JFK Detentions Described as 'Overreaction'
Dan Eggen and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 14, 2001; 10:10 AM
Authorities detained two groups at New York airports yesterday, fearing they intended to hijack a pair of jetliners and mount another suicidal terrorist strike on a U.S. target, government officials said.
By this morning, several federal officials said the detentions of 10 people at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports--which came after storming of the plane and the closing of the airports--appeared to have been an overreaction. A senior law enforcement official said most of the detained suspects had been released by early today.
While initially it was believed that the individuals in both groups carried knives and false identification, it is now believed that none of those detained was armed, the official said. "There was no second wave of terrorism." One federal official said authorities have been erring on the side of caution and have stopped some people on the slightest evidence. This official said that the approach resulted from the pressure of trying to solve the earlier crimes while also preventing future ones.
Jim Hunter, a passenger on an American Airlines flight scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport for Los Angeles yesterday, said officers with guns drawn stormed the flight from the front and rear about 8 p.m. They handcuffed and removed three people after ordering all passengers to the floor. The flight was canceled.
The FBI said yesterday it had identified at least 18 hijackers who had conducted Tuesday's suicidal assaults. Sixteen of the men have been directly or indirectly linked to the terrorist network run by Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, according to a government source.
Authorities expanded their hunt for accomplices of the hijackers, a quest that now stretches to Germany, where police said they were tracking alleged members of a cell created by the terrorists responsible for Tuesday's assaults.
Early this morning, shortly after midnight, FBI agents, along with local and state police, went to the Thunderbird Hotel in Seaide Heights, in Ocean County, N.J. They are received a "reliable tip" that one or more of the associates of the Tuesday hijackers may have been hiding out at the hotel, said Sandra J. Carroll, spokesman for the FBI's Newark office. Details were still coming in, Carroll said, and she did not know if the agents found anyone there.
Carroll said the FBI is "actively looking" for numerous people, believed to be up to 50, who are associated with the Tuesday hijackers.
An FBI source said that investigators believe the hijacker group did have some presence in New Jersey, possibly obtaining their pilots' licenses in the state.
A coordinated and long-running conspiracy, authorities believe, led to the attacks that killed thousands. The teams that hijacked the four jetliners Tuesday include men with pilots' licenses, men who claimed affiliations with airlines, a man believed to be the son of a Saudi diplomat and family men who recently sent close relatives back to the Middle East.
In Tuesday's attacks, five hijackers each commandeered American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, two planes that originated in Boston and plunged into the World Trade Center, according to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
The other two planes - United Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., and American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport, which hit the Pentagon - were hijacked by four terrorists each, Mueller said.
Justice officials have said at least one hijacker on each plane received flight training in the United States.
Sifting through thousands of tips and conducting hundreds of searches and interviews, more than 7,000 federal investigators are rapidly assembling a portrait of a conspiracy involving a close-knit network of Middle Eastern men who used the expertise available in U.S. aviation schools to carry out the audacious attacks on two venerable symbols of American power.
Several received their final flight training and practice runs in Florida, including two who had forged a terrorist group while living in Hamburg. Some of the Florida-based hijackers sent their families home to the Middle East shortly before this week's attacks, in some cases throwing out all their belongings just before they left.
One of those who lived at times in Florida and Vienna, Va., was believed to be the son of a wealthy Saudi diplomat.
Piecing together the last moves of the hijackers, officials in New England determined that several of the terrorists crossed into Maine from Canada through a pair of remote border crossings, while at least one other took a ferry to Maine from Nova Scotia. At least two crossed the border at Coburn Gore, Maine, where one immigration inspector typically handles all traffic on a two-lane road.
German police raided an apartment in Hamburg yesterday and launched a hunt for alleged friends or associates of the hijackers. Working through a list of names sent by the FBI, German authorities discovered that at least two of the hijackers had lived in Hamburg until they departed for the United States in May.
The two, Mohammed Atta and Marwan Shehhi, studied electronics and construction engineering at a local university and occupied a second-floor apartment where groups of 20 men met regularly into the night, authorities said.
Kay Nehm, chief federal prosecutor, said Atta and Shehhi formed a terrorist cell to launch "spectacular attacks" on U.S. institutions. Authorities are investigating whether a third roommate participated in Tuesday's attacks. Other associates left the country, said German authorities, who are trying to learn their destinations.
Atta, 33, died on American Airlines Flight 11. Shehhi was killed on United Airlines Flight 175, which also slammed into the World Trade Center. Reinhard Wagner, chief of Hamburg's domestic intelligence service, said Osama bin Laden's fundraisers have been active in the city's community of hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists.
Back in the United States, the police chief in Portland, Maine, Michael Chitwood, said two of the suspected hijackers spent the night before the attack at a Comfort Inn in South Portland, where a billboard now says, "God Bless America." He said the FBI believes the two were Atta and Abdulrahman Omari.
A Portland Jetport video camera recorded the two passing through a security checkpoint at 5:53 a.m. Tuesday. They boarded a 6 a.m. US Airways Flight 5930 bound for Boston.
"These guys have been in this area more than one time. The question is, how long have they been going back and forth?" asked Chitwood.
Outside the Portland airport, Chitwood said, investigators seized a Nissan Altima that had been rented in Boston and contained maps of the city in the back seat. A cigarette butt found near the car was taken for DNA testing, Chitwood said.
In Bangor, north of Portland, investigators questioned executives at a cell phone company after four men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin tried to acquire cell phones at a retail store last weekend.
At Logan Airport in Boston, investigators discovered a bag apparently left behind by Atta on Tuesday. A source familiar with the investigation said the bag contained a Saudi passport, an international driver's license, instructional videos for flying Boeing airliners and an Islamic prayer schedule.
An airport official confirmed yesterday that garage cameras show that a white Mitsubishi sedan, rented in Springfield, Mass., and seized Tuesday, had been in and out of the airport multiple times, suggesting that the hijackers had been surveying it.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, investigators recovered one "black box," a flight data recorder, from the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a rural area outside Pittsburgh after it was taken over by hijackers. In Northern Virginia, investigators were homing in on a signal emitted from one of the black boxes in the Pentagon wreckage.
The flight data recorder could provide the first solid evidence of exactly what happened before the airliner crashed. But FBI Special Agent Bill Crowley said investigators are still searching for the cockpit voice recorder, which might provide details of cell phone calls from passengers of the doomed plane to relatives, in which they suggested that they might try to overpower the hijackers.
Investigators also found small pieces of wreckage yesterday as far as eight miles from the crash site in southwestern Pennsylvania - much farther than previously discovered. An explosion has not been ruled out, Crowley said.
About 60 miles north of Pittsburgh, near New Castle, Pa., agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms searched the home of radiologist Basem Moustafa Hussein and later impounded his automobile in a lot at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, according to local officials. Hussein's car had been dropped off at the airport on Sept. 2, according to Allegheny County Police Superintendent Kenneth Fulton, who said his officers secured the vehicle at the request of the FBI late Tuesday night.
In Arkansas, a man named Idi Omar was detained by FBI agents in Fort Smith for immigration violations Wednesday night, local officials told reporters for Knight-Ridder. An FBI bulletin to police sought Omar for questioning in the plane attacks, and sought his car.
Sources said yesterday that the FBI had not yet determined where the hijackers stayed before boarding American Flight 77 at Dulles. FBI agents are trying to track friends and associates of the Dulles hijackers, looking for people who may have provided cash and false identity documents to the terrorists, one law enforcement source said.
Some hotels were asked to provide copies of registration and credit card records and make the tapes from surveillance cameras available.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company