Authorities searching nationwide for terrorists behind the deadly airliner attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have identified teams that totaled as many as 50 infiltrators who supported or carried out the strikes, a source familiar with the investigation said Wednesday.
About 40 of the men have been accounted for, including those killed in the suicide attacks, but 10 remain at large, the source said. In the hours immediately after the assaults, he said, agents searching cars and apartments up and down the East Coast found suicide notes in New York that some of the hijackers wrote to their parents.
Also recovered were credit card receipts showing that some of the hijackers paid for flight training in the United States. Another source, a federal agent involved in the probe, said authorities believe 27 suspected terrorists in all received various kinds of pilot training.
The infiltrators, who carried Middle Eastern passports, belonged to four independent cells, said law enforcement and intelligence officials. They said authorities kept the nation’s airports closed to commercial traffic for a second day partly to prevent the conspirators from fleeing the country.
The investigation reached from Maine to Florida and across the nation to California. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI had mobilized 4,000 agents and 3,000 support personnel. He called it “perhaps the most massive and intensive investigation ever conducted in America.”
In coordinated attacks Tuesday morning, hijackers rammed two airliners filled with passengers into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a third jetliner into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked aircraft crashed in western Pennsylvania. Authorities said it might have been aimed at a target in Washington, D.C., or Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
The administration said the president himself might have been targeted. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the government had credible information that the hijacked plane which struck the Pentagon “was originally intended to hit the White House.” Another possible target, Fleischer said, was Air Force One.
Authorities said Wednesday they had identified many of the hijackers, who wielded knives and box cutters and made bomb threats once onboard. They carried passports from two nations, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said after a briefing by law enforcement officials. She declined to name the countries but said both are in the Middle East.
Federal agents detained several people for immigration violations, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, but there have been no arrests. A law enforcement source said one detainee is being held as a material witness.
FBI agents searched at least three flight schools in Florida and asked for information about former students who are suspected of being among the hijackers. Agents also searched unidentified flight schools in Southern California.
The Florida schools included Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Huffman Aviation International in Venice and FlightSafety International in Vero Beach.
Authorities said two of the suspected hijackers entered the United States on work visas. They began learning to fly last summer at Huffman, according to their flight instructor, their landlord and law enforcement officials.
In addition, federal agents are retracing the steps of suspected hijackers who attended flight schools in Vero Beach, Pompano Beach and Daytona Beach.
Ashcroft said there were three to six hijackers on each of the four planes that crashed Tuesday. Authorities have quickly focused on those who may have learned to fly jumbo jets well enough to guide the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ashcroft said authorities have uncovered “numerous credible leads” by questioning people and serving search warrants from Maine to the southern end of Florida.
FBI agents apparently were drawn to Huffman after finding its name and an Arabic-language flight manual in a car left at Logan International Airport in Boston, from which two of the planes took off Tuesday morning before being hijacked.
Rudi Dekkers said two students, one identified as Amanullah Atta Mohammed and the other only as “Marwan,” paid $10,000 each by check to attend his Huffman Aviation International flight school at the airport in Venice from July to November 2000.
“They came in through the front door,” Dekkers said, adding that they claimed to be Afghans who entered this country from Germany.
“They said they were not happy with another flight school, and so they obtained their licenses here and left, and they went to south Florida for jet training,” Dekkers said.
“They were normal students and worked very hard. They lived nearby and bicycled here every day.”
Dekkers said one of the men said he wanted to learn to fly jumbo jets.
The Huffman school is about 25 years old and handles about 800 students a year. It is a small building on the edge of the Venice airport, and 75 percent to 80 percent of his students are foreigners who come to the United States to learn flying because it costs less.
Dekkers said his school trains fliers for single- or small-engine aircraft and that the two men needed such a certificate to qualify for training to fly jets.
He said he was told that the two men went on to a jet school in Pompano Beach, Fla.
Dekkers described one of the students as “a big, chubby guy and a likeable person.” Now, realizing that two of the hijackers may have passed through his school, Dekkers said, “I feel terrible. I feel worse than anyone.”
Charles Voss, the school bookkeeper, and his wife, Dru, took the two men in as boarders in their south Venice home for a couple weeks in July.
Dru Voss said the men appeared to be in their 30s and were very secretive, claiming to be from Germany. She said she and her husband eventually evicted them because they were unkempt and did not keep their bedroom clean.
“I didn’t really care for their attitude,” she said. “Their personality was nothing to care for. They kept to themselves.”
She said they often would step out of the shower and shake their hair dry throughout the house.
Alluding to Tuesday’s tragedy, she added, “Do I feel bad? Do I ever.”
Det. Sgt. Mike Treanor of the Venice Police Department said FBI agents had obtained the two suspects’ school records from the Huffman school and the Voss home and identified them as two of the men who agents believe flew the hijacked jets.
“This one man, Atta,” said Treanor, “was confirmed on one of the planes that hit the towers.”
It remained unclear how or when the men arrived in this country, but Treanor said they appeared to have the proper papers when they enrolled at the Huffman school.
“They had to show them work visas and passports and all the proper ID,” Treanor said, “and they had all that.”
Officer Chuck Lesaltato of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office said the car in Boston also had registration papers that listed a Venice, Fla., address. Local and federal authorities said that while the flight schools in Florida often are filled with foreign students, there is no requirement for background checks.
One senior FBI official in Washington complained that “there are lots of flight schools out there. You don’t have to be accredited to fly, and they don’t do any background checks on people who want to learn how to fly.”
Federal agents conducted additional searches across Florida. Search warrants were served on four homes in Davie and an apartment in Coral Springs, and workers at a restaurant in Hollywood were also interviewed.
