V. How the September 11th Hijackers Escaped Detection
Although the September 11th hijackers had engaged in behavior similar to Moussaoui's, none of them were detained before the attacks. Upon examining the suspicious behavior they engaged in, and the way they were perceived, it appears that each of these men escaped detection because a positive stereotype counteracted the negative stereotype that could have been applied to them. Despite the common profiling of Arabs as religious fanatics and terrorists, the more positive image of the wealthy or royal Arab balanced against this negative stereotype, preventing flags from being raised about the activities of these men.
A. Mohamed al-Amir Awad al-Sayed Atta
The FBI believes that Mohamed Atta was aboard the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. He was an Egyptian citizen who had been in the United States taking flying lessons at the Huffman Flight School in Florida. One of Atta's fellow students in flight school thought that he was from a royal family. The owner of the school described Atta as having a bad attitude. When Atta applied for a government loan, he threatened a Department of Agriculture official and praised Osama bin Laden. The official said, “I didn't know who Osama bin Laden was. . . . He could have been a character in ‘Star Wars' for all I knew.” In early 2001, Atta was stopped by a deputy sheriff while driving, probably because he did not have a proper United States driver's license. He was ordered to appear in court on May 28, 2001, and because he failed to appear, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. No effort was ever made to find him. In fact, police subsequently stopped Atta for speeding in Delray Beach, but because the two police departments' computers did not interface. The officers released Atta--despite the fact he was a “wanted man.”
B. Saeed Alghamdi
Saeed Alghamdi is alleged to have been one of the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field. He is believed to be a Saudi Arabian citizen. The travel agent who sold Alghamdi and fellow hijacker Marwan Yusef Mohammed al-Shehhi their one-way tickets from Newark, New Jersey, stated that they “paid cash and didn't wait for the change.” The FBI believed that Alghamdi used the social security number of a Vermont woman who had been dead for thirty years and the address of a Florida Air Force base that had no record of him staying there. Nevertheless, he was never arrested or accused of criminal activity.
While residing in Florida, Alghamdi had a heated argument with two of his downstairs neighbors. He banged on the neighbor's door to retrieve a towel. The neighbor said that she slammed the door, locked it, and activated her burglar alarm. She said Alghamdi was polite the next few times she saw him.
C. Marwan Yusef Mohammed al-Shehhi
Marwan Al-Shehhi was Mohamed Atta's cousin, raised in the United Arab Emirates and trained at the same aviation school in Florida. FBI officials believe he was aboard the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center towers. In one instance before September 11th, after drinking heavily, Atta, al-Shehhi, and a third man got into an altercation at a bar in Florida. At the bar, Atta claimed that he was a pilot for American Airlines. The altercation arose when the waitress serving the men asked them to pay their bill. The men considered the request an insult, believing it was an insinuation that they could not afford to pay.
D. Ziad Jarrahi
Ziad Jarrahi was raised in Lebanon, the son of a wealthy bank manager who frequently flew to the United States. The FBI suspects that Jarrahi was aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The FBI also believes that on September 11th Jarrahi met with three other alleged hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, and Ahmed Alnami, and flew from Florida to Newark to hijack United Airlines Flight 93. Even though the FBI alleges that he carried a knife and box cutter, he was still able to slip through security at Newark Airport.
E. Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi
Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi were the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. These men used their real names to obtain bank accounts and driver's licenses. Although the CIA had linked Almihdhar to one of the suspected bombers of the USS Cole, the State Department issued him a new visa when his expired. Almihdhar and Alhazmi met frequently with five of the other nineteen hijackers. In December 1999, U.S. Intelligence intercepted conversations on a Yemeni phone that mentioned the names Almihdhar and Alhazmi and linked them to al Qaeda. In January 2000, they attended an al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities reported this meeting to the CIA with photos and full names. Since the CIA did not tell the State Department to put either man on a “watch list,” both returned to the United States without incident on January 15, 2000.
Flight instructor Rick Garza reported that he gave both men about six classes on the ground before taking them up in the air. He said that “[t]hey were only interested in flying big jets,” and he did not think that they had the “aptitude” for flying. In fact, he referred to them as “Dumb and Dumber.” Alhazmi failed to graduate from two flight schools in California. In April 2001, Alhazmi was pulled over for speeding in Oklahoma. The state trooper ran Alhazmi's driver's license through the computer but found no evidence of wrongdoing. The trooper issued two tickets totaling $138 and let Alhazmi go.
Later, the FBI's Arizona and Minnesota field offices warned of suspicious activities by Middle Eastern men at flight schools. The CIA failed to follow up information regarding a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur, which included two of the alleged September 11th hijackers. Still, nine of the nineteen hijackers were pulled aside for special airport security screenings on the morning of September 11th. Two of the hijackers were singled out for problems with their identification, while the others' bags were searched for explosives and unauthorized weapons as a result of a computerized screening process. On September 11th, an unidentified man called police because he had gotten into a screaming match with three agitated Arab men over a Logan Airport parking space. It is believed that the three men were some of the hijackers.
The nineteen hijackers might also have been discovered by their financial transactions. A suspected al Qaeda middleman in the Persian Gulf transferred $325,000 into the bank accounts of the nineteen alleged hijackers without raising any red flags at the banks. The hijackers may have escaped detention because many of the transactions were below $10,000. By receiving wire transfers directly into commercial bank accounts, they were able to avoid the banks' reporting requirements. Some of the alleged hijackers used fake social security numbers when opening their accounts, but the banks never questioned or scrutinized those numbers. If the banks had realized that the accounts had been opened with phony social security numbers, they would have been required to file reports of suspicious activity to Federal regulators.