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Minnesota Detainee ‘Cheered’ Jet Attacks

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The FBI is questioning a French Algerian man, detained since last month in Minnesota on suspicion of illegally entering the United States, to determine if he was supposed to join 19 hijackers in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, intelligence and law enforcement officials said Sunday.

Habib Zacarias Moussaoui was picked up by immigration officials outside St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 17, after the staff at a flight school that he attended grew suspicious and reported him. Moussaoui offered to pay thousands of dollars in cash for lessons on a jumbo jet flight simulator, but “he just wanted to learn steering, not landing,” a U.S. official said Sunday.

U.S. officials alerted French authorities to Moussaoui’s detention, and were told that he was an operative of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.

Moussaoui was in the Sherburne County Jail awaiting deportation proceedings when the hijackings took place on Tuesday in a well-orchestrated plot that authorities now blame on Bin Laden’s organization.

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Moussaoui stood and “cheered” when he watched the planes smash into the World Trade Center on television, a jail supervisor said.

The FBI moved him to New York three days later. “He is being interrogated,” an official said.

Investigators cautioned that they still don’t know whether Moussaoui is directly tied to the terrorist plot, or simply acted in a way that raised suspicions. He refused to talk to investigators after he was initially detained, officials said.

The disclosure comes at a time when U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies are under scrutiny over whether they missed crucial signs or opportunities that could have provided a warning of the impending attacks.

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The CIA had warned the FBI in late August that two other suspected Bin Laden associates were in the United States, but agents failed to find them. The two are suspected of ramming an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon. Hijackers flew two other passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York and a fourth hijacked jet crashed in Pennsylvania.

Suspect Taken Away After Attacks

Congress and the Bush administration are both planning investigations of the failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect the terrorist conspiracy and prevent the catastrophic assaults.

A Sherburne County, Minn., jail supervisor, who gave his name only as Sgt. Olson, said federal authorities called on Tuesday, immediately after the attacks, and asked that Moussaoui be placed in protective custody “in an isolated cell” until they could come get him. Olson said a large group of FBI and immigration agents arrived on Friday and took him away.

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During his four-week stay at the jail, Olson said, Moussaoui repeatedly asked to speak to an immigration official “so he could go back to France. He was desperate to get out of there, like a lot of other guys.”

Olson said Moussaoui was well-behaved and did not stand out or cause problems. But, he added, Moussaoui was watching television when the hijackers first hit the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and pictures of flaming wreckage filled the screen.

“As soon as he saw it, he stood up, cheered, walked to his cell and closed the door,” Olson said, citing accounts by several jail officials. “On that same day, federal agents called and asked us to isolate him away from the other inmates.”

French police said Moussaoui had “a similar profile to the kamikaze bombers” who carried out the U.S. attacks, according to an unidentified police source quoted in Liberation, a Paris newspaper. It said French intelligence knew of Moussaoui because he had made numerous trips to Afghanistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be based, and had contacts in Chechnya, where Bin Laden is supporting Islamic rebels.

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As a result, French intelligence designated Moussaoui as a target for surveillance, according to French media accounts. They said he was born in the southern French town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, had lived for a while in Britain, and is 31 years old.

Officials said Moussaoui enrolled last February at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., and obtained a student pilot license on March 2. He underwent three months of entry-level training in a single-engine Cessna 152 but left abruptly in May before he had won his pilot’s license. School officials there could not be reached Sunday.

He studied during the summer at a Pan Am International Flight Academy facility in Eagan, Minn. But school officials became suspicious and called authorities when Moussaoui, who only had a student pilot license, wanted time on a Northwest Airlines flight simulator. The flight simulators can be programmed to show flight patterns and visual guides for airborne approaches to various U.S. cities, including Washington.

Cheney Says U.S. Unsure of Bin Laden’s Location

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Todd Huvard, a spokesman for the Pan Am International Flight Academy, a Miami-based chain of 16 facilities around the country, said the FBI had asked the school not to disclose any details of its investigation.

“We are cooperating fully with the FBI,” he said. FBI and immigration officials in Minneapolis did not return repeated telephone calls.

In other developments Sunday:

Vice President Dick Cheney, in an NBC television interview, conceded that the United States does not know for sure that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan. “We don’t know” that he is there, the vice president said.

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Cheney said the U.S. is convinced Bin Laden and his Al Queda organization had help from other terrorist groups, specifically the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and another “movement” in Uzbekistan.

“People oftentimes move around and sometimes share common ideologies that operate on a worldwide basis,” he said. “And what we have to do is take down those networks.”

