By Kevin Cullen
and Shelley Murphy
THE BOSTON GLOBE
Investigators have evidence that the planning of the suicide hijackings of American commercial airliners by Islamic extremists began at least five years ago and that the men who commandeered two Boston flights began casing Logan Airport at least six months ago, law enforcement sources say.
The FBI, they said, also has evidence suggesting that at least five of the 10 men who hijacked the Boston planes and plowed them into the World Trade Center exploited the good reputation of the United States' staunchest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, to gain entry to the country and access to aeronautics training in Florida - training they used to kill thousands of Americans in the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history.
At least one of the Boston hijackers, Mohamed Atta, was able to enter the United States despite having been implicated in a 1986 bus bombing in Israel, said sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In interviews with the Globe, flight instructors in Florida said that it was common for students with Saudi affiliations to enter the United Stateswith only cursory background checks and sometimes none.
Some of the hijackers who commandeered the two Boston-to-Los Angeles flights on Tuesday had pilot licenses that indicated that they were sponsored or employed by Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is owned by the Saudi government, investigators said. Others were listed on public records as being employed by Saudi Arabian Airlines.
At least one of the hijackers of the Boston flights, Atta, carried a Saudi passport, while two others, Waleed Alshehri and Marwan Alshehri, had been living in Saudi Arabia before they arrived in Florida last year to attend flight school, law enforcement and other sources said.
Two alleged associates of the hijackers, Adnan Bukhari and Amer Kamfar, attended flight schools in Florida and had the Saudi Arabian Airlines post office box in the Saudi city of Jeddah, listed as their home addresses on their commercial pilots' licenses.
Bukhari, 41, who lived in Vero Beach, Fla., was taken into custody by FBI agents on Tuesday and questioned, law enforcement sources said. He released after the FBI concluded he wasn't involved in the hijackings, federal law enforcement sources said.
Police in Florida identified Bukhari as a flight engineer for the Saudi airline.
Thursday night, police in Florida were searching for Kamfar, who was reported to be at large and armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Kamfar, 41, lived at the same Vero Beach address as Abdulrahman Alomari, who is listed in FAA records as having worked in flight operations for the Saudi airline and who was sitting next to Atta in the business section of American Airlines Flight 11, according to the passenger manifest.
FBI Director Robert Mueller on Thursday said that there were five hijackers on Flight 11. Sources identified them as Atta, Alomari, Waleed Alshehri, Wail Alshehri and Satam Al Suqami.
Mueller said there were also five hijackers on United Airlines Flight 175. Sources identified them as Fayez Ahmed, Ahmed Alghamdi, Hamza Alghamdi, Marwan Alshehri and Mohaid Alshehri.
Investigators said at least half of the 10 Boston hijackers had received extensive training at flight schools in Florida and were capable of taking over the controls and guiding the two jets into the World Trade Center towers, sources said.
The Globe reported Thursday that Waleed Alshehri had graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1997, and law enforcement sources Thursday said investigators believe his arrival at the school the previous year shows that the planning to train suicide pilots began in 1996, if not earlier.
Over the next five years, various numbers of the suicide pilots arrived in Florida to train at the many flight schools there, law enforcement sources said.
Sources said the Boston hijackers, apparently led by Atta, began casing Logan Airport at least six months and perhaps even a year ago.
In interviews Thursday, flight instructors said Saudis and other Arabs with the imprimatur of the Saudi national airline who seek permission to enter the United States to take flying lessons do not face the same degree of scrutiny from the State Department when seeking a visa as do Arabs from countries less friendly to Washington.
In fact, some flight schools, including some of those attended by the hijackers, have exemptions that allow the schools to unilaterally issue paperwork that students can present at U.S. embassies and consulates so they can obtain visas with only perfunctory background checks, flight instructors said.
Chuck Clapper, who owns Lantana Air, an air charter company in Lantana, Fla., said that several Florida flight schools have contracts with Saudi Arabian Airlines, and that some have exemptions that allow them to send students paperwork that are then virtually rubber-stamped by officials who issue visas.
Asked if Arabs who seek to enter the United States to obtain flying instruction need to satisfy the State Department of their suitability, Clapper said: "Saudis don't. Iranians do. Libyans do. But the Saudis are allies; so they don't."
