Commentary: Before 9/11, the terrorists bumbled around in Florida

The Miami HeraldSeptember 12, 2011 

Osama bin Laden knew what he was doing when he implanted several of the key 9/11 hijackers in Florida. There was no better place for his suicide crews to be overlooked, as they not-so-invisibly prepared for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

On the day after Christmas in 2000, flight controllers at Miami International Airport were annoyed to peer out at one of the crowded taxiways and see a small Piper Cherokee.

The plane wasn’t moving, and the cockpit was empty. One official in the flight tower spotted two men walking away, crossing the airfield in the direction of the main general aviation hangar.

Even in Miami this doesn’t happen every day. Even rookie pilots know to radio the tower if their aircraft conks out while rolling toward the runway. Nobody just abandons a plane in a line of waiting commercial jetliners.

The men who pulled this stunt were named Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohamed Atta. Nine months later they would be infamous, but on Dec. 26, 2000, they seemed just like two more knuckleheads in the Knucklehead Capital of America.

They had learned to fly at Huffman Aviation in Venice, near Sarasota. According to the report of the 9/11 Commission, both men earned their private pilot licenses on Aug. 14, 2000. Atta spent only 69 minutes on the test, and scored 97 out of 100. Al-Shehhi scored an 83 and took 73 minutes to finish.

The Piper Cherokee that stalled at MIA had been rented from Huffman that day by the two future hijackers. They weren’t supposed to fly it all the way to Miami, so the general manager of Huffman was surprised to get a phone call from the men, asking how to restart the plane.

Not long afterward, a flight official at MIA dialed Huffman to say the Piper had been abandoned, forcing other aircrafts to taxi around it. It was about 5:45 p.m., one of the busiest periods for commercial takeoffs and landings.

“Any time the tower calls, they are not in the best of moods,” the manager of the aviation firm told Jim Yardley of The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Atta and al-Shehhi were renting a car to drive back to Venice.

The Federal Aviation Administration later demanded the maintenance records of the Piper. It turned out that the engine might have flooded because of a loose spark plug.

In grim hindsight it’s natural to wonder why authorities evidently made little or no effort to track down Atta and al-Shehhi after the MIA incident. The reality is that not much would have happened to the men, anyway — perhaps a small fine or a warning.

Even in the unlikely event that their pilot licenses had been yanked, it wouldn’t have prevented the horrific events to come. These guys would have already gained what they’d come to Florida to get: working knowledge of aircraft controls.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Atta steered American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Seventeen minutes later, al-Shehhi crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.

During the months preceding the attack, Atta and several hijackers had moved their base of operations from the Sarasota area to South Florida, where they continued to blend in splendidly.

The martyrs-in-waiting worked out in local gyms, hung out at sports bars and even strip joints, presumably not searching for virgins.

In April 2001, Atta got pulled over in Broward County for driving without a license. A month later he legally got a Florida license, as did al-Shehhi and 11 other hijackers.

But, in the manner of thousands of scofflaw Floridians, Atta blithely ignored the driving ticket he’d received. When he didn’t show up in court, a bench warrant was issued — again, no cause for alarm. His puny case was but one in a judicial system swamped by bigger ones.

Atta had a better chance of dying from a bee sting than of being arrested.

Bin Laden and his organizers clearly anticipated that the young hijackers would make some mistakes in America. That’s why Florida was such an obvious staging area — the bar of dumb behavior here is so high that it’s almost impossible for bumbling newcomers to get noticed.

Even if you abandon a plane between runways at an international airport.

So comfy were Atta and al-Shehhi in their new locale that they didn’t consider the Piper fiasco to be a close call. When they returned to Venice, the first thing they did was ask the manager of Huffman Aviation to reimburse them for the rental car.

He said no way. Days later they were back in Miami, practicing on a Boeing 767 simulator. The rest is awful history.

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