FBI slams own 9/11 document; New report discounts Sarasota Saudis ties to hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, FBI Director James D. Comey and former Congressman Tim Roemer at a Wednesday press conference

From left to right, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, FBI Director James D. Comey and former Congressman Tim Roemer at a Wednesday press conference

A report that lauds the FBI for making “great strides” in protecting the nation from terrorists in the past decade also says the Bureau produced and made public bad information linking Saudis in Sarasota to 9/11 terrorists.

The 9/11 Review Commission, a congressionally authorized body that relied heavily on the FBI for support and some staff, produced the 128-page report released Wednesday, “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century.” Among its conclusions: an April 16, 2002 FBI report that ties the Saudis to 9/11 hijackers was “not substantiated.”

The FBI provided the heavily censored document to Broward Bulldog Inc., parent company of FloridaBulldog.org, in 2013 amid an ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit that seeks access to the FBI’s files on the matter.

The FBI document says flatly that the Saudis, who abruptly moved out of their home in the upscale community of Prestancia in south Sarasota, about two weeks before the 2001 attacks – leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothes and other items – had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

FloridaBulldog.org first reported about the document on April 16, 2013.

FBI DOCUMENT ‘UNSUBSTANTIATED?’

“The FBI told the Review Commission that the (FBI document) on which the news article was based was ‘poorly written’ and wholly unsubstantiated, the commission’s report says. “When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.” The agent was not identified and no further explanation was offered.

The document’s information, however, is corroborated by a counterterrorism officer’s detailed account regarding what the FBI found during its investigation of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, in a story published by FloridaBulldog.org in September 2011.

911debrisIrish journalist and FloridaBulldog.org contributor Anthony Summers first interviewed the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Summers and Robbyn Swan are co-authors of The Eleventh Day, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2012.

“The report raises more questions about Sarasota than it answers,” said Thomas Julin, the news organization’s Miami attorney. “The report provides no plausible explanation for the contradiction between the FBI’s current claim that it found nothing and its 2002 memo finding ‘many connections’ between the Sarasota family and the 9/11 terrorists.”

The FBI kept its inquiry a secret from both the 9/11 Commission and Congress’s prior Joint Inquiry into the attacks, yet the 9/11 Review Commission’s report did not inquire as to why.

The FBI document not only contradicted the FBI’s prior public statements about the matter, it re-fueled concerns raised by official investigations that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has yet to be told.

“The report raises new concerns that the FBI is concealing Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” said attorney Julin. “The report should have explained why the Sarasota investigation was not disclosed to Congress.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry, said Wednesday that he had been unaware of the existence of the 9/11 Review Commission until its release.

“I was surprised by it, as were most Americans, and therefore I was not able to contribute to its deliberations,” said Graham, adding he wished he’d had that opportunity.

The Review Commission’s findings, as well as its lack of supporting documentation for its conclusions, failed to persuade Graham to alter his public skepticism about the FBI regarding 9/11.

AN FBI COVER UP?

“The FBI has served America through most of its history. There were stumbles by the agency before 9/11 and since the tragedy there has been a consistent effort to cover up the extent of Saudi Arabia’s involvement,” Graham said. “Let’s let the American people know what happened and have…a serious discussion of what happened, why it happened, where it was adverse to U.S. interests and how to avoid its repetition.”

The 9/11 Review Committee was established in January 2014 when Congress directed the FBI to create a commission to conduct a “comprehensive external review” of the implementation of recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Part of the job was to assess “any evidence now known to the FBI that was not considered by the 9/11 Commission,” the report says.

FBI Director James B. Comey appointed three commissioners: former Reagan Administration Attorney General Edwin Meese, former Congressman and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University. The commissioners and executive director John Gannon, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence, were apparently paid for their service. The report says each worked under a personal services contract, although how much they were paid and who paid them was not disclosed.

The report says commission staff traveled to eight FBI field offices to interview key personnel including members of counterterrorism squads, but none in Florida. More than 30 officials with the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community were interviewed, including ex-FBI director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA boss John Brennan. Their statements were not made public.

“I am shocked that this commission failed to talk to Bob Graham,” said attorney Julin.

While the report urged the FBI to do more about the threat of terrorism, Director Comey saw it as vindication for the FBI.

“I am pleased the Review Commission recognized the significant progress we have made to build a threat-based, intelligence-driven law enforcement and national security organization,” Comey said.

