A Saudi family who left their Sarasota-area home weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks had "many connections" to "individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001," according to newly released FBI records.
One partially declassified document, marked "secret," lists three of those individuals and ties them to the Venice flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. Accomplice Ziad Jarrah took flying lessons at another school a block away.
Atta and al-Shehhi were at the controls of the jetliners that slammed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jarrah was the hijacker-pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
The names, addresses and dates of birth of the three individuals tied to the flight school were blanked out before the records were released to BrowardBulldog.org amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation.
The information in the documents runs counter to previous FBI statements.
National security and other reasons are cited for numerous additional deletions scattered across the 31 released pages. Four more pages were withheld.
The records cast new light on one of the remaining unresolved mysteries regarding Florida's many connections to the Sept. 11 attacks: Before the attacks, what went on at 4224 Escondito Circle in Prestancia, the home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family?
The documents are the first released by the FBI about its once-secret inquiry in Sarasota. Information contained in the documents contradicts prior statements by FBI agents in Miami and Tampa who have said the investigation found no evidence connecting the family to the hijackers or the Sept. 11 plot.
Details about the family and the Sarasota investigation first came to light in a story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and the Miami Herald on Sept. 8, 2011.
The story told how concerned residents in the gated community of Prestancia tipped the FBI, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, to al-Hijjis' sudden departure in late August 2001. The family left behind three cars, clothes, furniture, toys and other items.
The story also reported that a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia's former administrator, Larry Berberich, both said an analysis of gatehouse security records — log books and snapshots of license tags —- had determined that vehicles either driven by or carrying several of the future hijackers had visited al-Hijji home.
Phone records revealed similar, though indirect, ties to the hijackers, said the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The FBI records as released do not identify al-Hijji or anyone else by name, citing various exemptions that protect persons' names in law enforcement records. The names are apparent, however, because the documents describe unique, known events and were released in specific response to a request for information about the investigation at al-Hijji residence.
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An April 16, 2002, FBI report says "repeated citizen calls" led to an inspection of the home by agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force.
"It was discovered that the (family name deleted) left their residence quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge," the report says. "Further investigation of the (name deleted) family revealed many connections between the (name deleted) and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001."
The report lists three of those individuals. While their identities remain secret, the first person on the list was described as "a (name deleted) family member."
That person and a second individual were said to be flight students at Huffman Aviation — the flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport attended by hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi.
The third person on the list "lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation" and was "arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office," the report says.
The next paragraph, which ends the report, is blanked out.
A notice on the document indicates the censored information regarding the three individuals associated with the terrorist attacks is scheduled to remain classified for another 25 years — until March 14, 2038.
The FBI released the records as a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org inches toward trial this summer in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The suit was filed in September after the FBI rejected both a request for its investigative records and an appeal of that request.
Al-Hijji could not be reached last week. Last year, he told a reporter his family did not depart their Sarasota home in haste but left so he could take a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He denied involvement in the Sept. 11 plot, which he called "a crime against the USA and all humankind."