Enemy within - While plotting destruction, hijackers moved freely in U.S. for years
By Carrick Mollenkamp, Evan Perez, Dan Golden, Rick Wartzman
and David S. Cloud
The Wall Street Journal
September 17, 2001
They appear to have come into this country freely and legally, months or even years ago. They lived in ethnically diverse communities like the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, San Diego, Calif., and Hollywood, Fla., where they were able to rent apartments, go to flight-training schools, buy cars and move money with impunity. They were hiding in plain sight.
More vigilance by law-enforcement officials might have stopped some of the 19 men who are believed to have killed more than 5,000 people by hijacking four airplanes and crashing three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Government officials now acknowledge that two hijackers were put on a watch list in August because of ties to a suspect in the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. But more-vigilant law enforcement is unlikely to have caught all of them. Officials continue to believe that there may be more such terrorists out there. And it's difficult to imagine how to prevent them from operating here in the future without making the nation less free, less open and less tolerant of outsiders.
Already, the massive investigation involving 4,000 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and armies of local law-enforcement officials is challenging those values. The once-fierce national debate over "racial profiling" has been laid aside, as law enforcement officials detain dozens of people of Middle Eastern origin -- most of whom appear to have had nothing to do with the terrorist event. The national discussion about easing immigration rules, launched by the Bush administration, has been shelved. Instead the Immigration and Naturalization Service has severely tightened security at the nation's borders, and members of Congress are calling for a permanent toughening of border controls. The FBI's power to police the Internet is also likely to increase.
Over the weekend authorities chased down numerous leads around the globe, while staying alert to the possibility that other associates of the terrorists may still be living in this country and planning more attacks. The FBI said two men are under arrest in New York as material witnesses and are being held on sealed warrants. A law-enforcement official confirmed that one was the same man who was detained in New York's Kennedy Airport Thursday after showing a fictitious pilot's license. A Justice Department official said a grand jury is hearing evidence on the hijacking case in New York.
Authorities have also transferred to New York Zacarias Moussaoui, a 31-year-old Algerian who had been apprehended last month while taking courses at a Pan Am International Flight Academy outside Minneapolis. He was first detained for immigration violations Aug. 17 after arousing an instructor's suspicion, reportedly because he was a novice pilot seeking simulator training to fly commercial aircraft.
Before going to Minnesota, Mr. Moussaoui had enrolled for several months this spring at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., where officials viewed him as a marginal pilot who quit without completing the prescribed training. A spokesman for the French Interior Ministry, which has been helping the FBI, said Mr. Moussaoui was on a watch list there because he had made several trips to Afghanistan, though he was not charged with any crime.
Meanwhile, Americans of Middle Eastern descent are reporting harassment in their communities. Sgt. Mark Renkens, a spokesman for the Palm Bay, Fla., police, says his department is on special alert to patrol 7-11 convenience stores, where some franchisees of Middle Eastern extraction have been threatened.
For some, the first frantic hours of the investigation -- as authorities rushed to chase fresh leads and possibly prevent further bloodshed -- may have felt like a form of harassment. Almost immediately after the attacks, investigators from the FBI, with journalists hot on their heels, launched an extraordinary nationwide hunt to identify anyone with any link, however remote, to the apparent hijackers. Reporters swarmed any address visited by FBI agents and other locations that appeared in electronic public-record databases to be related to people with names similar to the hijackers.
In that mad rush to identify the villains, several men of Middle Eastern descent appear to have been widely and wrongly identified as members of the hijack squads. One of those was Abdulrahman Alomari, a Saudi Arabian pilot and family man who had studied at Florida's FlightSafety Academy International in Florida, then left, telling neighbors he and his family were returning to their home country. Newspaper and television reports over the weekend cited Mr. Alomari as a suspected terrorist and quoted his neighbors at length. However, the man FBI officials are looking for is Abdulaziz Alomari, and investigators now think that Abdulrahman Alomari is, in fact, living with his family in Saudi Arabia and was not a hijacker.
A neighbor ensnared
The Alomari connection also ensnared one of his neighbors, Adnan Bukhari, who was also a student at FlightSafety. After FBI agents searched the homes of Mr. Bukhari and Mr. Alomari, news reports pinned Mr. Bukhari, as well as a brother named Ameer, as hijackers killed in the crashes. The truth was Adnan Bukhari was alive and being questioned by the FBI. Ameer Bukhari had died in an unrelated plane crash one year earlier. (The Wall Street Journal reported that the homes of Mr. Bukhari and Mr. Alomari had been searched and that the FBI believed Mr. Bukhari was a possible "associate" of the hijackers, but the paper never identified either of the men as hijackers.)
