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Questions over Saudis' abrupt exit from Sarasota still lingering

Anoud and Abdulaziz al-Hijji moved into this home in Prestancia, a gated community in Sarasota, in 1995. They left the home at the end of August 2001 and sold it in September 2003.

Trulia.com

Anoud and Abdulaziz al-Hijji moved into this home in Prestancia, a gated community in Sarasota, in 1995. They left the home at the end of August 2001 and sold it in September 2003.

It began with an Irish journalist and a four-year-old tip. Then a meeting in a Florida motel room, an anonymous source and, finally, a blockbuster story published just days before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The website Browardbulldog.org said the FBI had found "troubling ties'' between the hijackers and members of a Saudi family who "abandoned'' their Sarasota home and cars shortly before 9/11. But, the story said, the FBI had never turned over the information to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.

So meticulously planned were the attacks that it still strains the imagination to think that 19 foreigners could have pulled them off without ample help from confederates in the United States. So the Bulldog story was read by many, including an influential former U.S. senator, as evidence that the government mishandled, even withheld, key information from Congress and the 9/11 Commission.

But the FBI insisted "there was no connection found" between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. And other evidence suggests the family's departure might not have been all that surprising.

Was it a case of different people seeing very different things, viewed through the kaleidoscope of fact, rumor and suspicion still swirling around one of the most wrenching events in American history?

Rich and good-looking

Here are some facts about the young couple in the house at 4224 Escondito Circle:

Anoud and Abdulaziz al-Hijji were born in Saudi Arabia. It is not clear how they landed 7,000 miles away in Sarasota, though Anoud had ties to the United States long before 9/11.

Her mother, Deborah, is an American citizen from California. Her older brother, international businessman Abed Ghazzawi, was born in the United States, graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., and is a director of the EastWest Institute, a New York-based think tank.

(Another director is Michael Chertoff, former head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency created after 9/11 to protect Americans from terrorists.)

Anoud's father, Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, is a Saudi interior designer with an international clientele. In 1995 he and his wife were staying in a waterfront mansion on Sarasota County's exclusive Longboat Key.

Jone Weist, a Sarasota property manager, recalls reading an article about Ghazzawi.

"The thrust was that he owned this interior design company that specializes in houses of 25,000 square feet or more,'' Weist said. "It said that in order to accommodate all the beautiful furnishings and antiques that he used in his business, he had warehouses all over the world.''

Accompanying the story were photographs of opulent homes Ghazzawi had designed, along with a photo of the man himself — "to die-for good looking, around 60, he had what appeared to be a white cashmere suit,'' Weist said.

In 1995, the Ghazzawis bought a 3,300-square-foot house in Prestancia, a gated community where basketball star Michael Jordan briefly lived. Soon afterward, their daughter Anoud moved in with her new husband.

Court records show the couple, he 22 and she 17, were married May 12, 1995, in Sarasota. Performing the ceremony was notary public Malik Sardar Khan, a Miami real estate agent and one of the top officials of the World Muslim Congress.

As the al-Hijjis settled into married life, soon to be joined by twins and later another baby, they ran afoul of the Prestancia homeowners association for letting their yard go to weed.

"The HOA had great difficulties with them, nothing criminal but not a neighborhood where you let the grass grow for a month,'' said Weist, then Prestancia's property manger.

One neighbor helped Abdulaziz fix his sprinkler system so he could get his lawn back in shape. Other neighbors sometimes babysat the kids. A nanny joined the family, enabling Anoud as well as her husband to attend the University of South Florida in Tampa.

In August 2001, Abdulaziz graduated with a degree in management information and had a job waiting at Saudi Arabia's huge oil company, Saudi Aramco. The family left around the end of the month. There was one sign they might have intended to return at some point: They talked to real estate agents about renting out the house with its expensive furnishings.

Then came Sept. 11 and news that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, including some who had attended flight schools not far from where the al-Hijjis lived.

To neighbors, what appeared unremarkable before 9/11 was suddenly suspicious. Why had a Saudi family moved out just two weeks before the attacks? Why had they left vehicles, food and furniture, as if beating a hasty retreat?

"I went on the FBI website and said, 'I don't want to waste your time on false leads, but here's something you might want to look into,' " recalled neighbor Patrick Gallagher, one of several people who contacted the agency.

But none of this would be known to the wider world until almost a decade later.

A nagging question

Irish author Anthony Summers, 69, has written several books about famous people and events, including Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and the JFK assassination.

About five years ago, he began researching The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, which came out this summer.

It's well documented, with 118 pages of footnotes, and asserts a sharp point of view: that U.S. officials bungled signs of an imminent attack and that the Bush administration suppressed evidence of a strong Saudi influence.

Early in his research, Summers told the Times, he encountered a law enforcement official who mentioned that some hijackers had ties to a Saudi couple in Sarasota.

At the time, Summers was focused on the hijackers' pilot training and not so much on the Saudi angle.

"But it gnawed at me,'' he said. "Later, this was a thing I knew I should have gone further on.''

When he recently returned to the United States to promote his book, he said, he paid his way to Sarasota to question his source more closely. Summers won't identify the man, but called him a "counterterrorism agent'' who was in Sarasota on 9/11 when President Bush was reading to schoolchildren. During the investigation that followed, Summers said, the source had access to FBI reports.

