In June 2000, a former San Diego State University student named Mohdar Abdullah and two new friends from Saudi Arabia drove from their apartments in San Diego to Los Angeles International Airport. The trip, Abdullah would later say, was designed to show the men how to get to LAX because one was leaving the country the next day.
After renting a motel room, the three visited the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City to pray. To Abdullah's surprise, his friends already knew several people at the mosque, one of whom would meet them that night at the motel.
Today, investigators believe the encounter of two future Sept. 11 hijackers with a man later deported by the U.S. government demonstrated that Al Qaeda had put a terrorist support network in place in Southern California long before the attacks of 2001.
That conclusion is contained deep in the final report published this week by the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The finding is both alarming and probably unprovable.
The theory hinges on a series of events involving the two Saudi men, hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, as well as the commission's belief that neither man had the language skills or familiarity with the U.S. to easily live here while preparing for the attacks.
"We believe it is unlikely that [Alhazmi] and Almihdhar ... would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival," the 9/11 commission concluded.
But interviews with FBI officials familiar with the investigation and others like Mohdar Abdullah, since deported to Yemen, produce more questions than answers about whether the terrorists had knowing assistance from anyone in California.
On one hand, Abdullah and some counterterrorism officials recall meetings that cannot be explained away to chance. "I don't believe in coincidences," said one federal prosecutor familiar with the Sept. 11 investigation.
But others insist that Al Qaeda, patient and methodical, would not have risked exposing the plot by involving too many participants. They note that investigations suggest not all 19 hijackers were aware they were on a suicide mission Sept. 11.
"Maybe there's been something new," said Larry Mefford, who retired in November as the FBI's head of counterterrorism. "But as of the time of my retirement, there was no credible indication that anyone in Southern California helped the two terrorists with knowledge of the 9/11 plot."
Likewise, Richard Garcia, head of the FBI's Los Angeles division, said he had no evidence that the Sept. 11 hijackers had any help in Southern California from individuals who knew of the planned attacks. "If there was support, I think it was unwitting," said Garcia, adding that it probably took the form of Muslims or people of Middle Eastern descent offering innocent help to others of their faith or background.
Although the commission report does not address current conditions, Garcia said that given the size of the region, "it would be naive to assume there are no terrorists here."
In its report, the culmination of 20 months of investigation, the 9/11 commission said it remained unclear why Alhazmi and Almihdhar came to California.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 plot who was arrested last year in Pakistan, told interrogators that Al Qaeda did not have agents in Southern California. The region was chosen as a meeting place for the hijackers, he said, because it was far from the intended East Coast targets and easy to get to from Asia, where Alhazmi, Almihdhar and others had met to help plot terrorist attacks.
Arriving in Los Angeles in January 2000, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, like the other hijackers, appeared to have had their movements choreographed by Mohammed, according to the report. But unlike the others, they were given special dispensation to visit local mosques and make local contacts, posing as newly arrived college students seeking help getting established.
Although their first two weeks in Los Angeles remain a mystery, commission investigators say, Alhazmi and Almihdhar appear to have quickly received assistance from the Muslim community and specifically people who lived or worked around Culver City's King Fahd Mosque, one of the largest in Southern California.
Why the pair chose that mosque is unclear, the commission said. One possibility, according to investigators, was that they were drawn to Fahad al Thumairy, a Saudi consular official who was a well-known prayer leader. Thumairy was expelled from the U.S. last year for alleged links to terrorists, though officials at the mosque said he was nonviolent and decried the attacks of Sept. 11.
Two weeks after their arrival in Los Angeles, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had another meeting that raised the eyebrows of authorities.
It was Feb. 1 and the two were dining at a restaurant on Venice Boulevard a short walk from the mosque. While they spoke, they were interrupted by a San Diego man named Omar Albayoumi, who overheard their conversation in Gulf Arabic.
They told Albayoumi they had just arrived from Saudi Arabia to study English and that while they had an apartment, they did not like Los Angeles. Albayoumi, a well-known figure in San Diego's Saudi community, touted San Diego and offered to help them relocate. Three days later, they were settled in San Diego.