Even if Bin Laden were taken out, Cheney said, even “if we had his head on a platter today,” that would not necessarily put a stop to his followers.

In San Diego, Fereidoun “Fred” Sorbi, president of Sorbi’s Flying Club, said he met two of the hijacking suspects, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, in May 2000.

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“The first day they came in here, they said they want to fly Boeings,” said Sorbi, 52. “We said you have to start slower. You can’t just jump right into Boeings.”

Sorbi said he gave them introductory lessons in one of his small Cessna or Piper planes. “We took them up to show them how the airplane flies,” he said.

During the approach to the runway, Sorbi said, one of the men appeared frightened and began praying loudly to Allah as his friend piloted the small plane toward Montgomery Field, north of downtown San Diego.

“We told them to go to college and learn to speak English if they wanted to become pilots,” Sorbi said. “They said they were.”

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Also Sunday, Abdussattar Shaikh, who rented a room last year to Al-Midhar and Alhamzi, said that FBI agents searched his home for five hours Friday night and early Saturday after he called the agency. They took away his computer, which had been used by Alhamzi to communicate in Arabic in various chat rooms.

Bill Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office, said investigators do not view Shaikh as a suspect or an accomplice.

Sorbi said Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were accompanied to the flying session by two other men, both of whom went by a first name that sounded like “Hani.”

A man named Hani Hanjour, who federal authorities believe is a pilot, is listed as one of the hijackers on the flight that hit the Pentagon.

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Records and interviews show that the 29-year-old Hanjour lived in Phoenix before moving to San Diego last year.

Duncan K. Hastie, owner of the CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that a Hani Hanjoor attended the school for a “very brief period” several years ago.

Hastie said Hanjoor accomplished very little at the school.

“One of the first accomplishments of someone in flight school is to fly a plane without an instructor,” he said. “It is a confidence-building procedure. He managed to do that. That is like being able to pull a car out and drive down the street. It is not driving on the freeway.”

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Agents returned Sunday to CRM flight school to to collect records on a second pilot, who took flight lessons on the same four days in December 1997 as Hanjour.

13 People Taken Into Custody in New Jersey

In New Jersey, 13 people have been taken into custody, the latest identified as Matt Mehmeti of New Jersey, who turned himself in to New York police on Sunday.

FBI Special Agent Sandra Carroll said Mehmeti “voluntarily surrendered in New York.”

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Federal authorities also confirmed that they have detained a 34-year-old Texas man, Albader Al-Hazmi of San Antonio, and sent him to New York in connection with the investigation.

Authorities would not say why Al-Hazmi was detained, or whether he was a witness or someone implicated in the terrorist plot--but said they planned to question him about it.

A man named Abader Al-Hazmi of San Antonio is among the more than 100 people the FBI says it wants to talk to in connection with the terrorist plot. That list was released to 18,000 local law enforcement agents and airline officials.

In Vero Beach, Fla., where dozens of FBI agents spent hours last week, they have quietly determined that none of the Saudi pilots they wanted for questioning had anything to do with the deadly terrorist attacks, a law enforcement source said Sunday.

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The confusion began when the flight manifest for American Airlines Flight 11 listed a passenger named Abdul Alomari. That led the FBI to Vero Beach, where a Saudi pilot named Abdulrahman Alomari lived with his wife and children.

But that pilot, who is now in Saudi Arabia, was not the man on Flight 11. The FBI now believes the hijacker’s name was Abdulaziz Alomari, who claimed to be either 22 or 29 and may have lived in Hollywood, Fla.

The FBI also questioned Adnan Zakana Bukhari, a Saudi pilot who lived next door to the Vero Beach man named Alomari. Bukhari’s family had gone back to the Middle East several weeks ago so the children could start school.

Schools for Aviation Mechanics Checked

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While much of the attention has focused on terrorists becoming pilots, the FBI also is investigating whether any suspects attended aviation mechanics schools.

“They are going to look at anyone who might have any information about aviation and jet aircraft,” said the source.

In Houston, for instance, two FBI agents on Friday collected enrollment records for the last three years at the Westwood College of Aviation Technology, according to company spokesman Mike Gray.

“They asked for a variety of enrollment records,” he said.

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Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Doyle McManus, Richard Serrano and Lisa Getter in Washington D.C.; John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami; Scott Glover, H.G. Reza and Matt Lait in San Diego; Kurt Streeter in Phoenix; Greg Krikorian, Robert J. Lopez, Rich Connell, Henry Weinstein, Jon Healey and researcher Nona Yates in Los Angeles.


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