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Special ReportPortland Press Herald
America Attacked - Maine and the Nation Respond

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Reported Atta sightings raise question: Was network of helpers also in Maine?

Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

 

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  More stories & information:
America Attacked

 

Donald Larrabee knew the man as a regular, a customer who bought gas, cigarettes and beer almost every day.

The customer had jet-black hair, spoke English well, sported Arabic tattoos on his right arm, and had a green sticker with Arabic writing in his car window. The man usually stopped by the Big Apple convenience store on Park Avenue during Larrabee's shift.

"He never said much out of the ordinary," Larrabee said. "Just a regular who came in every day for Budweiser, cigarettes and five dollars worth of gas."

In late August, the man pulled up to the gas pumps in his battered maroon Buick LeSabre. One of his passengers was a man who'd also been to the store several times. A third man in the car was new to Larrabee.

"He was chic-looking," says Larrabee. "He had a brown suede jacket, dress slacks and leather shoes."

Larrabee pumped gas for the men and listened to them joke, laugh and speak Arabic. Larrabee was familiar with the language, having lived in Iran for six years. All three men appeared to be Middle Eastern, he said.

"They were happy," Larrabee said. "I figured this man was a guest from out of town and they hadn't seen each other for a while."

A few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Larrabee says he spotted the well-dressed man's picture in the paper. He believes it was Mohamed Atta, who caught a commuter plane at Portland International Jetport, hijacked a jet out of Boston and crashed it into one of the World Trade Center towers.

Larrabee now wonders about his longtime customer. The man stopped coming into the store soon after hijackers in three planes killed more than 5,000 people at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"It makes you wonder what this guy's connection was to Atta," Larrabee said. "He's probably God-knows-where now, but you never know. He could be a cell in their organization."

Since the attacks, local police, the FBI and Maine citizens have asked themselves similar questions: Were there people in Maine who helped Atta prepare for the nation's worst terrorist attack? Why would Atta, the suspected mastermind of the hijackings, choose the Portland area to spend his last night?

Local citizens have told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about seeing Atta with other people in Portland in the weeks, months and even hours before the attacks.

Portland Public Library workers say they remember seeing Atta at least six times last year, usually working on the library's computers.

A worker at a South Portland convenience store thinks he gave him directions to a nearby discount store. Restaurant workers are convinced they served Atta.

The FBI has talked to dozens of local cabbies, hotel workers and restaurant employees, showing them several photographs of Middle Eastern men, including pictures of Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari, who flew out of Portland with Atta on Sept. 11.

Many other people who believe they saw Atta in Portland, including Larrabee, have been talking in private about what they may have seen but have not called police.

Speculation about who may have been involved has caused rumors to proliferate. Residents also have provided hundreds of unfounded tips to police.

It's not unusual for people born in other parts of the world to stand out in Maine, which the Census Bureau has determined to be the whitest state in the nation. Some residents including people originally from the Middle East or Africa have complained that their fellow Mainers are treating them with suspicion in the wake of the attacks.

Concrete facts are few.

So far, the FBI has confirmed that on Sept. 10, Atta and Alomari slept at the Comfort Inn in South Portland , a hotel near the jetport, ordered food at a nearby Pizza Hut, shopped at Wal-Mart and withdrew money from two ATM machines.

On Wednesday, new reports surfaced about another potential terrorist link to Portland. A Saudi pilot, who is on an FBI watch list for people wanted for questioning about possible terrorist ties, told a Moroccan newspaper that he had left a small plane at the Portland jetport.

Khaled Alzeedi, owner of an aviation company that operates in Delaware, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, had bought two small planes in Tennessee in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks. Alzeedi and three of his assistants later flew one of the planes to Portland.

Alzeedi said he dropped the plane at the jetport because he realized it needed a bigger fuel tank. He then left the country and said he planned to return, but could not because of the terrorist attacks.

The FBI says that Alzeedi, who is now in Morocco, is not believed to have any connection to the attacks.

Yet, the FBI refuses to say why they want to speak with Alzeedi or why his plane is under surveillance at Northeast Airmotive Co., Portland's general aviation contractor.

Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood says he has a lot of unanswered questions about the plane and the Saudi pilot. He sent two detectives to Northeast Airmotive on Thursday, but employees there said the FBI told them not to talk with anyone about the plane.