The report says commissioners obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file, interview reports and copies of a handful of documents previously released to FloridaBulldog.org via the Freedom of Information Act. FBI officials also briefed commission members more than 60 times on a variety of topics. One of those briefings was about Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, whose father Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to a member of the Saudi Royal family, the report shows.

Still, the 9/11 Review Commission’s report omits a number of seemingly relevant facts. For example, it neglects to mention that the April 2002 document the FBI discounts also cited national security to withhold other information from the public.

The report, while saying “the FBI found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the family,” also does not mention other information linking al-Hijji to terrorist figures, including Prestancia gatehouse security logs and license plate photos the counterterrorism officer said showed that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had gone to al-Hijji’s home. Also, unmentioned are statements made in 2004 to the FBI by now imprisoned terrorist associate Wissam Hammoud that described al-Hijji as an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who had once introduced him to al Qaeda figure Adnan El Shukrijumah.

Likewise, the report omits any reference to the ongoing Freedom of Information case in Fort Lauderdale where U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing 80,000 classified pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office. The judge will decide what documents should be made public.

Slain al Qaeda chief tied to 9/11; Key figure in FBI’s once secret probe of Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

A top al Qaeda operative reportedly shot dead in a weekend raid by the Pakistan army was a key figure in the FBI’s Sarasota investigation of a Saudi couple that declassified FBI documents say had “many connections” to the 9/11 hijackers.

Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who attended Broward College in the late 1990s, was killed early Saturday morning in a helicopter gunship assault on a hideout in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.

Described by authorities as al Qaeda’s chief of global operations, Saudi-born Shukrijumah was a fugitive from a 2010 federal indictment in New York for his alleged role in plots to attack New York’s subway system and London’s Underground. The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

At the time of his death, the U.S. was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Shukrijumah’s capture. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

BrowardBulldog.org, working with Irish journalists and authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, first reported in September 2011 that Shukrijumah was among a number of terrorist figures that a law enforcement source has said were identified by the FBI as having visited the Sarasota area home of Abdulazziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, prior to September 11, 2001.

They included 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who were at the controls of the passenger jets that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and Ziad Jarrrah, who crashed another jetliner into a Pennsylvania field. Also allegedly at the residence was Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta and three other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

TIE TO SAUDI ROYAL FAMILY

The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their home under suspicious circumstances about two weeks before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The owner of the home at 4224 Escondito Circle was Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a member of the Saudi royal family.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation of the al-Hijjis was never disclosed to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

When the matter finally became public in 2011, FBI officials in Tampa and Miami acknowledged the investigation, but said it had turned up no connection to 9/11 – statements later contradicted by a handful of FBI records made public in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org.

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge is currently reviewing for possible public release more than 80,000 additional pages of classified 9/11 records he ordered the FBI to produce for his inspection last spring.

Sen. Graham said Monday that Shukrijumah’s death forecloses one avenue for learning more about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

“This is another price we’re paying by delaying full disclosure of what happened before and after 9/11,” said Graham. “Had information about what happened in Sarasota been made available a decade ago it might have resulted in our aggressive attempts to interrogate Shukrijumah.”

While the 9/11 Commission found nothing to firmly connect Shukrijumah to the September 11 plot, it did note he was a “well-connected al Qaeda operative” known as “Jafar the Pilot” and that he apparently accompanied Atta on a May 2, 2001 visit to the Miami District Immigration Office. Also present that day was a third man that the commission concluded was United 93 hijack pilot Jarrah, for whom Atta was seeking a visa extension.

“75 PERCENT SURE”

An immigration inspector who dealt with the trio readily remembered Atta when interviewed later. And after looking at Shukrijumah’s Most Wanted photo, she told authorities “she was ‘75 percent sure’ that she could identify the man who was with Atta as Shukrijumah.”

A report by commission staff titled “9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” also noted that “Shukrijumah’s father is a well-known imam in south Florida, having testified on behalf of Sheikh Rahman during his trial for the conspiracy to destroy New York landmarks” in 1995. Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, is serving a life sentence.

Gulshair Shukrijumah, once a prayer leader at a Brooklyn mosque where Rahman preached, moved his family to Miramar in the mid-1990s and became a religious leader at the Masijid al Hijra. He died in 2004.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law also tie Shukrijumah to al-Hijji and pre-9/11 events in Sarasota.

Wissam Hammoud, identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “international terrorist associate,” told an FBI agent and a Sarasota County Sheriff’s detective in April 2004 that al-Hijji introduced him to his “friend” Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001.

