The terrorists moved through Arizona with impunity. They went largely unnoticed as they trained, planned and prepared for the day that they would launch the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
That day came Sept. 11, 2001.
At 9:39 a.m. EDT, Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi, who had been roommates in Mesa, were part of the five-man team that crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. In the hour before, two other planes had slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania shortly after 10 a.m., after passengers fought to regain control.
In all, more than 3,000 people died in the attacks.
That Hanjour lived and trained in the East Valley has long been known. But a recently released 838-page report documenting a congressional investigation into the attacks shows Arizona has long been a hotbed of terrorist activity. Virtually every major attack mounted by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization against American targets has some connection to Arizona, according to the report.
Testimony released as part of the report also makes clear the terrorist network that spawned many of bin Laden’s most rabid followers may still exist here today.
"As al-Qaida formed and took off and became operational, we’ve seen these people travel back into the state of Arizona," Kenneth Williams, an FBI counterterrorism agent in Phoenix, testified to the congressional committee in a closed-door hearing.
"These people don’t continue to come back to Arizona because they like the sunshine or they like the state. I believe that something was established there and I think it’s been there for a long time. We’re working very hard to try to identify that structure. So I cannot say with a degree of certainty that one is in place there. But that’s my investigative theory," Williams testified.
The report contends that American intelligence agencies had a chance to break up the Sept. 11 plot had they tracked Alhazmi after spotting him at a meeting of top al-Qaida operatives in Malaysia in January 2000.
Other participants at the Malaysia meeting were Khalid Almihdhar, who would later accompany Alhazmi and Hanjour on Flight 77, and Khallad bin-Atash, a leading bin Laden operative who was the chief planner in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, according to the report.
While the CIA knew about their participation in the meeting, it did not immediately share that intelligence with the FBI. The CIA also waited until August 2001 to seek to have the men put on a terrorist watch list that might have prevented them from entering the country, according to the report.
By then it was too late.
"The intelligence community failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information that appears relevant to the events of September 11," the congressional report concludes.
"As a result, the community missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11th plot by denying entry or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and, finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack."
The terrorist trail in Arizona begins in the mid-1980s with Wadih el-Hage, the man that FBI agent Williams believes established an al-Qaida cell in Tucson that still exists, according to the report.
Williams would not consent to an interview for this story. Susan Herskovits, spokeswoman for the FBI in Phoenix, refused to comment on the theory Williams outlined to Congress.
In 2001, el-Hage was sentenced to life in prison for helping plan the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Federal prosecutors in New York, where the case was tried, alleged that el-Hage was bin Laden’s "personal assistant" and leader of his al-Qaida cell in Kenya at the time of the embassy bombings.
El-Hage moved to Tucson about 1985 after fighting with the mujahedeen against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, according to evidence presented in the embassy bombing trial. He left Tucson in 1992 and a year later arranged the purchase of a military jet for bin Laden from a Tucson salvage yard, according to testimony in the bombing trial.
Tucson in the 1980s also was the home of a second man who federal officials contend was a top al-Qaida operative, Wa’el Hamza Julaidan.
The Treasury Department listed Julaidan as a top financial and logistical aide to bin Laden when it froze his U.S. assets last year. He was listed as president of the Islamic Center of Tucson in 1984 and 1985.
Hanjour also lived in Tucson in 1991 when he attended English classes at the University of Arizona.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said he agrees with Williams’ assessment that el-Hage likely established an al-Qaida cell in Tucson, which is probably active today. Several individuals who fit the profile of the Sept. 11 hijackers disappeared from the Tucson area shortly before the attacks, Dupnik said.
"They did all of the things that the 9/11 hijackers were doing," Dupnik said. "So I think a reasonable person would say these are probably terrorists too. I don’t know what happened to them. They are probably lurking in the shadows somewhere, either in our town or somebody else’s town."
THE PLOT DEVELOPS
It was against that backdrop that Arizona’s connections to the Sept. 11 hijackers began to unfold.
In late 1999, CIA officials received information that two individuals planning a trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were linked to the embassy bombings in Africa, according to the congressional report.
While initially only their first names — Nawaf and Khalid — were known, they were identified as Alhazmi and Almihdhar shortly after Malaysia meetings, which began Jan. 5, 2000.
Also attending the meeting was Alhazmi’s younger brother, Salem, another of the Flight 77 hijackers, according to the report. All three of the future hijackers held U.S. travel visas issued in Saudi Arabia in April 1999.
