Terrorist Had Been On Government's Watch List

by Shannon Colavecchio
Cox News Service
October 16, 2001

 

The man who called himself Ahmed Alghamdi was on the federal government's terrorist radar screen long before he and four other hijackers turned United Airlines Flight 175 into a deadly, passenger-filled missile.

For several months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. customs agents were investigating financial dealings between Alghamdi and former Boston cab drivers Nabil al-Marabh and Raed Hijazi, identified by the FBI as operatives of al-Quaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. customs investigation, disclosed in several newspapers including the New York Times and Atlanta Journal Constitution, found that Alghamdi and American Airlines Flight 11 hijacker Satam Suqami had engaged in financial transactions with al-Marabh, a sometime-Canada resident who was arrested Sept. 19 in Burbank, Ill., and taken to a New York jail.

Hijazi, who according to the Boston Globe listed al-Marabh as a contact on his cab driver's license, is serving a life sentence in a Jordanian jail for his involvement in a thwarted scheme to blow up a luxury hotel in Jordan frequented by Americans. Hijazi has testified that he trained in bin Laden's terrorism camps in Afghanistan, and he named al-Marabh as a member of the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Jordanian court officials have said Hijazi used his salary there _ more than $13,000 _ to build a terrorist cell. He may also have used it to broker deals this summer with Suqami and Alghamdi.

But Hijazi denied involvement in the recent attacks when he spoke with an Agence France Press reporter at a court hearing earlier this month.

Al-Marabh, a liquor store clerk at the time of his arrest, now faces questioning before a grand jury looking into the attacks.

The grand jury likely will hear about Ahmed Alghamdi, who sat next to fellow Saudi Arabian Hamza Alghamdi in row 9 of the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower, according to the business class tickets the men purchased together online for $1,760 each.

Combined with driving and academic records _ plus the accounts of neighbors and business owners who identify Ahmed Alghamdi as the quiet, slight man to whom they served doughnuts and watered-down beer _ the al-Marabh connection reveals a man who moved often, and in circles that overlapped with several of the 18 other terrorist hijackers identified by the FBI.

Even more important to the government, as it launches strikes against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Ahmed Alghamdi's movements also appear to have intersected with al-Qaeda operatives and Islamic extremists.

Ahmed and Hamza Alghamdi, who both hailed from the Baha province of Saudi Arabia, according to a Saudi Arabian newspaper, listed an identical Delray Beach Mail Boxes Etc. address when buying their online tickets for the Sept. 11 flight.

They also listed a phone number matching that of fellow Flight 175 hijacker Mohand Alshehri, according to the Boston Globe.

But determining whether this picture of Ahmed Alghamdi and his cohorts is real or mirage is difficult, given the common nature of the hijackers' names: monikers like "Alsheri" and "Alghamdi" are the equivalent of our "Smith" and "Jones." There is also the possibility, stressed several times by FBI director Robert Mueller, that at least some of the hijackers were using stolen identities.

Still, witnesses have identified an FBI picture of the man who went by "Ahmed Alghamdi," and their stories match with times and places documented in housing, education and driving records linked to Alghamdi.

According to his Florida driver license, issued in August 1993 and bearing a Daytona Beach address, Ahmed Alghamdi was born Nov. 11, 1962 and stood 5-foot-8. An FBI picture of him shows he was a slight man, with a wiry neck and a prominent Adam's apple. An Ahmed Alghamdi with the same birthdate, also standing 5-foot-8, also had a Michigan driver license, and lived in Dearborn, records show.

The FBI has listed "Ahmed Salah Alghamdi" as an alias, but The Palm Beach Post has found that an "Ahmed Saeed Alghamdi" once claimed to be living at the same Michigan address listed on Ahmed Alghamdi's driver license.

An Ahmed S. Alghamdi, born November 1962, also has lived in Pittsburgh; Golden, Colo.; Arcadia, Calif.; and Pensacola, The Post has found.

In August, Alghamdi and several other hijackers obtained Virginia driver licenses with the help of two Virginia residents who falsified residency certifications and identification affidavits required in getting a license. The FBI has arrested Herbert Villalobos and Kenys A. Galicia, a notary who admitted signing false residency papers for Alghamdi and Abdulaziz Alomari, of American Flight 11.

