Report says FBI was warned two hijackers were already in U.S.

The Associated Press
Monday September 17, 2001

LOS ANGELES – The FBI was warned three weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that two suspected Osama bin Laden associates, who later turned out to be among the suicide hijackers, were in the United States, according to a report Sunday. 

The FBI began to search on Aug. 21 for Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, who authorities believe helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, citing intelligence and law enforcement sources. 

But the FBI did not ask for help from the field office in San Diego, where the men had been living, until a day or two before Tuesday’s infernos in Washington and New York, FBI sources told the Times. 

The failed manhunt began after the CIA warned that Al-Midhar might have a link to the terrorist bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole last October in Yemen. Bin Laden is the prime suspect in the Cole bombing and in Tuesday’s attacks. 

Al-Midhar appears in a secret videotape made last year at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a suspect in the Cole bombing. The CIA on Aug. 21 asked the FBI to find Al-Midhar and an associate, Alhamzi. 

There was no indication from the CIA or elsewhere that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi were planning the hijackings. 

“We videotaped the meeting,” a U.S. intelligence official told the Times. “Afterwards, they split up and went their way.” 

Asked why no one was apprehended after the meeting, the official said, “Here was a bunch of guys who we believed were dirty, but we didn’t have anything on them.” 

U.S. authorities later determined that Al-Midhar and Alhamzi had flown into Los Angeles International Airport early last year, and into the New York area earlier this year. The FBI checked hotel records in Los Angeles and New York but found no trace of either man, the Times said. 

A law enforcement source told the Times on Saturday that the CIA first contacted the FBI’s New York City office. FBI agents in New York gave the two names to the bureau’s Los Angeles office only days before the attacks, and the San Diego office received the names a day after that. 

The law enforcement official portrayed the information as sketchy and “very, very late.” 

Both men were placed on a U.S. immigration “watch list” in late August, but immigration officials quickly determined that they already had entered the United States. At various times in the past year, both men have lived in San Diego and Phoenix. 

Alhamzi was renting a room in San Diego at the time of the Cole attack. It is unclear whether Al-Midhar was living there then or had just moved out. Abdussattar Shaikh, who said he rented rooms to Alhamzi and Al-Midhar, said the two had told him they were friends from Saudi Arabia. 

Despite what the FBI called an “aggressive” effort, the bureau failed to find the men until their names surfaced on the passenger manifest of American Flight 77, which killed at least 190 people when it rammed the Pentagon. 

“When you have somebody who comes into this country without any information to go on as to where they were going, who they’re staying with or anything — when you have none of that and, as it turns out you only have two weeks to work with, the likelihood of finding him was very small,” a government official who asked not to be identified told the Times.