By the time of the Malaysia meeting, the National Security Agency had connected Nawaf Alhazmi and Almihdhar to al-Qaida through intercepted communications, according to the report. But the NSA did not share that information with the CIA.
After the meeting in Malaysia, the CIA did not notify the State Department or immigration authorities to have the participants’ names put on a terrorist watch list, which would have prevented them from entering the country, according to the report.
Within days of the Malaysia meeting, Nawaf Alhazmi and Almihdhar flew to California, settling in San Diego. They lived openly under their real names, took flight lessons and obtained California drivers’ licenses.
They also had frequent contact with an FBI informant. The FBI office in San Diego was not notified that Alhazmi and Almihdhar were potential terrorists until after the Sept. 11 attacks. Therefore, when the informant told his FBI handlers about the two it did not generate any interest, according to the congressional report.
Almihdhar left the United States in June 2000 and returned in July 2001. Since he was not on the terrorist watch list, he had no trouble re-entering the country.
Alhazmi remained in San Diego until December 2000. In one of his final meetings with the FBI informant, Alhazmi was accompanied by a man who had just returned to the United States from the Middle East.
The two were moving to Arizona to take flight training together, Alhazmi told the informant.
That man was most likely Hanjour, according to the report.
By the time Hanjour first entered the United States in October 1991, he had already spent time in Afghanistan to participate in a "jihad," according to the congressional report.
Though he stayed only a few months in Tucson before returning to his native Saudi Arabia, Hanjour returned to the United States in 1996, eventually settling in the Valley and taking pilot’s lessons at a Scottsdale aviation academy, according to the report.
Over the next several years, Hanjour traveled back to the Middle East several times, returning to the Valley where he has been linked to addresses in Mesa, Scottsdale and Phoenix.
In December 2000, Hanjour moved to Mesa with Alhazmi and resumed his flight training, according to the congressional report. He honed his piloting skills on a flight simulator at a Phoenix aviation school until March 2001, when he and Alhazmi left for Virginia, according to the report. Hanjour returned to the Valley in June 2001 for additional simulator training in Phoenix, according to the congressional report.
Though Hanjour did not come to the attention of federal authorities until after the Sept. 11 attacks, he did associate with a man, described in the report only as "an individual," who was mentioned in a July 2001 FBI memorandum authored by Williams, the Phoenix-based counterterrorism agent.
Williams’ memo raised the possibility that Middle Eastern men taking flight lessons at Arizona schools might be training for a future terrorist attack. Though the memo was released as part of the congressional report, all but one of the names has been blacked out.
Hanjour and the individual trained extensively together at Arizona flight schools from 1997 until June 2001, according to the report.
The individual left the United States in April 2000 and returned in June 2001, according to the report.
"The FBI now speculates that the individual may have returned to the United States either to evaluate Hanjour’s flying skills, or to provide Hanjour with his final training on the flight simulator before the Sept. 11 attacks," the report concludes.
The description of the individual, his whereabouts and the FBI’s theories about the role he may have played in the Sept. 11 attacks match the background of Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian pilot who lived in Arizona during the times described.
Raissi was arrested in England shortly after the attacks and held for extradition to the United States. Prosecutors alleged he had provided four of the suicide hijackers flight training while in the United States.
However, the case fell apart after a federal grand jury in Phoenix issued indictments on only minor charges unrelated to the terrorist attacks. A judge in London eventually released Raissi from custody.
The congressional report makes clear that there were ample opportunities for U.S. intelligence agencies to detect the unfolding plans by bin Laden to launch attacks against American targets. But as one unidentified intelligence officer testified, "every place that something could have gone wrong . . . it went wrong."
The National Security Agency did not share intelligence in 1999 linking Alhazmi and Almihdhar to al-Qaida.
The CIA did not immediately share information on the two with the FBI after the Malaysia meeting, and it did not put them on the terrorism watch list until it was too late.
FBI agents did not pursue reports from their informant in San Diego about Alhazmi and Almihdhar. Nor did they target Hanjour after he and Alhazmi moved into the home in Mesa.
FBI agents in Phoenix did not connect Raissi to Hanjour as the two took flight lessons together over the course of several years, despite Raissi being included in Williams’ memorandum written in July 2001.
"There were lots of mistakes made," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who was on the Senate Intelligence Committee during the investigation.
"If everybody had done exactly what they should have done, then who knows? We might have been able to handle this. You can find a lot wrong and you can assume that if everybody had done their jobs exactly right, a lot of things might have been different. I don’t think you can, from that, say the whole plot might have been (foiled)," Kyl said.