UNRAVELING THE PLOT: The terrorists left a twisting trail
Some laid low, while others took strange risks
September 22, 2001
BY TOM INFIELD, DANIEL RUBIN ANDMARK FAZLOLLAH
They left only fleeting snapshots of themselves -- everyday images now burned into the memories of people horrified to discover that they had brushed shoulders with terrorists.
The 19 men listed by the FBI as the hijackers in the Sept. 11 assault on the United States had been in and out of the country for years, moving unbothered.
Investigators may need months, even years, to unravel the scope of the vast, intricate plot -- apparentlyyears in the making, yet executed in 1 hour and 41 minutes from the first takeoff to the final target hit by a suicide plane.
The story of the suspects is a maze of sketchy records, aliases and phony names. Even now, the FBI is uncertain about the real identities of all the hijackers, leaving agents to work from the list assembled from flight records.
There were Ahmed Alnami, 23, and Saeed Alghamdi, 21, who stopped at the Mile High travel agency in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., on Sept. 5 to book a flight to Newark, N.J., four days later, just before the attacks. An employee at the agency remembers them as real bargain hunters. They found a terrific buy: one-way fares of $139.75 each with just two days' advance purchase.
There were the four men in their early 20s with accents and an aloof manner who shared an apartment this summer in Delray Beach, Fla. Neighbor Stacy Warm thought they were drug dealers because they came and went at odd hours, carrying bags. "They were extremely unfriendly," she said.
Then there was Mohamed Atta, 33, described as intellectual and clear-thinking by a professor at a German university where he wrote an A-plus thesis.
Among the remembered images of the 19 hijackers, there is at least one real snapshot: a color photograph taken from a security camera at the Portland, Maine, airport at 5:45 a.m. Sept. 11, the morning of the attacks.
It shows Atta and a man believed to be Abdulaziz Alomari just after they passed through metal detectors. They were bound from Portland to Boston, where at 7:45 a.m. they would board American Airlines Flight 11 -- the first plane to crash into New York's World Trade Center towers. Investigators speculate that they went to Portland first because they believed it was easier to get through security there.
Many of the clues are murky. Investigators say some of the hijackers used the identities of other people, living or dead, in Saudi Arabia.
But what's clear is that the terrorists waited patiently for monthsbefore carrying out the acts that claimed more than 6,000 lives.
In the months and years prior to the attacks, the hijackers moved around like typical students or low-wage workers. Investigators have picked up their trail in Florida, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan and Virginia.
The trail also has led to Hamburg, Germany, where three of them attended universities in the late 1990s. Among them was Atta.
Older and better educated than others accused in the hijacking, Atta, 33, appears to have carried himself as something of a leader within the group.
Described as an extremely serious student at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, he produced a 152-page thesis on the renewal of the old quarter of Aleppa, Syria, that showed him to be a "well-reasoning person," said his academic adviser, Dittmar Machule.
Atta's thesis called for Christians, Jews and Muslims to live together, Machule said. But a passage from the Koran, cited on the second page, now leaps out. It says: "Speak: My prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death belong to Allah. The lord of the worlds."
Hamburg, a major German port city that was virtually destroyed by Allied firebombing in World War II, also attracted Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrahi.
Jarrahi attended the Hamburg College of Applied Science, studying aircraft construction. Al-Shehhi joined Atta at the Technical University.
Hundreds of investigators have descended on Hamburg since learning that the three men had lived there between December 1998 and February 2000 in a furnished three-room apartment at Marienstrasse 54.
A key piece of the puzzle is the man who signed the apartment lease: 26-year-old Said Bahaji, a German citizen of Moroccan ancestry and an engineering student at the Technical University.
On Friday, international warrants were issued for Bahaji and Ramzi Binalshibh, a 29-year-old Yemeni. Kay Nehm, Germany's chief prosecutor, said both are wanted for "building a terrorist organization."
Neighbors of the three-room apartment noted how little noise the men made, even when as many as 20 people visited. Men would come and read the Koran, leaving their shoes outside the door.
One neighbor's curiosity got the better of her. Each night about 10:15, Monika van Minden stood at her kitchen window, smoking a cigarette.
