By BOB DROGIN and ERIC LICHTBLAU, Los Angeles Times
Three weeks before the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the FBI was warned that two suspected Osama bin Laden associates, who later turned out to be among the suicide hijackers, were in the United States, intelligence and law enforcement sources said Saturday.
The FBI began to search for the two men Aug. 21 but did not ask the field office in San Diego, where the men had been living, to help in the investigation until a day or two before the infernos in Washington and New York, FBI sources said.
The failed manhunt began after the CIA warned that one of the pair, Khalid Al-Midhar, might have a link to the terrorist bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole last October in Yemen. Bin Laden is the prime suspect in both the Cole and hijacking attacks.
U.S. officials have adamantly insisted that they had no advance warning of last week's tragedy. The disclosure that the FBI was looking for two of the hijackers is likely to spur fresh questions about the government's intelligence efforts.
Al-Midhar appears in a secret videotape made last year at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a suspect in the Cole bombing. The CIA on Aug. 21 asked the FBI to find Al-Midhar and an associate, Nawaq Alhamzi. Al-Midhar and Alhamzi are believed to have been aboard the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Tuesday morning.
Officials said this constitutes a link between Bin Laden and the hijack bombings, in which thousands are dead or missing.
There was no indication from the CIA or elsewhere that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were planning the hijackings.
The search for the two men was launched after a suspect in the Cole bombing recently detailed to Yemeni authorities a January 2000 meeting of suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur. Al-Midhar and a Cole suspect were among those in the room.
"We videotaped the meeting," said a U.S. intelligence official. "Afterwards, they split up and went their way."
Asked why no one was apprehended after the meeting, the official said, "Here was a bunch of guys who we believed were dirty, but we didn't have anything on them."
The new Yemeni information reawakened interest in those at the meeting. That was when the CIA asked the FBI to begin a search.
U.S. authorities later determined that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi had flown in to Los Angeles International Airport early last year, and then again into the New York area earlier this year. The FBI checked hotel records in both Los Angeles and New York, but found no trace of either man.
A law enforcement source said Saturday that the CIA first contacted the FBI's New York City office. FBI agents in New York gave the two names to the bureau's Los Angeles office only days before the attacks. The San Diego office didn't receive the names until a day after that.
The law enforcement official portrayed the information as sketchy and "very, very late."
Both men were placed on a U.S. immigration "watch list" in late August, but immigration officials quickly determined that they already had entered the United States. At various times in the past year, both men had lived in San Diego and Phoenix. At least one of them attended community college in San Diego last year.
Alhamzi was renting a room in San Diego at the time of the Cole attack. It is unclear whether Al-Midhar was living there then or had just moved out. Abdussattar Shaikh, who said he rented rooms to Alhamzi and Al-Midhar, said the two had told him they were friends from Saudi Arabia.
Despite what the FBI called an "aggressive" effort, the bureau failed to find the men until their names surfaced on the passenger manifest of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which rammed the Pentagon, killing at least 190 people.
"When you have somebody who comes into this country without any information to go on as to where they were going, who they're staying with or anything--when you have none of that and, as it turns out you only have two weeks to work with, the likelihood of finding him was very small," said a government official who asked not to be identified.
An intelligence official, who asked not to be named, said the development was "the first possible link" between last week's attack and the bombing of the Cole.
He said authorities were searching for possible ties to the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, as well as other terrorist attacks linked to Bin Laden.
Brian Levin, a terrorism expert at Cal State San Bernardino's Center on Hate and Extremism, said the failure to find the men was a tragedy. "If we had the level of suspicions that we apparently did and he was able to get into the country and evade authorities, that reflects a real operational failure," he said.
Initial news of the link between the attacks on the Pentagon and the Cole were first reported last week by a Boston television station. They were amplified Saturday by Newsweek magazine.
