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Hijackers in San Diego Weren’t Hiding

Times Staff Writers

Two of the hijackers who helped commandeer the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon never tried to hide their identities during the months they lived in San Diego during 2000 while preparing for the Sept. 11 attack.

Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi were given money and were helped in finding housing and work by several men who had drawn the attention of FBI anti-terrorism agents in San Diego. They lived with an FBI informant and met regularly with a Muslim religious leader who was the subject of a federal terrorism probe, records and interviews show.

But the two hijackers, who had clearly visible links to Al Qaeda, were overlooked by local agents, even though the Saudi nationals had been labeled terrorist operatives by U.S. intelligence agencies. The CIA had observed both men attending an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 -- just days before arriving in California.

But the Central Intelligence Agency and other top federal officials in Washington, D.C., failed to notify the local FBI about Almihdhar and Alhazmi, and that may have undercut the government’s best chance of detecting the Sept. 11 plot, according to a congressional inquiry released Thursday. The 900-page report details for the first time how close federal investigators were to discovering some of the attack’s key leaders.

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The report quotes an FBI official in San Diego saying the bureau would have gone into a “full court press” on the two hijackers if local agents had gotten a warning from the CIA that the two men were linked to Al Qaeda and had entered the country.

“It would have made a huge difference,” the unidentified FBI agent says in the report. “We would have initiated investigations immediately.”

Instead, Almihdhar and Alhazmi quickly began linking up with associates suspected of having ties to terrorist groups without drawing any attention, according to the government’s account.

Days after arriving in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000, the men met Omar Al Bayoumi in a Los Angeles restaurant. The 45-year-old Saudi approached the pair after overhearing them speak Arabic, the report said. Al Bayoumi, also a Saudi, invited the pair to San Diego.

The meeting may not have been accidental, according to the report. Earlier that day, Al Bayoumi had a meeting at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.

Al Bayoumi “had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia,” the report said; he became a benefactor to the hijackers. He co-signed their lease and paid their security deposit and first month’s rent in February 2000 at an apartment in the San Diego neighborhood where Al Bayoumi lived, records and interviews show. He hosted a party in their honor to acquaint them with leaders of the Muslim community.

Six months earlier, the FBI office in San Diego had closed a counter-terrorism inquiry of Al Bayoumi for reasons that, the report said, were unclear. The FBI agent who headed the probe told congressional investigators no evidence of ties to terrorism had been uncovered.

After Sept. 11, the FBI learned that Al Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements.” A search of his home uncovered evidence that he was “providing guidance to young Muslims and some of his writings can be interpreted as jihadist.” Al Bayoumi has since left the United States.

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In early 2000, as Al Bayoumi introduced the hijackers around San Diego’s large Muslim community, the FBI’s Los Angeles office opened an investigation of a unnamed San Diego business manager suspected of links to the brother of an Osama bin Laden operative, the report said.

The business manager hired Alhazmi as the investigation was continuing. The report said an FBI agent interviewed the business manager by phone and later closed the inquiry, concluding the manager did not pose a threat to national security.

Alhazmi apparently was referred to the job by a friend at a La Mesa mosque, one of three attended by the hijackers, records and interviews show. An unidentified imam at the mosque, described in the report as “closely affiliated” with the hijackers, had been under investigation when the pair arrived in San Diego.

The probe focused on the imam’s contacts, including an associate of a cleric convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That inquiry was closed in March 2000, after an FBI agent said the imam did not warrant further investigation. The imam relocated to Virginia and joined a mosque later attended by Alhazmi and another hijacker, Hani Hanjour.

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German authorities who raided an apartment of one of the Sept. 11 planners found a phone number for the imam’s mosque, the report said.

In May 2000, the hijackers took flight lessons in San Diego, the report said. One Saudi student who spoke to The Times said he translated for Alhazmi when he visited a flight school and asked how long it would take to fly “big planes.”

The strongest connection between the hijackers’ associates and federal investigators involved a longtime FBI counter-terrorism informant, the report said. The informant is not identified in the report, but a federal law enforcement source said Thursday his name is Abdussattar Shaikh. He rented a room to Almihdhar and Alhazmi for several months in late 2000.

Shaikh helped found the 27,000-square-foot Islamic Center in Clairemont, near San Diego, and served on the San Diego Citizens Review Board of Police Practices. He did not return calls for comment Thursday.

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Another Saudi national who rented a room from Shaikh and was detained as material witness after the 9/11 attacks told The Times that he met his landlord through Al Bayoumi. Shaikh has acknowledged to the newspaper that Al Bayoumi was a friend.

According to the report, the informant told his FBI handler that he knew a “Nawaf” and “Khalid,” but that they were “good Muslim Saudi youths who were legally in the United States to visit and attend school.”

Shaikh told the FBI and The Times that he had no idea the two men were involved in terrorism. The FBI agent who worked with the informant said information about the pair at the time was not of “investigative significance,” the report said.

After Sept. 11, questions were raised about the informant, but the FBI has determined he was “an unwitting observer with no role in the attacks,” the report says. Shaikh declined to answer questions from congressional investigators without a grant of immunity.

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The agent working with the informant testified that, if he had been notified about the intelligence community’s concerns about Almihdhar and Alhazmi, he could have found them. “I’m sure we could have located them and we could have done it within a few days,” he said.

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Reza reported from San Diego, and Connell and Lopez from Los Angeles. Greg Miller in Washington also contributed to this report.


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