Hijackings: Polite, Withdrawn Suspects Kept Low Profile In U.S.

Washington Post

Two of the suspected hijackers in Tuesday's suicide attacks on New York and Washington had lived in Hamburg, Germany, where they organized a terrorist cell before moving to Florida this year for flight training and final practice in the cockpit.

Another suspect, who sometimes roomed with them, was the son of a Saudi diplomat with a former home in Vienna, Va., according to people who knew them in the Washington area and Florida.

Some of the suspects and their associates in Florida sent their families back to the Middle East shortly before this week's attacks. Then they hurriedly purchased expensive furniture to ship home -- or, alternatively, threw out all their belongings.

Certain shadowy ties and patterns of geography and behavior are beginning to emerge now that federal investigators have identified at least 18 men who are suspected to have died as hijackers on four airplanes Tuesday. It was unclear Thursday night how many of their accomplices remain at large and how many have been detained by law enforcement authorities.

From investigators on two continents, as well as from landlords, neighbors and business people who knew the suspects, a portrait emerges of a group of polite and purposeful men.

Several, who are remembered in Germany as Islamic fundamentalists who wore traditional Arab garb, switched in the United States to typical western attire and are said to have drunk alcohol in bars. Neighbors found them polite, if withdrawn. They were prompt in paying for their apartments and rental cars.

On three days in mid-August, Mohammed Atta rented a four-seat, single-engine plane for 90 minutes a session from a private company at the airport in Palm Beach, Fla. Investigators believe he was the hijacker who took over the controls of American Airline flight 11 -- the first to crash -- and smashed it into the World Trade Center's north tower. He told the owner of the company, Palm Beach Flight Training, that his goal was to log 100 hours in the air as soon as he could.

Atta was one of several suspects who had a pilot's license, or told people they were affiliated with airlines. Sources at the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Thursday that at least two of the hijackers may have entered the country on M-1 visas to attend flight schools.

At least one who died on the American flight from Boston, Abdul Alomari, and one who remains alive, Amer Mohammed Kamfar, had been roommates for several months in Vero Beach, Fla. They listed as their previous employer Saudi Flight Ops, a firm that performs maintenance for Saudi Arabian Airlines at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Kamfar also listed himself as a Saudi pilot on an apartment rental application.

Kamfar's role in the attack became murkier Thursday night, as a Saudi newspaper reported that Saudi Arabian Airlines officials had said an employee with that name was at home in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and suggested that someone else may have taken his identity or his passport.

As the role of some suspects became more ambiguous, the involvement of others came into clearer view.

In Hamburg, police conducted a raid on the second-floor apartment on a quiet residential street that had been the home of Atta, 33, and Marwan Alshehhi, 23, who died on the United Airlines flight from Boston that plowed into the trade center's south tower. Police there also arrested a Hamburg airport worker, originally from Morocco, and launched a manhunt for associates, some of whom may already have left Germany, according to Hamburg's interior minister, Olaf Scholz.

The chief federal prosecutor there, Kay Nehm, said Atta and Alshehhi had organized a terrorist cell in the northern city, which has been the site of arrests over the years of Islamic extremists believed to be associated with Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in this week's attacks.

Atta and Alshehhi had been enrolled at times in the local Technical University. Neighbors said they regularly hosted at their apartment groups of up to 20 Arabic men late into the night.

``These people were of Arabic background and lived in Hamburg and were Islamic fundamentalists,'' Nehm said. ``And they formed a terrorist organization with the aim of launching spectacular attacks on the institutions of the United States.''

According to German news accounts, the residents of the apartment at times also included Waleed Alshehri, 25, who was trained to fly large aircraft such as the American Airlines flight from Boston on which he died. Property records show that Waleed most recently lived at the same address in Daytona Beach as Ahmed B. Alshehri, a former second secretary of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. Both men formerly lived in Vienna, Va., simultaneously.

