Officials scour U.S. for clues
Hijack suspects received flight training in Florida
The investigation into the monumental terrorist assaults in New York and Washington wound through manicured Florida towns Wednesday, leading FBI agents to flight schools for private pilots and other unlikely hatching grounds for the deadliest attacks in U.S. history.
Taking few chances after a coordinated assault that leaders depicted as an act of war rather than a mere crime, the FBI unleashed more than 4,000 agents on every aspect of the disaster, sifting through debris and tracking down the killers’ origins. They stormed a hotel in Boston, interviewed bookkeepers and landlords, and detained several people after finding they were in the country illegally.
“The Department of Justice has undertaken perhaps the most massive and intensive investigation ever conducted in America,” Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said. “The full resources of the FBI, the Justice Department‘s Criminal Division, the U.S. attorney’s offices, the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and other components have been brought to bear.”
The hunt, however, was made harder by the ghostly nature of the quarry. The perpetrators were gone, buried amid the smoldering rubble along with thousands of victims.
Shortly after the crashes, authorities had spoken tentatively about the possible role of Osama bin Laden, the Afghan resident whom U.S. officials portray as a terrorist mastermind. By late Wednesday, they were speaking openly of his role in the attack, though they stopped short of a definitive accusation.
The investigation is far from complete. A sketchy picture was emerging Wednesday of up to 24 individuals–three to six on each plane. Some of those under investigation received pilot training in Florida and lived there for at least a few months before disappearing abruptly.
Four people being investigated by the FBI were identified as Amer Kamfar, Adnan Bukhari, Mohammed Atta and Marwal Al-Shehhi.
Vero Beach, a quiet town on Florida’s Treasure Coast a few miles north of West Palm Beach, was the home of Kamfar and Bukhari.
Kamfar’s behavior had been suspicious enough that his neighbor, Piper Aircraft employee Henry Habora, called the FBI at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to report it. Kamfar, Habora said, kept unusual hours and wore a pilot’s uniform. Then, two weeks ago, Kamfar quickly left with his wife and four children.
“They basically dumped everything that they had in their van and took off,” Habora said in an interview. “They were good neighbors. They were quiet.”
The FBI, which has been combing the passenger manifests of all four planes, was already focused on Kamfar by the time Habora called. About eight agents quickly arrived at Habora’s door with a photo of Kamfar and asked if it was the same person.
Bukhari, who was Kamfar’s neighbor, rented a house from Margaret and Paul Stimeling for 14 months.
When the Stimelings visited the house where Bukhari and his family had lived Wednesday, they were gone and their possessions were in boxes. Margaret Stimeling said the FBI questioned her husband about Bukhari’s background and whereabouts.
Both Kamfar and Bukhari were employees of the Saudi Arabian national airline, Margaret Stimeling said, and Bukhari’s license, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, bears that out.
Acquaintances said both men were attending Flight Safety International in Vero Beach.
“At least one person on each plane had attended flight school in the United States,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. “Some of them did have commercial pilot’s licenses. That involves more than one flight school in more than one state.”
In another Florida town, Coral Springs, investigators focused on Atta, searching his apartment Tuesday night.
A neighbor of Atta’s said the building’s condominiums are rented by the month. There is little scrutiny of tenants, he said, and anyone with $800 rent and a $200 deposit could move in the same day they applied at the office.
Atta also lived briefly in Venice, Fla., along with another man who apparently was his cousin, Al-Shehhi.
Drew and Charlie Voss rented a room to the two men for a week last summer, charging $17 a day apiece.
“I couldn’t handle them no longer than a week,” Drew Voss said in an interview. “I didn’t like their attitude. They wasn’t one to sit down and talk to you. They kind of blew you off if you tried to find out anything.”
Both men were in their 30s, Voss said. “They dressed casual,” she added. “They dressed nice. They had bought a car and they used our address.”
That is apparently how the FBI traced Atta and Al-Shehhi to Florida. Agents found the car, a 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix, at Logan International Airport in Boston, where two of the hijacked flights originated.
Atta and Al-Shehhi had also trained to become pilots in Florida, studying for six months at Huffman Aviation International Inc.
Rudy Dekkers, owner of Huffman aviation, told CNN that FBI agents indicated to his employees that the two were “prime suspects.”
Atta, or someone with the same name, is on the government’s “watch list,” meaning he has been associated with terrorist organizations, said Vince Cannistraro, the former counterterrorism chief of the CIA.
Atta and Al-Shehhi also lived for a time in Hollywood, Fla., just south of Ft. Lauderdale. FBI agents circulated pictures of the two among restaurant and motel workers Wednesday, telling them the men were on board one of the hijacked flights.
Among the restaurants was one called Shuckums. Night manager Tony Amos said he recognized both photos, and that the men visited his establishment Friday, appearing drunk and unruly.
Amos said he asked the men if they could afford the $48 liquor bill, and one of them became angry and pulled out a thick roll of cash.
“He said, `I’m a pilot from American Airlines, and I can afford to pay my bill,'” according to bartender Patricia Edrissi.
Feverish activity also centered on Boston, where the two fateful flights that crashed into the World Trade Center originated.
Late Tuesday night, Boston FBI agents seized a Mitsubishi Mirage with Virginia plates, rented from National Car Rental and abandoned in a Logan underground garage. According to the Boston Herald, the car contained flight training manuals in Arabic.
Two men reportedly linked to the car were brothers who held passports issued by the United Arab Emirates. The brothers were believed to have boarded Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.
Investigators believe two of the suspects rented a blue Nissan Altima in Boston, then drove to Portland, Maine. Once there, the two boarded a 6 a.m. US Airways flight back to Boston, leaving the car in Portland. Police there said airport security cameras captured the two passing through a security check and that each carried a medium-size shoulder bag.
Police in Portland seized the rented blue Nissan Altima with Massachusetts plates, abandoned by the two suspects in an airport parking lot. The men were believed to have crossed the border from Canada, then taken the 19-seat flight to Boston.
Heavily armed FBI agents and Boston police also searched the Westin-Copley Hotel in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, evacuating the hotel as well as the neighboring Boston Public Library. At another hotel in Newton, Mass., investigators reportedly found a 767 flight manual.
Details also emerged Wednesday about the hijackings. Ashcroft said the hijackers used knives and box-cutters, and in some instances made bomb threats. He also said that the hijackers were planning to go after the president, or at least the symbols of presidential power.
“Our government has credible evidence that the White House and Air Force One were targets,” Ashcroft said.
The investigation is continuing at a rapid pace. About a dozen search warrants have been executed in Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey, the Justice Department said, as well as other states that have not been identified.
The crash site in New York remained unworkable for FBI agents Wednesday night because of the debris.
The planes’ “black boxes,” or flight data and cockpit voice recorders, had not been recovered at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, Tucker said, adding that she was not certain about the black boxes of the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau’s first mission is to identify the hijackers, and that many of them have been identified. The second goal, Mueller said, is to gather information about those who assisted the hijackers, in the United States and overseas.
Officials moved closer to naming bin Laden’s organization as the culprit. According to one senator who was briefed by the administration, there is evidence that at least some of those who trained in a Florida flight school are associated with the bin Laden network.
“I’m sure that the Taliban leadership are providing protection and opportunity, facilities for Osama bin Laden,” Powell told reporters. “But I don’t want to get into the hypotheticals as to whether or not he is responsible for it. A body of evidence is being developed.”