SARASOTA — Weeks after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, FBI agents swarmed into a Sarasota gated community to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy young Saudi couple who apparently had ties to some of the hijackers.
The couple and their two children abandoned their home abruptly, just a week or so before Sept. 11, leaving behind cars, furniture and food on countertops.
According to one published report, the FBI discovered phone calls between the house and at least two of the hijackers and several other terrorism suspects stretching back a year.
Yet until a Fort Lauderdale website reported the news this week, no mention of the couple has ever appeared publicly — not in the Sept. 11 commission report, nor in FBI briefings to congressional investigators, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham said Friday.
Graham called on President Barack Obama to reopen the case.
"This is the most important thing about 9/11 to surface in the last seven or eight years,'' Graham told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's very important for the White House to take control of this situation. The key umbrella question is: What was the full extent of Saudi involvement prior to 9/11 and why did the U.S. administration cover this up?''
The Sarasota revelations parallel earlier information about a Saudi government employee who had lived in California for years, Graham said. That man, Omar al-Bayoumi, had paid for a San Diego apartment for two of the hijackers, funneled them money and then left the United States in July 2011.
Graham thinks Bayoumi and the Sarasota husband and wife, as well as her wealthy father could have helped form a shadow support system for the hijackers.
"These 19 people did not play out this plot as lone wolves,'' Graham said. "The chances that 19 people, most of whom had never been in the U.S., who did not speak English, and most of whom did not know each other, could have completed training, practiced and executed such a complicated plot defies common sense.''
The current administration should re-examine whether hijackers who stayed in New Jersey, Virginia and other U.S. cities also had secret Saudi supporters.
One Saudi living in America before Sept. 11 was Esam Ghazzawi, a financier and interior designer, who had built "a gigantic house'' on two waterfront lots on Longboat Key, according to former neighbor Betty Blair.
"I think he sent his kids to camp here, and that's why he'd come in the summers,'' she recalled on Friday.
In 1995, Ghazzawi and his American wife, Debra, paid $350,000 for a home in Prestancia, a lush gated community in south Sarasota.
Their daughter Anoud moved in, along with her husband, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii, and their twin babies, neighbors said.
Abdulazzi appeared to be in his 20s, Anoud even younger, said neighbor Tom DiBello, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale. Abdulazzi said he was a student. Anoud was very religious.
"He would come over for a cigarette and a drink and to get away from that praying every two hours,'' DiBello said
The couple's house was elaborately furnished, with Persian rugs, statues and over-sized furniture. The wife's family supposedly had royal connections.
"He said his wife's father was friends with the prince or king or something,'' DiBello said.
Another neighbor, Patrick Gallagher, said he never saw Anoud in three years. Gallagher had only one contact with Abdulazzi — when he helped the Arab man fix his sprinkler system.
Then on Labor Day weekend 2001, Gallagher noticed "an incredible amount of trash'' piled in front of the al-Hiijjii home.
He asked one of the association directors, "What the hell is that trash doing there? There won't be any pickup until Tuesday or Wednesday.
"She said, 'They went back to Saudi Arabia and said they weren't ever coming back.' ''
Gallagher found it strange that a car was left in the driveway and that the house was not for sale.
He grew more suspicious a few days after Sept. 11 when it turned out that two of the hijackers had trained at a Venice flight school just 14 miles away. So Gallagher went on the FBI's website to report what he had seen.
What happened next comes from BrowardBulldog.org, a nonprofit investigative website in Fort Lauderdale that broke the Sarasota story this week, along with Irish journalist Anthony Summers, whose book The Eleventh Day: The full story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, is due out next month.
Several weeks after Gallagher's tip, FBI agents arrived at Prestancia and discovered that guard gate logs of vehicle tags showed the al-Hiijjiis had received important visitors. A car owned by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had gone through. Driver's license information indicated that Atta and fellow hijacker Ziad Jarrah were in the car.
Phone records from the al-Hiijjiis' home contained calls to Atta, hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi and other terrorist suspects.
BrowardBulldog.org attributed this information to Larry Berberich, then a consultant for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office who also oversaw security at Prestancia, and an unnamed "counterterrorism agent'' who had worked the case.
Both entered the abandoned al-Hiijjii house. "There was mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms and all the toiletries still in place . . . all their clothes hanging in the closet,'' BrowardBulldog.org reported.
Berberich could not be reached for comment Friday.
The counterterrorism agent said the FBI tracked the couple's departure. They left the United States along with her father, Esam Ghazzawi, and ended up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
According to BrowardBulldog.org, the counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and Abdulazzi Hiijii were both on the FBI's watch list before Sept. 11.
The house stayed vacant until it was sold in 2003.
Summers, the Irish author, recently stumbled across the Sarasota story while researching his book, said Graham, who has known Summers for years. Summers joined forces with BrowardBulldog.org because he is friends with editor Dan Christensen, Christensen said.
Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, noted that the FBI heavily redacted portions of the committee's report that dealt with the extent of Saudi involvement.
Graham said he did not know why the FBI kept information about the Sarasota couple close to the vest. But he has a theory:
"The administration was so focused on avoiding a second attack that they decided they could not run the risk of irritating the Saudis and this was the results of that.''
Neither the FBI nor Justice Department responded Friday to a request for comment.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.