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The terrorists next door

The suicide bombers who attacked on Sept. 11 are names and faces to most Americans, but to many South Floridians they were neighbors, boarders, customers - seemingly ordinary people living normal lives.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 2, 2001


Ziad Jarrah
Ziad Jarrah
DANIA BEACH -- The request was usual enough. Ziad Jarrah, a flight student from Germany, wanted to learn the basics of self-defense, and that's what Bert Rodriguez taught him.

How to escape choke holds and arm holds. How to fend off an attack. How to fight back effectively, even if outnumbered.

On Sept. 11, nearly two weeks after his last private lesson with Rodriguez at U.S. 1 Fitness in Dania Beach, Jarrah helped take command of United Airlines Flight 93 somewhere over Pennsylvania. It was one of four planes hijacked and crashed that day by Jarrah and his fellow Islamic extremists.

"It hurts now to think I'm trying to teach someone something he used to harm others," said Rodriguez, a former New Yorker with a shaved head and his first name tattooed on his bulging right bicep.

"When I found out I was involved this deeply, it took me until today for it just to sink in that damn, I was close to this guy," he said. "We shared a lot. I feel violated. I feel betrayed."

'He didn't want to impose'

That feeling is going around. At least 13 of the 19 hijackers who committed the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil lived for months or years in South Florida.

Hani Hanjour
Hani Hanjour
Some rented upscale, furnished apartments and polished their flying skills at local airports. A half-dozen exercised at area gyms, and a couple quaffed Stoli and chicken wings at a Hollywood bar just days before killing themselves and thousands more.

As investigators chased leads from the crash sites in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania, it quickly became clear that Florida had sheltered and served the hijackers, who relied on the helpfulness of some, and the anonymity of many, to plot the attack.

In Miramar, a bedroom community to Miami and Fort Lauderdale on the eastern edge of the Everglades, Susan Anne Khalil opens her front door reluctantly. Her two young children play in the house behind her, the TV tuned to the news. She fears for the safety of her husband, Adnan Khalil, as neighbors and strangers learn they sheltered one of the killers five years ago and had introduced him to America.

She is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and yellow sandals. These days, her tears are never far away. She looks exhausted.

"I just want this to end," she says.

But again, she gamely answers the questions. Hani Hanjour came to live with them for a month in the spring of 1996. He was shy and spoke little English, had few apparent interests but Islam, didn't appear to make any friends.

She and her husband, a Saudi professor at a local college, have helped many Arabs over the years. Helping Hani was a favor to Hanjour's older brother, a longtime friend of Mr. Khalil who lived in Tucson.

Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi
Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi
The Khalils remember him as mousey and gentle, with a weak personality, and they remember that his older brother was thrilled that Hani, then 24, finally had found some direction for his life.

He wanted to be an airline pilot.

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

Hanjour had hoped to attend flight school in Florida, but he wasn't a good student and had trouble getting in. He left the Khalils' after being accepted to a flight school in Oakland.

The Friday after the terrorist attacks, Mrs. Khalil was in her living room, horrified by the images on television, when she heard Hani's name mentioned among the hijackers. She became hysterical and called her mother, then the FBI.

An agent knocked on her front door less than three hours later, bearing a photograph of the man they suspected of grabbing the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 and ramming it into the Pentagon, killing 189. It was Hani.

"I have to now believe that when he came here, and we welcomed him into our home, that he did not have those intentions," Mrs. Khalil says, her voice breaking. "I just have to believe that."

The 'assimilated terrorist'

Waleed M. Alshehri
Waleed M. Alshehri
According to public records and extensive interviews, at least some of the hijackers began using Florida as a base two years ago. The state offered some advantages:

A driver's license, and the legitimacy it brings, is easy to get with a common immigration form. Permanent residency is not required.

Flight schools with large numbers of foreign students dot both coasts. Hijackers took lessons or rented planes at no fewer than four of them.

And as clean-cut young men, most in their 20s, they blended easily into the ethnic gumbo that is South Florida, taking advantage of the seasonal transience and of communities where even next-door neighbors may never get past the smile-and-wave greeting.

Unlike Islamic suicide bombers who have attacked other U.S. targets here and abroad, they were comfortable in American culture. And the culture seemed comfortable with them. That's what is haunting a lot of South Floridians now.

