Florida’s 9/11 terror cell: 20 years later, questions linger about Saudi connection

By Jay Weaver, David Ovalle and Alex Daugherty

MIAMI – Before they executed the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history, most of the 9/11 hijackers spent months unsuspected and undetected in Florida, plotting to commandeer jetliners packed with passengers and steer them like missiles into landmark buildings.

They trained on flight simulators in Miami, hung out at an oyster bar on Hollywood’s Young Circle and lived in a tourist hotel off A1A in Deerfield Beach, roaming many haunts across South Florida.

In the years since, investigators have detailed the Islamic extremists’ movements through sales receipts, rental agreements and countless interviews with people who unwittingly interacted with them before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in an open field in Pennsylvania.

Yet 20 years later, despite seemingly exhaustive probes by Congress, the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 Review Commission and the FBI, murky mysteries remain about the al-Qaida terror cell’s operations. The first puzzle piece is in Sarasota, where at least one FBI report found that 9/11 plot leader Mohamed Atta and two other hijackers visited the gated community of a Saudi Arabian family, who hurriedly left their home just two weeks before the attacks. The second piece is across the county and suggests that two more cell members in Southern California may have been assisted by government employees of Saudi Arabia, home country of 15 of the 19 men who died in the suicide mission.

Both lingering mysteries were unearthed more than a decade after the attacks — largely because of the reporting and public-records battles waged by one investigative reporter in Fort Lauderdale, Dan Christensen. His work raised questions also pursued by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, who accused the U.S. government of withholding critical information from the joint inquiry panel he oversaw during the first year after the attacks.

The suspicions of Graham and others have been fueled by the government’s fight to keep thousands of classified documents secret for years and by contradictory FBI statements. In Sarasota, for instance, Christensen’s push for records uncovered an FBI agent’s declassified report compiled in the year after the attacks, claiming “many connections” between the hijackers and the Saudi family. The FBI in congressional and 9/11 commission reports would later insist there were none.

Some questions amount to basic detective work: Did investigators unravel the whole plot or did some co-conspirators evade justice? But the bigger ones are complicated and could have profound political implications. Is there some still-classified clue in either Sarasota or Southern California that could point to support for the attackers from powerful forces in Saudi Arabia, a critical American ally in the Middle East with vast oil reserves and investments in the United States?

“This was 20 years ago and the events are still with us today,” said Christensen, editor of the Florida Bulldog, an online news site that first disclosed the possible Sarasota and Southern California links. The Miami Herald also published his initial 2011 story on the Sarasota family and more than a dozen others on the 9/11 probe over the years. “There is so much more. All of us want to know what happened. The FBI is hiding that from us, and I don’t think they have the authority to do that.”

There is also still an important group of people deeply vested in getting answers. In a New York federal court, thousands of families of the 9/11 victims continue to press a long-running civil case against the Saudi government, the royal family, and their affiliated banks and charities. For years, the 9/11 relatives were stymied by a U.S. sovereign immunity law protecting the Saudi government, a traditional U.S. ally that the families argue in court records provided financial aid to some of the terrorist suspects.

They won one key victory in 2016 when, over the objections of the Obama administration, Congress passed a law giving the families the right to sue the Saudi government in federal court.

Last week, President Joe Biden gave them another potentially big win. Biden, who has been under pressure from the 9/11 victims’ families to disclose still-secret FBI records and had made a campaign pledge of transparency, ordered the Justice Department to review, declassify and release them over the next six months.

“For them, it was not only a national and international tragedy,” Biden said. “It was a personal devastation.“

The Saudi government has long denied any connection to the 9/11 attacks. Its embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request from the Herald for comment but a spokesman did address the questions earlier this year.

“Saudi Arabia is and has always been a close and critical ally of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism,” Fahad Nazer, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told the New York Times Magazine. “Any suggestion that Saudi Arabia aided the 9/11 plot was rejected by the 9/11 commission in 2004, by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. in 2005, and by a second independent commission in 2015.”

The FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. also said the bureau “still stands by our original findings [of no Saudi family connection in the Sarasota probe] as reported to the 9/11 Commission and [Congress’] Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The FBI’s public affairs office, however, declined to comment about possible connections between two of the 9/11 hijackers living in San Diego and Saudi government employees.

Back in 2004 — long before Christensen detailed a previously unreported search by the FBI and local law enforcement at the abandoned Sarasota house — the 9/11 Commission had dismissed any direct Saudi government tie, reporting that “it does not appear that any government other than the Taliban [in Afghanistan] financially supported al-Qaida before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al-Qaida sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al-Qaida’s fund-raising activities.”

“Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaida funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al-Qaida.)”

Even now, despite apparent circumstantial evidence in the Sarasota and Southern California probes, there is no smoking gun to counter those conclusions. The loose ends could amount to little. The FBI and Justice Department leaders over the years may simply be protecting turf or pushing back against outside critics.

But Tom Julin, a Miami attorney who specializes in First Amendment law and represented the Florida Bulldog in its public records lawsuits against the Justice Department and FBI, said the changing official stories and continuing revelations from declassified federal documents have long flamed questions about the Saudis’ role.

“What happened in Sarasota still remains a mystery,” Julin told the Herald. “There are inconsistencies in what the FBI says publicly and their official investigative reports.”

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Although the horrific attacks unfolded hundreds of miles away, it was quickly clear that Florida had been the main staging area for the plotters — the transient nature of its population providing perfect cover.

Within days, as a shocked country braced for possible future attacks, federal investigators disclosed details of the 9/11 hijackers’ movements and put names and faces to the terrorists, appealing to the public for leads. It was a massive hunt not just to round up this cell but uncover others.

Mohamed Atta, the ringleader who would become the grim face of terrorism, trained along with another terrorist named Marwan al-Shehhi, first at Huffman Aviation flight school in Venice in July 2000. Four months later, they practiced on a Boeing 727 simulator at an Opa-locka aviation school.

The following spring, Atta and many in the cell began gathering in South Florida, living in places such as Hollywood, Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Delray Beach and Vero Beach. As many as 14 of the 19 hijackers spent time in South Florida in the months before 9/11, often staying in motels and unassuming short-term rental apartments. Some even obtained valid Florida driver’s licenses.

They raised little alarm among those who encountered them. Infamously, Atta and al-Shehhi drank at Shuckums, a raw bar on Hollywood’s Harrison Street, three nights before the attacks. They haggled with staff over a $48 tab but ultimately left. Despite their supposedly strict Islamic faith, investigators would find that several of the hijackers frequented the Pink Pony strip club in Daytona Beach.

One hijacker, Ziad Jarrahi, rented an apartment in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and joined a gym in Dania Beach. The stunned owner of one flight school in Venice recalled Jarrah as an easygoing young man, model student and a “super kid.”

Atta and al-Shehhi flew the American Airlines and United Airlines planes that respectively crashed into the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers, while Jarrah was at the controls of the United Airlines jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania.

After the terror attacks, FBI agents swarmed South Florida, finding a trail of clues that, in retrospect, hinted at the terror to come and missed chances to stop the deadly plot.

One of the hijackers, Saeed al-Ghamdi, was questioned at length when he and another hijacker arrived at Orlando International Airport from London in June 2001. The reason: inspectors noted he had no return ticket, and they suspected he wanted to stay in the United States illegally. Still, al-Ghamdi was allowed to enter the country.

In another example, Jarrah tried enrolling an overseas associate, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, into the aviation school in Venice. Bin al-Shibh even wired tuition money to the school. But three times, he was denied a visa to the United States. Investigators believe bin al-Shibh, a key organizer of the attacks, would have been the 20th hijacker had he been allowed into the United States. He was later captured and is still awaiting trial while being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

And perhaps most haunting: two days before the terrorist attacks, al-Shehhi and another hijacker checked out of The Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach. The items they left behind in Room 12: Boeing 757 manuals, flight maps, a martial arts book and a box cutter.

