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14 hijackers spent time in Florida


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001

At least 14 of the 19 suspected hijackers who terrorized America spent considerable time in Florida, where they clustered around aviation schools and lived in a string of nondescript motels and apartment complexes.

At least 14 of the 19 suspected hijackers who terrorized America spent considerable time in Florida, where they clustered around aviation schools and lived in a string of nondescript motels and apartment complexes.

Three days after the historic attack, the Justice Department on Friday released the names of the men the government says hijacked four planes. Most of the men came from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, two countries friendly to the United States. Four of them have been linked to Osama bin Laden or his terrorist organizations, according to current and former U.S. officials.

In Florida, the men moved often. Some traveled up and down the east coast between Daytona Beach and Miami. A few spent time in the tiny beach community of Venice, 60 miles south of Tampa Bay.

As they retrace their trail, authorities are still searching for the hijackers' collaborators and financial backers. Law enforcement agencies have compiled a list of more than 100 people they want to interview.

"It's pretty clear that there were probably others involved in these endeavors. And it's in our interest to track those individuals down," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

The government's identification of the hijackers confirms Florida's direct connection to Tuesday's monstrous attacks, which killed thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

According to interviews and records:

Five hijackers who spent time in Florida were on board American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Four were pilots, including Mohamed Atta, who reportedly was at the controls.

Five of the hijackers who seized United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, also spent time in Florida. One was Marwan Al-Shehhi, Atta's roommate. A few days before the attack, the two men got roaring drunk in a Hollywood, Fla., bar.

Four of the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, lived in Florida for several months. Two shared a condominium in Delray Beach. They left suddenly Labor Day weekend, the same weekend a group of suspected hijackers living in Vero Beach disappeared.

Among the four hijackers on the fourth plane, American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, one may have had a connection to Florida. That connection could not be confirmed.

In Florida, the hijackers rarely drew attention to themselves. They stayed in small groups, sharing houses, apartments or modest motel rooms.

Apparently trying to establish official paperwork, seven of the men obtained Florida driver's licenses or state identification cards since May, records show. Eleven of the 19 men were under 30; two were just 20 years old. At least seven had pilot's licenses or flight training.

Their common thread was flight training. Authorities think the hijackers came to Florida because it has numerous aviation schools, all of which cater to foreigners.

That made it easier to blend in.

Three of the hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Alnami and Hamza al Ghamdi, lived for several months in the Delray Racquet Club, a condominium complex in Delray Beach in Palm Beach County.

Residents said the hijackers rebuffed attempts at small talk. They came and went frequently. None seemed to have jobs.

Judy Glantz lived 10 doors away on the complex's top floor. She said her encounters with the men were tense, even rude.

"I have this dog who is half German shepherd and usually very gentle, but the dog would bark vehemently at these guys," Glantz said. "He did it the whole three months they were here.

"They didn't like that," she said. "One of them got really annoyed and poked an umbrella at him. I had to tell him to stop."

Some of the hijackers were said to be airplane mechanics, students or tourists. Some claimed they worked for Saudi Arabian Airlines, a government air carrier. Authorities were investigating whether they used false identities in some cases, and a Saudi official in Washington denied any of the men worked for the airlines.

Several clustered around Atta, the square-jawed 33-year-old pilot who was on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center.

He and his roommate Al-Shehhi, 23, also were together in Hamburg, Germany, where they both studied at the Technical University. Authorities there say they were part of an extremist group that planned attacks against high-profile American targets.

Atta wrote a thesis while at the university; the subject was urban renewal.

In April, Atta was in the hands of the law in Broward County, but only briefly.

According to the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, he was pulled over by a sheriff's deputy on a routine traffic stop. Atta couldn't produce a driver's license.

Following normal procedure, the deputy wrote him a ticket. Atta never paid, and deputies never learned that Atta was on a U.S. government "watch list" of people tied to terrorist activity.

None of the hijackers were known to have jobs. But money never seemed to be a problem.

They paid up to $10,000 each for flight lessons. Condominiums in the Delray Beach complex rented for up to $3,000 a month.

What seemed most important to the hijackers was privacy.

In that respect, Charlie Lisa's inconspicuous home in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a quiet beachfront community of modest-income tourists and retirees, was perfect.

A wooden wind chime over his front door bears a greeting: "This House is Full of Love."

For three months this summer, the house was occupied by two of the hijackers, Amad Al Haznawi, 20, and Ziad Samir Jarrah, 26, who moved out in late August.

Lisa rented them an $800, one-bedroom furnished apartment in the back of the house, which allowed entry through a side gate. On Friday, an American flag was draped over the wooden trellis fence.

Lisa did not answer his door when reporters knocked. Neighbors said his two tenants seemed unremarkable.

"They came in and out, and made no trouble," said Ellis Sherman, who lives next door.

A few of the hijackers brought their families with them to Florida.

Abdul Al-Omari, 38, moved to a suburban Vero Beach home in July 2000 with his wife, Halimah, and their three children. He spent considerable time training at FlightSafety Academy, a commercial pilot's school about a mile away.

His landlord, Llonald Mixell, said he resisted renting to Al-Omari because he wanted a tenant who would stay at least two years. Al-Omari said he would stay only a year to 15 months.

Mixell and neighbors say Al-Omari was a personable man with a beautiful family and well-behaved, pleasant children. The Al-Omaris had a fourth child, Abdul, while they lived there.

Mixell said he is shocked that Al-Omari may have helped destroy the World Trade Center towers.

"It's just hard to believe that the father knew what was going to happen, and that he knew it for a long time," Mixell said.

Former and current U.S. officials told the Associated Press that four of the dead hijackers had been linked to bin Laden's Al-Qaida network: Waleed Alshehri, Ahmed Alghamdi, Hamza Alghamdi and Saeed Alghamdi.

Since the attack, much of the investigation has revolved around the flight schools, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, a well-regarded institution that produces more than one-fourth of all the commercial airline pilots in the country.

Waleed Al Shehri, 25, is a 1997 graduate of Embry-Riddle. He also was among the hijackers on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

That was part of a double blow for the school, which in 1983 graduated David M. Charlebois. He was the first officer on American Airlines Flight 77. He died when hijackers crashed it into the Pentagon.

"This is a sad time for Embry-Riddle," the school said in a letter to alumni posted Friday on its Web site.

Authorities are calling their investigation PENTTBOM, and on Friday night made the first arrest in the worldwide investigation.

The suspect was arrested because authorities have determined that the individual has information highly relevant to the investigation and is a high-flight risk, said an official speaking on condition of anonymity. The Justice Department said the warrant identified the suspect as a material witness.

Hundreds of subpoenas have been issued, more than 30 search warrants have been issued and investigators have seized computers and other documents.

Meanwhile, the FBI provided warnings Friday to two southeast cities -- Richmond, Va., and Atlanta -- that information developed since Tuesday's attacks suggested terrorists may have had plans for attacks in those cities, law enforcement officials said. But late Friday, further investigation left officials doubtful of the threat.

- Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Thomas Tobin and researchers Cathy Wos, Caryn Baird, John Martin and Barbara Oliver contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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