Hijacker entered U.S. in 1990, officials believe

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Hijacker entered U.S. in 1990, officials believe

By Tim O'Meilia / Cox News Service 10-16-01

This is the second in a three-part series on the terrorists involved in the attacks on America.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Of the four alleged leaders of the four- and five-man cells who executed the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, Hani Hanjour's story is unique -- and perhaps the most unsettling of all.

Hanjour, 29, apparently was in the United States in 1990, long before any of the other suspected hijackers and well before Osama bin Laden's al-Queda had turned its venom on the U.S.

While the other pilots -- Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah -- can be traced to Islamic radical groups, Hanjour cannot. And unlike the others who trained in pairs, Hanjour was often alone.

He travelled back and forth between the U.S. and his native Saudi Arabia. His American travels spanned the continent, landing him in Miramar, near Fort Lauderdale; Oakland; Phoenix; San Diego; Las Vegas and Paterson, N.J., before a final stop in the Washington, D.C. area.

In recent years, though, he crossed paths with hijackers on the other flights.

Along the way, he also spent years at various flight schools in the U.S. trying to develop his ability as a pilot, yet Washington-area flight instructors refused to rent him a plane because his skills were so poor.

But he was skilled enough to steer American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon Sept. 11, killing 189 in the building and 63 aboard the jet, including himself and four other hijackers, federal investigators believe.

His trail has been pieced together, with many gaps, from statements by investigators, media reports and interviews with witnesses.

Hanjour was only 19, a native of Taif in Saudi Arabia, when he was first reported in the U.S. in 1990. He enrolled in an eight-week course for speakers of English as a second language at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where his older brother had studied. Despite the course and length of time he spent in the United States., his command of the language remained spotty, according to rental car clerks, apartment landlords and motel clerks.

His name doesn't pop up again until March 1996, when he stayed for a month in Miramar, a bedroom community south of Fort Lauderdale, with Adnan and Susan Khalil. Hanjour's brother knew them from when they lived in Phoenix. Khalil is an instructor at Broward Community College and has helped numerous Saudi students through the years.

Only 5-foot-5, Hanjour was described as mousey and gentle. He played with the Khalils' 3-year-old son and told them wanted to be an airline pilot. He obtained a Florida identification card.

"He was religious and quiet, he didn't want to impose on us," Mrs. Khalil told the St. Petersburg Times. "I didn't get the feeling that he hated me or hated Americans."

When he couldn't get into a Florida flight school, he left, telling the Khalils he had been accepted at a school in Oakland.

From June to September he was enrolled in the English Language Studies program at Holy Names College in Oakland, the FBI revealed. The program is part of Berlitz International Inc.

He also signed up in September for the one-year flight program at Sierra Academy of Aeronautics at Oakland International Airport. He stayed only one day, perhaps scared away by the $35,000 cost for a program geared to professional pilots.

"He took half an hour of tutored instruction in a briefing area, and that was the last thing he ever did," Dan Shaffer, vice president of flight operations at the school, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The same month, he moved to the Phoenix area and spent three months training at CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, quitting in November. A year later, in December 1997, he put down a $100 deposit to enroll again but never appeared.

"He was not able to fly solo in a small plane, which is equivalent to getting out of a parking space (in a car) and stopping," CRM President Duncan Hastie told the Arizona Republic.

"He called me repeatedly over the years (to ask about taking more courses), but I was not interested in letting him back."

Hanjour remained in the Phoenix area until early 2000, staying in a succession of apartments and boarding houses in Mesa and other suburbs. In September 1998, he was issued a traffic ticket for an expired registration under the name of Hanjoor. Arizona suspended his license for lack of insurance.

Except for that incident, Hanjour was nearly invisible. Clerics at Phoenix-area mosques have no recollection of him. While some of the hijackers flashed money and apparently sampled portions of America's fast lane of call girls and liquor, Hanjour left no mark.

He talked to others in Arizona's Arab community, however. A federal grand jury indicted Faisal Michael Al Salmi, of Tempe, Friday on charges of giving false statements to the FBI about his discussions with Hanjour. Salmi told the FBI Sept. 18 he didn't know Hanjour, but the FBI later found that the men spoke together several times, according to the indictment. The FBI said Salmi also lied about not being warned by Rayed Mohammed Abdullah, another acquaintance of Hanjour, about the FBI's investigation.

Despite his apparent lack of flying skills, by April 1999 he had obtained an FAA multi-engine commercial pilot's license under the name Hanjoor.

Hanjour tried to re-enroll at the CRM flight center in Scottsdale in early 2000 but was rejected. "He never even made the standards to take the (certification) exam," said CRM's Hastie. "He claimed he wanted a career as an airline pilot but to me he never seemed motivated."

After that, he headed for San Diego where two other Flight 77 hijackers -- Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhamzi -- had already set up housekeeping and were taking flying lessons. He didn't stay long, apparently returning to Saudi Arabia.