"The idea, for lack of a better term, of the 'assimilated terrorist' is new," said Juliet Kayyem, executive director of the Project on Terrorism at Harvard University and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

Wail Alsheri
Wail Alsheri
"That's what's especially terrifying for the American public, that someone could take advantage of everything that America has to offer, and then seek to destroy it."

By July, South Florida was clearly the epicenter of the plot for the pending attack. Jarrah rented a beach house in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea with Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, 20, a fellow hijacker on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Three hijackers were living 15 minutes away in the Delray Beach Racquet Club. Two more, Waleed M. Alshehri, 22, and Wail M. Alsheri, 28, were staying in nearby Boynton Beach.

Mohamed Atta, now believed to be a key organizer of the plot, and Marwan al-Shehhi spent three hours with an unidentified Middle Eastern man at Shuckum's, a Hollywood sports bar, three days before the attack. At the time, al-Shehhi was staying at a Deerfield Beach motel, where he impressed the owner with his friendly demeanor.

Shuckum's manager, Tony Amos, has told his story to Jenny Jones, Bryant Gumble, NBC and countless newspapers. "My 15 minutes of fame is lasting waaaaay too long," Amos, 32, said last week at the bar. A Time magazine reporter was waiting in the dining area.

Ahmed Alnami
Ahmed Alnami
The men came in around 4:30 on Sept. 8, Amos said. Al-Shehhi drank five screwdrivers of orange juice and Stolichnaya, a top-shelf Russian vodka. Atta had cranberry juice and an order of hot wings. The other guy drank Captain Morgan rum and Coke.

They argued with the bartender over the $48 tab, and Amos cut the bill a bit to smooth things over. When he asked if they could pay, al-Shehhi snapped at him: "I'm a pilot for American Airlines. I can pay."

Soon after the attack, FBI agents arrived at Shuckum's with pictures of several Middle Eastern men and asked Amos if he recognized them. He couldn't believe it. They had been right here, not a foot from him, and he instinctively wondered: Was there something I should have done?

"There was a certain amount of frustration," Amos said. "There was guilt . . . But I talked to some of the firefighters, and they made me feel better. They were like, 'Man, there's nothing you could do, how could you have known?' "

'They fit in well'

Saeed Alghamdi
Saeed Alghamdi
Stephen Kona is a firefighter in Venice, about 60 miles south of Tampa Bay. He was watching as the death toll among firefighters under the rubble of the twin towers rose when he learned the unthinkable: He knew the men who had piloted two planes that hit them. He had rented them his house.

"I never would have dreamed it would have happened to me and it would have been my house," Kona, 36, said. "I was shocked. They fit in well."

Atta and al-Shehhi had arrived in Venice July 3, 2000, agreeing to pay about $1,000 a week for lessons at Huffman Aviation. Charlie Voss, Huffman's bookkeeper, and his wife, Dru, rented them a spare room with twin beds for $17 a night until they found a place of their own.

Hamze Alghamdi
Hamze Alghamdi
Al-Shehhi seemed nice, but Atta did not, the Vosses say. The men refused to recognize Mrs. Voss and rarely spoke, and they splashed water all over the bathroom when they showered.

After a week, the couple asked them to leave.

Atta, 33, and al-Shehhi, 23, then rented Kona's coral two-bedroom house in Nokomis, about five miles from the Venice airport. They asked that the television not be hooked up.

Foreign students are common at Huffman. They paid the $550 rent on time, studied hard, kept the house immaculate.

Atta and al-Shehhi earned their pilots' licenses in late December and left for the Miami area two weeks later, practicing midair turns on a Boeing 727 flight simulator in Opa-Locka. Just like the turn al-Shehhi expertly made, replayed again and again, when he steered Flight 175 into the second tower.

"They were hiding in plain sight," Charlie Voss said.

A package bomb -- or a package?

It was May, and most of the snowbirds had flown north when three Middle Eastern men moved into a furnished condo on the top floor of the Delray Beach Racquet Club.

At first, the only thing unusual about them were their possessions: They didn't seem to have any. But residents at the Spanish Colonial-style complex, just off a crowded strip of chain restaurants near I-95, said they aren't the type to ask questions.

Dru and Charlie Voss
[AP photo]
On the day after the suicide attacks by Islamic extremists, Charlie Voss, right, a former employee of Huffman Aviation in Venice, and his wife, Dru, answer questions from FBI agents about the two Middle Eastern men who rented a room in their home for a week last year while they took flying lessons.
Generally, year-rounders say, they know each other well enough to exchange pleasantries in the parking lot or by the pool. Many found themselves awkwardly meeting each other for the first time as they discussed, first with the FBI, then reporters, the men who lived in Unit 1504.

