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Retracing The Story: 9/11 Hijackers In San Diego

Aired 9/6/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The fact that San Diego was a temporary base for two 9/11 terrorists is mind-boggling even today. We'll take a look back at the events leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks and find out what intelligence agencies have learned from their mistakes.

Nawaf Al-Hazmi

Above: Nawaf Al-Hazmi

Khalid Al-Midhar

Above: Khalid Al-Midhar

The focus this Sunday will be on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as the nation remembers the 9/11 terror attacks that seemingly came out of nowhere 10 years ago. But they didn't come out of nowhere. We've learned they were carefully planned by a network of Al Qaeda terrorists. The 19 hijackers were trained and supported in a number of different places, Afghanistan, Germany, Florida and right here in San Diego.

Guest

KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma is here to recall the part of the terror plot played out in San Diego, and what intelligence agencies have learned from their mistakes.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm -- this is KPBS Midday Edition am I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. As you heard the focus this Sunday will be on New York and Washington and Pennsylvania as the nation remembers the 911 attacks that seem will came out of nowhere ten years ago. But they didn't come out of nowhere. We've learned they were carefully planned by a network of al-Qaeda terrorists. The 19 hijackers were trained and supported in a number of different places. Afghanistan, Germany, Florida, and right here in San Diego. The fact that our city was a temporary base for two 911 terrorists is mind boggling even today. KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma is here to recall that part of the terror plot played out in San Diego. And what intelligence agencies have learned from their mistakes. Now, remind us, who were the two hijacker who is lived in San Diego.

SHARMA: The two hijackers were Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Khalid al-Mihdhar, they helped play the plane into the Pentagon on September 11th. The two men were on in their twenties, they came here posing as students. The relationship he says he sent them here is he pick up a San Diego phone book at a Karachi Pakistan flee market, went thumbing through it and decided to send the two men here.

CAVANAUGH: Where did they live in San Diego?

SHARMA: When they first arrived, they lived in Clairemont the Parkwood Apartments, which is a couple of blocks away from the Islamic center at San Diego, where they prayed.

CAVANAUGH: And when did they actually arrive here?

SHARMA: They came here in January of 2,000. And al-Hazmi stayed here for most of the year. Khalid al-Mihdhar, probably stayed for about 5 or 6 months then went to Yemen for a visit.

CAVANAUGH: Were they helped or settled in here by anyone? Where did they receive their assistn't beance?

SHARMA: This is where all of this becomes extremely intriguing. A Saudi man by the name of Omar al-Bayoumi, who worked for a Saudi government contractor helped the two men find apartments in Clairemont. He spruced them to other Muslims in the area, he even threw a party for them. Before al-Bayoumi helped the hijacker, he received $465 per month from the Saudi contractor. After he helped then, he receive $3,700 a month. I spoke with the man who cochaired the national inquiry into 911, and here's what he thought about the jump main pay.

NEW SPEAKER: The interpretation we gave to it was that Bayoumi was a conduit of financing for the two hijackers while they were in San Diego.

SHARMA: Another person whom I want to mention was Anwar al-Awlaki. He is a list of a hit list by the U.S. government, for assassination. He was an Imam in 2000 at the mosque in La Mesa. And they would meet him in Ia private room after Friday prayers. Now, there are some investigators who believe that al-Awlaki offered these men spiritual counseling for what lay ahead.

CAVANAUGH: And just to reminder our listener, al-Awlaki is now one of the most sought after terrorists in the world is he not?

SHARMA: He is, and he is the head of the al Qaeda in Yemen.

CAVANAUGH: We have two differing reports of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi while they were here in San Diego. Some people say they were quiet and they kept to themselves. Others say they went wild while they were here.

SHARMA: Right. Of that's exactly it. There were two sides. When I interviewed doctor shakewho rented rooms to the two guy, he said they were these desert men, very simple, ate and slept on the floor, prayered often, they listened to cassettes of the Koran in air bake. When I spoke to Senator Graham, he painted another side of them.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, they drank, they went to nightclubs, strip clubs, and at one point, al-Hazmi wanted to marry one of the strippers, and that was finally quashed.

CAVANAUGH: So where is the truth in that? Do we have any way of know something.

SHARMA: We don't have any way of knowing. I believe doctor chic saw one side of them, and then investigators also retraced these guys' steps here in other places in the country. And then started putting the piece of the puzzle together and this is what they got.

CAVANAUGH: Is this investigation, this congressional investigation, included in the 911 report? Or are they two separate --

SHARMA: They're two separate investigations.

CAVANAUGH: So the two hijackers here in San Diego, did they train for the attacks near.

SHARMA: They took flight lessons at sobery flying club in San Diego. That's the extent of perhaps their training that at least laypeople know.

CAVANAUGH: What part of the attacks on 911 were these two men were involved in?

SHARMA: They flew the plane into the Pentagon.

CAVANAUGH: I see. You mention a doctor sheik, and his role in this is very interesting. What did professor sheik do for these two men when they were in San Diego?

SHARMA: He rented rooms. At that time, I think he was rentingly rooms in his house in Lemon Grove to a number of people. He was an elderly man. He was divorced, I believe. And so he decided one way to help maybe take away some of the loneliness was to have people live with him. So he rented rooms to these two guys. I spoke to him after the attacks, and he was devastated to learn that these two men had been involved in something so murderous, so vile. He says he never had a hint. Again, that they were quiet, they kept to themselves, and they were extremely conservative religiously.

CAVANAUGH: But wasn't the professor working for the FBI? I mean as an informant?

SHARMA: Yes, he was. And in fact, his principle responsibility, according to Senator Graham was watching Saudi youth in San Diego to fairet out whether they were planning something that was harmful that was detrimental to the United States.

CAVANAUGH: That was his assignment?

