FBI Seeks Accomplices, Detains Potential Witnesses
Suspected Hijacker Took Md. Test Flights
By John Mintz and Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 17, 2001; Page A04
One of the men suspected of crashing American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon had flown over the Washington area in small planes at least three times over the past six weeks, according to law enforcement sources and officials at the Bowie flight school where instructors unwittingly accompanied him.
Hani Hanjour, who is in his mid-twenties, was seeking permission to rent a plane from Freeway Airport and took the flights to try to demonstrate his competence in the cockpit, said Marcel Bernard, chief flight instructor, and others connected with the flight school. But Freeway declined the rental because the instructors had doubts about Hanjour's abilities and he refused to provide an address and phone number. FBI agents have pursued numerous other leads in the Washington area, including a Laurel apartment complex, a Fairfax public library, a Dulles parking lot and dozens of hotels.
Meanwhile, details emerged about the FBI's failed attempts to locate two other hijackers of the same flight who had been placed on a watch list on Aug. 23 to be stopped at the U.S. border. CIA officials had alerted the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that the two were suspected associates of Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden. The CIA had already told the INS verbally of its concern two days earlier, on Aug. 21, officials said.
But a check of immigration records at that time revealed that Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi were already in the United States and had passed through Los Angeles International Airport on Saudi passports, U.S. officials said.
The pair gave phony destinations to U.S. immigration officials at the Los Angeles airport, and the FBI was unable to find the men over the next two weeks, officials said.
"Two weeks is not a lot of time to find two people in a country as big as ours," a government official said.
Al-Midhar had been spotted on a videotape provided to the CIA speaking with a man in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who was a suspect in last year's bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. The tape is another piece of circumstantial evidence linking the Sept. 11 attacks to bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the Cole bombing and has been labeled the prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks. The tape was made in January 2000, months before the Cole bombing, in which 17 sailors died, officials said.
Law enforcement and intelligence authorities scrambled yesterday to locate people who had assisted the suicide bombers and to assemble a sharper portrait of the 19 men the FBI says executed the terrorist strike.
Agents canvassed neighborhoods from Jersey City, N.J., to Laurel, pored over passenger lists for airline flights and watched people traveling by train.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft suggested that authorities are looking into whether bin Laden, the multimillionaire scion of a Saudi construction family, worked with other groups in the devastating attacks. "We are not limiting our investigation or our effort to any particular network," he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the investigation is now focused mostly on locating accomplices. "The most important thing is to go out and identify any potential threats and eliminate any threats," Tucker said.
Authorities said they took a man into custody in New York yesterday as a possible material witness, after the arrest of a man at Kennedy International Airport who was carrying a phony pilot's license. Another man also had been picked up as a material witness in recent days. And officials said two more such witnesses, who usually are considered important enough to affect the outcome of a case, were in custody.
Federal officials cited grand jury secrecy rules in refusing to provide details. Law enforcement officials are using a federal grand jury impaneled in Manhattan to take testimony in the matter.
Authorities investigating Tuesday's attack on the World Trade Center found a passport belonging to one of the hijackers three blocks from the demolished 110-story buildings, New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said. Officials declined to say to whom the passport was issued, but a government source said that it was a Saudi passport.
Moreover, law enforcement officials said they have a promising lead in the case of two men who were detained in Texas on Wednesday on possible immigration violations.
Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, 47, and Ayub Ali Khan, 51, were picked up Wednesday on an Amtrak train in Texas carrying $5,000 in cash, hair dye and box cutters, weapons thought to have been used by the hijackers.
Khan and Azmath had boarded a flight from Newark to San Antonio around the time of the attacks Tuesday morning. Their flight was forced to land in St. Louis when all U.S. flights were grounded after the attacks. They then boarded an Amtrak train for Texas.
After two days of questioning in Texas, the men were transported to New York for further interviews on the hijacking. The men have not been arrested but were detained on possible immigration violations.
Saturday afternoon FBI agents and police also searched the Jersey City apartment the two men had been sharing, located in the same neighborhood of some of the conspirators who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The men, both from India, had lived there for six or seven years, according to their landlord, Mohamad Abd Rabouh. On their rental application for the $480-a-month apartment, they said they worked at a stationery store in New York, said Rabouh.
According to Rabouh, Azmath was recently out of the country for several months. Neighbors said Azmath and Khan were seen nearly every day, leaving very early and coming home late, for the past several years until they disappeared about a week ago. Around noon Saturday, FBI agents and local police stormed the four-story apartment building where the men lived and took into custody two other men who were staying in Azmath and Khan's apartment.
Authorities arrested a third man, Abdoul Salam Achou, 37. Achou's wife, who is eight months pregnant, said her husband's visa application had expired on Sept. 1 but that he was staying for the birth of their baby. He is a delivery driver for a Paterson, N.J., bakery.