The 52-year-old housewife gazed across the narrow street at the men in their second-floor apartment, furnished with little more than computers, and saw them sitting in a circle, drawing on sheets of paper. They then tacked the sheets to walls. When they caught her watching, they hung blinds.
The captors of American Airlines Flight 11, the first to crash into the World Trade Center, at 8:45 a.m., appeared to have gone to the greatest lengths to guarantee a smooth operation.
Four of the five had undergone pilot training in the United States. They also took the precaution of flying into metropolitan Boston from the smaller, less-scrutinized airfield in Portland.
But their plan almost went awry at the last minute.
Before the 7:45 a.m. takeoff of Flight 11, Atta and Alomari were seated in Row 8 of the Boeing 767, ostensibly bound for Los Angeles.
The three other men -- Satam al-Suqami and brothers Waleed and Wail Alshehri -- were also on board, but must have still been sweating. They, too, were supposed to originate in Portland, but had missed the flight. They had rented a car and driven the 107 miles to Logan Airport.
When they arrived, they got into a fight with another motorist over a parking space. Boston police got involved, and the three barely made the flight.
The known story of how they came together Sept. 11 begins years earlier, mostly in Florida.
They often stayed in cheap hotels. They kept to themselves. In April, though, Atta was ticketed in Florida for driving without a license. When he didn't show up, an arrest warrant was issued.
The hijackers led Islamic lives, at least outwardly, but also appeared to take in Western decadence. There were stories of them carousing at Florida bars. One of the Flight 11 hijackers may have left a copy of the Koran at a strip club in Daytona Beach. At least some of the 19 appeared to have gambled in Las Vegas.
While in Florida in May and June, Atta lived at the Tara Gardens apartment complex in Coral Springs. Diana Padilla, who lived upstairs, recalled: "You would say hello to him and nothing -- no reaction."
Atta hung around mainly with Marwan al-Shehhi, who would be named as a hijacker of United Airlines Flight 175, the plane out of Boston that hit the south tower of the World Trade Center.
They took pilot training together at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., then enrolled in two three-hour courses at SinCenter Inc., in Opa-locka, Fla.
At the Opa-locka school, they trained on a Boeing 727 full-motion flight simulator and concentrated on turns. They did not learn to land.
Another suspect, Waleed Alshehri, moved to the Bimini Hotel on Hollywood Beach last spring. His brother also stayed there.
They were "nice, quiet, in old jeans and T-shirts," said the hotel's owner, Joanne Solick. She said they told her they were in town to get pilot's licenses.
Al Suqami, about whom little is known, had lived in Canada, and was the nonpilot in the Flight 11 group. Alomari had lived in Vero Beach, Fla., with a wife and four children.
Hank Habora, who lived across the street, remembered that the Alomari family seemed to go through one van after another.
Habora found that odd, but shrugged it off. After all, he said, "they always kept their lawns mowed. And they shot off the most fireworks on the block on the Fourth of July."
Fifteen minutes after American Flight 11 left Boston, United Airlines Flight 175 lifted off from the same airport. Like the earlier flight, the Boeing 767 was Los Angeles-bound. But it became the second jetliner flown into the World Trade Center towers.
Investigators say Marwan al-Shehhi lived at a rooming house in a Virginia suburb of Washington. Justice Department documents list three Virginia addresses that some of the hijackers may have used.
Like nearly all the hijackers, the Flight 175 suspects -- identified, besides al-Shehhi, as Ahmed Alghamdi, Mohald Alshehri, Hamza Alghamdi and Fayez Ahmed -- left tracks in Florida.
With a fast-growing and international population, Florida is one of the easiest states in which to acquire a driver's license. It also has an array of flying schools.
While in Florida, the eventual hijacking suspects did research on public library computers. One library was in Delray Beach, where director John Callahan recalled them putting their names on sign-in sheets.
While Marwan al-Shehhi and Atta were taking lessons from Huffman Aviation beginning in July 2000, they paid $15 a day to stay in one room of the house in Venice owned by Charlie Voss and his wife, Dru.
Federal officials estimated last week that the terrorist operation might have cost as much as $200,000, though some investigators suggest it may have been done far more cheaply. Whatever the case, much of the money sure didn't go into living expenses.