In Vero Beach, dozens of FBI agents questioned neighbors about several Middle Eastern men who were reportedly taking classes at the nearby flight school.
Eight agents showed up at Hank Habora’s house Wednesday morning and questioned him about his next-door neighbor. “They gave me a photo and asked if this was the guy, and I said yes.”
Habora said he knew the man as “John.” FAA records show that a Saudi Arabian flight engineer named Amer Mohammed Kamfar listed the address as his home.
The man lived in the house with his wife and four children from February until two or three weeks ago, when he “left in a hurry” in a green van, Habora said.
“They took all of the stuff they had and put it out by the trash -- clothes, furniture, pots and pans, Tupperware,” he said.
He said the man often wore the uniform of student pilots at nearby FlightSafety, a school that frequently trains foreign pilots on jumbo jets.
Habora, 55, said he wasn’t surprised when the FBI agents knocked at his door Wednesday because he had phoned the bureau earlier to report his suspicions.
“They were good neighbors as far as neighbors go,” he said. “They were quiet. They kept the lawn mowed. They put the garbage out when it was needed to be put out.”
About eight miles away, FBI agents questioned Kenneth Reams about two Middle Eastern families who lived on his Vero Beach street. More than a dozen police cars lined the street all day.
“My wife thought they were gone,” said Reams, 72. “She hasn’t seen the children in weeks.”
Reams said the men who lived in the two houses also were taking classes at FlightSafety.
The men had been renting the houses for more than a year, Reams said, living there with their wives and children. “They seemed to be nice.”
The owner of one of the houses, Llonald Mixell, said the tenant moved out with his wife and at least three children a week before the hijackings. Mixell said the tenant, whose name he refused to divulge, was a commercial pilot from Saudi Arabia who was getting advanced training at FlightSafety. FBI agents also questioned Mixell on Wednesday.
“Hundreds of people come over here from other countries for schooling,” Mixell said. “They were excellent tenants. I never saw anything that would make me suspect anything.”
The tenant who leased the house from Mixell was a man named Abdulrahman Alomari, a pilot from Saudi Arabia.
The house next door was leased by Adnan Zakana Bukhari, another Saudi pilot, records show.
The former head of the FBI’s New York office, who led investigations into the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, said that within hours of Tuesday’s attacks federal agents had talked to the families of nearly every passenger listed on the four airliners’ manifests, isolated those who could not be vouched for by their friends and relatives, and pulled their bank, credit card and phone records, as well as their immigration and naturalization papers if they were from another country.
Lewis Schiliro, the former assistant FBI director in charge of the New York field office from 1998 to April 2000, said hundreds of agents in cities nationwide used that information to develop background “on those who stood out -- who they were, where they stayed, who they called, who sponsored them, what phone calls they made.”
Schiliro said agents have pulled INS files, looked for links between the passengers listed on the hijacked planes and examined footage from dozens of cameras at the three airports where the terrorists boarded the aircraft.
Federal law enforcement sources said scores of subpoenas were issued and searches were approved and conducted by late Wednesday, under the secrecy of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits secret electronic surveillance in the United States based on probable cause that the target of the surveillance is the agent of a foreign power.
“The fight against those who use the weapon of terror to menace and murder is necessarily hard,” CIA Director George J. Tenet told employees at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
“The important thing for us now is to do our job,” Tenet said, “to run to ground a vicious foe, one without heart or pity. A foe who has killed Americans but who hopes in vain to kill the ideals and values that define all of us as Americans.
“The terrorists behind these atrocities, and those who give them shelter and support, must never know rest, ease or comfort. The last word must not be theirs.”
In Boston, federal agents, bomb specialists, firefighters and police officers staged a dramatic midday raid on the Westin Copley Place hotel.
Wearing black hoods and heavy bulletproof vests, agents carried battering rams, AR-15 firearms and fiber-optic equipment, which can check under doors. They took into custody three people, who were later released.
In Newton, Mass., just west of Boston, officers converged on the Park Inn at Chestnut Hill. They seized a car containing flight manuals and an instruction book on how to fly a Boeing 767.
In Maine, an aide to Gov. Angus King said a silver Nissan with Massachusetts license plates was impounded at the Portland airport. The vehicle was taken to a state crime lab in Augusta for examination by the FBI.
A cigarette found near the car will be tested for DNA, the aide said.
King’s office said two of the suspects in the World Trade Center attack are believed to have entered Maine by ferry from Nova Scotia.
Using New Jersey driver’s licenses for identification, the men apparently flew to Boston early Tuesday from the Portland International Jetport, the governor’s office said.
Investigators in Portland believe the suspects may have boarded a USAir flight to Boston early Tuesday.
On Wednesday, authorities in Providence, R.I., stopped an Amtrak train from Boston. Passengers were ordered off, and one man wearing a green turban was led away in handcuffs.
Providence police said the man was charged with a local weapon violation for carrying a knife. It was unclear whether the arrest was related to the terrorist attacks.
Contributing to this report were Los Angeles Times staff writers Bob Drogin, Lisa Getter, Eric Lichtblau, Jim Mann, Judy Pasternak and David Willman in Washington; John-Thor Dahlburg in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Edith Stanley in Atlanta; John Beckham in Chicago; Elizabeth Mehren in Boston; Stephen Braun in New York; and Edward J. Boyer, Rich Connell, Robert J. Lopez, Janet Lundblad, Josh Meyer, Richard E. Meyer, Tim Rutten, Ralph Frammolino and Nona Yates in Los Angeles.