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September 15, 2001
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Suspected Hijackers: 19 Quiet Lives That Shattered the World
* Inquiry: "Nice," "normal" guys had few belongings but access to lots of cash. Tantalizing clues show path to destruction.

 
 
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Germany Issues Warrants for Pair Linked to Hijacker

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The attack on America and the first six months of its aftermath
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By H.G. REZA, EVAN HALPER and LISA GETTER, Times Staff Writers

Two of them were American-trained Saudi fighter pilots. One graduated from America's foremost flight university. One drank Stoli and orange juice and one advertised for a Mexican bride.

The 19 men identified by the FBI as suspects in the World Trade Center and Pentagon hijack attacks were largely anonymous young men from the Mideast who entered the United States without notice and lived quietly within the law for years.

They studied flying, lived in nondescript suburban apartments and seldom called attention to themselves. Most lived for a time in Florida. Others were scattered in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona and Southern California. Some apparently had recent access to large amounts of cash but lived modestly, some alone, some with one another.

Then, in the last several weeks, they began disappearing from their neighborhoods. They hid out in low-rent motels and, in one instance, filled trash baskets with Boeing flight manuals.

They reappeared Friday on a list of suspects in the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. The FBI said it did not know for certain where most of the men came from, exactly where they lived in the United States or how old they were. Several had names so common in the Middle East that tracking them down might never be possible. If the hijackers used false names when they boarded American and United flights Tuesday morning, it might be even more difficult to ever discover their true identities.

One law officer in New Jersey, where two of the suspects were said to have lived, echoed the view of many struggling in the early days of the investigation.

To anyone looking for a quick explanation of what happened and why, the suspects left a faint trail.

"I don't know if these guys were supposed to be here two months or two years, but I searched and found no evidence that they were ever here," said Det. John Loertscher of the Wayne, N.J., Police Department.

There were, however, some tantalizing clues left behind.

A defense official said two of the hijackers were former Saudi fighter pilots who had studied in exchange programs at the Defense Language School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

One law enforcement source said investigators had already uncovered credit card charges for $50,000 worth of airplane tickets.

Three of the men lived as recently as last year in San Diego.

The FBI identified Nawaq Alhamzi as one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. A man by that name moved to the Parkwood Apartments in San Diego in 1999, according to manager Holly Ratchford. He settled into the neatly kept 187-unit complex, many of whose residents are Middle Easterners.

The manager said Alhamzi, polite and an "attractive guy," was cleanshaven, about 5 feet, 4 inches, with a thin build. He paid his rent on time and never caused trouble. He lived in his apartment with another man from the Middle East, Ratchford said. "There wasn't anything suspicious about him."

In the mornings, it was not uncommon for Alhamzi to stop by the rental office and say hello. He often chatted a bit and had coffee and cookies.

Alhamzi said he was a student, the manager said, but never elaborated about what or where he was studying. FBI agents visited the complex Friday morning. The agents asked about three other men who moved out last weekend.

"They always came in together and always left together," neighbor LaBaron Coker said of the three men. "I saw them moving out. They had a rental truck."

They used the pool, but only when no one else was there, neighbor Freddy Evans said. "They were strange. Three grown men playing in the pool like kids."

Alhamzi apparently moved from the Parkwood to a home in a quiet residential neighborhood just east of San Diego, where he and another suspect, Khalid Al-Midhar, rented rooms from Abdussattar Shaikh, who has been a member of the San Diego Citizens Police Review Board. Shaikh is a retired English professor at San Diego State University .

He was co-founder of San Diego's Islamic Center. He lives in a two-story beige house on a bluff overlooking Spring Valley in east San Diego County, at the end of a long rural road with no sidewalks. It's filled with books and pamphlets on Islam. It's a gathering place for young Middle Eastern men who share their culture and faith.

Alhamzi and Al-Midhar often talked about Islam and were homebodies, he said. Shaikh said Alhamzi lived with him from September to December.

"I met Nawaq at the Islamic Center in San Diego," Shaikh said. "He told me he was looking for a place to live, so I rented him a room. He was a loner, and he didn't talk much. I don't think he had any friends. While he lived with me, I never saw him use a telephone. I wondered if he had any family at all."

Alhamzi said he was from Saudi Arabia, Shaikh said. "He said he came here to [the U.S.] to learn English, but I didn't see him going to school very often," Shaikh said. "He told me he was taking English classes at a downtown language school.

"He told me that he wanted to marry a Mexican girl. He said that Mexican girls made good wives and Saudi men have taken Mexican girls to Saudi Arabia. The problem was that he didn't know any Spanish. So I taught him a few Spanish phrases, like, 'Que pasa.' "

Alhamzi said he was leaving to attend school in San Jose but called in January, saying he was in Arizona. "That's the last time I heard from him," Shaikh said.

