SARASOTA, Fla. — In the days after 9/11, terrorists’ ties to Tampa Bay immediately began to surface. The ABC Action News I-Team is revisiting those connections twenty years later and exploring some still-unanswered questions about exactly what happened.
“A lot happened here, a lot,” said private investigator Bill Warner. “They were here, going to the same places I’m going to.”
For months, strangers lived in sunny Sarasota County. They were quietly blending in while preparing to carry out the worst-ever terrorist attack on American soil. Records show 12 of the 19 September 11th hijackers lived in or passed through Florida. Some bought cars and obtained Florida driver’s licenses.
In May 2000, ring leader Mohamed Atta received a tourist visa from the U.S. embassy in Germany. A month later, witnesses said he turned up in South Florida looking at crop duster planes.
“He had to run him away from the airplane. He kept trying to climb up on the wing, wanted to get in the cockpit,” said a witness who spotted Atta on a rural airstrip in Belle Glade, FL.
USDA loan officer Johnelle Bryant said Atta visited her office and inquired about a loan to buy a plane.
“He said he was an engineer and he wanted to build a chemical tank that would fit inside the aircraft and take up every available square inch of the aircraft except where the pilot would be sitting,” Bryant said in a 2002 interview with ABC News.
Bryant said Atta dropped a name she didn’t recognize at the time… Osama bin Laden.
“He mentioned that this man would someday be known as the world’s greatest leader,” Bryant said. “It’s something that will probably be with me for my life.”
“There was nothing we could have seen that they were terrorists”
In July of 2000, Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi showed up at Huffman Aviation in Venice, FL with $20,000 in cash Atta carried in a briefcase. Atta and Al-Shehhi enrolled in an expedited flight program, flying nearly every day, according to Huffman Aviation owner Rudi Dekkers.
“There was nothing we could have seen that they were terrorists. I wish, cause then I could have stopped it,” Dekkers said in an interview days after the 9/11 attack.
Atta and Al-Shehhi rented a room a few miles from the Venice airport. Kim Matseboba lives across the street from the home where they stayed.
“They were not super friendly to me at all. I’d say ‘Hi neighbor’ they would never smile or wave back,” Matseboba said.
The home was owned by Huffman Aviation employee Charlie Voss.
“When they first arrived, they had no place to stay they just popped in pretty much as I recall unannounced,” Voss said.
After the attack, FBI agents searched the home, but the owners said they were clueless when it came to the hijackers’ plot.
“She asked if we could put flags in her yard because she wanted the neighborhood to know that she loved America. It wasn’t her fault,” Matsalboba said.
There were clues of impending trouble. Hijackers bulked up and trained in fighting techniques at local gyms. Atta and other hijackers recorded a rap song at a Sarasota recording studio, calling themselves “The Arab Assassins.”
Here are some of the lyrics from that song:
“We could die any day, that’s why we pray for such purposes.
Five times a day, heads at concrete surfaces
Arab Assassins, you’ve heard of us.”
Hindsight is almost always 20/20.
Crucial Information Never Provided
In the months that followed, the federal government spent millions on investigations. FBI Agents interviewed thousands of people and traveled the globe in search of evidence.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who led the Senate Intelligence Committee that investigated 9/11, said crucial information was never provided to Congress or the public. He fought for 15 years to get classified documents released.
“Did these 19 people, most of whom did not speak English, most of whom had never been in the United States before, most of whom were not well educated, did they carry out this sophisticated attack alone, or did they have some form of support while they were in the United States?” Sen. Graham said in a speech to the National Press Club in 2016 after the federal government declassified 28 pages that were redacted in the original 9/11 Commission Report.
Graham believes a family that lived in the upscale, gated Prestancia neighborhood in Sarasota was involved.
That neighborhood is home to the exclusive TPC Prestancia championship golf course. Abdulaziz Al-Hijj, in 2001 a recent USF graduate, lived in an upscale home with his wife Anoud, where sources said they were visited by some of the hijackers before the 9/11 attack.
