FBI probes 5th flight for hijackers

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FBI probes 5th flight for hijackers

Plane grounded on day of attack

By Stephen J. Hedges and Naftali Bendavid Washington Bureau Published September 18, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The FBI is investigating the possibility that suicide hijackers were on board a fifth transcontinental airline flight last Tuesday, one that was cancelled just minutes before its scheduled 8:10 a.m. departure from Boston due to a mechanical problem, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Federal agents are searching for an undetermined number of passengers who were on board American Airlines Flight 43, according to one source familiar with the passenger manifest. The flight was to have departed Boston 25 minutes after American Flight 11, which struck New York's World Trade Center, this source said.

In addition, one of the sources said that the FBI was "very interested" in passengers whose names appeared on the manifests of "several" other American flights that were in the air when the first attacks occurred. Those planes landed prematurely when air traffic controllers, responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ordered all flights in the U.S. to touch down as soon as possible.

None of the passengers in whom the FBI has expressed interest reappeared to continue their journeys after commercial flights resumed late last week, one of the sources said.

On Thursday, the FBI sent a list of several dozen Arabic-sounding names to state and local police with the request that those on the list be located for questioning. At least some of the passengers being sought are believed to be among those listed, according to one of the sources. An American Airlines spokesman said he was not immediately able to confirm the sources' accounts.

About 35 minutes after Flight 43 was due to depart, American Flight 11, which was bound for Los Angeles, struck the Trade Center's north tower. A hijacked United flight from Boston hit the center's south tower about 20 minutes later. A third American flight that left Washington's Dulles International Airport struck the Pentagon at 9:39 a.m. A fourth plane, United Flight 93, crashed in a field southeast of Pittsburgh at 10:10 a.m.

Urgent request for help

Federal authorities were holding 49 individuals in connection with last week's terrorist attacks, nearly twice as many as two days ago, and the FBI sent out an urgent request Monday for Arabic and Farsi speakers to help with its investigation of the hijackings.

French government officials confirmed Monday that one of the people being held by the FBI for questioning in connection with last week's attack is considered a dangerous, well-known militant associate of Osama bin Laden.

Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, a dual French-Algerian national, was detained last month after instructors at a flight school he attended in Minnesota grew suspicious that Moussaoui, an inexperienced pilot, wanted to learn only how to steer and turn passenger jets, not take off or land.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the hijackings were intended by their perpetrators to be the first in a multiday series of attacks. That suggests that other would-be perpetrators remain at large, and the FBI continued its massive effort Monday to track them down.

The FBI has 4,000 agents and 3,000 support personnel working on the case, making it the largest FBI investigation ever, but Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft assigned 300 deputy U.S. marshals to help. The investigation has reached a fever pitch, with 500 people from 32 agencies working at the FBI's special investigation center around the clock in 12-hour shifts.

Authorities have taken databases from various government agencies, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service, into the FBI center in New York to speed up their work.

But FBI officials acknowledged that the bureau is being hampered by a severe shortage of investigators fluent in Arabic or Farsi, which is spoken in Iran. "This has been a perpetual problem for everybody," said FBI spokesman John Collingwood.

Although no one has yet been charged in last week's attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller said some of those being detained are helping the investigation. "There are individuals cooperating," Mueller said. "There are a number of individuals that are not cooperating."

While the FBI is seeking anyone who aided the hijackers, agents are even more urgently hunting for anyone who might still be planning other attacks. Graham suggested the nation may have been fortunate to avoid further tragedies last week.

"There has been credible evidence gathered since Tuesday that Tuesday's attacks were not designed to be a one-day event," Graham told the Orlando Sentinel. "There were other acts of terrorism in the United States and elsewhere that were part of this plan."

That does not mean the seizure of more airplanes, Graham added. "Not necessarily hijacking another airliner, but maybe putting a chemical in a city's water system, or blowing up a bridge in a major urban center," he said.

Barry Mawn, assistant FBI director in charge of the New York office, said there is "no specific proof" that there were more terrorist teams in place. But "all of us are looking at that as the potential," he said, and finding any such teams is the investigation's highest priority.

Pressing for clues

The investigation moved forward Monday on various fronts. Evidence recovery teams have found a passport for one of the hijackers amid the rubble at the World Trade Center, which investigators consider a major find.

Several people were being held Monday as material witnesses in the attack, meaning they may have important information. Among them is one of the two men who were seized from an Amtrak train in Texas, Aybub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, though it is unclear which one. Khan and Azmath took a flight Tuesday from Newark, N.J., to St. Louis, and then boarded a train for San Antonio, Texas.

The pair lived in an apartment in Jersey City, N.J., that is just steps away from the Masjid As-Salaam Mosque, one of two New York-area mosques affiliated with radical Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is in prison.

Mawn said he expects more arrests of material witnesses in coming days. "Material witness warrants are a key grand jury tool," Mawn said. "I think that will continue."

