Armed suspects nabbed at N.Y. airports: SWAT team storms plane at JFK, stopping apparent hijack attempt
by Tom Farmer, Maggie Mulvihill and Jack Sullivan
Friday, September 14, 2001
A SWAT team stormed the first jetliner set to resume flying from John F. Kennedy Internatonal Airport in New York City yesterday and captured three armed foreign nationals authorities feared were launching a second wave of terrorist hijackings.
The chilling action on American Airlines Flight 133 to Los Angeles came after a man who tried to use a fake pilot's identification to get past security at JFK was arrested at the gate after clearing security checkpoints. He was set to board American Airlines Flight 299 bound for San Jose.
He had originally been booked for a Tuesday morning flight to Los Angeles that was canceled after the terrorist attacks began, the Associated Press reported.
A subsequent strip search found the man had a pilot's certificate from the same Vero Beach, Fla., school allegedly used by one of Tuesday's hijackers, the source said.
A woman was also arrested at JFK, but it was unclear how she was connected with the four men.
Only hours later, a second group of five men were nabbed at La Guardia Airport in New York and authorities fear they, too, were intent on capturing that aircraft.
The New York Post and ABC News reported that some of the men in both groups were carrying false identification, knives or penknives.
Some of those taken into custody had numerous airline tickets to other destinations, including tickets dated for flights to Los Angeles Tuesday that were canceled after two hijacked jetliners out of Boston crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Post and ABC reported.
``It has all the characteristics of the other attacks, so that's what we think it is,'' one investigator told the Post.
A passenger on Flight 133, Jim Hunter of California, told ABC's ``Nightline'' the plane was sitting on the runway for about two hours when the pilot announced they were just about ready to depart.
Moments later, a SWAT team stormed through a door up the aisles and grabbed a male passenger behind him after a scuffle. Soon after that, two other males seated near him were approached by police and hauled off.
`Everyone on the plane was obviously scared,'' he said.
Passengers were ordered to get down and the woman next to him curled into a fetal position on the floor, Hunter said. Overall, he said, ``there was not a lot of crying or carrying on . . . Everyone was relatively calm.''
After the three men were taken away, he said, bomb-sniffing dogs entered the aircraft. Passengers, at that point calmed by the flight crew, played with the dogs as they passed, Hunter said.
All the men and the lone woman were being held in federal custody last night, according to New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
Some were citizens of Arab countries, Kerik said.
At least some of the men were on the FBI's ``watch list,'' according to CBS News.
Federal agents reportedly confronted them because their assumed names had been red-tagged by FBI investigators tracking the terrorist organization that Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed yesterday as being connected to renegade Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered both those airports, as well as Newark, N.J., closed to all travel last night.
The New York airport incidents came after Powell promised a sustained campaign of retaliation against bin Laden's Afghanistan-based terrorist network.
And last night U.S. and Philippine authorities raided a hotel in the Philippines in connection with the terrorist attacks in the United States, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo said.
Arroyo, speaking at a Tokyo news conference, said the ``joint action'' was taken at the Bayview Hotel, which is near the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Arroyo did not elaborate.
In 1995, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was arrested at the Bayview. Arroyo said evidence from that case has been handed over to the United States, but it was unclear whether there was any connection.
Meanwhile, the worldwide hunt continued for conspirators who aided the hijackers in commandeering four commercial flights Tuesday in the sneak attacks on New York and Washington.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said 18 hijackers formed two teams of five and two teams of four.
They seized control of American Airlines and United Airlines flights out of Boston, which were crashed into New York's twin towers, an American Airlines flight out of Dulles Airport in Washington that slammed into the Pentagon, and a United Airlines flight out of Newark, N.J., that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Authorities said they believe the terrorists were going to crash the plane in Washington but passengers may have downed the plane, while possibly fighting back.
CNN reported a debris field was found 6 miles from the Shanksville crash site.
One of the plane's two black boxes was found yesterday.
A signal for a black box from the Pentagon crash was detected.
Ashcroft said more than 30 terrorists who infiltrated the U.S. assisted the 18 hijackers and about 10 have not been accounted for.
Authorities believe at least 27 terrorists involved in the plot had received pilot training, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Many of the conspirators left behind suicide notes to their families in dwellings and cars searched by investigators, they said.
The vast search to uncover the terrorist plot stretched from Miami to Boston, to Portland, Maine, and on to Canada and Germany, where nearly a dozen apartments were raided in Hamburg where some of the hijackers had lived before moving to Florida for pilot training.
Two of the men who lived in Germany have been identified as Marwan Alshehhi, 23, and Mohamed Atta, 33, both hijackers aboard planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci said FBI agents are working with Royal Canadian Mounted Police to determine how the hijackers were able to penetrate the U.S. through Canada.
``Every lead is being followed and the Canadians are cooperating fully,'' said Cellucci, the former Massachusetts governor.
``This is a staggering thing that's happened to our country.''
Cellucci said ``it remains to be seen'' exactly how the terrorists got into the country but called for more uniform immigration laws between the U.S. and Canada.
``The idea we're going to catch these people at the border, it's a little like a needle in a haystack,'' he said.
``We need to have the intelligence ahead of time and stop these people ahead of time.''
In Neshannock Township, just outside Pittsburgh, investigators targeted two Arabic-speaking men, including a doctor, who they stopped short of calling suspects.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, they combed the apartment of Basem Mustafa Hussein, 35, a neuroradiologist who studied at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh from 1997 to 1999.
Investigators discovered commercial jet flight manuals and computer software as well as deep scorches on the kitchen counter.
Neighbors said Hussein, who rarely spoke or socialized with other residents, regularly received ``shoe box-'' sized packages delivered to the apartment.
FBI agents found Hussein's car at Pittsburgh International Airport and traced him to New Mexico, where he has another home in the city of Gallup and is a part-time doctor in the Navajo reservation.
Pittsburgh FBI agents also put out an alert for a car believed to be heading to Canada being driven by Subranabya Sunararajan, a 51-year-old Pakistani national.
They would not comment on why he was being sought.
Sunararajan was believed to be heading for Quebec and driving a red Pontiac Grand Am from Alamo rental cars with the Pennsylvania license plate DRN-4860.
A man living in Everett questioned by state police and INS officials on Wednesday was living here illegally and will be deported, sources said.
The three people detained from Boston's Westin-Copley hotel were not connected to the terrorists and were released after being questioned Wednesday, sources said.
Authorities were led to them because one of the hotel guests had the same name as one of the hijackers, sources said.
The Nashua Telegraph reported the two jets hijacked out of Boston nearly collided near Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y., about 55 miles north of New York City.
The paper, quoting an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration regional control center in Nashua, said American Airlines Flight 11 was ``just flying around, doing what it wanted.''
A controller soon realized the jet had been hijacked when the plane's captain, John Ogonowski, of Dracut keyed his microphone and the controller heard someone say, ``Nobody do anything stupid,'' and no one would get hurt.
The FAA source said an F-16 fighter shadowed the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania, making 360-degree turns to stay with the Boeing 757.
The Pentagon plans to call up several thousand reservists to active duty in the next few days in the start of an expected larger mobilization that could reach 40,000, the Washington Post reported.
Cosmo Macero Jr. and Herald wire services contributed to this report.