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Saudi couple who left country quickly not a threat: FBI

The al-Hijjis lived in this house in the Prestancia community of Sarasota before Sept. 11. It later sold in September 2003.

Trulia.com

The al-Hijjis lived in this house in the Prestancia community of Sarasota before Sept. 11. It later sold in September 2003.

To neighbors in their gated community in Sarasota, the abrupt, seemingly permanent departure of a young Saudi couple shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks seemed suspicious enough to warrant calls and e-mails to the FBI.

But Abdulaziz al-Hijji had just graduated from the University of South Florida and was soon to take a job with Saudi Arabia's huge oil company. His wife, Anoud, returned in 2003 to arrange for the sale of their house.

The circumstances under which the al-Hijjis left Sarasota in early September 2001 have prompted speculation they might have had ties to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers. A Fort Lauderdale website first reported last week that phone and gate records linked the al-Hijjis' home to hijackers including Mohamed Atta.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the congressional inquiry into the attacks, said Friday that the FBI did not tell him about the purported links. He called for a new investigation into the extent of the Saudi role in the hijackings.

On Monday, however, the FBI said it had investigated all leads about the attacks, including the Sarasota case, and turned over all information to Graham's committee and the 9/11 Commission. The commission's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, said, "We had very good access to FBI reports and we did not think the FBI was holding back stuff.''

A fuller picture is emerging of the al-Hijjis in Sarasota, where they married in 1995 when he was 22 and she was 17. They moved into a home owned by Anoud's parents in the upscale Prestancia community.

Property manager Jone Weist said she quickly had contact with the couple because they failed to keep up the lawn and pay their homeowners association fees.

Anoud, who spoke fluent English, alternated between Western dress and the black abaya and head scarf of Saudi women. At first she stayed home with the couple's twins, then joined her husband in studying at USF in Tampa, Weist said.

"She was very proud to be able to say she was finally going to college and taking design courses so she could work with her father'' — Essam Ghazzawi, a noted Saudi designer of luxury properties, Weist said.

On Labor Day weekend, 2001, neighbors were surprised to see huge piles of trash in front of the couple's home. The family also left three vehicles.

A few weeks after the al-Hijjis' departure, FBI and Sarasota County deputies swarmed the house and found dirty diapers along with personal belongings. Weist said that Larry Berberich, then president of the homeowners association and an adviser to the Sheriff's Office, told her that agents took a few computers and an answering machine.

Although some neighbors said they heard that the couple were never coming back, Anoud al-Hijji and her mother-in-law returned in mid 2003 after paying the delinquent homeowners association fees, Weist said. The house sold that September.

The Ghazzawis and al-Hijjis could not be reached for comment. On Linked In, a social networking site, a person identifying himself as Abdulaziz al-Hijji said he works as a career counselor for Saudi Aramco, the Saudi oil company. He lists his education as "University of South Florida.'' The school confirmed Monday that al-Hijji graduated in August 2001.

The possible ties between the couple and some of the hijackers were first reported by BrowardBulldog.org, an investigative website that broke the Sarasota story with Irish journalist Anthony Summers.

The story was based in part on information from Berberich. It quoted an unidentified counterterrorism officer who said agents found that phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house to the hijackers.

Berberich did not return calls from the St. Petersburg Times. Asked about the comments made by him and the anonymous officer, the FBI issued a statement:

"With respect to recent reports about the Sarasota area, there is no new information related to the 9/11 hijackers. During the course of the 9/11 investigation, the FBI followed up on numerous leads and tips … most of which, including this one, were resolved and determined not to be related to any threat nor connected to the 9/11 plot. All of the documentation pertaining to the 9/11 investigation was made available to the 9/11 Commission" and the congressional committee.

Graham could not be reached for comment Monday.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

Saudi couple who left country quickly not a threat: FBI 09/12/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 11:26am]

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