Khan and Azmath rented the apartment for the last six years. Their landlord said in an interview Monday that FBI agents have asked him to secure all records and correspondence related to the two tenants. The landlord, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the men did not list any references or previous addresses on their application, which he was expected to turn over to the FBI Monday night.

The landlord said they were initially referred by another tenant in the building who at the time described them as "very good guys," the landlord recalled, adding, "That was good enough for me." He said he also has been asked by the FBI to turn over every canceled check received from the men, which the landlord said he has saved. He said the pair paid rent even for this month.

FBI agents in Chicago spent a significant part of Monday trying to determine whether Khan ever lived in the city. A commercial database indicated Khan listed an address in Rogers Park as recently as last June. Shown photos of the two men by the Tribune, tenants could not say with certainty that they had seen either of them.

A man traveling on one of the U.S. flights that was diverted into Canada last Tuesday was detained in the Toronto airport by immigration officials. The man, whom authorities would not identify, was turned over to the FBI for questioning, according to Greg Peters, a spokesman for Canada's national police force.

"He had in his possession material of interest, given the situation that occurred in the U.S.," Peters said in an interview. "Specifically, photos." He declined to elaborate.

Across the U.S. border in Mexico, authorities detained and questioned a man with a Brazilian passport who said he had family ties to Jordan. Imad Mohammed Jaber, 26, was detained for immigration violations in Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Mexican officials said he had traveled recently to Germany and said he wanted to travel to the United States. A U.S. immigration official also questioned him.

New details

As the investigation entered its second week, more details of the lives of the suicide hijackers have begun to emerge. One of the most intriguing is Mohamed Atta, a hijacker on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center. Atta, a self-described urban planner, was known to U.S. authorities long before the hijacking for possible ties to terrorist groups, and had spent time in Germany and Egypt. He may have played a leadership role among the hijackers, based on the records of his travels and his interaction with several of them.

New, albeit sparse, details about Atta's life in the Egyptian Delta emerged Monday. Ralph Bodenstein, a German researcher who does urban studies work in the Arab world, said he spent many hours with Atta in 1995, when Atta was part of a three-man team from a Hamburg university studying ways to ease Cairo's traffic woes.

Atta's father was a professional living in Cairo, Bodenstein said, and during this period Atta lived with his middle-class family in that city. Atta's anti-American views were pronounced, he added, though such opinions are not uncommon in the Arab world.

"He didn't give a positive judgment on U.S. politics," Bodenstein said. "But there was nothing to indicate he would go to the lengths of such terror."

The issue of the hijackers' nationalities is explosive, and Egyptian officials continued to insist Atta was born in the United Arab Emirates. Although he lived in the Egyptian delta at one point, investigators said there was no trace of any family there.

Still, Egyptian security forces have sealed off the region, about an hour from Cairo, as they look for information.

One key unanswered question remains how the hijackers communicated with each other or with anyone who may have been giving them orders. There was some suggestion that they used computers and the Internet.

Computer proficiency

Clearly some of the hijackers were proficient on the Internet. Atta had his own Web site when he lived in Hamburg, Germany, describing his interest in architecture and other matters, according to German authorities.

FBI officials say they have seized numerous computers in connection with the investigation. For example, agents came into the apartment of Omar Hady, an Arkansas resident authorities questioned regarding the attacks, and confiscated the computer he used to send e-mails.

In other cases, the hijackers may have used the computers available in public libraries, which would have made their e-mail traffic harder to trace. After reports emerged that the FBI was investigating whether the hijackers used the library in Fairfax County, Va., in this way, a librarian and a motel operator in Florida both told authorities over the weekend they may have had similar experiences.

At Delray Beach's small public library, research librarian Katherine Hensman said she saw two men, whom she said matched descriptions of the hijackers who stayed at the nearby Homing Inn, using the library's Internet access one afternoon within the past six weeks.

The men used one of the 12 computers for about an hour, then left when a third man arrived and greeted them, she said, adding that she took note of the pair because they "kept staring over at me" while using a machine on the far side of the room.

Hensman did say she could not be sure whether the men were among those pictured in newspapers over the past few days as hijackers. Delray Beach police interviewed Hensman on Saturday, but so far, FBI agents have not visited.

Farther south, in Hollywood, Longshore Motel operator Paul Dragomir said Monday that two of his customers on Aug. 30 left after a dispute over the motel's Internet access. He, too, said he was uncertain whether the pair had any connection to the Sept. 11 events, except for general physical descriptions.

After the men got into the room, they asked for Internet lines to their room. Dragomir initially agreed to bring an office phone line into the room, where he saw two laptop computers and several CDs. The pair got in an argument when it became clear the guests wanted to use the phone line all night.

The men grew angry, Dragomir said. They told him, "We're on a mission."

Tribune staff reporters Cam Simpson in New York, Monica Davey and Geoff Dougherty in Florida, Todd Lighty in Boston, E.A. Torriero in Cairo contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 18, 2001

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