FBI probe into Sarasota home's link to 9/11 hijackers wasn't reported to Congress, commission

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 7, 2011 

MIAMI — Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly vacated their luxury home near Sarasota, Fla., leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in a master bedroom.

In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but also phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Ten years after the deadliest attack of terrorism on U.S. soil, new information has emerged that shows the FBI found troubling ties between the hijackers and residents in the upscale community in southwest Florida, but the investigation wasn't reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired the congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said he should have been told about the findings, saying it "opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11. ... No information relative to the named people in Sarasota was disclosed."

The U.S. Justice Department, the lead agency that investigated the attacks, refused to comment, saying it will discuss only information already released.

The Saudi residents then living at the stylish home, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii and his wife, Anoud, could not be reached, nor could the then-owner of the house, Esam Ghazzawi, who is Anoud's father. The house was sold in 2003, records show.

For Graham, the connections between the hijackers and residents raise questions about whether other Saudi nationals in Florida knew of the impending attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The FBI investigation began the month after 9/11 when Larry Berberich, senior administrator and security officer of the gated community known as Prestancia, reported a bizarre event that took place two weeks before the hijackings of four passenger jets that originated in Boston, Newark and Washington.

The couple, living with their small children at the three-bedroom house at 4224 Escondito Circle, had left in a hurry in a white van, probably on Aug. 30.

They abandoned three recently registered vehicles, including a brand-new Chrysler PT Cruiser, in the garage and driveway.

After 9/11, Berberich said he had "a gut feeling" the people at the home may have had something to do with the attacks, prompting the FBI's probe that would eventually link the hijackers to the house.

As an adviser to the Sarasota County sheriff — Berberich was with the group that received President George W. Bush during his visit to a Sarasota school on the morning of 9/11 — he alerted sheriff's deputies. Patrick Gallagher, one of the Saudis' neighbors, had become suspicious even earlier, and had fired off an email to the FBI on the day of the attacks.

Gallagher said law enforcement officers arrived and began an investigation, with agents swarming "all over the place, in their blue jackets," he recalled.

Jone Weist, president of the group that managed Prestancia, confirmed the arrival of the FBI, which requested copies of the Saudis' financial transactions involving the house.

Berberich and a senior counterterrorism agent said they were able to get into the abandoned house, ultimately finding "there was mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms ... all the toiletries still in place ... all their clothes hanging in the closet ... TVs ... opulent furniture, equal or greater in value than the house ... the pool running, with toys in it."

"The beds were made ... fruit on the counter ... the refrigerator full of food. ... It was like they went grocery shopping. Like they went out to a movie. ... (But) the safe was open in the master bedroom, with nothing in it, not a paper clip. ... A computer was still there. A computer plug in another room, and the line still there. Looked like they'd taken (another) computer and left the cord."

The counterterrorism officer, who requested his name not be disclosed, said agents went on to make troubling discoveries: Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers.

In addition, three of the four future hijackers had lived in Venice — just 10 miles from the house — for much of the year before 9/11. Atta, the leader, and his companion Marwan al-Shehhi, had been learning to fly small airplanes at Huffman Aviation, a flight school on the edge of the runway at Venice Municipal Airport.

A block away, at Florida Flight Training, accomplice Ziad Jarrah was also taking flying lessons. All three obtained their pilot licenses and afterwards, in the months that led to 9/11, spent much of their time traveling the state, including stints in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach, among other areas.

The counterterrorism agent said records of incoming and outgoing calls made at the Escondito house were obtained from the phone company under subpoena.

Agents were able to conduct a link analysis, a system of tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversations _ finding the Escondito calls dating back more than a year, "lined up with the known suspects."

The links were not just to Atta and his hijack pilots, the agent said, but to 11 other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, one of the men who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

Another was Adnan Shukrijumah, a former Miramar, Fla., resident identified as having been with Atta in the spring of 2001. Shukrijumah is still at large and is on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

But it was the gate records at the Prestancia development that produced the most telltale information. People who arrived by car had to give their names and the home's address they were visiting. Gate staff would sometimes ask to see a driver's license and note the name, Berberich said. More importantly, he added, the license plates of cars pulling through the gate were photographed.

Atta is known to have used variations of his name, but the license plate of the car he owned was on record.

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, said Berberich and the counterterrorism officer.

Sarasota County property records identify the owners of the house at the time as Ghazzawi and his American-born wife, Deborah, both with a post office box in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and the capital, Riyadh.

Ghazzawi was described as a middle-aged financier and interior designer, the owner of many properties, including several in the United States, said the counterterrorism agent.

While Ghazzawi visited the house, the people living there were his daughter Anoud and her husband, al-Hiijjii, who appeared to be in his 30s and once identified himself as a college student, said Berberich, who met the son-in-law.

The couple's sudden departure two weeks before 9/11 was tracked in detail by the FBI after the attacks, the counterterrorism agent said.

First, they traveled to a Ghazzawi property in Arlington, Va., then — with Esam Ghazzawi — via Dulles airport and London's Heathrow, to Riyadh.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hiijjii had been on a watch list at the FBI and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

"464 was Ghazzawi's number," the officer said. "I don't remember the other man's number."

About a year after the family abandoned the home, the FBI made an attempt to lure the owner back. Scott McKay, a Sarasota lawyer for the Prestancia homeowners association in its claim for unpaid dues on the property, said the FBI tried to get him to bring the Saudis back for the transaction. "They didn't say you must do this. It was more like, 'But we'd really, really like you to make this happen,' " McKay said.

McKay said he tried to get the Ghazzawis to sign the necessary documents in person, but the ploy failed because the documents could legally be signed elsewhere using a notary. Records show Ghazzawi's signature was notarized by the vice consul of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003. Deborah Ghazzawi's signature was notarized in Riverside County, Calif.

During an interview on Sunday, Graham said he was surprised he wasn't told about the probe when he was co-chairman of Congress' Joint Inquiry into 9/11 — even though he was especially alert to terrorist information relating to Florida.

"At the beginning of the investigation," he said, "each of the intelligence agencies, including the FBI, was asked to provide all information that agency possessed in relation to 9/11."

The fact that the FBI did not tell the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency's failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a "very large" file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. "They did very little with it," Graham said, "and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. ... I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that."

The final 28-page section of the Inquiry's report, which deals with "sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers," was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.

This in spite of the fact that Graham and his Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, both concluded the release of the pages would not endanger national security.

The grounds for suppressing the material, Graham believes, were "protection of the Saudis from embarrassment, protection of the administration from political embarrassment ... some of the unknowns, some of the secrets of 9/11."

(Anthony Summers is co-author of "The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden." Dan Christensen is the editor of the Broward Bulldog, a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. www.BrowardBulldog.org.)

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service