Arizona Was Home to bin Laden ''Sleeper Cell''

by Dennis Wagner and Tom Zoellner
The Arizona Republic
September 28, 2001

 

Arizona appears to have been the home of a "sleeper cell" of Osama bin Laden's worldwide terrorist organization, with a select group of operatives living quietly in bland apartment complexes and obtaining flight training in preparation for the Sept. 11 attacks.

The organization's known history in the state goes back nine years and scholars say the activities of at least three part-time Arizona residents fits the pattern of the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

"We can only speculate at this point, but I'm convinced the FBI is operating under the assumption that Arizona was host to an al-Qaeda cell," said Jack Williams, a professor of law at Georgia State University who has studied the group's financing methods.

Among the suspects:

* Lotfi Raissi, a onetime resident of the Wickertree Apartments in North Phoenix, was arrested in England this week. British prosecutors say the Algerian pilot is a mid-level player in the Al-Qaeda organization who gave flight training to four of the terrorists in Arizona.

* Hani Hanjoor, identified by the FBI as a hijacker who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, lived in Tucson and Phoenix and took flight-training courses in Scottsdale. Authorities say they have a videotape of Hanjoor with Raissi on a flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas in June.

* Nawaf Al-Hazmi, a Saudi national who was aboard the same flight, was a Hanjoor associate and possibly took flight-training in Arizona. FBI agents discovered a cashier's check for a Phoenix-area flight school in his vehicle after the terrorist attack.

* Khalid Almihdhar lived with Hanjoor in San Diego, and reportedly attended a flight school in Arizona. Investigators told the Washington Post they are "confident" Almihdhar is a member of the al-Qaeda network.

* Wadih El-Hage, a former Tucson resident and bin Laden lieutenant, was imprisoned in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. Years earlier, he engineered the purchase of a military surplus jet from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and may have had a role in the assassination of the leader of a controversial Islamic sect in Tucson in 1990.

* Unnamed "henchmen" to bin Laden, who reportedly attempted to buy a Boeing 727 jetliner in Arizona just six months before the Sept. 11 hijackings. A law enforcement official told the New York Post the men had "kicked the tires" of some used airplanes in Denver and Tucson, but ultimately did not make a purchase.

Confirmation that an al-Qaeda cell operated in Arizona has not yet come from federal officials. On Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee member John Kyl, R-Ariz., acknowledged an FBI failure to root out the Arizona-based conspirators, but said he could not discuss whether a terrorist network existed, or still exists, in the state.

Ed Hall, an FBI spokesman in Phoenix, declined comment, as did Michael Johns of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Both men said all information on the terrorist case is being released by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Officials there did not return phone calls.

The organization

Al-Qaeda is Arabic for "the base," an organization which grew out of the Muslim guerilla resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afganistan in the late 1980s. Bin Laden, the wealthy son of a Saudi Arabian construction magnate, joined the underground movement against the Russians and received CIA support.

He soon became disenchanted with what he perceived as American interference in the Middle East and began to preach an embittered version of Islam that makes it a religious obligation to kill Americans and Jews.

Bin Laden developed what experts call the "cellular structure" of al-Qaeda, in which small groups of zealous members operate without knowledge of each other. The cells are connected to each other only at the very top of the hierarchy, so that if one group is caught, they cannot inform on the others. The close-knit sect is hard to infiltrate; FBI officials have said they have been able to recruit informants in only a half-dozen instances.

"They are highly decentralized and highly mobile," said Thomas Gouttierre, the head of the center for Afganistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "They are based on guerilla warfare theories."

Al-Qaeda is divided into three basic parts. There is a financial wing soliciting donations from wealthy benefactors, a logistical wing maintaining a series of training camps and bases in Afganistan and Egypt, and an operational wing consisting of hundreds of devoted members assigned to fade into the cultural background of various nations, including the U.S.

Messages typically are not delivered over the phone or through email, which can both be intercepted, but by face-to-face meetings in secure rooms, where instructions are sometimes spoken by an unwitting middleman in coded language. It is a system designed to foil modern eavesdroppers, said Goutierre.

"These people have been fighting their whole lives against intelligence organizations," he added. "The best way to be high-tech is not to use technology."

Most members on the operational level in America have kept themselves clean-shaven and avoid associating with other Muslims in an effort to distance themselves from their traditional Middle Eastern backgrounds, said Williams. The various spellings of their Arabic names, combined with a series of aliases and false birth dates, make them hard to track down when they move. And their penchant for anonymity has become legend.

"I have not seen one person who met or knew this guy," said Ihsan Saadeddin, spokesman for the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, referring to Hanjoor. " . . . They were trained not to be with other people."

Omar Shahin of the Tucson Islamic Center said members of the Tucson mosque may have helped bin Laden in the early 1990s, when he was fighting against the Russians. But that was during the Cold War when U.S. intelligence agencies were encouraging support for bin Laden.