Hammoud also told the agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the 9/11 hijackers, the records say.

Hammoud is currently serving 21 years in prison after his 2005 guilty plea in Tampa to federal weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. He reaffirmed his previous statements to the FBI in 2012 interviews. His wife and sister-in-law also corroborated Hammoud’s account.

Al-Hijji, who in 2012 lived in London where he worked for Aramco Overseas – the European subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, told the Daily Telegraph then that Hammoud was his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said by email. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

SHUKRIJUMAH ‘DOESN’T RING A BELL’

In a brief interview outside his office, al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

The FDLE previously declined to release its file on Shukrijumah, a citizen of Guyana.

Shukrijumah’s movements around the time of 9/11 are unclear. The Miami Herald reported in 2011 that the FBI said he’d left the country in the weeks before 9/11. ABC News reported a decade ago that the FBI said Shukrijumah was in the U.S. until shortly after 9/11.

Whatever the truth, Shukrijumah appears to have quickly risen through the ranks of al Qaeda, eventually assuming a position that NBC News reported was once held by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Pakistani forces reportedly caught up with Shukrijumah early Saturday morning in an an area that until recently was a key Taliban stronghold in Pakistan, according to the London Daily Mirror.

“In an intelligence borne operation, top al-Qaeda leader Adnan el Shukrijumah was killed by (the) Pakistan Army in an early morning raid in Shinwarsak, South Waziristan today,” the military said in a statement, the Mirror said. The remote region borders Afghanistan.

“His accomplice and a local facilitator were also killed in the raid,” the statement said.

Reuters reported that in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, all phone lines and mobile phone signals were shut down overnight and the roads were blocked in anticipation of the army’s strike.

A military official told the Mirror that security forces first heard that Chinese hostages were held at the location where the assault took place, learning only later about Shukrijumah’s presence and planning a larger operation.

The Mirror reported that two intelligence officers said militants opened fire on the Pakistani military and Shukrijumah was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Shukrijumah’s wife and four children were reportedly taken into custody.

One soldier was killed and another wounded, the paper reported.

A conservative judge rebukes FBI as he orders it to find and turn over 9/11 documents

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch has a reputation as a no-nonsense, conservative judge who can be short on patience, but is long on courtroom preparation and does not recoil from speaking his mind.

On Friday, after months of legal wrangling, Zloch spoke his mind for the first time on the FBI’s handling of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by BrowardBulldog.org that seeks records from the Bureau’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In a stinging, 23-page order, Zloch told the Department of Justice that it had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior records searches had been “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents,” as courts have said the law requires.

Zloch ordered the FBI to do something it had not done: use its sophisticated, $440 million Sentinel case management system to lead the search for relevant documents while adhering to various court-ordered conditions, including specific automated text searches. The judge gave the Bureau until April 18 – two weeks – to produce photocopies for his private inspection of all documents it identifies.

Zloch’s ruling is a “strong, clear directive to the FBI,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who in 2002 chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and has pushed Washington to release the FBI’s files about what happened in Sarasota.

“Since 2002 many sources, including the U.S. Senate, have been attempting to get information such as that which is likely to be disclosed under Judge Zloch’s order made available. This is the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving that objective,” said Graham.

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

Further, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a manual review of all documents in its Tampa field office regarding the Bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, code-named PENTTBOM. He gave the FBI until June 6 to complete that more time consuming task.

The Department of Justice has opposed any additional search. In court papers filed last August, it argued that a manual review would require “extraordinary effort, time and resources to conduct.”

“The manual review which plaintiffs are requesting is not reasonable; nor is it warranted,” the department argued in court papers filed in August. “The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation.”

Zloch disagreed. He decided a more thorough search is necessary due to “inconsistencies and concerns” about the government’s searches to date, as well as his need to assure himself that “the documents in dispute exist.”

Zloch noted, too, that early FBI assertions that its initial searches had yielded no responsive documents were followed months later, after the lawsuit was filed, by the release of 35 heavily redacted pages. Those pages, some partially blacked out on grounds of national security, contained no investigative reports yet did include some summary information that contradicted prior FBI public statements about the findings of its Sarasota investigation.

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” the order says.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the non-profit news organization, said it appears Judge Zloch “definitely wants to get to the bottom of this and doesn’t like the fact that the FBI put out public statements trying to discredit the Bulldog’s reporting…His order makes it sound like he believes the government may be deliberately covering up.”