A State Department spokesman declined to discuss the visas the hijackers obtained to attend flight schools in Florida, saying that it was confidential information and subject to a criminal investigation.
The spokesman did dispute claims that visas are rubber-stamped, saying that all foreign students are subjected to a background check.
That, however, does not explain how Atta, 33, and his cousin, Marwan Alsheheri, 23, got visas. On Thursday, German police said the two hijackers had been linked to Islamic extremists when they studied at the Technical University in Hamburg and should have been denied visas as a result.
Atta was also suspected of involvement in the 1986 terrorist attack in Israel.
Tom Quinn, the head of American sales and marketing for Saudi Arabian Airlines, said that "there are indications that some of these people may have been employees of the airline and were here for training."
Quinn said information that would confirm their identities and employment status could only be obtained from the airline's head office in Jeddah. The airline's offices were closed Thursday, and no one answered the telephone.
Quinn said that the airline had "quite a few" employees attend Embry-Riddle, one of the most prestigious flight schools in the United States.
While authorities in Boston, in Florida and in Germany said nothing concrete points to the hijackers being linked to the Saudi-born, anti-American terrorist Osama bin Laden, there was growing sentiment in Washington that bin Laden orchestrated the attack.
"Everything so far continues to point to bin Laden," said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Iraq doesn't seem to be panning out, and the same thing with Iran."
The official said that information gleaned from the early stages of the investigation indicated that at least some of the suspected terrorists carefully set down roots in communities.
One of the hallmarks of past bin Laden plots, according to U.S. officials and court documents, is to place people in a community with orders to establish a local network and lay the groundwork for an attack that is never completely spelled out to them.
Before the 1998 bombing against the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, for example, bin Laden operatives married local women, collected information on potential targets, rented houses and purchased equipment. Later, a commander sent from Afghanistan arrived in Kenya to oversee the last-minute procedures.
While the U.S. official declined to offer specifics on what is known about the preparations for Tuesday's attacks, the official said: "This appears to be a similar operation. There's the training beforehand, and what is called the `sleeper' issue: a person waiting to be activated by someone else arriving with orders."
Meanwhile, an FBI-led task force of investigators continued to fan across the Boston area, searching for clues and people believed to have assisted the hijackers in this area. Hundreds of tips, and the hijackers' apparent indifference to incriminating evidence left behind, has left investigators busy.
"The attacks were probably well planned, but they didn't do a good job covering their tracks," one federal agent said.
Law enforcement sources said investigators believe that as many as eight hijackers stayed in hotels in the Boston area the night before the attack but so far have identified only one of the hotels - the Park Inn in Chestnut Hill, where at least two of the hijackers are believed to have stayed. Atta and Alomari are believed to have flown down from Portland, Maine, early Tuesday before connecting onto Flight 11.
Before flying from Portland to Boston to carry out terror attacks on New York City, Mohamed Atta and Abdul Alomari rented a car at the Logan Airport Alamo and drove to Maine, police said.
Two other conspirators who parked a white Mitsubishi at Logan before boarding had also rented their vehicle from the same Alamo franchise, said Maine police officials and an Alamo spokeswoman. Neither would say when the cars had been rented or who rented them.
Investigators this week requested passenger manifests from two ferries operating between Falmouth, Nova Scotia, and Maine. Attention also focused on a border crossing in tiny Jackman, Maine, a particularly isolated route linking Quebec City to western Maine.
The owner of a gas station in Jackman said he had sold gas to four Arab men at 1:55 p.m. Aug. 17, and that Thursday he gave credit card receipts from the transaction to federal investigators. Having once worked in the Middle East, Raymond Stevens, 46, was able to converse briefly in Arabic with four men who said they were from Saudi Arabia.
State Police in Maine continued to analyze the inside of the rental car found in Portland, officials said. The rental car was part of a string of evidence found on Tuesday, which traced a bag found at Logan airport back to security cameras at Portland Jetport, which caught Atta and Alomari boarding a 6 a.m. flight.
The car contained maps of northern New England, and there was tobacco sprinkled on the console between the two front seats, Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said Thursday.