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Uneasy memories of hijackers in their midst

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Michael D. Sallah, Block News Alliance

They dressed in polo shirts and khakis and toted cell phones in their cars as they cruised along the palm-lined boulevards of South Florida.

An officer with the Broward County Sheriff's Office looks through the window of an apartment in Hollywood, Fla., as investigators search for clues in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Suspects in the attacks are believed to have spent time in Florida cities such as Vero Beach, Delray Beach, Hollywood, Coral Springs, and Deerfield Beach.

Moving from motel rooms to apartments to rental homes, they communicated with e-mails written in special code.

In a culturally rich region that's home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the 14 Arabic-speaking men barely drew a second glance.

"They looked like anyone else down here. They spoke in broken English, so what? Who doesn't?" said David Niven, of Delray Beach, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. "Every nationality in the world is within a five-mile radius of my house. And if they lived next door to me, I doubt if I could even pick them out of a police lineup."

Whether by design or chance, they found the perfect place to plan the perfect mass murder, say scholars and law enforcement agents.

They worked out at local health clubs, took flight lessons and gathered in cramped motel rooms as they moved closer to the day when they would massacre more than 6,500 people on Sept. 11.

It may take years for investigators to finally piece together a portrait of the men who hijacked four jetliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and a fourth in a field in Somerset County. They used so many phony names and addresses in an area stretching from Daytona Beach to Miami, it may be impossible to know all their moves.

"This is where you come to drop out," says Casey Brown, a former assistant Palm Beach County property appraiser. "If you're a criminal, it's a great place to hide."

Why the leaders of the hijackers' force chose Florida as a staging ground may never be known.

But there are plenty of reasons why the Sunshine State was suitable to their cause.

For example:

With more than 2 million people of Caribbean descent -- particularly Cubans -- the region is dominated by people of color and foreign languages. The hijackers, like people of other ethnic groups, simply blended into the tapestry.

Transience and tourism have always set South Florida apart from other U.S. regions, with people constantly moving in and out. The state's population exploded from 6.8 million in 1970 to about 15 million today.

Federal agencies in South Florida are long used to investigating terrorist suspects from Cuba and South America, but not the Middle East.

The availability of numerous flight schools, including Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach and Huffman Aviation in Venice -- where several of the suicide pilots received their flight training -- makes it ideal for people who want to learn how to fly.

Some experts point to an interesting irony in why the hijackers may have picked Florida.

While it's a state with plenty of ethnic groups -- allowing the ter-rorists to blend in -- it's also a state with a relatively small number of Arab-Americans and Muslims.

The people who may have been most suspicious of the hijackers and their plans would have been other Arabs, say experts.

"It's not hard to understand," says Dr. Walid Phares, a terrorism expert and professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"They would have drawn atten-tion to themselves by other Arabs. They would have been asked a lot of questions. If you're a terrorist, you want to minimize your risks."

In other words, it would have been more difficult to plan their mission in places like Toledo and Dearborn, Mich., he added, where the concentrations of people of Middle Eastern descent is greater.

From the beginning, the terror-ists seemed determined to conceal their identities and mission.

Some are believed to have used stolen IDs or aliases along a twisted and confusing trail through cities like Vero Beach, Delray Beach, Hollywood, Coral Springs and Deerfield Beach.

The city that attracted most of the suspects: Delray Beach, a quaint coastal community in Palm Beach County.

Maria Siscar-Simpson was stunned to learn that two of the suspects, Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alnami, who were on the United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, lived below her at the Delray Racquet Club.

"They looked like kids," she told reporters. "Everyone thought they were tennis students. Honestly, they blended right in."

She and others were surprised to discover that a New York firefighter missing in the World Trade Center collapse, Lawrence Stack, owned a condo directly across the street from the suspects.

"It's balcony to balcony. It's about 300 feet from terrorists to hero," said local resident Ann Nathanson.

The hijackers' trail in Florida may have originated in May 2000.

The suspected ringleader, Mohamed Atta, arrived in July 2000 -- just days after he visited a flight school in Oklahoma, according to interviews and records. He ended up in Florida instead.

Described by people who knew him as a serious 33-year-old urban planner, he and fellow hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi showed up at the Huffman Aviation flight school in Venice.

Atta, who was born in Egypt, wrote a check for $10,000 to begin training at the flying center.

For the next five months, the two men quietly took lessons, initially staying at the home of an instructor for $37 a night, and later renting an apartment.

The dark-haired, 5-foot-8 leader drove a red Pontiac used his cell phone frequently, and dressed in the latest fashions, recalled another student, Ali Azzan.

The two suspects' political lean-ings were obvious, said Azzan. "They liked to discuss politics, often railing about Israel," he said.

By the time America's attention was focused on Florida during the now infamous presidential recount in December, the two men had qualified to fly small, multi-engine planes.

That same month, at least 12 of the other suspected conspirators were in Florida, moving from motels to rental units to condos, records show. Some may have taken flight lessons as early as 1993 in Florida.