While FBI officials say Alghamdi likely lived with several other hijackers in Delray Beach, witnesses in Paterson, N.J. say he may have live with several other hijackers who spent time in that working-class neighborhood at an apartment rented in February.

Modesta Gomez, owner of the El Fogon bar and restaurant in Paterson, told The Palm Beach Post that Ahmed Alghamdi and Hani Hanjour, named as a hijacker on the plane that drove a fiery hole into the Pentagon, lived in an apartment across the street from her bar.

The two often came around in the evenings to buy beer, usually Heineken or Budweiser, which they would mix with water, Gomez said.

"They would sit for no more than 20 minutes," said Gomez, who recalls they spoke little English and left town about two weeks before the attacks.

As Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi fit in among South Florida's diverse, transient community, Alghamdi and Hanjour did not stick out among the large Arab and Latino community of South Paterson. N.J. Gomez said she mostly remembers Alghamdi and Hanjour because of their odd preference for watery beer.

Alfonso Then, owner of a minimarket located on the ground floor of the three-story apartment building where Hanjour rented the apartment, told The Palm Beach Post that two of the men hanging around the apartment were frequent customers in July and August. The young men came to his store two or three times a day, Then said, estimating they were between 19 and 21.

"They bought doughnuts, juice, water, toilet paper and sometimes eggs," Then said. "They barely spoke English."

Proficient in English or not, evidence gathered since the attacks suggests Ahmed Alghamdi may have attended a Colorado university and lived at a naval training school in Pensacola.

In Denver, University of Colorado officials are trying to determine whether the Ahmed Alghamdi and Abdulaziz Alomari who attended their school are the same men that hijacked the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center. University counsel Joanne McDevitt said an Ahmed Alghamdi attended summer classes at the university's Denver campus from 1998 to 2000.

"We still have received no confirmation that this individual was involved on the events of Sept. 11," McDevitt told The Palm Beach Post. "We have only confirmed that someone with that name was a non-degree student here."

University officials cannot find the Alghamdi who attended their school; nor can they find Abdulaziz Alomari, who graduated from the university in May 2000 with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, McDevitt said. Last month, a man claiming to be Alomari surfaced in Saudi Arabia and said his passport had been stolen in 1995, when he reported to police that his briefcase had been stolen from his Denver apartment.

Pat Hagelberg of Golden, Colo., told the Rocky Mountain News she rented a room in her home to a UC-Denver student named Ahmed Alghamdi for about a year. Hagelberg described her boarder as quiet and reserved, and a teetotaler. Hagelberg recalls he often visited friends in a nearby apartment complex, and was making good grades as he studied business and science. When Alghamdi left in August 2000, he told Hagelberg he was returning to Saudi Arabia.

Authorities also are investigating whether Ahmed Alghamdi and hijackers Ahmed Alnami and Saeed Alghamdi lived in a Pensacola housing facility for foreign military trainees.

Law enforcement officials quoted in the Orlando Sentinel said people named Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alghamdi listed an address at 10 Radford Blvd., a base road where foreign nationals are housed while training, in the late '90s. But Florida driving records show another Saeed Alghamdi lived a few miles away at roughly same time. And there are at least 11 driver license records in the name Ahmed Alghamdi, some with different middle names.

Adding more confusion, the Arab News reported late last month that the mother of this reputed hijacker insists her son could not be the man FBI officials are claiming.

Spelling the name Ahmad Alghamdi instead of "Ahmed," the newspaper reported that he is the 20-something son of Ibrahim Almussallam Alghamdi. His mother claims her son was very religious since his youth and was active in the propagation of Islam. She also described him as a quiet teen-ager with few friends.

The youngest of three brothers and four sisters, Ahmad Alghamdi finished high school but did not marry, the newspaper reported. Instead, he joined Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah and studied engineering. He never studied aviation, his mother insisted. He stayed at the university just two months and then left without telling his family. They later discovered that he had gone to fight in Chechnya.

Alghamdi's mother said she last heard from her son about two months ago, when he mentioned nothing about living in the United States.

He also said nothing about living in America during his last visit home, during Ramadan, the December monthlong holiday of celebration and introspection, when all able-bodied Muslim adults fast from sunrise to sunset.

Staff writer John Murawski and staff news researcher Madeline Miller contributed to this report.

Shannon Colavecchio writes for The Palm Beach (Florida) Post. E-mail: shannoncolavecchio(at)pbpost.com


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