SARASOTA CONNECTION

Investigators pulled many threads in the Florida web of deception. The curious departure of that Sarasota family before the 9/11 attacks was one of them. But that would not become public until a decade later, when Christensen — tipped to the mystery by Anthony Summers, co-author of "The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden" — found sources who outlined seemingly troubling details.

Abdulazzi al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, and some small children lived in the upscale gated community of Prestancia in a three-bedroom home owned by Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an interior decorator and financier who owned several properties in the United States. His wife, Deborah, was also listed as the owner.

Two weeks before the terrorist attacks, the family vanished, met up with Anoud’s father in Virginia and together they flew to Saudi Arabia. They had apparently left in a hurry, according to a senior administrator and security officer at Prestancia. After the attacks, the property’s security officer, also an adviser to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office, had a gut feeling about the family’s sudden departure. Another Prestancia neighbor also sensed something suspicious and contacted the FBI.

A team of agents soon descended on 4224 Escondito Circle.

Prestancia’s security officer, along with a counter-terrorism officer, described what the family left behind: mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms, clothes hanging in the closets, a computer in the master bedroom, an open empty safe, and a full refrigerator. Fancy furniture was in place. And there were toys in the pool, which was still running. The family also abandoned three vehicles, including a brand-new Chrysler PT Cruiser, in the garage and driveway.

The counter-terrorism officer, who did not disclose his name to the Bulldog, said FBI agents made disturbing discoveries: Phone statements and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to some of the hijackers, including Atta, the reputed 9/11 ringleader.

Atta and two other hijackers had lived in Venice — just 10 miles from the house — for much of the year before 9/11. Atta and al-Shehhi, had been students at nearby Huffman Aviation. A block away, at Florida Flight Training, accomplice Jarrah had also been taking flying lessons. All three obtained their pilot licenses and spent much of their time traveling the state.

Agents were able to track their calls based on dates, times and length of conversations; they dated back more than a year and lined up with the known suspects. The links were not only to Atta and the two others who took flight lessons in Venice, the counter-terrorism officer said, but to 11 other terrorist suspects, including Waleed al-Shehri, one of the men who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

The Prestancia community’s gate records, Christensen reported, were also illuminating.

People who arrived by car had to give their names and the address they were visiting. Gate staff would sometimes ask to see a driver’s license and note the name. License plates were photographed. The vehicle and name information on Atta and Jarrah fit that of drivers entering Prestancia on their way to visit the home at 4224 Escondito Circle, the Bulldog reported.

The Justice Department didn’t comment until days after Christensen’s story ran in the Miami Herald. A statement from the agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa field office said the Saudi family had been interviewed and “there was no connection found to the 9/11 plot.” The FBI statement also said the agency had provided all the information in the Sarasota probe to a congressional joint inquiry.

That was news to Graham, co-chair of the congressional joint panel’s initial inquiry into 9/11. He had long complained about stonewalling from the FBI, which along with other intelligence agencies had been under intense scrutiny after missing the signals of a looming terrorist strike.

“Nobody I’ve spoken with from the joint inquiry says we got any information on this,” Graham said at the time. “It’s total B.S. It’s the same thing we’ve been getting from the FBI for the past 10 years.”

The FBI’s own records would soon contradict that flat dismissal.

In April 2013, after a lawsuit filed by the Florida Bulldog, the FBI released a summary report of the agency’s Sarasota investigation — even redacted, it echoed Christensen’s initial story highlighting connections between the Saudi family and a few of the 9/11 hijackers. The Bulldog published a follow-up.

“Further investigation of the [name deleted] family revealed many connections between the [name deleted] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” an FBI agent’s April 2002 report stated.

The report did not identify those individuals but depicted two of them as students enrolled at the nearby Venice airport flight school, Huffman Aviation, where two of the 9/11 hijackers trained: Atta and al-Shehhi. The third person was described as living with the students who attended the flight school.

Two years later in 2015, however, the FBI — in a 128-page 9/11 Review Commission report — again threw water on any Sarasota link, with the unusual argument of blaming a “poorly written” report by one of its own FBI agents that was “wholly unsubstantiated.”