"The FBI is saying there's no connection with this plane to Atta or Sept. 11, but they're not sharing why they want to talk with the pilot," Chitwood said. "It bothers me. If there's no big deal to this, then why the hell didn't the FBI tell us about this six weeks ago?"

While Chitwood is concerned about the pilot's intentions, he is unaware of any terrorist ties in Maine, linking Atta to the community.

"To my knowledge there are no phone records, credit card receipts, surveillance tapes that put Atta or Alomari in Portland before Sept. 10," Chitwood said.

Gail Marcinkiewicz, FBI spokeswoman, said there is little she can say about the investigation and whether Atta had help from anyone in Maine.

"There's a steadfast rule of not confirming or denying anything during an investigation," Marcinkiewicz said. "The problem is, if you publicly rule someone out and later on down the road you get more information and have to look at that person again, then we're in trouble."

Harvey Kushner, a terrorism expert who has consulted for the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Customs Service, believes the FBI will eventually figure out why Atta flew out of Portland.

"There has to be some reason they were there," said Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University. "The mere fact they used Portland as a starting point. They just didn't, the day of the terrorist attacks, stick a pin on a map and say we're going to Portland."

It's quite possible, Kushner said, that the hijackers had supporters who lived in Portland or visited the area before the attacks.

Regardless of who may have helped Atta, Kushner says, there were reasons that the 33-year-old son of an Egyptian lawyer was drawn to Maine's largest city.

"The planning for this attack started many years ago, and the infiltration began in major cities and spread out to suburban points east, west and south," Kushner said. "It's clear the network is immense."

Newspaper delivery driver Chris Lyons wonders whether the five men he saw in the predawn hours of Sept. 11 were part of that network.

Lyons, who delivers papers for the Portland Press Herald, fills the newspaper vending machines at the Portland jetport. On the day of the terrorist attacks, Lyons pulled up to the jetport curb shortly before 4 a.m. He noticed a dull blue or gray American-made car, possibly a Chrysler, parked near the jetport entrance.

"They stuck out because usually no one is around at that hour," Lyons said.

The car had an orange globe on top like an old taxicab but it didn't have any lettering on it, Lyons said.

Four or five men got out of the car. "They had a tremendous amount of luggage," Lyons said. "About 10 bags."

The men were dressed well in sweaters and leather jackets and used a skycap cart to haul their luggage inside the airport. Lyons, who says he lived in Malaysia for nearly eight years, believed that a couple of the men were Egyptian and two others, Iranian.

Lyons walked by the men twice as he filled his newspaper racks. "They were talking Arabic and I said 'hi' to them and they looked surprised and then all clammed up."

Lyons talked to the FBI three weeks ago about the incident. "They asked me to repeat my story over and over," he said.

The FBI had Lyons look at several photographs of Middle Eastern men. He didn't recognize any of the men in the pictures.

"I don't think any of the guys I saw was Atta," Lyons said. "I'm more concerned that these guys were support people, who helped the operation out somehow.

"It's just too much of a coincidence that this group of businessmen was leaving Portland the morning of the terrorist attacks."

Donald Larrabee, the Big Apple employee, has his own unanswered questions. He wonders where his customer with the tattoos has gone.

Two weeks after the attacks, Larrabee saw the man standing in the corner lot of the convenience store. The man was not driving his Buick LeSabre. He was by himself, on foot.

"He seemed kind of nervous, looking around," Larrabee said. "A few minutes later, another Arab man drove up in a small, old foreign car. (They) talked and then he got in the car and they left. I haven't seen the guy since."

Another customer, who insists he saw Atta in the store on the same August morning Larrabee did, has talked to police. On Friday, Larrabee says FBI investigators spoke to him.

He shared the details about his tattooed customer and the Middle Eastern man's potential link to Atta. Larrabee said the store did not save its videotape that may have captured the man Larrabee believes was Atta.

Larrabee now asks himself if he should have done something when he spotted his customer after the September attacks.

"I think I should have maybe called 911 or stopped him," Larrabee said. "But what was I going to do, just hold on to him?"

Staff Writer Barbara Walsh can be contacted at 791-6382or at: bwalsh@pressherald.com


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