By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
The North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001
New FBI records connecting Saudis who lived in Sarasota before 9/11 to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks” have spurred a renewed push to find out whether the al Qaeda suicide hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people had help.
“One question that has gone unanswered through the investigation of 9/11 is ‘Did the hijackers operate alone or did they have accomplices who facilitated their ability to act?” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. “I think the information we have now makes a very strong case that they did.”
Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, met Tuesday with Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to discuss disclosures in the FBI records released to BrowardBulldog.org.
“He’s very interested in getting to the bottom of the events in Sarasota,” said Graham, who plans to meet with senior Obama administration officials in Washington next week.
“The fact is that most of the hijackers spoke no English and had not been in the U.S. before, yet were able to carry out a very complicated plot while maintaining anonymity,” said Graham. “What we’ve discovered in Sarasota may be another step toward exposing a larger network of Saudi-related individuals who assisted the hijackers.”
The FBI records provide new information about an investigation into what occurred prior to 9/11 at the upscale home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family in the gated community of Prestancia. Information in them contradicts prior FBI statements that no evidence was found connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.
Former Florida Senator Bob Graham
The names of individuals were redacted before the reports were made public, but are apparent because the documents describe unique, known events. The records were released in response to a specific request for information about the probe at al-Hijji’s former residence at 4224 Escondito Circle.
Agents determined the al-Hijjis “fled” their home on August 27, 2001 – two weeks before the attacks – leaving behind three cars, furniture, clothing, toys, food and other items.
“Further investigation of the [ name deleted ] family revealed many connections between the [ name deleted ] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” says an April 16, 2002 FBI report.
The report lists three of those individuals. Two, including one described as a “family member,” were described as students at the nearby Venice airport flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The third person lived with some flight students, the report says.
BrowardBulldog.org previously reported that a counterintelligence officer speaking on condition of anonymity said an FBI examination of gatehouse log books and photos of license tags revealed that vehicles linked to the future hijackers visited al-Hijji’s residence. Phone records also reportedly showed indirect ties to the hijackers.
FBI agent Gregory Sheffield was the lead agent on the case. He wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks, the counterterrorism official said. Sheffield’s name is blanked out, too.
On July 22, 2002, Sheffield interviewed al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and mother-in-law, Deborah Ghazzawi “regarding possible terrorist activity.” The women, who had returned briefly to the home, denied fleeing before 9/11 or knowing certain unnamed individuals, according to the reports.
Soon after, Sheffield was transferred to the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence (FCI) division and left the area, according to the counterintelligence officer. The transfer suggested Sheffield may have recruited an al-Hijji family member as a source of information, the source said.
If so, that could explain why the FBI has reported finding only 35 pages of records regarding an investigation that records and interviews indicate resulted in the filing of numerous investigatory reports over a period of at least three years.
“I believe that the transfer of Sheffield to the FCI side of the bureau speaks volumes as to the lack of information available. If he was able to recruit a family member then all information up to that point will be off limits under the National Security Act,” the counterintelligence source said.
Likewise, that scenario could account for a curious statement in another FBI report written after the Sarasota probe became public in September 2011. The report states, “The FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community.”
According to the counterintelligence officer, that statement is “not true.” In fact, the source said, Agent Sheffield took the Sarasota files, apparently to include the gatehouse and phone records, with him when he departed to his new, more secretive FBI post.
Much remains unclear. Chunks of the released reports are blanked out for national security and other reasons. Four pages were withheld in their entirety.
Sen. Graham believes that what happened in Sarasota points to the idea that there was a broader support network of Saudis who provided aid and sympathy for the future hijackers.
Graham cites a “common outline” with events in San Diego, Ca. involving Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the five Saudi hijackers aboard the American Airlines jet that was flown into the Pentagon.
The Joint Inquiry and 9/11 Commission reports describe how Omar al-Bayoumi, another Saudi living in San Diego, provided assistance to al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi, including housing.
One report said al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported al-Bayoumi appeared to be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The FBI also learned al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements,” the report said.
“There is no evidence that Bayoumi knew what was going on; just that he’d been told to take care of these men,” said Graham, who has criticized the FBI for withholding key information about what happened in San Diego.
A former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham believes a new investigation is now needed to get the truth.
“My goal is to have the investigation reopened and do a full inquiry into the Saudi aspects and then make the results available to the American people,” Graham said.
Such an inquiry should not be led by the FBI, according to Graham.
“They are the ones who have significantly been responsible for us not knowing 10 years ago what the Saudi role was by withholding information and withholding witnesses,” he said.
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.