The image of mature “sleeper” hijack pilots living in Florida with their wives and children is a false one. What The New York Times described as “a remarkable set of circumstances” led the FBI, local investigators and news media to all but convict several men as hijackers, when in fact they are innocent, alive and well, in some cases having returned to their native countries before the attacks. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Justice and the government of Saudi Arabia are investigating the possibility of identity theft.
Most remarkable is the case of Abdulrahman al Omari (often written as Alomari), a veteran flight engineer with Saudi Arabian Airlines. He is the man described in several news outlets as living with his wife and four children in a stucco house in Vero Beach, Fla., while taking flight training at FlightSafety Academy. Al Omari was involved in a highly screened, one-year program for flight engineers at FlightSafety, and was in the country under the stewardship of his employer after having completed stringent background checks, according to a FlightSafety spokesman.
He was widely mistaken for another much younger man, Abdulaziz al Omari, who was among the hijackers on the American Airlines Flight 11 manifest of September 11. (FlightSafety did not know the elder al Omari’s exact age, but described him as “mature.”) The younger al Omari is the man who shows up in several surveillance photos together with Mohamed Atta, 33, thought by some to be the ringleader of the September 11 hijackers.
The fact that Abdulrahman al Omari had a similar name, took advanced flight training and sent his family back to Saudi Arabia two weeks before the attacks led the FBI, local investigators and large numbers of reporters to the strong suspicion that the quiet Florida neighborhood had harbored a terrorist. Unknown at the time, Saudi Arabian Airlines has since reported that al Omari himself innocently returned home with his family. A FlightSafety spokesman said al Omari phoned the academy several times shortly after the attacks, concerned that he had been misidentified as a hijacker.
Also, according to The New York Times and confirmed by FlightSafety, the innocent al Omari called his Florida neighbor and friend Adnan Bukhari from Saudi Arabia on the latter’s cellphone, even as Bukhari was being interviewed in the Miami office of the FBI about al Omari’s whereabouts. According to Bukhari’s lawyer, his client handed the cellphone to the FBI agent and asked if he wanted to speak to al Omari, himself.
Another of al Omari’s neighbors and a FlightSafety student, Waleed Ahmed al Shehri, was also suspected of being one of the hijack pilots. According to a September 20 Wall Street Journal article posted on the FlightSafety Web site, he is back in Morocco receiving additional flight training from his employer, Saudi Arabian Airlines. At any time, there are about 20 Saudi Arabian Airlines-sponsored pilots training at the academy, according to a spokesman.
FlightSafety wasn’t the only school to be victimized in the public eye. A 1997 graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was also listed in early reports as a suspected hijacker. Only several days later did the university learn that its graduate was alive and well, the subject of yet another case of mistaken identity.
So who are the real hijackers? The FBI and the INS have been closemouthed on the subject as the investigation continues. The bureau did release a number of surveillance photos taken in the days just before September 11 and showing a man identified as Abdulaziz al Omari with Mohammed Atta. Atta is one of the pilots who trained at Huffman Aviation, a small flight school on Florida’s west coast. He is believed to be the pilot who crashed American Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Last month, the Department of Justice, of which INS is a subsidiary, released the immigration status of those suspected as being among the hijackers. But even that information is far from definitive. An INS spokesman told AIN, “There are a lot of possible scenarios here, including the possibility of stolen identities, multiple identities or other hijackers who may have simply sneaked across the border.”
The INS prefaced its official list of the hijackers’ immigration status with the following information: “The INS compiled this information based on material provided by the FBI. Where applicable, known variations of common surnames were also checked. For some names, several name matches were found with different dates of birth, but the INS was able to confirm admission as a nonimmigrant. In other cases, several name matches were found with different dates of birth, but the INS was not able to confirm any information concerning these individuals.”
On the INS list of 19 names, nine suspects were confirmed as entering the country legally between May and July this year. Three suspects were listed as having entered the country legally last year and overstaying their allotted time. One suspect entered the country last December as a nonimmigrant student, and the INS has been unable to determine if he was within his allotted time on September 11. In the cases of six suspects, the INS has been able to find no record of their entering the country.
So the impression that several of the hijackers were “sleepers” living in the U.S. for extended periods of time, waiting for a signal to attack, is incorrect. Though some of the suspected hijackers did, indeed, receive flight training at U.S. schools, they were not those who were described as family men who blended into their neighborhoods, making friends with neighbors. The men so described were, in fact, innocent employees of their national airline, receiving training under a controlled, closely watched program.
“They are the elite among their peers,” said a spokesman for FlightSafety. “They know that if they falter in their studies, they’re out, so they are carefully selected. They are good, decent people. To have them be identified as having committed these acts is very disturbing to the FlightSafety family.”