Authorties Failed to Alert Airline about Suspected Terrorists
By DAVID WILLMAN and ALAN C. MILLER, Times Staff Writers
Federal law enforcement authorities did not notify American Airlines that two men with links to terrorist Osama bin Laden were on a "watch list" before they helped hijack a flight from Dulles International Airport last week, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the matter.
Even before they had reserved their tickets for the Los Angeles-bound flight that crashed into the Pentagon, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi were known to federal law enforcement authorities.
Neither the FBI nor other authorities, who had identified them as possible terrorist figures and placed them on a watch list, signaled any concern about the two men to the airline, according to the sources.
Watch lists are intended to allow a number of federal law enforcement agencies to run names of people entering the U.S. with the aim of questioning or detaining potential terrorists or other criminals. Critics say the government and the airline industry ought to have a better system for distributing information about suspected terrorists.
The Federal Aviation Administration, prior to Sept. 11, had procedures for law enforcement agencies to share information from various watch lists with airlines and airports, said FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler.
But this was not done with Flight 77, according to those familiar with the matter.
Generally, law enforcement officials regard the names on the watch lists as sensitive intelligence, though there have been exceptions allowing the information to reach airlines.
When less significant crimes were suspected in recent years--including drug smuggling and theft--federal authorities have often tipped the airlines or sought their cooperation.
Indeed, authorities have alerted American Airlines on numerous occasions to drug or theft suspects appearing on passenger lists, sources said. In at least a dozen instances, the airline has allowed the FBI to place agents within its work force to conduct undercover operations.
Asked Wednesday whether the FBI informed American Airlines about the two suspected terrorists who hijacked Flight 77, FBI spokesman John E. Collingwood said: "This is a pending investigation and I cannot comment."
Airline Agents Unaware of Threat
On the morning of Sept. 11, Al-Midhar and Alhamzi entered Dulles, and no alarms were raised.
So, when they and their three cohorts approached Gate D26 before the scheduled 8:10 a.m. departure, the ticketing agents had no way of knowing the unsettling descriptions that lay within the files of the FBI, the CIA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service.
Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at 9:39 a.m., killing all 64 passengers and crew members. Inside the Pentagon, at least 124 more people are believed to have perished.
The federal agencies this summer had evidence in hand that linked Al-Midhar and Alhamzi to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire suspected of financing terrorist assaults worldwide, including the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others. Bin Laden also is believed responsible for the October 2000 bomb attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole, off the coast of Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. servicemen.
The FBI's failure to warn of Al-Midhar and Alhamzi is a source of pain among some of the friends and co-workers of those who died on Flight 77.
"Obviously, that's an issue that's caused some level of consternation," said one person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing federal investigation. "Unfortunately, we were not given a list of potential passengers that we should be on the lookout for."
In recent days, FBI officials said that, upon learning that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were in the U.S., they moved aggressively to find them. But they said they did not have time to locate them given the limited information available to investigators. And in the end, they said, they had less than three weeks to search.
Former U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, one of six people chosen by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to develop recommendations to improve aviation security, said there have been ongoing problems with "coordination and communication among agencies. I'm not sure all appropriate agencies get the watch list and if it's kept up in a timely fashion."
Kelly said that while airlines may at times be told that a given federal agency is looking for an individual, it is ad hoc and not formal practice.
"One of the lessons that hopefully comes out of this is that we need much better coordination among agencies," Kelly said.
Asked under what circumstances the FBI would provide airlines the names of individuals it was seeking, bureau spokesman Collingwood said, "That's case specific because every case is different. . . . There is not a generic answer."
Suspect Arrived on Business Visa
According to government documents obtained by The Times, Al-Midhar arrived July 4 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 53, carrying a Saudi Arabian passport. He gave his intended address as a Marriott Hotel in New York. He was traveling on a business visa that was obtained at the consulate in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.
The visa allowed him to remain in the U.S. until Oct. 3.
At what point did U.S. authorities become aware of the ties of Al-Midhar and Alhamzi to Bin Laden? Officials provided this account:
Acting this summer on CIA information, the immigration service learned that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were already in the U.S. By Aug. 23, the FBI set about trying to find both men. Al-Midhar and Alhamzi could have been placed under 24-hour surveillance, depending on what facts were known to investigators.
But first, the FBI had to find them.
FBI Special Agent Jeff Thurman in San Diego, where the two men once lived, recounted the events.
"On Aug. 23," he said, "the intelligence community put out a communication to INS, Customs and FBI headquarters" advising that it had developed information "linking [Al-Midhar and Alhamzi] to known terrorist groups.
"As a result of that, they asked that the individuals be put into the INS and Customs databases and on the watch list so that the individuals could be denied entry to the United States.
Thurman said the watch list "is a list designed where they run names of people entering the U.S. to either have them be denied entry or detained and questioned."
The FBI was then told that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were already in the country. FBI offices in New York and Los Angeles, where the men had once entered the U.S. as well, initiated investigations "in an attempt to locate those individuals," Thurman said.
One source with the investigation confirmed that Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi and a third hijacker resided in the San Diego area as recently as last year. But Thurman said the San Diego FBI office was not notified Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were on the watch list until two days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Two days after the World Trade Center came down is when San Diego received that intelligence information," Thurman said.
"There's a huge, open question here," said one former senior Justice Department official Wednesday:
"What, if anything, did the FBI do with these guys?"
Speaking anonymously, an FBI official said the bureau first tried to find the suspected terrorists in New York and in Los Angeles.
"Essentially, the situation is that we have two people in the country with a seven-week head start and no idea where in the United States they may be," the official said. "So we conducted as much and as vigorous an investigation as we could, given both the vastness of the country and the vastness and the diversity of the population. And, in that short of a time frame, we did not locate them."
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell in Los Angeles and researcher Janet Lundblad in Washington contributed to this story.
September 20, 2001
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times