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FBI had watched Ariz. aviation students before Sept. 11

By Washington Post
May 4, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The FBI was monitoring a group of Middle Eastern men at a Prescott, Ariz., aviation school for two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, concerned they were planning to infiltrate airport security or recruit others in a hijacking or bombing plot, officials said Friday.

None turned out to be among the 19 hijackers who commandeered jetliners on Sept. 11, and none has been connected to the attacks, authorities said.

But the situation was taken seriously enough before the attacks that FBI terrorism analysts in Washington were in the midst of launching a long-term program to track students from certain Middle Eastern countries at U.S. flight schools, officials said.

The plan was prompted by a recommendation from counterterrorism agents in the FBI's Phoenix office, who sent a memo to FBI headquarters in July 2001 outlining their concerns about a group of Middle Eastern students enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

"Phoenix believes that the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country," the memo read. "FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix's suspicions."

The case is the latest of a series of clues available to U.S. intelligence officials before Sept. 11 that Middle Eastern terrorists and their associates had shown unusual interest in commercial aviation.

The Arizona situation also raises the possibility that a separate terrorist plot involving aircraft might have been planned before Sept. 11, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. FBI officials have not ruled out that such a plot is in the works, the Washington Post reported. Officials declined to say whether the men monitored in Prescott were affiliated with any terrorist group.

The revelations contained in the FBI memo, reported Friday by the Associated Press, set off an immediate reaction from frequent FBI critics on Capitol Hill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding FBI oversight hearings, including testimony scheduled for Wednesday by FBI director Robert Mueller.

U.S. officials said Friday there is no way to know if a more rapid response by the FBI or other federal agencies would have revealed details of the impending terrorist assaults, which involved several hijackers who sought training at U.S. flight schools.

One hijacker, Hani Hanjour, took classes last year at two flight schools in Phoenix, about 100 miles south of Prescott. The FBI has ruled out suspicions that another hijacker, Ziad Samir Jarrah, trained in Phoenix.

Investigators in Phoenix were in the midst of a terrorism investigation involving a group of Middle Easterners and their associates when they discovered that some were enrolled at Embry-Riddle's Prescott campus, officials said.

The agents were particularly troubled by the breadth of topics that interested the students.

"People of interest to them were enrolled in various aspects of civil aviation engineering, airport operations and pilot training," FBI spokesman John Collingwood said. "The Phoenix communication went to the appropriate operational agents and analysts, but it did not lead to uncovering the impending attacks."

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