The report, titled “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” produced with assistance from the FBI, said the agent’s finding of “many connections” between the 9/11 hijackers and the Saudi family was not confirmed.

“After further investigation, the FBI determined that the statements in the [agent’s summary] were incorrect,” according to the Review Commission’s report issued by former Attorney General Ed Meese and two others. “The FBI found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the [Saudi] family“ after questioning witnesses, including “all of the relevant family members” and “local individuals who claimed to have, or the FBI believed might have, pertinent information.”

No details on the family members were provided or an explanation given for why they had fled.

That conclusion never satisfied Graham, who was unavailable to comment for this story.

At the time, Graham pointed to the U.S. government’s fragile alliance with the Middle Eastern country as an underlying factor for the secrecy. He said he was “deeply disturbed” by the George W. Bush administration’s redaction of the final 28-page chapter in the joint inquiry’s report, which was kept secret for “national security” reasons. Graham, who retired from the Senate in 2005, had read the blanked-out classified information.

When asked whether he believed the Saudi government or any of its employees and affiliates supported the hijackers while they were in the United States, Graham told CBS "60 Minutes" in April 2016: “Substantially.”

Three months after Graham’s "60 Minutes" appearance and under pressure from the 9/11 relatives, the Obama administration declassified the final chapter of the joint inquiry’s report and Congress released it.

The document did not shed any new light on the Florida operations or reach a conclusion on any Saudi complicity. But it opened a wider path of inquiry. It named Saudi government employees and associates who knew two 9/11 hijackers in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas after they arrived in 2000 and helped them get apartments, open bank accounts and connect with mosques. The document said information from FBI sources suggested at least two people who assisted the hijackers may have been Saudi intelligence officers.

“The information in the 28 pages reinforces the belief that the 19 hijackers — most of whom spoke little English, had limited education and had never before visited the United States — did not act alone in perpetrating the sophisticated 9/11 plot,” Graham said in a statement after its release. “It suggests a strong linkage between those terrorists and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi charities, and other Saudi stakeholders. The American people should be concerned about these links.”

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA LINK

At the time, the Bulldog’s Christensen was also digging deeper into the California angle. As early as 2013, he had quoted Graham that the Sarasota incident suggested a broader Saudi support network for the cell — citing a “common outline” with what occurred in San Diego with Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the five Saudi hijackers aboard the American Airlines jet flown into the Pentagon.

A footnote in the 9/11 Review Commission’s report piqued his curiosity about how Saudis with government ties may have helped both those men in the year before the terrorist attacks. In 2015, the Florida Bulldog sued the Justice Department and FBI again.

The following year, the U.S. government released a heavily redacted but still-revealing FBI summary report from 2012. It indicated that Fahad al-Thumairy — a radical imam at the Saudi-funded King Fahad mosque and an accredited diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles — had provided assistance to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

Further, it noted that the FBI’s investigation of the terrorist attacks had not ended years earlier and it contradicted the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion there was “no evidence” indicating al-Thumairy helped the two hijackers.

As late as October 2012, federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York City were actively exploring filing charges against an unnamed suspect for providing material support to the hijackers and other crimes. The suspect’s identity and many details of the New York investigation were blacked out for national security reasons. But the report’s declassified portions indicated the New York investigation targeted an apparent U.S. support network for al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

“This has never been disclosed before and it’s to the contrary of everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history,” Graham told the Bulldog in 2016. “It’s interesting that it took them 11 years to get there, and a FOIA to get this information to the public.”

The FBI 2012 summary, originally classified secret, was marked to “declassify on 12-31-2037.” When it was released in late 2016, the four-page report buoyed the hopes of relatives of 9/11 victims in their lawsuit aiming to show the Saudi government assisted the 9/11 hijackers.

The FBI summary listed three “main subjects.” The imam, al-Thumairy, was described as a Saudi diplomat who “immediately assigned an individual to take care” of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar when they arrived in Southern California in 2000.

