from.

As the installation progressed so did my rapport with the Pakistani machine operators and the maintenance manager, identified as Dino and wearing blue overalls in the group photos. Dino was an astute technician and good company, although I only saw him on occassions through the day. The machine operators appeared well educated and spoke fair English. Whilst entering the machine details in to my palm-top computer, a Psion S5, I was corrected on the name of the company; they told me it was YemPak, an abbreviation of Yemen-Pakistan. They had already told me the security guards were Pakistani too and that this was a bi-national collaboration. I was told a few times that they were also students at the on site school; since finding the compound location again on google maps I saw the domed roof to the ‘school’ which I then realised was a mosque and therefore the school they referred to may have been a madrassa (my logic).

It was during my conversation with the machine operators that I spoke about my prediction of an attack on the WTC with hijacked civilian airliners. They asked about my travels and specifically about my visits to the US; I told them that I only saw airports, hotels and factories during my business travels. I told them I loved travelling there because of the stupendous food portions and genuinely welcoming hospitality, whilst also noting that I lived a very privileged life whilst travelling with a company credit card and frequent flyer memberships. On Monday 22 September one machine operator asked me about visiting New York as a tourist. That was when I repeated my travel warning, referencing the 1993 WTC bombing and the likelihood of another attack by the same group using hijacked civilian airliners.

I remember a surprised and interested reaction but I don’t recall them passing any comment. There was no plotting or call to action - I was just passing comment on global grievances I saw and sharing my fears of what horrors people were capable of in the modern world. The next day, Tuesday 23 September, the second oerator asked me about my travel warning. What if they couldn’t smuggle guns aboard an aircraft as I’d speculated he asked. I pointed to the box cutters in my document wallet, highlighting their use as a weapon and saying I’d accidently carried them undetected on several flights. Where would they put the bomb he asked: I told him a fuel ladened 767 was the bomb.

A one-day service visit to an exisiting machine in a nearby factory was also booked and paid for. It was at a HSA Group industrial estate just ten-minutes drive away and despite having lots of spare time at the YemPak factory and several prompts by me, this other planned service visit did not happen. When I asked about visiting the other factory they were very relaxed, saying something to the effect of 'don’t worry, it doesn’t need doing now’. I worked late again on Wednesday and admit I was becoming tired and bored, and was missing my own bed at home. 

The training was complete, there was nothing more I could show the operators, but the customer had paid for my time and seemed intent on getting their money’s worth. As one operator practiced the techniques I would chat with the waiting operator or with Dino, or be entering info in to my Psion palm-top, whose data base functionality  generated significant interest from the YemPak employees. Before I was dropped back at my hotel that evening I was told Thursday would be another full day in the YemPak factory before my return flight from the capital Sanaa on Friday.

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it