From Aug. 26 to Sept. 9, just before the attacks, al Shehhi and an unidentified man rented a cheap room at the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Owner Richard Surma said they were good tenants. "No noise, no loud music," he said.
They paid $250 a week in cash. After they left, Surma found a canvas tote bag in a motel trash bin. Inside the bag, he found an instruction manual for flying a Boeing 757, a German-English dictionary, a fuel tester and maps of the eastern United States.
It seemed odd, but he thought nothing further of it.
In Laurel, Md., tucked away in a downscale motel, the men suspected of commandeering American Airlines Flight 77 and crashing it into the Pentagon lived out their final days.
At least two -- and possibly all five -- bunked together in Room 343 at the Valencia Motel, an 80-unit complex with an orange and brown stone faade. Rooms are rented by the week or longer.
Manager Rakesh Shah said he rented the room to them from Aug. 23 to Sept. 11. That morning, Flight 77 was to leave at 8:10 from Dulles airport, headed to Los Angeles. The men paid their $308 bill with a credit card.
One of the men, Khalid Al-Midhar, had reportedly been seen last year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, meeting a suspect in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. Seventeen U.S. servicemen were killed in the attack off the coast of Yemen in October 2000.
Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi lived for a time last year in San Diego.
Sometime over the summer, Alhamzi -- along with Salem Alhamzi, another of the men aboard Flight 77 -- left a trail in Ft. Lee, N.J., near New York City. For $60, they rented a mail box at a Mailboxes, Etc. store in a mall, law enforcement officials say.
Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi each were on a U.S. watch list of suspected terrorists. The lists are supposed to warn law enforcement. If the men had been found, they might have been placed on 24-hour surveillance.
But they kept to themselves. Gail North, a housekeeper who used to work at the Valencia, said she was never allowed inside their room to change the towels. They passed the soiled ones to her through a crack in the door.
Hani Hanjour, possibly the pilot of Flight 77, took lessons last month at the Freeway Airport in Bowie, Md. But after he made some awkward loops over the airport and the Chesapeake Bay, the instructors refused to pass him.
The Pentagon suspects, or at least several of them, were last seen in Laurel on Sept. 10, packing their car around 10 a.m. outside the Valencia Motel.
Twenty-three hours later, at 9:29 a.m., Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
The fourth hijacked jetliner was United Flight 93, a Boeing 757 that took off from Newark, N.J., at 8:01 a.m. and was in the air for an hour and nine minutes before crashing into the countryside of rural Pennsylvania.
On board was another member of the Hamburg cell: Ziad Jarrahi, who is thought to have been at the helm.
Jarrahi grew up in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, which in the 1980s was the base of Iranian- and Syrian-backed terrorist groups that attacked U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.
In 1997, he went to study aircraft engineering at Hamburg's University of Applied Sciences. He soon found a girlfriend, Aysle Senguen, 25, a Turkish medical student.
After the hijackings, she told the newspaper Bild that Jarrahi had grown stern with her about her modern ways.
"In the end," she said, "Ziad and I were fighting a lot. He wanted me to wear a head scarf. I wasn't allowed to listen to Western music and shouldn't go to parties anymore. All of a sudden, he wanted me to live strictly according to the Islam."
Last April, Jarrahi showed up in Florida. He lived in a furnished, one-bedroom apartment until June 23. His roommate was Ahmed Alhaznawi, who also was aboard Flight 93.
Jarrahi also may have had Florida contacts with the others accused of hijacking Flight 93: Saeed Alghamdi, 21, and Ahmed Alnami, 23, the men who took the $139.75 flight to Newark on Sept. 9.
Jarrahi got a Florida driver's license in May. He bought a red 1990 Mitsubishi, and registered it at the Hollywood apartment, which rented for $165 a week.
From Hollywood, Jarrahi and Alhaznawi moved to the house in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Their landlord said the pair gave him what appeared to be German passports as identification.
"They said they were pilots taking flying lessons at one of the airports around here," said landlord Charles Lisa. "They had quite a few visitors who used to walk up to the apartment.
"When they left, I asked them for a forwarding address. But Ahmed just smiled at me and said, 'I'll send you a postcard.' "