In November 2000, he applied to the ELS Language Center in Oakland, Calif. again, this time for a one-month intensive course in English. He provided transcripts and a bank letter guaranteeing he could pay the $1,325 tuition. The school sent Hanjour an immigration form that he used to obtain a student visa issued at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Hanjour never showed up in Oakland. He never contacted the school again and the school was not notified by immigration officials until early this year that the visa had been issued. As a result, lawmakers are considering tightening the student visa regulations.

Berlitz officials didn't realize Hanjour had attended the school once before because he spelled his name Hanjoor in 1998 but his date of birth and hometown were identical to the 2000 application.

Visa in hand, Hanjour arrived in Cincinnati from Paris on Dec. 8, 2000.

The year 2001 was one of travel for Hanjour, now in the U.S. with a clearly-defined mission.

In February, he helped the fourth Flight 77 hijacker, Salem Alhazmi, rent an unfurnished apartment in Paterson, N.J., that would become the East Coast base for the several of the hijackers in the final months before the attacks. The hijackers had only their duffel bags, never bothering to buy furniture.

In June, Hanjour was back in Phoenix, tutored on flight simulators at the Sawyer School of Aviation in Phoenix by an Algerian pilot named Lotfi Raissi, whom the FBI believes was one of the masterminds of the plot. Raissi also taught Flight 93 pilot Ziad Jarrah. Each paid $300 for three months of unlimited simulator time.

"(Raissi) and the other guys usually came in at night to practice," said Sylvia Stinson, former director of the school. "They came a lot. But there were no red flags. They were polite, and they paid their bills."

British authorities arrested Raissi in Colnbrook, England in September after the hijack attacks. They confiscated flight manuals for Boeing 757 and 767 jets. Flight 77 was on a 757, as was Flight 93; the others were 767s.

Authorities believe Raissi and Hanjour made several trips to Las Vegas together, sometimes at the same time as pilots from the other flights were there as well. It's there that the final details of the plan were likely worked out. The FBI has a videotape of Raissi and Hanjour returning to Phoenix from Las Vegas by plane on June 23.

Hanjour returned to the East Coast, perhaps with Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhamzi in the blue 1988 Toyota Corolla they bought in early 2000. Although they stayed at the Paterson apartment, Hanjour told neighbors he often made several days trips to Washington, D.C.

Three times in July Hanjour and Alhamzi rented cars for about a week at a time from a Wayne, N.J. dealership, putting up to 1,000 miles on each car, apparently to drive to Washington.

Hanjour fraudulently obtained a Virginia driver license Aug. 2.

Also in August, he flew three times in a week in a Cessna with flight instructors at Freeway Airport in Bowie, Md., a Washington suburb. He flew oblong circles over the airport and nearby Chesapeake Bay but his skills were so bad that the instructors refused to rent him a plane.

Investigators have identified photos of him and Majed Moqed, the last of the Flight 77 hijackers, withdrawing money from an ATM on Aug. 5

On Aug. 31, Hanjour and Moqed went to the A.T.S. travel agency in Totowa, N.J., where Hanjour bought a first class, one-way ticket aboard Flight 77. Moqed did the talking, specifying seat B1 for Hanjour, the one closest to the cockpit.

They tried to pay the $1,842.25 ticket with a Visa card, which was rejected because there was no signature on the back. The agency wouldn't accept a check either. So the pair left and returned 30 minutes later with cash.

The pair left the Paterson apartment Sept. 1. They and the other three Flight 77 conspirators converged in the Washington area, paying $308 a week for a "suite" consisting of a bedroom, living room and galley-style kitchen at the Valencia Motel in Laurel, Md. Sept. 2. Neighbors told The Washington Post that the men in room 343 ate a lot of pizza. Each day they left with bags of luggage, returning with it each night.

"We thought it was suspicious that they had the same routine every day," Toris Proctor said. "They were always together. They even had their own seats in the car."

The routine began at 10 each morning, when all five emerged and walked toward the blue Toyota Corolla. Three got inside while the other two walked across the street to a pizza restaurant where they talked for a few minutes each morning before the restaurant opened. Then they went back to the car and all left for the day.

Hanjour, Moqed, Almihdhar bought $30 weekly memberships at the Gold's Gym in Greenbelt, Md., Sept. 2, paying cash from a large wad of bills, clerks said. Nawaf Alhazmi bought daily passes.

Hanjour told a gym worker that Hani meant "warrior" in Arabic. Arabic scholars say it means "content."

On Sept. 11, the five drove to Dulles International Airport and left the Corolla in the parking garage. Flight 77 left Dulles at 8:10 a.m., bound for Los Angeles. At 9:39 a.m., with Hanjour or perhaps Almihdhar presumably at the controls, the jet banked gently and crashed into the Pentagon.

Staff writer Mary McLachlin and Post wire services contributed to this story.

Tim O'Meilia writes for The Palm Beach (Florida) Post. E-mail: tim_omeilia@pbpost.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 16, 2001

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