Zloch’s order goes beyond instructing the FBI to search and produce its own investigative reports. It also requires both the Justice Department and the FBI to “advise the court of any documented communications between defendants and other government agencies concerning the investigation” of the Sarasota Saudis. Again, Zloch wants that information by June 6.

“He’s showing real sensitivity to the likelihood that the FBI is acting under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency,” said Julin. “If the FBI is simply following orders then he is telling the FBI he wants to know what those orders are and from who they are coming, whether it’s the CIA, the NSA or the President.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2012, after the FBI denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the agency’s reports about its Sarasota investigation.

A year earlier, BrowardBulldog.org had first disclosed the existence of the investigation in a story that reported how Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple, had abruptly moved out of their home in Sarasota’s Prestancia development and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before September 11, 20001.  Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Law enforcement focused on the al-Hijjis after suspicious neighbors called following the attacks to report that the couple had appeared to depart in haste, leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothing and even food in the kitchen.

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

The story reported that agents who later searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found evidence in logbooks and snapshots of license plates that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s home. A law enforcement source said an analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and former Broward resident Adnan Shukrijumah, a fugitive and alleged al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stated that a now imprisoned terrorist figure, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who prior to 9/11 had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Al-Hijj was interviewed last year by the London Telegraph. He acknowledged knowing Hammoud, but denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terror attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, ex-Sen. Graham has said.

In his order, Judge Zloch explained that his doubts about the quality of the FBI’s prior records searches was rooted in part in the “gaps and inconsistencies” he observed in the handful of documents the FBI has produced to date.

He noted, for example, that one FBI document written after the Sarasota story broke in 2011 states that the investigation found no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers while another, dated April 2002, says authorities found “many connections” between the family and  “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“These statements seem to be in conflict, and there is nothing in defendant’s 35 produced pages that reconciles this stark contradiction,” the order says.

Citing broad public interest, newspapers ask judge to deny U.S. bid to block 9/11 lawsuit

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
BrowardBulldog.org 911weremember

Two Florida newspapers have asked a Fort Lauderdale federal judge to deny the Justice Department’s effort to shut down a Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records from an FBI investigation into apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota shortly before 9/11.

BrowardBulldog.org filed the suit in September 2012 alleging the government was improperly withholding records on the matter. The government, after unexpectedly releasing 31 highly censored pages last spring, argued the court should end the case due to national security considerations and asserted that a “reasonable search” had determined “there are no agency records being improperly withheld.”

Court papers filed Tuesday by attorneys for The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune say they were intervening “to stress that the outcome of this case is a matter of intense interest to the media and the public generally.” The newspapers also argued that “government officials charged with investigating terrorist connections in our state must also be held fully accountable.”

“The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate searches in response to its federal Freedom of Information Act request,” said the joint brief filed by Tampa attorneys Carol LoCicero, Rachel Fugate and Mark Caramanica. “The stakes are simply too great to accept as a matter of law the government’s vague, often second hand conclusions as to the adequacy of its document searches.”

The newspapers’ friend-of-the-court brief asks U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch not to be “too quick” to accept an agency’s claim that it conducted “an appropriate search,” citing examples where records that should have been produced were not.

One cited case involves the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, which sued in 2012 seeking records about the Obama Administration’s alleged coordination with the producers of Zero Dark Thirty, the motion picture about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Allegations had been made that the White House provided the filmmakers with access to highly sensitive national security records in order to burnish President Obama’s reputation prior to the 2012 election.

A judge ordered the CIA to produce records about the matter, “but it was only months later that additional ‘overlooked’ documents were produced that included illuminating correspondence among the White House, the Department of Defense and the CIA suggesting a coordinated effort to provide a heightened level of access to the filmmakers and a desire that the administration be portrayed positively.”

Broward Bulldog.org, represented in the suit by Miami attorney Thomas Julin,  first disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011.

The story reported how, a decade earlier, the FBI had found direct ties between 9/11 hijackers and a young Saudi couple, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who appeared to have hurriedly departed their upscale home in a gated community in the weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, a refrigerator full of food and an open safe in the master bedroom.

Anoud al-Hijji is the daughter of the home’s owner, Esam Ghazzawi, a long-time adviser to a senior Saudi prince. Ghazzawi was also a focus of FBI interest after 9/11 when agents sought to lure him back to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia to close the transaction when the home was sold, according to a lawyer for the homeowner’s association.