So far, the "black box" recorders recovered from the flights that crashed into the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania haven't provided many new insights; preliminary analysis has retrieved scant information from either the voice- or the data-recorder pulled out of the Pennsylvania wreck, officials said, and the Pentagon recorders were badly charred.
While most of the 19 hijackers seem to have lived in this country under little suspicion, two of the terrorists who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, were on a nationwide law-enforcement watch list at the time of the hijacking. In January 2000, U.S. intelligence videotaped a meeting in Malaysia that was attended by an Islamic militant who later that year was implicated in the Cole bombing, and by Khalid Al Midhar, who was one of the terrorists on American Airlines Flight 77, according to a senior U.S. official. In late August, U.S. intelligence recommended putting Mr. Al-Midhar on the U.S. immigration watch list. Nawaf Alhazmi, who is believed to have accompanied Mr. Al-Midhar on Flight 77, was also put on the list because he often was seen with Mr. Al-Midhar.
Once the two names went to the INS, however, word came back that both men had entered the country two months earlier. U.S. officials say there was an effort to find them, but it consisted of little more than entering their names in a nationwide law enforcement database that would have triggered red flags if they were taken into custody for some other reason. An FBI official in San Diego confirmed that local agents weren't alerted to the status of the two men on the watch list, even though they had entered the U.S. through Los Angeles International Airport.
In fact, public records suggest that Mr. Alhazmi may have been living in San Diego as early as 1996. He and Mr. Al-Midhar evidently lived together last year at the Parkwood Apartments, a low-slung complex in the Clairemont neighborhood, less than half a mile from the Islamic Center of San Diego. Then they linked up with a prominent member of the local Islamic community, Abdussattar Shaikh, who told reporters that after he met the two men at a mosque, he invited them to come live with him for a time at his home in the suburb of Lemon Grove. Jeff Thurman, a spokesman for the FBI in San Diego, said yesterday that Mr. Shaikh is "not a suspect" in the case.
Neighbors say the two men were polite and kept to themselves. "They fit in just fine," says Marna Adair, who lives next door to Mr. Shaikh. Another neighbor, Debbie Fortner, recalls a day last September when Mr. Al-Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi helped other men in the neighborhood rake leaves and put them in trash bags.
Mr. Shaikh told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Mr. Al-Midhar lived with him for just one month, and then returned to Saudi Arabia to see his baby daughter. Mr. Alhazmi, he said, stayed for four months, until December 2000. He added that he spoke to Mr. Alhazmiearly this year and that he was in Arizona studying to be a pilot.
Mr. Alhazmi and a man named Salem Alhazmi, who may be related, showed up this summer in New Jersey, where they paid $60 to reserve a box at a Mailboxes Etc. outlet in a shopping plaza in Fort Lee. Authorities believe the Alhazmis lived near the shopping plaza and frequented diners, bakeries and coffee shops in the area. On Sunday, just two days before they are suspected of boarding American Airlines Flight 77 at Washington's Dulles airport, they visited Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J., where they bought sunglasses and two weight-lifting belts at Champs Sports. "They were apparently very concerned about the width of the belts," according to one worker at the mall.
It's not clear what the weight-lifting belts might have been used for. But a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, indicated in a cellphone call that he and other passengers planned to tackle a hijacker who claimed to have a bomb strapped to his waist.
Florida appears to have been the launching ground for most of the terrorists. Waleed M. Alshehri, who investigators believe helped hijack American Airlines Flight 11, the first to slam into the World Trade Center, checked into the beachfront Bimini Motel & Apartments in Hollywood, Fla., in May of this year. Joanne Solic, owner of the motel, said he and another man of Middle-Eastern descent lived there for four weeks. "These guys in jeans and T shirts just didn't stand out," she said. "They said 'Hello' and 'Goodbye,' very polite." She said they paid their bill in cash.
