Suicide Hijackers Hid Behind Stolen Arab Identities

by Dominic Kennedy
The London Times
September 20, 2001

 

Five of the hijackers were using stolen identities, and investigators are studying the possibility that the entire suicide squad consisted of impostors.

Details are emerging of the killers' humdrum final weeks in the US suburbs - joining gyms, eating pizzas and visiting an "adult video" store.

But the more the FBI learns about the dead men, the less likely it seems that the list of suspects derived from the passenger manifests of the aircraft can be accurate. Many of them seem to have adopted the personas of real-life commercial and military pilots.

In Saudi Arabia, five of the alleged hijackers have emerged, alive, innocent and astonished to see their names and photographs appearing on satellite television.

"The name is my name and the birth date is the same as mine, but I am not the one who bombed the World Trade Centre in New York," Abdulaziz Alomari told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. Mr Alomari, 28, interviewed in Riyadh, said that he had left the United States in April 2000 and was in the Saudi capital during the suicide attacks in New York and Washington. The US-educated engineer had reported to police that his passport was stolen when his flat in Denver, Colorado, was burgled in 1995.

A Saudi diplomat formerly based in Washington, Ahmed al-Shehri, told al-Eqtisadiah newspaper that details of one of the hijackers matched his son, Waleed. The young man, a pilot with Saudi Arabian Airlines who graduated four years ago from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, is living in Morocco.

Another Saudi pilot, Said Hussein al-Ghamdi, whose photograph was broadcast on CNN when it portrayed him as a hijacker, is living in Tunis.

Bogus identities have long formed part of Osama bin Laden's armoury. A man given a jail sentence of 240 years for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre is known to the American authorities as Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti who studied at Swansea Institute of Higher Education. His lecturers insist, after seeing photographs of the man in a top-security jail, that he is not their former student. The real Mr Yousef was killed at the end of the Gulf War.

One suspected associate of the hijackers questioned by police in America uses the name Nikos Makrakis, but the real Mr Makrakis is a Greek nightclub singer whose passport was stolen from his car when he went for a swim in Loutsa this July.

Doubts are emerging about the identities of other named hijackers. In the United Arab Emirates, relatives and neighbours of Marwan al-Shehhi, suspected of flying the second aircraft into the towers, said the man they knew could not have carried out such a devastating act. Mr al-Shehhi, who last spoke to his family two months ago, lost his passport and a replacement was issued on December 26, 1999.

The family of Ziad al-Jarrah, an alcohol-drinking Lebanese partygoer, deny he could have been the fanatical Muslim hijacker whose aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania.

Mohammed Atta's father, a Cairo lawyer, was certain his son, who feared flying, was not the pilot of the first aircraft to crash into the World Trade Centre, as news organisations have suggested.

Alarming reports claimed that three of the hijackers -Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Mani and Ahmed al-Ghamdi -had learned to fly at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, known as the "Cradle of US Naval Aviation".

But it has emerged that none of these were among the hijackers. Investigators are checking whether they were just men with similar names, or if the hijackers deliberately posed as the military pilots.

The theft of identities from international commercial pilots may explain why some countries are discovering records showing that people with these names frequently entered their countries. The Philippines Government was astonished to learn that a Saeed al-Ghamdi had visited Manila 15 times. An Ahmed al Ghamdi came to the capital 13 times and left on September 10, a day before a man with the same name crashed into the World Trade Centre.

The lives of the hijackers are being pieced together by FBI agents. Two of the gang, including the impostor Saeed al-Ghamdi, spent their final weeks in a flat in Delray Racquet Club, Delray Beach, Florida, where neighbours said it sounded like they were playing marbles late at night.

Five of the men lived in suburban Maryland, where Hani Hanjour and Majed Moqed were pictured by a surveillance camera, in casual clothes. Moqed visited an adult video shop a few times, buying nothing. "He was acting strangely. He looked nervous," the manager said.

Two of the hijackers lived in the Valencia Motel in Laurel, refusing to let the housekeeper enter their room to change the linen. They opened the door slightly to swap dirty towels for clean ones. The men ate at a pizza restauarant, but were described as "stand-offish".

They went to Gold's Gym, paying with cash. They exercised quietly, using weight-training and resis-tance machines. When they enrolled, the receptionist asked if their Arabic names had English translations. Hanjour said: "My name means warrior." Actually, it means "content".

 

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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