Agents searched gatehouse logbooks and license plate snapshots and found evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home, according to a counterterrorism agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. A sophisticated analysis of incoming and outgoing phone calls to the home also established links to Atta and other terrorists, including Adman Shukrijumah, the agent said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident, is currently on the FBI’s “most wanted” list and the State Department is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The FBI publicly acknowledged its investigation but said it had found nothing connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired Congress’ Joint inquiry into the attacks, has said the FBI never informed Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation.

The story has taken several twists since news of the investigation first broke.

In February 2012, Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained using the state’s public records law showed that in April 2004 Wissam Hammoud, a now imprisoned “international terrorist associate” then under arrest in Hillsborough County, told the FBI that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers who trained at a flight school in Venice, about 10 miles from the al-Hijji residence. Hammoud also told the FBI then that al-Hijji had  introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a local mosque prior to 9/11. Hammoud confirmed making those statements in an interview.

Al-Hijji was reached in London in 2012 where he worked for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. He told The Telegraph that he knew Hammoud, but denied any involvement with terrorists. He called 9/11 “an awful crime.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012  Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

One year ago, six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI suddenly made public 31 redacted pages about its Sarasota investigation. The records flatly contradicted the Bureau’s earlier public statements that it had found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers. Instead, the FBI records said the family had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The declassified documents tied three individuals, with names blanked out, to the Venice flight school where Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi trained. One of those individuals was described as a relative of the al-Hijjis, whose names were also redacted.

Last June, the Justice Department moved to end the lawsuit, citing national security. A senior FBI official told the judge disclosure of certain classified information about the Sarasota Saudis “would reveal current specific targets of the FBI’s national security investigations.”

The FBI did not explain how an investigation that it previously said had found no connection between those Saudis and the 9/11 attacks involved information so secret that its disclosure “could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.”

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

FBI records say Sarasota Saudis who fled home had “many connections” to individuals tied to 9/11

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
BrowardBulldog.orgsept11

©2013 Broward Bulldog, Inc. 

A Saudi family who “fled” their Sarasota area home weeks before September 11th had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” according to newly released FBI records.

The information runs counter to previous FBI statements. It also adds to concern raised by official investigations but never fully explored, that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has not yet been told.

One partially declassified document, marked “secret,” lists three of those individuals and ties them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. Accomplice Ziad Jarrah took flying lessons at another school a block away.

Atta and al-Shehhi were at the controls of the jetliners that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jarrah was the hijack-pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

The names, addresses and dates of birth of the three individuals tied to the flight school were blanked out before the records were released to BrowardBulldog.org amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation.

National security and other reasons are cited for numerous additional deletions scattered across the 31 released pages. Four more pages were withheld in their entirety.

The records cast new light on one of the remaining unresolved mysteries regarding Florida’s many connections to the 9/11 attacks: what went on before the attacks at 4224 Escondito Circle, the home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family before the attacks.

The documents are the first released by the FBI about its once-secret probe in Sarasota. Information contained in the documents flatly contradicts prior statements by FBI agents in Miami and Tampa who have said the investigation found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012  Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, has said the FBI did not disclose the existence of the Sarasota investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.

The records also show for the first time that Graham’s former colleague, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., queried Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller about the Sarasota investigation six days after its existence was disclosed in a story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald on September 8, 2011.

The story told how concerned residents in the gated community of Prestancia tipped the FBI after the attacks to the al-Hijjis’ sudden departure in late August 2001. The family left behind three cars, clothes, furniture, diapers, toys, food and other items.

It also reported that a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia’s former administrator, Larry Berberich, said an analysis of gatehouse security records – log books and snapshots of license tags – had determined that vehicles either driven by or carrying several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.

Phone records revealed similar, though indirect, ties to the hijackers, said the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In contrast, the newly released FBI records include a pair of two-page reports, written in response to the story, that reiterate the bureau’s public position that its investigation turned up nothing.

One report, written on stationery of the Justice Department’s 9/11 prosecution unit, notes “the FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community, given the lack of connection to the hijackers.”

But the counterterrorism source, who has personal knowledge of the matter, called that assertion “not true.”

The Escondito Circle home where al-Hijji lived with his wife, Anoud, and their small children was owned by her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd. Prince Fahd, a prominent racehorse owner, died in July 2001 at age 46.

Al-Hijji, who following 9/11 worked for the Saudi oil company Aramco in England, could not be reached by phone or email last week. Aramco staff said there was no longer anyone by that name in the London office.

