By JOHN SOLOMON
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) Two months before the suicide
hijackings, an FBI agent in Arizona alerted Washington
headquarters that several Middle Easterners were training at a
U.S. aviation school and recommended contacting other schools
nationwide where Arabs might be studying.
``FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other
elements of the U.S. intelligence community and task the
community for any information that supports Phoenix's
suspicions,'' the agent recommended in the memo obtained by
The Associated Press.
The FBI sent the intelligence to its terrorism
experts in Washington and New York for analysis and had begun
discussing conducting a nationwide canvass of flight schools
when the Sept. 11 tragedies occurred, officials told AP.
At least one leader of the 19 hijackers, Hani
Hanjour, received flight training in Arizona in 2001 but his
name had not surfaced in the FBI intelligence from Arizona,
the officials said.
None of the Middle Eastern men identified by the
Arizona counterterrorism agents or any information contained
in their July 2001 memo pointed to the suicide plot that
leveled the World Trade Center and killed thousands in New
York, Washington and Pennsylvania, officials said.
``None of the people identified by Phoenix are
connected to the Sept. 11 attacks,'' FBI Assistant Director
John Collingwood said Thursday night.
``The Phoenix communication went to appropriate
operational agents and analysts but it did not lead to
uncovering the impending attacks,'' Collingwood said.
Officials said FBI counterterrorism agents in
Phoenix were suspicious why several Arab men were seeking
airport operations, security information and pilot training.
The agents recommended that the FBI begin alerting local
offices when Middle Easterners sought visas for training at
local aeronautical schools.
``FBIHQ should consider seeking the necessary
authority to obtain visa information from the USDOS (State
Department) on individuals obtaining visas to attend these
types of schools and notify the appropriate FBI field office
when these individuals are scheduled to arrive in their area
of responsibility,'' the memo said.
The FBI's concerns about the U.S. flight schools
is the latest revelation about information, much of it
sketchy, that the government possessed before Sept. 11
concerning the possibility of terrorism in the skies. For
AP reported last month that Filipino
authorities alerted the FBI as early as 1995 that several
Middle Eastern pilots were training at American flight schools
and at least one had proposed hijacking a commercial jet and
crashing it into federal buildings.
A month after the 2001 memo from Arizona to FBI
headquarters, FBI agents in Minnesota arrested a French
citizen of Moroccan descent, Zacarias Moussaoui, after a
flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to
learn to fly a commercial jet.
Moussaoui has since emerged as the single most
important defendant in the post-Sept. 11 terrorism
investigation, charged with conspiring with the hijackers and
Osama bin Laden to kill thousands of Americans. Prosecutors
are seeking the death penalty.
About the same time as the Phoenix memo and
Moussaoui's arrest, U.S. intelligence issued a late summer
warning that there was heightened risk of a terrorist attack
on Americans, possibly even on U.S. soil, officials have said.
Law enforcement officials said in retrospect the
FBI believes it should have accelerated the suggested check of
U.S. flight schools after Moussaoui's arrest but does not
believe it would have led to the hijackers.
FBI officials said a supervisory agent in
Arizona wrote a several-page memo to FBI headquarters in July
2001 laying out information his counterterrorism team had
developed in an unrelated investigation. A portion of the memo
dealt with an Arizona flight school, officials said.
The memo indicated agents were suspicious about
why several nonresident Arab men were seeking training at a
commercial aeronautical school in Prescott, Ariz.
Collingwood said the men ``were enrolled in
various aspects of civil aviation engineering, airport
operations and pilot training.'' The agents were particularly
concerned that some were attempting to learn about airport
security operations, officials said.
The Phoenix memo urged FBI headquarters to
assemble a list of U.S. aviation academies and to instruct
field offices across the country to make ``appropriate
liaison'' with their local schools where other Middle
Easterners might be training.
The information was shared with intelligence
analysts who monitored terrorist threats and was even sent to
the FBI office in New York that had the most experience with
terrorism cases, officials said.
After the suicide attacks, the FBI quickly
descended upon flight schools nationwide, identifying
academies in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere where the leaders
of the 19 hijackers trained.
Hanjour, believed to have piloted the jetliner
that crashed into the Pentagon, trained at a flight academy in
Phoenix between January and March 2001, the government has
said in court documents.
Some witnesses have also said they believe
another hijacker, Ziad Samir Jarrah, trained on an Arizona
flight simulator in the months before the attacks. But the FBI
has no evidence that either man was connected to the Prescott
school identified in the July 2001 memo, officials said.
The FBI also investigated whether an Algerian
pilot who spent time in Arizona may have helped train the
hijackers before leaving the United States before the attacks.
That man, Lotfi Raissi, was later apprehended in
Britain, but U.S. officials failed to persuade a court there
to extradite him to the United States. Law enforcement
officials say their suspicions about his connections to the
hijackers have since fizzled.
An Arizona businessman who assisted U.S.
intelligence said he alerted the FBI in the mid-1990s that one
or more Middle Eastern pilots were training or working in his
state and appeared suspicious.
Harry Ellen said he told an FBI agent in Phoenix
in late 1996 or early 1997 that he met an Algerian pilot and
several Middle Eastern men at an Arizona mosque. Ellen
assisted U.S. intelligence during the 1990s but later had a
falling out over his business and personal dealings in Asia
and the Middle East.
``I brought this to the attention of an agent in
the local FBI whom I knew,'' Ellen said. ``They did not seem
particularly interested in the presence of these people. I
stressed it was very odd that the Algerian man was involved in
``One of the other men I believe was probably
Mr. Raissi, although he would have been thinner and younger at
the time,'' Ellen said.
Law enforcement officials said that while
Ellen helped the FBI, agents in Arizona have no record or
recollection of him providing information about pilots.