No one wanted to believe the hijackers had hidden among them.

"This is an All-America City. They just got the award," said Shelley Fehrenbacher, 28, who lives across the street with her husband, Brian.

Ahmed Alnami and Saeed Alghamdi, who were on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, and Hamza Alghamdi, whose plane hit the World Trade Center, rented Unit 1504 from a couple who summered in Colorado.

Neighbors said they didn't speak when spoken to, even by single young women, and they were considered unfriendly, even rude. One complained that one of the men jabbed at her German shepherd with an umbrella when it barked at him.

But in this affluent seaside town in Palm Beach County, being standoffish doesn't necessarily stand out, residents said.

Delray Beach's role in sheltering the terrorists became clear three days after the attacks, on Friday afternoon. The FBI agents had left and the TV reporters were filming their stand-ups when a resident in Building 3, two buildings down from the hijackers' unit, noticed a package at the door of a unit where a Pakistani couple lives.

Iwona Kuczynska, Eva Jannas and several other residents conferred. None knew the Pakistani couple, but they couldn't recall having seen them for a few days. Maybe the package was a bomb.

One dialed 911 while the others warned residents coming home from work not to enter the building. The bewildered Pakistanis returned about an hour later to find their neighbors in the parking lot and police at their door.

No bomb, they said. Only mail.

Kuczynska clutched her daughter as they returned to their condo.

"You never know," she said.

Wide-open country

Richard Surma began chasing the American dream in 1950, as a war refugee from Poland, when his family fled Europe for Wisconsin. He caught it on A1A in Deerfield Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, in the form of a 22-room motel across the hot blacktop from the white sand and azure sea. The Panther Motel & Apartments. Mecca in winter for refugees fleeing the cold North.

The Panther is beige, with a common balcony outside the second-floor rooms. It is Surma's third and largest hotel. The first he bought 10 years ago, while working as a maintenance man for a Deerfield Beach condominium complex.

"Work hard, fix it up, put on a new roof. Sold it, made a little money," Surma explained. "Bought another with eight units. Sold it. Made a lot of money. Bought this one.

"Work hard each time. If you take advantage of what America offers, you got it made. There's no reason anybody cannot be a millionaire with an average IQ."

On Sept. 10, a day before the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble, Surma was gathering the garbage for the weekly pickup when he found a few treasures in Room 12: A flight manual for a Boeing 757. A book on martial arts. A black canvas bag. An English-German dictionary he figured would help him with his German guests.

Buried in a dresser drawer, he found a utility knife with a razor blade.

For the past two weeks, the room had been occupied by two Middle Eastern men, Marwan al-Shehhi and a man he identified only as his brother. Two days after the attack, as news emerged that the hijackers had been flight students in Florida, Surma thought about that flight manual. He flagged down a Broward County sheriff's deputy on A1A and told him what he found. FBI agents arrived soon after and took Room 12 apart.

"I thought there might be a connection, you never know. At first we were hesitant -- 'I don't want to get involved' is very common in America," Surma said. "But I did want to get involved."

The men rented the double room Aug. 26. Left on Sept. 9. Al-Shehhi checked in under his real name. They never used the phone. Prepared most meals in the kitchenette. Went out some. A third man visited daily, parking at a hotel next door and walking to the Panther. All three were polite and spoke English well. Paid the $500 bill in cash.

"They appeared much better behaved than your locals here. No earrings on top of their eyeballs or on their tongues. No pants below their knees," Surma said. "No rap music."

Like many immigrants, Surma is fiercely protective of America, and he is upset that he sheltered terrorists "right here, under my roof, right next to me."

But when talk turns xenophobic, as it has lately, he points to nation's own great villains: the Rev. Jim Jones, who led the mass suicide in Guyana. David Koresh. Timothy McVeigh. "American-grown," he said.

Late last week, the Panther's guests included two Arab men who sat outside to smoke from a large water pipe. Seven Brazilians. A roomful of Japanese. Four Germans are to arrive this week. Ours is an open country. Terror is part of the price we pay, Surma explains.

"Where else can they learn to bombard or us kill us? Right here, because we have it all," he said. "Wide open country. Everybody has the same advantages, to do what they want. You can do it for good or for evil. No one is a prophet."

-- St. Petersburg Times staff writers Sydney P. Freedberg and Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report.

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