SHARMA: That was his assignment.

CAVANAUGH: And he was pay forward that.

SHARMA: He was pay forward that.

CAVANAUGH: And yet there were no bells that went off about these two men in San Diego that brought them particularly to his attention.

SHARMA: Not that we know of.

CAVANAUGH: Now, former Senator Bob Graham puts the Saudis in the spotlight when it comes to funding these hijackerce in San Diego. What will doesly have to say about that?

SHARMA: He says that Omar al-Bayoumi and another Saudi man in San Diego were working for the Saudi government. He doesn't say the contractor. He says they were working for the Saudi government when they gave a significant amount of financial support to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. And Graham says that during the inquiry, congressional inquiry, when he tried to investigate that link between the Saudi government and these hijackers that his staff was shut down by the FBI and the bush administration. I asked former special agent in charge Bill Gore in San Diego about that, and he said he can't attest to that. He never shut down Senator Graham's investigation into that. But whether people who were far more senior than him in the FBI and in the bush administration tried to do that he can't speak to it.

CAVANAUGH: So former Senator who was on the investigative commission into 911 for the Senate was -- says he couldn't get the information that he needed to make these links of payment between the Saudi it is and the two hijackers that were in San Diego. It sounds as if Senator Graham did an awful lot of investigation primarily on this San Diego aspect of the plot.

SHARMA: Yes, he did. And the bit about doctor sheik being an informant for the FBI and having these 2 September 11th hijackers live with him, that wasn't lost on any of the inquiries into these attacks. The point is made in the investigations into 911, and the FBI in San Diego is criticized, A, for not following FBI policy that terrorism, counter terrorism was supposed to be the top priority. And during the investigations various reports concluded that the FBI or the inspector general's report concluded that the FBI was more focused on drug trafficking. They also say that the fact that sheik was an FBI informant while these guys were living with him was a missed opportunity for the FBI to have scrutinized Nawaf al-Hasmi and Khalid Mihdhar more closely. I spoke with Bill Gore about that, and he says that sheik -- there was no reason to scrutinize these two men before the attacks other than the fact that they were Muslim. They were here legally, they held valid driver's licenses. So secondly he says, had the CIA, which knew that the two guys had attended al Qaeda meetings in Malaysia, that they knew at least one of them had gotten a visa to enter the United States, had they shared that information with the FBI, then the FBI could have at least retraced their steps in San Diego and perhaps helped find these guys.

CAVANAUGH: I just want to have one more question about the doctor sheik in all of this, because former Senator Bob Graham says that his committee was unable to talk to him during their investigation. Why was he unavailable?

SHARMA: Well, Bill Gore says that he never prevented Senator Graham or his staff in speaking to sheik. The decision to not speak to Graham is and his staff was made by doctor sheik himself.

CAVANAUGH: And there's no way that he could be compelled to give testimony before this particular Senate inquiry.

SHARMA: It appears not.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me then ask as you so well told us about the fact that the CIA and the FBI weren't communicating in any way that was helpful before the 911 attacks, is there any indication that that has changed? That there have been some lessons learned?

SHARMA: Well, the key lesson is that the walls between the FBI and the CIA shouldn't exist. And if you talk to people within those communities, they say that the situation is far better than it was ten years ago before these attacks.

CAVANAUGH: And has anyone had any repercussions because of this failure to identify the two terrorist suspects in San Diego? Has the buck stopped anywhere, in other words? Has anybody taken a hit for this?

SHARMA: If anyone has taken a hit for it, it hasn't been had publicized. I mean, I think people were probably mover around, maybe some people resigned. But whether heads rolled because of what happened here in San Diego, I cannot speak to that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I know there is one thing that you can speak to. We are going to be talking in much more depth in a couple of days about how the Muslim community has responded to the attacks of 911 here in San Diego and what they suffered in the beginning and how that has developed through the years to be a better relationship with the community. I'm wondering, however, how the -- specifically the Muslim community in San Diego has responded to the fact that two of the terrorists lived among them for a year.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, they say that they cannot be held responsible for the fact that these two terrorists lived among them. I spoke with Imam at the Islamic center of San Diego which was one of the places where the hijackers prayed regularly. And it was also a place where an administrator at the mosque had actually helped get some money transferred. I think $5,000 for one of the hijackers. And they said, look, we don't -- every person who comes into this mosque, the Imam said, are we don't ask them who they are, where they came from, and we don't even ask them what their religion is. So they say -- they believe, the belief at the mosque is that they don't share any responsibility, and they don't have any guilt over the fact that these two people lived and prayed among them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I characterize this whole episode of two in my opinion 11 hijackers living here in San Diego, perhaps training by taking flight lessons as mind bog lick because I think we tend to think of 911 as something that happened on the east coast, and didn't really affect San Diego so intimately except of course for our military. And you spoke, I know, to a woman who lived in the same Clairemont apartments as these two hijackers did for a while. And she seemed to still be startled by the idea.

SHARMA: Yes. Those apartments have since been converted into condominium, and I spoke with a woman whose son actually purchased one of those condos. And this woman was actually born and raised in Clairemont, and she said that, look, nobody talks about it day in and day out. But it is kind of there in the back of one's mind that these two notorious people once lived in Clairemont. And she said, you know, it has probably changed forever she views Muslims. She was actually very, very candid. She said she doesn't like thinking that way, and by the end of the interview, she did come around, and she did give some ground a little and said I do like to think that I look at people as individuals not as part of a group that may wish harm upon the United States. But those feelings of suspicion, of fear I think may linger among some residents in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're going to be consolidating all of this information into a feature report that's going to play tomorrow; is that right?

SHARMA: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: During KPBS morning edition.

SHARMA: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Amita, thank you so much.

SHARMA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma.

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