Shaikh said the other hijack suspect, Al-Midhar, lived with him for about four weeks last September. "Khalid hardly spoke any English. He said he was from Saudi Arabia. . . . He and Nawaq were friends from childhood."

He shared a room with Nawaq Alhamzi.

"When Khalid left, he told me he was returning to Saudi Arabia, where he had a wife and children. After he left, I never heard from him again. . . . I never had any hint that they were going to do something this terrible. They never expressed dislike or hatred for America. I am very shocked."

In all, 12 of the 19 suspects named Friday, one more than in previous reports, were said by the FBI to have lived at one time in Florida. They appear to have lived in three separate locations. Members of the groups in each of the locations appear to have been separately responsible for individual hijackings. There is little at this point to tie one group to the others. This is in keeping with the common view among investigators that Islamic terrorists typically operate in individual cells, largely uninformed of other cells.

U.S. officials said all of the suspects appear to have entered the country legally. An emerging view within the intelligence community was that the hijackers had not arrived with the hijack plan intact but were recruited later or came as terrorist sympathizers pledged to help when asked.

Many of the suspects were Saudi nationals. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi fugitive believed to be harbored in Afghanistan, remains the prime suspect as the mastermind of the attacks.

Many of the best clues came from Florida, where several of the men received flight training and where they appear to have holed up in the weeks before the attacks. FBI agents worked along a 30-mile stretch of South Florida's Atlantic coast, collecting motel registrations, rental car records and other receipts.

At the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, they found an apparent treasure trove.

When owner Richard Surma took out the trash Monday morning, he discovered a stack of flight manuals for Boeing 757s, detailed aeronautical maps of Eastern states, a flight school tote bag and a protractor.

Surma, a graphic designer, rescued the discards, figuring he could use the protractor for his drawings. "The binder looked brand new and the tote bag was nice."

He assumed the stuff came from a room where two men, who had left abruptly Sunday, had been staying. When police canvassed the neighborhood following Tuesday's hijackings, Surma called an officer to tell him what he had found the day before.

Investigators searched the room, dusting for fingerprints. They took the aeronautical materials, the linens and other items. "It was like they didn't even need to take anything to the lab, because the lab came here," Surma said.

Twenty miles north in Boynton Beach, agents searched the room at the Homing Inn where Waleed M. Alshehri had stayed.

Alshehri, identified by the FBI as one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11, spent a month and four days at the hotel, said the owner, who requested anonymity. "Every time he came to pay, it was, 'Hi, how are you?' He was a normal guy. When he checked out, the room was clean and neat."

Alshehri's driver's license listed a permanent address at a seaside motel in Hollywood, Fla., the Bimini Motel. Joanne Solic, one of the Bimini's owners, said that one of the suspects shown in an FBI photo had stayed at her hotel with another Arab man all of May and a few days in late April.

"We don't get many from Saudi Arabia," she said. That country was listed on the registration card.

"They were nice kids--clean cut, nice looking and courteous," she said. "Lots of hellos and thank yous, though I don't think they spoke English too well."

The men had only a couple of suitcases, and the room they stayed in didn't have a phone, she said. They used the one down the hall.

In Pompano Beach at Warrick's Rent-a-Car, owner Brad Warrick said his company had rented cars to Mohamed Atta three times, beginning Aug. 6. The FBI said Alshehri and Atta were hijackers aboard the same American Airlines flight.

Atta showed a Florida driver's license with a Coral Springs address, a Visa card and an Allstate insurance card, Warrick said. Over the next month, he drove that car and another rental more than 3,000 miles.

Warrick was watching the news Wednesday when he saw authorities towing a car at Boston's Logan International Airport that they said was rented from a Coral Springs, Fla., address.

"I saw the picture on the screen and said, 'That guy looks familiar,' " Warrick said. "I called my office and asked if we had a customer named Mohamed Atta."

They did. He had the contract faxed to him at home and he called the FBI. The car had not been touched since it was returned by the suspects because it was due for an inspection and could not be rented again. "It was a clean, perfect item for the FBI to lift prints from.

"He [Atta] just seemed like a businessman--everything about him, his demeanor, the way he looked," Warrick said. "He would wear nice slacks and a polo shirt. He was articulate, spoke English very well. He seemed like he had been in the country for some time. He just seemed like an everyday, local guy."

_ _ _

Reza reported from San Diego and Halper from Florida. Times staff writers Bob Drogin, Alan C. Miller, Judy Pasternak, Paul Richter, Eric Lichtblau, Richard A. Serrano and David Willman in Washington, D.C.; Carol J. Williams in Hamburg, Germany; Edwin Chen and John-Thor Dahlburg in Florida; Phil Willon in San Diego; Tony Perry in New York; and Edward J. Boyer, Rich Connell, Robert J. Lopez, Matt Lait, Scott Glover, Greg Krikorian, Anna Gorman and Terry McDermott and researcher Nona Yates in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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