Between January and March of this year, Hamza Alghamdi and Mohand Alsheri -- both on the United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the World Trade Center -- plunked down $200 to rent a mailbox at a Delray Beach shopping center.

It was the first in a series of mail drops and bogus addresses the group used to obtain driver's licenses and reserve plane tickets.

One expert believes the terror-ists moved from place to place for obvious reasons.

"They wanted to stay ahead of anyone who may have been trailing them," says Don Pierce, a former federal task force agent in Delray Beach.

"If you just keep moving, you can stay ahead of people. These are people that are probably not going to draw a lot of attention anyway."

According to news accounts and interviews, Atta moved to at least three places in the 14 months he lived in Florida.

At times, he and others rolled out wads of cash -- $100 and $50 bills, witnesses have said. But in South Florida, that's not going to raise eyebrows, says Dr. John Nutter, a former Michigan State University researcher who advises law enforcement agencies on terrorism.

With the numbers of wealthy people who flock there, "not having any visible means of support is fairly typical," Nutter said. "They could have been wealthy heirs of oil money."

Even when Atta and other con-spirators visited the remote farming area of Belle Glade six months ago -- about 40 miles west of Palm Beach -- no one seemed to suspect anything.

Amid the cane fields and sugar refineries, Atta went to the local airport to ask about crop-duster planes.

"He wanted to know how to fly it, how to crank it, how much it would haul," recalled James Lester, 50, who services the crafts. Experts have frequently cited crop-dusters as a possible means of dispersing dangerous chemical or biological agents.

Lester said Atta, believed to have crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center, returned to the air strip as recently as August -- a month before the attacks.

By summer, the men had settled into several spots, possibly awaiting orders. But all along, they continued to try to confound anyone who may have trailed them.

"You have to put yourself into the mind of a terrorist if you really want to understand these people. They did everything -- everything -- for a reason," said Phares, the Florida Atlantic University professor who has testified before Senate subcommittees on Middle East conflicts.

"This is not an area that con-cerns itself with Middle East ter-rorism," said Phares, a native of Lebanon. "Speaking Arabic in public is not going to turn heads in Florida, but speaking in Spanish about people like Castro most cer-tainly will."

By spring of this year, a paper trail emerged: Al-Shehhi obtained his driver's license April 12, while Ziad Jarrah and Atta received theirs May 2.

A suspect who used the name Waleed Al-Shehri got his license May 4. Three more obtained licenses in July, reports show.

By summer, they joined local gyms and began visiting the Delray Beach public library.

Librarian Kathleen Hensman recognized several of their photos because they had frequented the downtown library to use the com-puters. The person she remem-bered most: Marwan Al-Shehhi, who was listed aboard United Air-lines Flight 175.

She said the pudgy, bespectacled man asked her about good restau-rants in the Delray Beach area.

"He looked me right in the eye and asked, and then everybody jumped in -- all the people at the computers," she told reporters.

"The place was bustling, and all these people started telling him about the restaurants in Delray. It makes me angry. It's so upsetting. They were here using our library as a vehicle for terrorism." FBI agents have since carted away three of the computers.

Brown, the former assistant Palm Beach County property appraiser, said he uses the computers there so often "I probably sat next to those guys and didn't even know it. Delray has people from every walk and color. They would not have turned any heads."

Atta and Al-Shehhi often went to a Denny's restaurant in Delray Beach, ordering black coffee and veggie cheese omelets, according to employees.

"They were regulars," said wait-ress Donna Cooper.

Just days before the hijackings, two of the hijackers checked into the Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach, a small city about 18 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. Co-owner Richard Surma remembers them well.

"They paid me $500 in advance," he said. His wife, Diane, said she gets chills when she recalls how Marwan Al-Shehhi stood so close to her. "He was right there talking to me in the laundry room."

Before checking out the day before the attack, the hijackers left something behind in the dumpster, said Surma: a flight tote bag stuffed with FAA flight maps, a protractor, martial arts books, an English-German dictionary and a binder filled with scrawled notes.

Between Aug. 24 and 29, the hijackers sealed their fates: At least 14 of the 19 booked reservations for the death flights.

Three provided the same Delray Beach address. Six of them gave the same Broward County cell phone number. Some paid cash, and others used credit cards, logging onto the Internet to book their tickets.

They began to leave for Washington, Boston and New York by late August and early September.

Some South Florida residents are coming to grips with the realization that they may have crossed paths with the hijackers during innocuous trips to the beach, grocery store, library or even a restaurant.

"It's shocking beyond belief that these guys were here," Niven, the Florida Atlantic professor, said. "While 8-year-old kids were doing their homework at the library, these guys were sitting next to them planning to blow up the World Trade Center."

While he and others are baffled the hijackers lived among them, Brown insists there was no way anyone could have known of the horrors they were about to carry out. Most of the immigrant groups that come to South Florida keep to themselves and speak a foreign language, he said.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Michael Sallah is The Blade's national affairs writer. The Blade's news services con-tributed to this report.

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