Last year, al-Hijji told a reporter his family did not depart their Sarasota home in haste but left so he could take a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He denied involvement in the 9/11 plot, which he called “a crime against the USA and all humankind.”

The records as released do not identify al-Hijji or anyone else by name, citing various exemptions that protect persons’ names in law enforcement records. The names are apparent, however, because the documents describe unique, known events and were released in specific response to a request for information about the investigation at the al-Hijji’s residence.

An April 16, 2002 FBI report says “repeated citizen calls” led to an inspection of the home by agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force.

“It was discovered that the [  family name deleted  ] left their residence quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge,” the report says.

“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,” the report says. huffman

The report lists three of those individuals. While their identities remain secret, the first person on the list was described as “a [ name deleted ] family member.”

That person and a second individual were said to be flight students at Huffman Aviation – the flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport attended by hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi.

The third person on the list “lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation” and was “arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” the report says.

The next paragraph, which ends the report, is blanked out entirely. The document cites two reasons: an Executive Order that allows matters “to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” and the National Security Act, which lets the CIA director exempt his agency’s operational files from the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI Special Agent Gregory Sheffield wrote the April 2002 report, according to the counterterrorism officer. His name is blanked out, too.

A notice on the document indicates the censored information regarding the three individuals associated with the terrorist attacks is scheduled to remain classified for another 25 years – until March 14, 2038.

The FBI released the records as a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org inches toward trial this summer in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The suit was filed in September after the FBI rejected both a request for its investigative records and an appeal of that request.

Thomas Julin, the news site’s attorney, called the FBI’s release of records that it had previously determined to be exempt from disclosure “highly unusual.”

“The government initially took the position that it had no documents. It hasn’t explained why things changed,” said Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.

Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez, who represents the FBI, declined comment.

The released FBI records are in two tiers: reports and other material written in 2001-2002 and memos, letters and email that followed publication of the first story about the matter in September 2011.

A number of pages recount information provided to the FBI by mail carriers and others, including a Sept. 18, 2001 observation that the al-Hijji’s appeared to have “left in a hurry.”

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

A Sept. 25 report talks of bank records that agents had obtained. The report was referred to the counterterrorism division’s Usama Bin Laden Unit/Radical Fundamentalist Unit.

One of the reports written in September 2011, after the existence of the Sarasota investigation was revealed, discusses briefly the unnamed “family member” who took flight lessons at Huffman Aviation.

“[ Name deleted ] was interviewed multiple times after 9/11 and identified Atta and al-Shehhi as individuals [ phrase deleted  ] flight training at Huffman. However, investigation did not reveal any other connection between [ name deleted ] and the hijackers and the 9/11 plot,” the report says.

FBI 302 reports about those interviews were not made public.

Senate Judiciary chair Leahy’s inquiry is disclosed in a declassified Nov. 22, 2011 response letter written by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich.

Weich called the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks “comprehensive and unprecedented.” He assured Leahy that agents found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the al-Hijjis.

Similarly, Weich denied Sen. Graham’s assertion that the FBI had not turned over its Sarasota records to Congress. The bureau, he stated, made all of its records available and suggested they may have been overlooked by investigators.

“The FBI is unable to ascertain whether these investigators reviewed records concerning the Sarasota family. The FBI also has not identified any specific requests by the investigators concerning the Sarasota family,” the letter says.

“You can’t ask for what you don’t know exists,” said Graham.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Documents the FBI now has released do not mention other known aspects of the Sarasota investigation, including troubling information provided to the FBI by al-Hijji’s former friend, Wissam Hammoud.

Hammoud, 47, is a federal prisoner classified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “International Terrorist Associate.” He is serving a 21-year sentence for weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in a previous case against him.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org last year state that shortly after his 2004 arrest Hammoud told agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero,” may have known some of the hijackers, and once introduced him to fugitive al-Qaeda leader and ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.

When reached last year, al-Hijji acknowledged having known Hammoud well. He did not, however, respond to a question about Hammoud’s allegations and said Shukrijumah’s name did not “ring a bell.”

What the FBI did about Hammoud’s allegations is not known.

Other FBI documents about Sarasota are known to exist, but were not released – including a report Graham says he read last year but can’t discuss because it is classified.

The Bulldog’s FOIA lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge William Zloch to order the FBI to produce all records of its Sarasota investigation, including the records seen by Graham.

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.

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