Friday, May 03, 2002|
WASHINGTON In July of last
year, two months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, FBI
agents based in Arizona warned headquarters to be wary of
Middle Eastern men studying at American flight
After an unrelated investigation revealed
that several nonresident Arab men were seeking training at a
commercial aeronautical school in Prescott, Ariz., the agents'
supervisor wrote in a memo to Washington that "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."
FBI headquarters passed on the intelligence
to its terrorism experts in Washington and New York for
analysis. The agency was considering a nationwide survey of
flight schools when the terror attacks took place, Fox News
At least one leader of the 19 hijackers,
Hani Hanjour, got flight training in Arizona in 2001, but his
name was not in the FBI intelligence from Arizona, officials
told the Associated Press.
As for the men who were mentioned, "none of
the people identified by Phoenix are connected to the Sept. 11
attacks," FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood said
"The Phoenix communication went to
appropriate operational agents and analysts but it did not
lead to uncovering the impending attacks," Collingwood
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, which was obtained by the
Collingwood said on Thursday that 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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
In August 2001, 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
Usama bin Laden to kill thousands of Americans. Prosecutors
are seeking the death penalty.
U.S. intelligence issued a late summer
2001 warning that there was heightened risk of a terrorist
attack on Americans, possibly even on U.S. soil.
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
Fox News' Molly Henneberg, Catherine
Herridge and the Associated Press contributed to this