Omar al-Bayoumi, a second subject, was believed to be a Saudi agent who befriended al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. The report said al-Bayoumi “was living in San Diego on a student visa, despite not attending classes, and receiving a salary from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for job duties he never performed.” Al-Bayoumi had told authorities he accidentally met the two hijackers at a Los Angeles restaurant.

The final sentence of the synopsis indicated the third unnamed individual was highly placed: “There is evidence that [redacted] ... tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers” — even while knowing they were here to commit an act of terrorism.

One former agent, Stephen Moore, who led the FBI’s Los Angeles probe of the two hijacker suspects, later filed a declaration in the 9/11 victims’ case in New York. It also contradicted previous reports denying government links, saying there was clear evidence that al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi had helped the two hijackers and noting that — like the Sarasota family — both had left the United States just weeks before the attacks.

Moore said that al-Qaida wouldn’t have sent al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar to the U.S. “without a support structure in place.” He said he believed al-Bayoumi was a “clandestine agent” and that al-Thumairy knew the hijackers “were on a complex pre-planned mission” that would involve the use of airplanes. The former agent concluded that Saudi Arabian diplomatic and intelligence personnel had “knowingly provided material support to the [first] two 9/11 hijackers [who entered the U.S.] and facilitated the 9/11 plot.”

Even before Biden’s decision to declassify more material last week, the 9/11 victims’ suit against the Saudi government had gained momentum in recent years, with a New York federal judge allowing it to proceed with some depositions and inquiries.

Earlier this year, al-Bayoumi and al-Thumairy were questioned. So was the third subject who was not identified in the FBI 2012 summary report: Musaed al-Jarrah, a former Saudi Embassy official in Washington, D.C. Yahoo News reported his name was inadvertently revealed in an FBI filing that suggested he was suspected of having directed support for the hijackers.

The deposition of al-Jarrah — who oversaw the Ministry of Islamic Affairs at the Saudi Embassy in the late 1990s and early 2000s — revealed that FBI agents questioned al-Jarrah at least three times and confronted him with photos of child pornography found on his home computer in an apparent attempt to “flip” him, Yahoo News reported. The closed-door deposition of the Saudi national was taken in June by lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims.

Al-Jarrah spurned the FBI’s offer to become a cooperating witness in 2004, according to the deposition obtained exclusively by Yahoo News. Still, the 600-plus page deposition revealed the extent to which the FBI pursued the possible role of Saudi officials in the attacks — long after the public was led to believe that sensitive issue was settled by the 9/11 Commission.

The FBI, troubled by what it had missed before the 9/11 attacks and what it might have missed in the aftermath, continued to investigate the possible Saudi government connection through 2016 in “Operation Encore.” That probe’s evidence is also still classified.

LINGERING CONCERNS

Although most political leaders have long since moved on, Graham wasn’t the only one who remained concerned that the Saudi role had not fully been examined.

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Florida Democrat who represented the Tampa area from 1997 to 2007, was one of the first members of Congress to meet with the king of Saudi Arabia after 9/11.

“We had a very blunt conversation about the hijacking,” Davis told the Herald. “The king said something like, ‘Why do you keep focusing on this topic?’ My response was to remind him how many of the hijackers were Saudis. The meeting wasn’t canceled, it didn’t blow up, but it was a painfully direct conversation.”

Davis said he also met with Saudi Arabia’s secretary of education to discuss the anti-western curriculum in Saudi schools that he said helped radicalize young Saudis. He later filed and passed a resolution in the U.S. House calling for reforms to Saudi Arabia’s education system, but he said the resolution stalled in the U.S. Senate amid Saudi pressure. Davis also tried to persuade the Treasury Department and FBI to closely monitor financial transactions in Saudi Arabia that could be a means of funding terrorism.

He remains concerned about the role that the Saudis might have played in the 9/11 attacks and the links between the country’s education, financial system and terrorism network.

“I went to the World Trade Center two weeks after 9/11; we owe it to the victims to make sure it never happens again,” Davis said. “That’s particularly important, especially for those who are too young to remember what happened. We shouldn’t wait for the next attack or tragedy to be asking and answering these questions.”

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