The Hijackers We Let Escape
Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman report.
Alhazmi and Almihdhar lived openly in the United States, using their real names, obtaining driver’s licences, opening bank accounts and enrolling in flight schools ? until the morning of September 11, when they walked aboard American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon.
Free to do as they pleased, the 25-year-old Alhazmi and 26-year-old Almihdhar went about their terrorist training in southern California. They told people they were buddies from Saudi Arabia hoping to learn English and become commercial airline pilots. The clean-shaven Alhazmi and Almihdhar played soccer in the park with other Muslim men and prayed the required five times a day at the area mosque. They bought season passes to Sea World and dined on fast food, leaving the burger wrappers strewn around their sparsely furnished apartment. And, despite their religious convictions, the men frequented area strip clubs.
Neither man lost sight of the primary mission: learning to fly. Almihdhar and Alhazmi took their flight lessons seriously, but they were impossible to teach. Instructor Rick Garza at Sorbi’s Flying Club gave both men a half-dozen classes on the ground before taking them up in a single-engine Cessna in May. “They were only interested in flying big jets,” Garza recalls. But Garza soon gave up on his hapless students. “I just thought they didn’t have the aptitude,” he says. “They were like Dumb and Dumber.”
With Mark Hosenball, Tamara Lipper and Eleanor Clift in Washington, Andrew Murr and Jamie Reno in San Diego