"They (the CIA) called him a 'freedom fighter,'" Sahin said. "Then they tell us he is involved in terrorist acts, and they stopped supporting him, and we stopped."

Shahin and Saadeddin expressed doubt that Muslims were responsible for the Sept. 11 attack. They also said they don't trust much of what the FBI has divulged - including the hijackers' identities.

However, according to Larry Goodson, professor of political science at Bentley College in Massachusetts, the shadowy cluster of key players in Arizona resembles an al-Qaeda cell.

"These are people whose job it is to come to the United States and settle into regular jobs," said Goodson, the author of Afganistan's Endless War. "They are not politically active. They do not flaunt their religious backgrounds. Their job is to lay low until they are activated. It looks like Arizona had some of these folks there."

Early days

Al-Qaeda's first known connection to Arizona took root in 1985, when a veteran of the Afgan resistance named Wadih El-Hage moved here to wed an American Muslim named April Ray in an arranged marriage. He worked a series of low-wage jobs, including a stint as a janitor. Records show the couple lived in an apartment at 2002 Ft. Lowell Rd. in Tucson in 1989, where today residents have no memories of them.

Federal authorities say El-Hage, nicknamed "The Manager" within al-Qaeda, may have helped facilitate the 1990 unsolved murder of Tucson imam Rashad Khalifa who preached a version of the Koran contrary to traditional Islamic doctrine.

El-Hage moved to Sudan -- then bin Laden's headquarters -- shortly afterward, but reestablished connections to Tucson in 1992 when he allegedly asked a Texas commercial pilot named Essam Al-Ridi to buy a jet for bin Laden.

Al-Ridi traveled to Tucson and found a T-39A Sabreliner, described by one observer as "an old crappy puddle-jumper," at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Al-Ridi paid the U.S. military a reported $250,000 for the airplane and flew it to Sudan, where he personally handed the keys to bin Laden at a dinner party. The jet was to be used to transport Stinger missiles to Pakistan. But the plane's brakes failed during a test flight and it crashed at the end of a runway in Khartoum in 1994.

El-Hage later returned to Arlington, Tex., and got a job managing a tire store. Federal prosecutors accused him of conspiring with bin Laden to blow up the U.S. embassy in Tanzania in 1998. Al-Ridi, a bin Laden defector, became a government witness and testified against El-Hage, who was convicted of conspiracy last year. He is now in federal prison.

Flight training

Of all the phantom figures in Arizona, 29-year-old Hanjoor left the most visible trail. He took part in two training stints at CRM flight school in Scottsdale during 1996-97, and practice sessions this summer with Raissi and others on a flight simulator at Sky Harbor International Airport.

He first appeared here around 1991 when he moved to Tucson and attended an intensive English-language course at the University of Arizona.

Hanjoor, who obtained a commercial pilot's license in 1999 and listed a home address in Taif, Saudi Arabia, apparently spent much of the 1990s in his homeland. During 1996, he lived for a time in Hollywood, Fla. - the home of another apparent sleeper cell. There, he stayed at the home of Susan and Adnan Khalil, a former Arizona couple who knew Hanjoor's brother in Tucson.

Hanjoor surfaced in the Valley in 1998, living in nondescript apartments in north Phoenix and Mesa. As with all of the suspects, Hanjoor appears to have been an itinerant loner with no apparent means of support. His roommates have vanished. Muslim leaders say he did not attend Valley mosques. Neighbors barely recall him.

But there is a paper trail. Hanjoor got a Mesa traffic ticket in 1998 for driving without registration or insurance, claimed to be a student, and paid a fine.

This summer, he, Raissi and two other Middle Eastern men paid $200 each to rent a flight simulator at Sawyer Aviation, a company a Sky Harbor Airport.

Then Hanjoor apparently headed east. The Washington Post reported that he hired pilots to fly him in small planes over Washington, D.C., at least three times during a six-week period before the terrorist attack, and attempted to rent a plane on another occasion.

Meanwhile, Hanjoor's former roommates Almihdhar and Alhazmi were placed on an FBI watch list after Almihdhar allegedly was videotaped 18 months ago in Malaysia with a suspect in last year's bombing of the USS Cole.

Doubts

Shahin of the Tucson Islamic Center said more than 1,200 Muslims died in the World Trade Center catastrophe, and no genuine member of Islam would do such a thing. Nor, he added, would Muslims have gone to strip joints prior to the attack, as several of the terrorists in Florida reportedly did. As for Al-Qaeda nests in America, Shahin said, "All of these, they make it up."

Experts agree on one point: The ordinary-seeming lives of the suspected Arizona terrorists contravene the typical pattern of a suicide bomber. Most have tended to be young, impoverished and heavily coached, according to Charles Smith, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. By contrast, the suspected members of the Arizona cell were older, had middle-class and independent lifestyles and showed no outward signs of their intentions.

"All our understandings of what we thought were terrorists before are now overthrown," said Smith.

 

Copyright 2001

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