Aviation Students were Monitored Before Sept. 11
The FBI was monitoring a group of Middle Eastern men at a Prescott, Ariz., aviation school for two months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, concerned the men were planning to infiltrate airport security or recruit others to aid them in a hijacking or bombing plot, officials said yesterday.
None of the men turned out to be among the 19 hijackers who commandeered jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and none has since been connected to the attacks, authorities said.
But the Arizona situation was taken seriously enough before the attacks that FBI terrorism analysts in Washington were in the midst of launching a long-term program to track students from certain Middle Eastern countries at U.S. flight schools, officials said.
The plan was prompted by a recommendation from counterterrorism agents in the FBI's Phoenix office. They sent a memo to FBI headquarters in July 2001 outlining their concerns about some Middle Eastern students enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.
"Phoenix believes that the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country," the memo said. "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 case is the latest in a series of clues available to U.S. intelligence officials before Sept. 11 that suspected Middle Eastern terrorists and their associates had shown unusual interest in commercial aviation.
The Arizona situation also raises the possibility that a separate terrorist plot involving aircraft may have been planned before the Sept. 11 assaults, which have been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. FBI officials have not ruled out the possibility that such a plot is still in the works, one source said. Officials declined to say whether the men monitored in Prescott were affiliated with al Qaeda or any known terrorist group.
The revelations contained in the FBI memo, first reported yesterday by the Associated Press, set off immediate reactions from frequent FBI critics on Capitol Hill.
"This is one of several incidents that raise more questions about what the FBI knew of terrorist plans before Sept. 11, and about how the FBI handled the information," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the revelations "only underscore the need for a thorough and constructive congressional investigation of the facts."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding FBI oversight hearings, including testimony scheduled for Wednesday from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting a joint inquiry into the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. officials said yesterday that there is no way to know if a more rapid response by the FBI or other federal agencies would have uncovered details of the impending terrorist assaults, which involved several hijackers who sought training at U.S. flight schools.
"In hindsight, should it have been handled more aggressively? Probably," one senior law enforcement official said. "We had a piece of information -- it didn't seem to match anything else we had, so the decision was made to take some time and study it."
One of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, who piloted the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon, took classes last year at two flight schools in Phoenix, about 100 miles south of Prescott. The FBI has ruled out early suspicions that another hijacking pilot, Ziad Samir Jarrah of United Airlines Flight 93, also trained in Phoenix.
Investigators in Phoenix were in the midst of a terrorism investigation involving a group of Middle Easterners and their associates when they discovered that some of them were enrolled at Embry-Riddle's Prescott campus, officials said. The agents were particularly troubled by the breadth of topics that interested the students.
"People of interest to them were enrolled in various aspects of civil aviation engineering, airport operations and pilot training," said FBI spokesman John E. Collingwood. "The Phoenix communication went to the appropriate operational agents and analysts, but it did not lead to uncovering the impending attacks."
FBI officials declined to say what initially prompted the Arizona investigation, which focused on terrorism but not on aviation. Some of the men have been arrested since Sept. 11 on immigration charges, and the rest remain under surveillance, according to sources.
Lisa Ledewitz, Embry-Riddle's vice president for communications, said she was not aware of any contact last summer between the FBI and the Prescott campus about a group of Middle Eastern students. She said the school's collegiate structure, which requires four years of study to attain a degree, "is not the typical route a terrorist would take."
Federal authorities have been aware for years that a small number of suspected terrorists with ties to bin Laden had received flight training at schools in the United States and abroad, according to court records and interviews.
The Washington Post reported in September that convicted Pakistani terrorist plotter Abdul Hakim Murad, who had planned to blow up airliners over the Pacific, trained at four U.S. flight schools in the early 1990s. FBI agents, acting on information from the Philippines, interviewed school administrators about the case in 1996.
The U.S. embassy bombings trial earlier last year also revealed links between U.S.-trained pilots and bin Laden.
In addition, FBI investigators said they were immediately alarmed by the arrest in August 2001 of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who has since been charged with conspiring to join the Sept. 11 attacks.