The investigation into the attacks broadened Saturday as the FBI sent a list of more than 100 names to 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, immigration officials questioned scores of people and foreign investigators continued following leads.
The list, obtained by The Times, is weighted heavily with names tied to addresses in Florida, where most of the hijackers set up operations.
A number of phone numbers and e-mail addresses were out of service, and several of those contacted Saturday said they had no idea why they were on the list. One Ohio address was an extended-stay motel, where the manager said he'd never heard of the person on the list.
A Spokane, Wash., man reacted angrily when asked why he might be on the list. "I don't know anything about this issue," he said. "I've never had any contact with these [hijackers.]"
A New Jersey software programmer, a Hindu from India said, "I've lived in this country for 25 years."
A Washington-based FBI official said those on the FBI list distributed Saturday were not suspects but a wide range of people the agency "wants to talk to because it believes they may have information that could be helpful to the investigation."
That includes acquaintances of the men, past roommates, even people with whom they conducted business transactions, the official said. The official would not discuss how the list was compiled.
Meanwhile, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Saturday, while meeting with President Bush at Camp David, that progress was being made in the hijack investigation.
"We are beginning to understand the ways in which this terrible crime was committed," he said. "The investigation is developing a kind of clarity."
Only one significant arrest had been made as of Friday, of an unidentified man picked up at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Officials declined to provide details of the arrest, except to say that the man was being held as a material witness, which means that authorities believe he has some information relevant to Tuesday's attacks and also poses a flight risk.
A second arrest warrant for a material witness has been issued by the U.S. attorney's office in New York, officials said Saturday, but that individual has not yet been picked up. He too was not identified.
Investigators expected to issue additional warrants, and Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said, "We are at a point where there will be additional and more frequent warrants."
Sources said that before the hijackings, the FBI had detained a Middle Eastern man trying to take jet flight training in Minnesota before the attack. They were in the process of deporting him when the attack occurred. He has been held for questioning.
FBI agents also have begun questioning 25 people who are in custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service across the country, including two men who were found aboard an Amtrak train in Forth Worth earlier last week in possession of box cutters and large amounts of cash.
They have been taken to New York for questioning by FBI agents there, officials said.
Investigators are seeking to determine whether the terrorists involved in Tuesday's attacks may also have been planning to hijack a plane from the Dallas airport, the second largest in the country.
Those in INS custody are not being held in connection with the hijackings, but they are allegedly in the country illegally or have immigration status problems. Most of them showed up on law enforcement lists of people who might have connections to the hijackers--friends, relatives or roommates.
Some of the 25 are "cooperating" with the FBI in their investigation, Tucker said Saturday, refusing to discuss details.
FBI agents also are aiding German domestic intelligence officials in their investigation of links between the hijackers and terrorist cells operating in Hamburg and other German cities.
A search of an apartment in the university city of Bochum, belonging to the girlfriend of Ziad Jarrahi, one of the 19 hijackers, turned up a suitcase containing "aircraft documents," said federal prosecutor Kay Nehm.
The FBI said Jarrahi was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in western Pennsylvania.
Jarrahi had been registered at Hamburg's Technical University, as were fellow hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, and had been studying engineering and aircraft construction there for four years.
Nehm declined to elaborate on the aircraft documents found in the suitcase, which police believe belonged to Jarrahi, nor would he say what their relevance might be to the investigation.
Jarrahi, who was Lebanese, was one of three Arab men tied to a suspected terrorist cell in Hamburg. His connection to the German group thought to have helped plan the terrorist acts was made public when his girlfriend reported him missing to Bochum police.
Police were still searching for a fourth Hamburg-based suspect, but Nehm said investigators have yet to establish any link between the men who took cover in Germany and Bin Laden.
FBI New York Director Barry Mawn said late Saturday that agents would conduct a detailed search Sunday of streets and rooftops near the World Trade Center after the passport of one of the hijackers was recovered "several blocks from the Twin Towers."
September 16, 2001
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times