Investigators also detained three men in Elizabeth, N.J., who were carrying a large amount of cash and a one-way plane ticket to Syria. Ahmad Kilfat, 45, Mohammad Mahmoud Al Raqqad, 37, and Nicholas Makrakis, 27, were in a red Pontiac that matched an FBI description of a vehicle connected to the attacks.
The men were carrying bags that contained $9,900, several credit cards, phone records of calls to the Middle East and a plane ticket from Kennedy airport to Damascus.
In Minnesota, authorities gave scant details about a man who had been arrested on Aug. 17 for illegally entering the country. Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, 33, had been held by the INS at the Sherburne County jail in Elk River, Minn., until Sept. 14, when he was transferred by INS officials to an undisclosed location, officials said.
Europe 1 Radio in Paris reported that Moussaoui, described variously as being from France and Algeria, has been identified by French intelligence officials as a bin Laden operative, the Boston Herald reported. Moussaoui studied to become a pilot at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., earlier this year but generated suspicions and the INS check after he tried to buy training sessions on a commercial airline flight simulator in Eagan, Minn., news services reported.
Just hours after the attacks Tuesday, British police arrested a man arriving at London's Heathrow Airport from New York. Scotland Yard said the man was to be questioned under Britain's new Prevention of Terrorism Act, but it did not identify him.
London's Sunday Telegraph said the man was Mufti Mohammed Khan, a bin Laden associate from Pakistan, and that he had traveled to Britain to meet with allies in London and Birmingham. Khan was to be flown back to New York for questioning by the FBI, the Telegraph reported.
At the same time that authorities cracked down on the suspected terrorist operatives overseas, federal agents were pursuing leads in the Washington area.
FBI agents swarmed into Crestleigh Gardens, a Laurel apartment complex, going door-to-door last week asking neighbors if they recognized two men in photos that appeared to have been taken by a surveillance camera, residents said. The agents said the two men were dead.
The complex drew particular attention because it is home to a Muslim cleric who was identified by FBI agents in Dallas as one of more than 100 people the government is seeking to question in connection with the hijackings.
Moataz Al-Hallak has lived in Laurel and taught at a local Islamic school for about a year, but he first attracted FBI notice when he was an imam at a mosque in Arlington, Tex., after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In a court hearing in that case, a federal prosecutor described Al-Hallak as a conduit among members of the group organized by bin Laden's, the suspected sponsor of both the attacks on Tuesday and those in Africa. Al-Hallak has never been charged in the conspiracy.
Although authorities described Al-Hallak as missing, his attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, said his client has been at his home and workplace in Laurel since the hijackings, and Al-Hallak came to his door when a reporter knocked yesterday. He referred questions to Cohen.
Cohen said his client is not involved in terrorism and has cooperated with authorities, testifying three times before a federal grand jury in the embassy bombings case. "The specter of him being involved in any way, shape or form related to these events is insane," Cohen said.
Cohen said his client has several connections to bin Laden, but he described them as attenuated. The cleric once sent money to a member of his Texas congregation in Sudan who was later convicted in the embassy bombings. Cohen said his client also put another congregant in touch with a pilot who later flew a plane from the United States to Sudan, where it was sold to a bin Laden-controlled operation.
Hanjour, the man who flew planes in Bowie, obtained his pilot's license in April 1999, but it expired six months later because he failed to complete a required medical exam. He also received flight training for a few months at a private school in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1996 but did not finish the course because his instructors thought he was not proficient.
The Freeway instructors also were skeptical of Hanjour's skills. "They told me he flew so poorly that they were not willing to give him an endorsement to fly our planes," Bernard said.
Hanjour's two instructors did not return calls and were not home yesterday, but Ann Conner, the mother of one of them, said her 19-year-old son, Benjamin, went aloft twice with Hanjour. They flew the school's routine flight path -- in half-hour to hour-long segments in oblong loops over the airport -- and did not stray into the restricted airspace over the Pentagon, flight instructor Bernard said.
Hanjour "didn't say hardly anything," Ann Conner said after her son told her he had been interviewed by authorities. "His piloting skills were terrible, considering" he was licensed to fly multi-engine planes. "He didn't talk at all, no routine chit-chat."
Staff writers Justin Blum, Dan Eggen, Michael A. Fletcher, Maria Glod, Bill Miller, Robert E. Pierre, Hanna Rosin, Michael D. Shear, Mary Beth Sheridan, Leef Smith and Cheryl W. Thompson and correspondents DeNeen L. Brown in Toronto, T.R. Reid in London and Reem Haddad in Beirut contributed to this report.