Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog and the London Daily Telegraph on Feb. 18. We are re-posting it here after it was picked up today, March 12, by MSNBC and NBC News4 New York.
By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004.
The informant also told authorities that Abdulazziz al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah — the former Miramar resident and suspected al Qaeda leader who today has a $5 million bounty on his head.
The FBI and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Wissam Taysir Hammoud at the Hillsborough County Jail on April 7, 2004. Broward Bulldog obtained Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports about the interview and the investigation using the state’s public records law.
Hammoud, 46, who once owned a cell phone business in Sarasota, is serving 21 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in an earlier case against him. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons classifies him as an “International Terrorist Associate,” court records show.
Hammoud reaffirmed his previous statements about al-Hijji to the FBI in recent interviews.
Al-Hijj’s name made headlines in September when Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald reported on a counterterrorism source’s disclosure of a previously unknown FBI-led probe that followed the attacks on New York and Washington — one that pointed to a possible Saudi support operation for the hijackers in Florida.
A decade after the nation’s worst terrorist attack, which claimed the lives of 3,000 people, al-Hijji has now been found to be living in London where he works for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company. His job title is career counselor.
In an email to London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, al-Hijji acknowledged Hammoud had been 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. “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.”
Al-Hijji’s account is supported by the FBI, which has stated: “At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers…and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot.”
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.
While living in Florida, al-Hijji attended Manatee Community College (now the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota) and, from January 2000 until April 2001, the University of South Florida. He earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in management information systems awarded in August 2001.
In the weeks before 9/11, al-Hijji — then 27 — and his wife Anoud, daughter of an adviser to a member of the Saudi royal family, departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the upscale gated community of Prestancia and returned to Saudi Arabia They left behind three cars and “numerous personal belongings including food, medicine, bills, baby clothing, etc,” according to the FDLE documents which state the family departed on Aug. 27, 2001.
Al-Hijji denied having abandoned his home in haste, explaining: “No, no, no. Absolutely not true. We were trying to secure the [Aramco] job. It was a good opportunity.” He said his wife and children followed him out to Saudi Arabia a few weeks after he left Sarasota.
An alarmed neighbor contacted the FBI. When several weeks passed without action, Prestanica resident and administrator Larry Berberich alerted local law enforcement. Authorities, including the FBI, moved in.
The investigation led to a stunning development, according to Berberich and a counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The car registration numbers of vehicles that had passed through the Prestancia community’s North Gate in the months before 9/11, coupled with the identification documents shown by incoming drivers on request, showed that Mohamed Atta and several of his fellow hijackers – and another Saudi terror suspect still at large – had visited 4224 Escondito Circle on multiple occasions,” the source said.
The others included Marwan al-Shehhi, who plowed a United Airlines jet into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Ziad Jarrah, who crashed another United jet into a Pennsylvania field and Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Also identified as having visited: Saudi-born fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah.
The source said law enforcement “also conducted a link analysis that tracked phone calls – based on dates, times, and length of phone conversations to and from the Escondito house – dating back more than a year before 9/11. And the phone traffic also connected with the 9/11 terrorists – though less directly than the gate logs did.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks, called news of the Sarasota investigation the “most important” development on the background to the 9/11 plot in years. He added that Congress should have been told about it.
Soon after the story broke, however, the FBI poured cold water on it. It acknowledged that there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.
The FBI reiterated that position in a letter this month denying a Freedom of Information Act request for records of its investigation.
The FDLE records suggest such a finding may have been wrong. For example, one report that recounts what Hammoud said during the 2004 interview states, “The following information, in particular the information by Wissam Hammoud, is being followed up on internationally.”
DETAILS FROM FDLE REPORT
The FDLE reports buttress key elements of the story, while providing new details:
Hammoud, who said he met al-Hijji through relatives, said the two men worked out together at Shapes Fitness in Sarasota and played soccer at the local Islamic Society. He told the FBI Al-Hijji was “very well schooled in Islam” and that “Osama bin Laden was a hero of al-Hijji.” He added that Al-Hijji showed him a “website containing information about bin Laden,” and spoke of “going to Afghanistan and becoming a freedom fighter.” Al-Hijji also tried to recruit him, Hammoud said.
According to Hammoud, al-Hijji also talked of “taking flight training in Venice.” He said he believed “al-Hijji had known some of the terrorists from the September 11, 2001 attacks” who were students at an airport there.
Hammoud said al-Hijji “entertained Saudis at his residence” at “parties” that he himself did not stay for because – unlike al-Hijji as he remembered him – he “did not drink or smoke cannabis.” One Saudi Hammoud identified as an al-Hijji “friend” he brought to a soccer game at the Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001 was Shukrijumah.
Hammoud’s wife and sister-in-law confirmed during recent interviews that they too knew the al-Hijjis and are familiar with elements of Hammoud’s account. Mrs. Hammoud, who asked that her full name not be used, got the impression from comments al-Hijji made that he was “anti-American.” Hammoud himself, speaking from prison in recent days, said al-Hijji “had a lot of hatred towards everyone in America.” He said he had thought al-Hijji “nuts” when he asked him to go fight in Afghanistan.
Al-Hijji, while confirming he used to work out with Hammoud, described his life in Sarasota as quiet, centered on his wife and children.
“My friends were very limited,” he explained. “Normally, I don’t hold parties in the house because I have little kids. I was not a frequent to any bars.”
HAMMOUD SEEN AS TERRORIST ASSOCIATE
Prison officials have put Hammoud under heightened security measures due to his classification as a terrorist associate. Court records state the classification is based on what authorities said was Hammoud’s “support and membership” in a “Palestinian-related terrorist organization.”
Hammoud denies involvement with the group and has sought – so far unsuccessfully – a court order to overturn that classification. While representing himself, he filed documents that reveal a history of mental problems caused by a serious brain injury he suffered in a car accident in 1990.
After Hammoud’s first conviction in 2002 for selling illegal weapons to an undercover federal agent, an FBI agent wrote: “Hammoud is now claiming diminished capacity because of an auto accident in an effort to be sentenced to less time…There is speculation on the part of law enforcement that this was merely an attempt to gain sympathy from the sentencing judge…”
Hammoud was found to be competent by a judge before he was allowed to plead guilty to more serious charges arising from his 2004 arrest. The guilty plea and sentence were later upheld on appeal.
Hammoud’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer, would not comment. But his appellate attorney, Tampa’s Bruce Howie, remembers his former client as “not delusional or wacky…I think he has his share of paranoia. But he’s not a liar. He didn’t make it up as he went along.”
For his part, Hammoud has named several FBI agents that he claims to have dealt with while attempting to assist the government in its fight against terrorism. One was Miami Special Agent Kevin Griffin, best known locally for undercover work that put former Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in prison in 2010.
Hammoud’s current attorney, Detroit’s Sanford Schulman, said FBI agents have met with Hammoud on multiple occasions.
“There have been about 10 different agents, and that’s just the ones that I’ve been involved with. They were not two minute meetings either,” said Schulman, who did not attend but was notified of the meetings.
Hammoud may have known more than is revealed in the new FDLE documents. A Sarasota Herald-Tribune story about him based on an FBI agent’s affidavit filed at the time of Hammoud’s arrest in January 2004 has this ominous reference:
“In September 2001, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed Hammoud because someone had anonymously called saying Hammoud had made a comment that the Oklahoma bombing was going to be small compared with what was coming.”
In a recent email, Hammoud denied having made such a remark.
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.