“They lived for about five or six years in this house. It was owned by her father, a man by the name of Esam Ghazzawi,” said journalist Dan Christensen.
Christensen co-wrote a book about the September 11th attack and founded the Florida Bulldog news website, which first broke the news of a potential Sarasota-Saudi connection.
“Ghazzawi was a wealthy, politically-connected individual,” Christensen said.
Ghazzawi married an American woman and was an advisor to Saudi Prince Fahd bin Salman. He also worked as a high-end interior designer, specializing in decorating homes that are 25,000 square feet and larger.
Ghazzawi posted photos on his website of himself posing with world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister John Major, and Pakistani Prime Minister Benezir Bhutto.
When the Ghazzawis purchased the home in Prestancia for their daughter and son-in-law, records show that they listed a 4,200 square foot, waterfront front home in Long Boat Key as their residence. It was sold in 1998 for $1.75 million dollars.
In Prestancia, neighbors reported the Al-Hijjis, who allegedly had contact with the hijackers, abandoned their home in late August 2001.
“This family had moved out hastily from the home two weeks before 9/11. So hastily in fact they left behind their cars, clothes, jewelry,” Christensen said.
An investigation into the family involving multiple agencies began days after the September 11th attack.
“It was the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The county sheriff, the Sarasota PD, and FDLE was of course involved in all this. That’s where we managed to get a lot of information early on here,” Christensen said.
An FDLE report indicated the names Al-Hijji and Ghazzawi were both on the FBI watch list.
80,000 classified documents related to the Sarasota investigation
Christensen said multiple sources confirmed to him that the hijackers visited the home in the months before the attacks.
“Their license tags were photographed. They had to fill out forms to be admitted to get in in the first place,” Christensen said.
“When that story surfaced, the FBI’S response was, in a public statement, that it had done a complete investigation of the situation in Sarasota, that it had found no connections between the hijackers and the prominent Saudi family,” Sen. Graham said in 2016.
Christensen sought records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but he was told they didn’t exist. That led him to sue the FBI for the records.
The FBI eventually sent Christensen a report in which an agent said there were “many connections” between the family that lived in Prestancia and the 9/11 hijackers. A federal judge ultimately ordered the FBI to produce the requested documents.
“They told the judge in the case that the Tampa Field Office had 80,000 pages related to 9-11 generated by their office. That they were all classified. Every page,” Christensen said.
$4,000 phone bills fished from the trash
Sarasota private investigator Bill Warner simultaneously started his own investigation.
“They were here, in my neighborhood. So I had to look at it, kept looking at it,” Warner said.
Warner partnered with police, sheriff’s deputies and was eventually paid by ICE for providing surveillance photos and phone bills he collected from the garbage cans of people of interest.
He said some of the cell phone bills he collected were 35-to-40 pages long, with calls made to phone numbers located all over the world. At that time, cell phone and long-distance companies charged by the minute for calls.
“The bills you could see they were $1,200, $1500, $2,000, sometimes even $4,000 a month,” Warner said. ”These are guys living in duplexes, driving old cars, who don’t have a job.”
Warner learned some people he watched had ties to terrorism.
“I was upset by 9/11. Everybody was. So I was going to do everything I could do to find out if there really was a support network here,” Warner said.
In Tampa Bay, there are still plenty of questions awaiting answers.
“We are entitled to know what happened. What changed the skyline of the biggest city in the country and killed 3,000 people,” Christensen said.
President Joe Biden last week ordered authorities to review the still-classified documents for possible release at the request of the families of 9/11 victims, who are suing the Saudi government.
Rudi Dekkers, the former owner of Huffman Aviation, went bankrupt shortly after 9/11.
“I lived the American dream. And six months after, I was nothing anymore,” Dekkers said.
He wrote a book in 2011 that didn’t sell many copies. The next year, he was convicted of distributing cocaine and heroin, served time in federal prison, and according to his ex-wife, moved out of the country
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at [email protected]