The meeting of the hijackers and Albayoumi, who had close links to the Saudi government, has long been seen as evidence that Saudi Arabia either knew of the pending attacks or had concerns about Almihdhar and Alhazmi that it never shared with U.S. intelligence.
But the 9/11 commission, while questioning Albayoumi's candor, found "no credible evidence" that he was an extremist. What's more, his Feb. 1, 2000, lunchtime companion -- identified in the report as Caysan Bin Don -- is a U.S. government informant who has verified Albayoumi's account that the first meeting with Almihdhar and Alhazmi took place by accident, according to sources.
In San Diego, perhaps their closest friend turned out to be Mohdar Abdullah, the former university student.
Abdullah has told the The Times he first met the hijackers at a dinner party hosted by Albayoumi at an El Cajon mosque in January or early February 2000. Fluent in both English and Arabic, Abdullah was asked by Albayoumi to help Almihdhar and Alhazmi get settled.
While the commission speculated that Abdullah drove the men to San Diego, he insisted they were brought to the city by Albayoumi. And on Feb. 4, according to the commission report, the two hijackers went to the Islamic Center of San Diego to find Albayoumi "and take him up on his offer to help."
Albayoumi located an apartment, helped them fill out lease applications and provided a certified check for $9,900 as a deposit because the apartment manager refused to take the cash offered by Almihdhar and Alhazmi. Instead, they repaid Albayoumi with the cash.
"Neither then nor later did [Albayoumi] give money to either" of the hijackers, according to the report, which says their money came from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Almihdhar and Alhazmi moved into the apartment -- the first of at least three apartments in four months -- with no furniture and few possessions, the report said. When Almihdhar deemed one apartment too messy and said he no longer wanted to move in, and the landlord refused to refund the $650 deposit, "Almihdhar became belligerent ... ranting and raving" and acting "psychotic," the report said, quoting the landlord.
That May they moved into a room in the house of an acquaintance from a San Diego mosque. But on June 9, Almihdhar left San Diego for Yemen, tired of the U.S. and anxious to see his first newborn child. Alhazmi stayed on in San Diego, joined six months later by Hani Hanjour, who piloted the American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.
Almihdhar's decision to return to Yemen, according to the commission, infuriated Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. By returning home, Mohammed believed, Almihdhar had not only stranded his companion in San Diego but put the terrorist mission at risk.
The mastermind of Sept. 11 was so angry, the commission report said, that he tried to drop Almihdhar from the plans but was overruled by Osama Bin Laden.
Traveling to Los Angeles for his flight home, Almihdhar was joined by Alhazmi and their newfound friend in San Diego, Abdullah.
It was during that trip that Abdullah recalled his surprise that Alhazmi and Almihdhar knew people at the Culver City mosque although they had only lived in Los Angeles for two weeks. "I was surprised that anybody at the mosque knew them, because as far as I knew Alhazmi and Almihdhar hadn't visited Los Angeles since they arrived in the U.S.," Abdullah said in a telephone interview from Yemen.
One of the men they met at the mosque also showed up at the motel where Abdullah and the hijackers were staying. The significance of his visit is another mystery.
In its report, the commission reported that the man -- known as "Khallam" -- asked Abdullah to leave the room so he could speak to Almihdhar and Alhazmi in private. But Abdullah said Thursday that he was never asked to leave the room. Instead, he said Alhazmi left the room so he could make an international call from a public phone.
The next day, Almihdhar flew to Yemen, returning to the U.S. on July 4, 2001, when he met up with Alhazmi and Hanjour in Paterson, N.J.
The identity and whereabouts of "Khallam" have never been pinpointed.
A top FBI counterterrorism official said last week that he remembered the name Khallam. He said Khallam was one of about a dozen individuals in California that investigators tried to track down after Sept. 11 to see if they did help the hijackers.
"Some of them are out of the country. Some of them are still here and we are looking at them," said the official. "And some, we don't know where they are."