On Thursday, Hamid ``Avis'' Keshavarznia, who had been the suspected hijacker's landlord in Vienna, recalled that the elder Alshehri worked for the Saudi Embassy.

A Saudi Arabian official who asked not to be identified said that the embassy didn't know if Waleed Alshehri was the son of the former embassy official. He said Saudi officials are concerned that the terrorists may have used forged documents and stolen the identities of innocent people.

Two pilots from Saudi Arabia, Adnan Bukhari and Ameer Bukhari, also have been mentioned widely in media reports in connection with the terrorist strikes.

Adnan Bukhari, 40, was detained by the FBI on Wednesday at his home in Vero Beach, Fla., while agents searched the residence. He'd been receiving flight engineering training at the Flight Safety International school there for months. CNN's website quoted his lawyer as saying he was cooperating with the FBI and denied any involvement in the attacks.

Ameer Bukhari, a student pilot, was killed on Sept. 11, 2000, precisely one year to the day before Tuesday's suicide attacks, in a mid-air crash while trying to land a small plane at an airport in St. Lucie County, Fla. There are some connections between Adnan Bukhari and the suspected terrorists. Kamfar once listed him as a personal reference on an apartment rental application. His neighbor in Vero Beach was Alomari.

Alomari, also a student pilot, had moved his family into the home several months ago because his wife and Bukhari's wife, who don't speak English, are good friends, according to Alomari's landlord, Llonald Mixell.

After the FBI searched the Alomari home, agents left a list of materials seized, including hair samples and air conditioning filters, Mixell said, adding that he dissuaded them from seizing the light bulbs, apparently for fingerprints.

Adnan Bukhari's wife returned to Saudi Arabia Aug. 30, and the family's lease on the house ended Aug. 31, landlord Paul Stimeling told The Associated Press. But about July 25, Adnan Bukhari asked for a two-week extension on his lease, through Sept. 15 for extra rent. Then Bukhari said over this past weekend that he needed another two or three days in the home, the landlord added.

``He never gave a reason,'' Stimeling said. ``He said he had a couple of things to clear up.''

Two employees at Rooms To Go, a furniture store in Vero Beach, said Bukhari made a hurried purchase as news of the bombing was breaking on a television set in the showroom. Bukhari bought a full living room set within five minutes, using his credit card to pay the $1,794.95 bill. He said he wanted the furniture readied to be exported to Saudi Arabia. ``I told you I need this stuff right away,'' he said. ``I want to get out of America. I don't like it here.''

Meanwhile, early on the afternoon of Aug. 16, Atta arrived at Palm Beach Flight Training to rent a plane, and quickly demonstrated his competence in the cockpit to a company pilot who took him for a test flight. He returned the following afternoon, then two days later. Each time, he had a different passenger.

According to the company's office manager, Andrew Laws, the only thing that struck workers there as unusual was the fact that -- unlike most pilots who repeatedly rent its planes -- each of Atta's outings lasted exactly the same length of time. After each 90-minute flight, he paid the $133 charge in cash.

The owner of a car-rental company in Pompano Beach, from which Atta rented cars three times during the last month, said he and Alshehhi, who always accompanied him, were uncommonly polite. ``There was nothing suspicious about Mohammed,'' said Brad Warrick, who owns Warrick's Rent-A-Car. ``He had very little accent and acted like he was a businessman. He always had a briefcase and books in the trunk.''

After renting a Chevy Corsica for a week, Atta switched to a Ford Escort, because it cost about $10 less, Warrick recalled. Both vehicles have now been impounded by the FBI. At one point, Warrick said, Atta telephoned him from Venice, Fla., to inform him that the oil light had flickered on and to inquire whether he should be concerned.

When he returned the car on Sept. 9 -- two days before the attacks -- Atta reminded him about the oil light. ``The only thing out of the ordinary,'' Warrick said, ``was that he was nice enough to let me know that the car needed an oil change. That was odd since he was planning to die in a matter of days.''

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