The source related how the al-Hijjis left Sarasota just before the attacks. He said telephone "link analysis'' had seemingly tied the couple to terrorists, including Mohamed Atta, pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

Phone link analysis is an investigative technique that doesn't necessarily show direct contact, but looks at whom a target subject communicates with and with whom those people, in turn, communicate.

Since that analysis is subjective, Summers said, he was more intrigued when the "counterterrorism agent'' said the Prestancia guard gate had recorded car and driver license information that linked Atta and other hijackers to the al-Hijjis.

The agent suggested that Summers also talk to Larry Berberich, a former homeowners association president who had overseen security at Prestancia and was present when the guard gate records were pulled.

Summers interviewed the two men in his motel room. He said they did not seem to be altering their stories to make them fit neatly together, but occasionally jogged each other's memories "in a way that added to credibility,'' he said. "One would say, 'Wasn't that in January?', and the other would say, 'No, I remember, because it was right after my daughter's birthday.' ''

Only the agent knew about the phone link analysis, but both men seemed to know what had transpired at the guard gate, Summers said.

Summers took his scoop to Dan Christensen, a friend and veteran South Florida investigative reporter who founded BrowardBulldog.org ("News you can sink your teeth into"), a nonprofit website distributed through Reuters. Together, they met with former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.

Graham had co-chaired the joint congressional committee that investigated the 9/11 attacks. The FBI was supposed to forward all pertinent information, but Graham said he remembered nothing of the Sarasota couple. Nor did anything appear in the 9/11 commission report.

That didn't surprise him, Graham said later. He had long felt that the Republican Bush administration had played down, if not suppressed, signs that support networks for the hijackers reached into high levels of the Saudi government. Graham had recently written a novel based on that premise.

A shadow network?

Christensen and Summers sold the BrowardBulldog story to the Miami Herald, which published it on Sept. 7. It appeared on the Bulldog's website the next day.

Here's how the story began:

Just two weeks before 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly left their Sarasota home, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in the master bedroom. In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Graham reacted sharply. He called it "the most important thing about 9/11 to surface in the last seven or eight years.'' He urged President Barack Obama to reopen the investigation to determine "the full extent of Saudi involvement prior to 9/11.''

Graham said the al-Hijjis and Anoud's wealthy father could have helped form a shadow support system for the hijackers. He cited the example of a Saudi man in San Diego who rented an apartment for two of the hijackers and left the United States two months before 9/11.

But as the St. Petersburg Times and other media followed the story about the Sarasota family, new information shed contrasting light on the nature of their departure.

Michael Otis, a former Sarasota sheriff's detective who helped the FBI check leads, said he saw the inside of the house some days after the hijackings. Did it look like it had been abandoned in a state of disarray?

"Maybe not really,'' he said.

Otis said the Sheriff's Office investigated to make certain there hadn't been any foul play. "But as far as gate records and things that appeared in that article, I never heard of any of that,'' he said.

Berberich, of the homeowners association, did not respond to calls from the Times. Nor did former Sarasota Sheriff Bill Balkwill, who set up a counterterrorism unit and had access to at least some confidential FBI terrorism information. (He and Berberich, a wealthy political supporter and adviser, were so close that Berberich once had an office in the sheriff's department.)

In 2003, Anoud al-Hijji and her mother returned to deal with the house, which sold in September of that year. The family could not be reached for comment so the following questions remain unanswered:

Did the al-Hijjis have to depart so abruptly in 2001 that they didn't have time to clean out the refrigerator? Or did a harried mother with three young kids leave the chore for someone else, perhaps a rental agent or property manager?

Was the empty safe a sign of something nefarious? Or the logical result of removing cash and valuables before going away?

Did the al-Hijjis "abandon'' vehicles and furniture? Or would shipping them to Saudi Arabia have been so costly and cumbersome that they were left for the couple's representatives to handle? And why didn't Anoud return for two years? One possible answer: After 9/11, it became far harder for people from Muslim countries to get visas to go to the United States. A year before the attacks, there were 60,508 non-immigrant visas issued to Saudis. The year after, the number plunged to 14,126.

Still not convinced

Of all the allegations, the most serious involves the guard gate records. The Broward Bulldog's initial story said the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers. A later story, quoting a "senior administrator'' at Prestancia, said that "cars used by the 9/11 hijackers drove to the entrance asking to visit the family at various times before the attacks.''

It is not clear from the Bulldog stories that any of the hijackers themselves visited or even tried to visit the al-Hijji family.

Despite a request from the Times to confirm or deny it, the FBI has not addressed the question of whether gate records showed any visits or attempted visits by terrorists to the al-Hijjis' home.

But in a statement, Steven Ibison, special agent in charge of the Tampa office, said that "family members were located and interviewed'' during the agency's investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. "At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers, as suggested in the (Bulldog) article, and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot,'' Ibison said. The statement did not say where or when the family members were interviewed. Or by whom.

Graham wants more details.

More than a week ago, he asked the FBI to provide the number of its file on the al-Hijji family and the date the file was transmitted to the congressional committee that investigated the 9/11 attacks. That way he could have the committee's archives searched to see exactly what information the FBI had sent.

As of Friday, Graham was still waiting.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Questions over Saudis' abrupt exit from Sarasota still lingering 09/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 11:41pm]

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