The homing inn
Mr. Alshehri obtained a Florida driver's license using the Bimini as his address, according to public records. Then on June 21, he checked into the Homing Inn in Boynton Beach with two companions for a month-long stay. His roommates appear to have been Satam Al Suqami, 25, and Wail Ashehri, 28, who helped in the hijacking of Flight 11. Both Mr. Al Suqami and Mr. Ashehri also obtained Florida identification using the Homing Inn as their address. A housekeeper at the motel says the three men weren't very friendly. "They didn't want their room cleaned so I don't think I went there except maybe once when they first got there. They appeared not to speak much English and they never waved or smiled or anything."
Ziad Jarrah, age 26, believed to be the hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, showed up in Hollywood, Fla., in late April and rented the front apartment in a house at 1816 Harding St. for $165 a week. His appearance in Hollywood coincided closely with the arrival of Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi -- the two terrorists who were identified by authorities last Thursday, and who were on American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, respectively.
On May 2, Mr. Jarrah obtained a Florida driver's license, and 10 days later registered a decade-old red Mitsubishi Eclipse. Later, he relocated to a house in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where he was apparently living with suspected hijacker Ahmed Alhaznawi, who is believed to have joined him in his suicidal flight that ended with the crash in Pennsylvania. News reports from Lebanon say Mr. Jarrah was the scion of a wealthy Lebanese family who left the country to study aviation in Germany.
While many of the terrorists went to flight school in the U.S., they don't appear to have been model students. Mark Mikarts, an instructor at Huffman Aviation International Inc. in Venice, Fla., where Messrs. Atta and Al-Shehhi trained together, recalls Mr. Atta didn't take instruction well. "He had big problems with authority," says Mr. Mikarts.
The two men particularly raised hackles last year when they flew a Piper Warrior into a Miami area airport, stalled on the runway, and then instead of radioing the tower for instructions, got out of the plane and walked across an active runway.
Dale Kraus, then the general manager at Huffman, says he received a phone call from an angry control-tower chief. "You don't go walking across active taxiways at a major airport," says Mr. Kraus.
The two men had similarly bad experiences at Jones Aviation in Sarasota, Fla., where they also took lessons. Gary Jones, the owner, says the pair didn't take directions well. "They wanted to do it their way," he says. "They had bad attitudes." Mr. Jones asked them to leave, and they did -- in October of last year.
Likewise, Hani Hanjour, who the FBI believes to have piloted the airplane that flew into the Pentagon, was a less than ideal student. Duncan K.M. Hastie, the president of CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., had a student named Hani Hanjoor who is believed to be the same man, and who took courses at the center in 1996 and 1997. "He was a weak student, and instructors were not really happy with him," recalls Mr. Hastie. He never received his pilot's certificate from the Scottsdale training center -- then known as Cockpit Resource Management -- and spent only $4,800 on his classes, instead of the roughly $35,000 that would have been necessary to get a certificate.
Mr. Hanjoor evidently did complete his flight instruction at another school, though just where isn't clear. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, a Hani Saleh Hanjoor of Saudi Arabia was approved in 1999 to fly multiengine commercial aircraft.
Early last year, Mr. Hastie said, Mr. Hanjoor called him to request more-advanced training. Mr. Hastie turned him down. "We pride ourselves on training very safe and capable pilots."
Even in Florida, where many went for flight training, the hijackers lived in twos and threes at different locations and moved frequently, according to law enforcement officials.
One national security official compared the hijackers tactics with those commonly used by the Soviets during the Cold War, when their intelligence agents would spend apparently normal lives in the U.S. before activating their espionage careers. "They adopted the KGB approach of creating a sleeper network," said the official.
Another sign that the hijackers were skilled at avoiding any law enforcement scrutiny is the way they moved money. Investigators have traced cash transfers of unknown origin from overseas that went into bank accounts controlled by the men. Once in the U.S., however, further cash transfers took place but always in amounts below the $10,000 threshold above which banks must report the transfers to U.S. law enforcement, a senior official said.
In reconstructing their activities, the FBI is beginning to see signs of their malevolent intentions. An official said that the men conducted several dry-runs in the months before the hijackings. They bought one-way tickets on long flights and they rented cars and took them back the next day -- in part, authorities believe, to see if their activities generated any attention from authorities.
The FBI is still checking how the men smuggled the box cutters they used aboard the flights. But some investigators believe they simply walked through security without detection, having proved to themselves that they could do so in the dry-runs.
Meticulous even in preparing for death, Mr. Atta left his will -- not a suicide note -- in a bag found in Boston's Logan airport by investigators, according to a U.S. official. It was dated several years back and witnessed by a lawyer.