In Suspect’s Luggage, a Suicide ‘Will’
As the number of people jailed nationwide in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks swelled to nearly 600, authorities released new details Friday about the suspects’ painstaking preparations leading up to the hijackings.
According to a court affidavit unsealed Friday in Maine, FBI searches of suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta’s bags and his abandoned rental car revealed some of the tools of the terrorist trade, including maps, a hand-held electronic flight computer, videos and simulator manuals on flying Boeing aircraft.
Most of the items were found in two bags that Atta checked on his flight out of Portland, Maine. But the bags never made it onto the connecting flight out of Logan International Airport in Boston that Atta and others hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
Also found in the bag, according to the unsealed warrant affidavit, were a copy of the Koran and a handwritten document in Arabic titled “In the name of God all mighty [sic], Death Certificate.” The document--different from a terrorist manifesto that the FBI found among some of the hijackers’ belongings and released last week--lays out instructions for Atta’s burial and possessions “when I die.”
Authorities said Atta instructed that he be buried “next to good Muslims,” with his body pointed east toward Mecca, that strict Muslim traditions be followed for his burial and that no women be allowed at his funeral. The document is dated April 11, 1996, suggesting that Atta may have been considering a suicide attack for several years before he carried it out.
The 19 hijackers, who had roots in Afghanistan and Europe, began immigrating to the United States in 1999 under approved visas, living fairly nondescript lives in Florida, New Jersey, California and other parts of the country and taking flight-training courses to aid their suicide missions.
In the Frenzied Hours After the Attack
While some details have already come out about the FBI searches of Atta’s bags and rental car, the affidavit unsealed Friday offers insight into how authorities zeroed in on Atta and what they found in the frenzied hours after the attacks. The affidavit is one of the few court documents on the hijacking plot to become public so far.
The document discloses, for instance, that FBI agents first identified Atta as a suspect on the day of the attacks because of a cell phone call from a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11. In the call, the attendant gave a description of the attackers, their seat numbers and Atta’s name, the affidavit says.
That led agents to two bags checked by Atta and left behind at Logan. A search of the bags yielded the flight-related materials, the “death certificate,” a letter of reference, education-related documentation and other materials, officials said.
Further investigation that day found that Atta and fellow hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari had spent “thousands of dollars” between late July and Sept. 6 on airline tickets, rental cars, cash withdrawals and other items in Florida, charging them to two Visa accounts.
The affidavit, written by an FBI agent Sept. 12, asserts that Alomari was associated with a Saudi Arabian airline and flight operations company at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
However, the FBI has acknowledged that it is not certain about the identities of all 19 hijackers, and more recent evidence indicates that a Saudi pilot in Vero Beach, Fla., with a similar name was not, in fact, the man identified as Alomari on Flight 11.
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return calls Friday seeking comment, and FBI officials refused to say Friday whether they still think the hijacker was affiliated with a Saudi airline. “I would assume the affidavit to be correct, or at least that was what we knew at the time,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office.
By 11:15 on the night of the attacks, authorities received a description of the car Atta rented from an Alamo Rent-a-Car office in Maine--a blue Nissan Altima. The car had not been returned, and the FBI found it on the first level of an airport parking garage in Portland, according to the affidavit.
After getting a warrant to search the vehicle, authorities lifted 18 latent fingerprints and seized several maps, hair samples, a package of Chips Ahoy cookies and other items, according to an FBI property receipt returned to the court.
Number of Arrests Climbs Above 580
In the weeks since then, the FBI has received an unprecedented 260,000 leads and tips as it seeks to reconstruct the terrorist attacks and head off future threats. Authorities have not charged anyone in the United States with being an accomplice in the attacks, but they have arrested an ever-growing number of people who they say might know something about it.
That number grew to more than 580 people Friday, up from about 500 earlier in the week. That includes 156 people being detained for alleged immigration violations, plus hundreds more arrested on unrelated state and local charges. A small number, believed to be about a dozen or so, are being held as material witnesses.
Justice Department officials have refused to identify those being held in connection with the case or detail the charges against them. That wall of silence has infuriated many Muslim leaders and civil rights advocates, who charge that federal authorities are essentially rounding up people of Middle Eastern descent even with little or no evidence connecting them to the attacks.
But federal officials deny the accusation. “In an investigation of this size, as we’re following leads, we’re going to come across individuals who have violated immigration laws and other things, and we’re going to deal with those individuals as the system provides,” said a Justice Department official who asked not to be identified because the investigation is ongoing. “It’s not a matter of us going out and getting whoever we can and rounding them up.”