Skip to comments.Hijacker Activities Uncovered in Fla., N.J./ Witness: Hijack suspect visited crop dusting airfield.
Posted on 09/24/2001 5:46:15 AM PDT by kattracks
A suspected ringleader in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America repeatedly visited a crop dusting airfield in Florida, asking lots of questions on topics including how many chemicals a crop dusting plane could hold, according to a witness.
Federal authorities fear the suspect's presence at the airfield is another indication the terrorists may have planned, or still may plan, to use crop dusters to launch a chemical or biological attack.
Crop dusters near the nation's 30 biggest cities have been grounded since Sept. 11. And now, police are stationed near the Belle Glade, Fla., crop dusting airfield the suspect, Mohammed Atta, apparently visited as recently as the Saturday before the terrorist attacks.
In addition, Zacarias Moussaoui, under arrest as a material witness and detained since August, was found with a crop dusting manual in his belongings, ABCNEWS has confirmed.
"Things like anthrax spores are easily transported, easily put into a solution that could be dispensed out of a crop duster," author and U.S. Navy (news - web sites) Commander Ward Carroll said.
More than a dozen men including Atta a suspected hijacker believed to have died on a plane that smashed into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center repeatedly visited the Florida airfield, said chief pilot Willie Lee, who identified Atta to the FBI (news - web sites).
Atta was "very persistent about wanting to know how much the airplane will haul, how fast it will go, what kind of range it has," Lee said. "The guy kept trying to get in the airplane and there was nobody there but the ground crew. Everybody had gone. And he said that he just had to run him away from the airplane because he kept trying to get on the wing, wanted to get inside the cockpit and so forth."
Check back for continuous updates on the hunt for terrorists from ABCNEWS' worldwide investigative team.
Presenting the Evidence
U.S. officials believe Atta and other men who hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the Pentagon (news - web sites) and the World Trade Center were working for terrorist Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s al Qaeda organization. The government is preparing a report detailing evidence that will prove to the world that bin Laden was behind the attacks, administration officials said.
Portions of the document, called a "white paper," will be presented with other evidence incriminating bin Laden and al Qaeda, Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) said.
"I think his guilt is going to be very obvious to the world. I mean, he has been indicted previously for terror activity against the United States, and so this is a continuing pattern of terrorism," Powell said on ABCNEWS' This Week .
"We are putting all of the information that we have together, the intelligence information, the information being generated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies," he said.
The White House had previously said it would not make public any evidence because it could jeopardize intelligence-gathering efforts. But some countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s neighbor and one of only two countries that recognize the Taliban regime as the legitimate Afghan government have asked that the United States provide clear evidence that bin Laden orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Clues in Paterson, N.J.
Meanwhile, investigators believe the New Jersey city of Paterson, just 25 miles from the twin towers, may have been the base for a major terrorist cell. ABCNEWS has learned that during the three months prior to the attack, 11 of the 19 suspected hijackers lived in or near Paterson.
A building at 486 Union Ave. was home to six of the terrorists until just days before the attacks. According to the FBI, the third floor apartment was rented for the last six months by Nawak Al-Hamzi and Hani Hanjour, two of the hijackers of Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon.
But here, they were hardly noticed. Paterson has a large Muslim community, and the terrorists kept to themselves, had no furniture and made their calls from a pay phone.
At least two of the hijackers stayed at a motel in Wayne, N.J., and others rented small planes at nearby airports for flight practice. Others used phony names and addresses to rent cars for long road trips.
"There was nothing suspicious about them," said Glenn Boonstra, a car dealer. "They were typical businesslike people that wanted to rent a vehicle. But now we're looking at a form like this and saying, 'Where did he go in three days? Where did he put 1,100 miles on?' We do a lot of speculation."
FBI agents are also looking at records from three banks near Paterson where the hijackers kept money. And they're looking at where that money came from. Investigators also are trying to learn if there are others involved who were not killed on Sept. 11, and if they can be found.
Global Search Intensifies
Around the world, the manhunt for suspected terrorists intensified this weekend.
Authorities say they believe they have thwarted at least two planned attacks. In one, terrorists planned to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris by helicopter, they said. In a separate arrest in Belgium, officials seized bomb-making materials.
ABCNEWS has learned that up to 30 attacks may have been planned in the United States and Europe following the assaults in which terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Another hijacked plane crashed in western Pennsylvania when passengers apparently tried to wrest the controls from the terrorists.
Federal agents have been painstakingly working their way through nearly 150,000 leads generated by the investigation of the attacks. Nearly half of the tops were submitted to an FBI Internet Web site.
Petrochemical companies and nuclear companies were told by the FBI last week to be on a high state of alert. The warning is general rather than specific, according to officials.
ABCNEWS has learned that some of the individuals thought to have been trained as pilots had booked reservations on airline flights scheduled to take place in the days after last week's attacks including flights out of Boston and San Antonio this weekend.
There are at least two dozen people still at large who have ties to the suspected terrorists, officials say.
European Union (news - web sites) Cooperates Fully
Authorities in Belgium, Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands made several arrests over the weekend. German authorities say they are pursuing nearly 1,000 leads. Three of the suspected hijackers attended two universities in Hamburg.
European officials are also looking into whether people linked to the attacks may have profited from financial market speculation.
They are also cooperating fully with U.S. authorities, which had not always been done in past. The European Union agreed to work to speed up ratification of an existing U.N. resolution calling for the freezing Taliban assets.
ABCNEWS' Brian Ross and John Miller contributed to this report.
I think the feds are giving the terrorists too much credit here. Chemical and biological weapons require a significant research/development/manufacturing infrastructure. More likely Atta was looking for an alternative to hijacking a airliner. Fill the chemical tanks on a crop duster with explosives (heck just use gasoline) and you have a helluva flying bomb. MHO
Suspect eyed Glades planes
By Sanjay Bhatt, Alex Navarro Clifton and Larry Hobbs,
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 24, 2001
BELLE GLADE -- Suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta frequently visited and quizzed crop-dusting workers here about their operations -- as recently as three days before the attacks in New York and Washington -- prompting fears that a South Florida-based terrorist cell was plotting a biochemical attack.
The Federal Aviation Administration late last week ordered a nationwide grounding of crop-dusters Saturday and Sunday and expanded restricted airspace at all major open-air sporting and other entertainment venues. The restricted airspace includes fairgrounds and stadiums, including Pro Player in Miami-Dade County where the Dolphins played Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
The no-fly zone would give military aircraft more time to scramble should any aircraft be spotted heading toward a stadium.
The crop-dusters, grounded because of what sources called a "serious, credible threat," were allowed back in the air as of 12:05 a.m. today.
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen cited "national security" for the precautions, stopping short of connecting the restricted airspace and the crop-dusting prohibition to the fear of a biochemical assault.
The order grounding crop-dusters was the second since the Sept. 11 attacks. Bergen said there is no plan to reinstate the ban next weekend.
The FBI has determined that 12 of the 19 suspected hijackers had ties to South Florida -- and that Atta appeared to be the ringleader.
James Lester, who loads chemicals on crop-dusters at the Belle Glade Airport, recognized Atta from an FBI photo. Lester said Atta visited the airport with two other Middle Eastern men.
Lester, 50, of South Bay, has worked on crop-dusters for nearly 30 years. In the course of a 12-hour day, he loads the planes with pesticide or fertilizer, cleans them and mixes the chemicals.
As long as he can remember, people have stopped at the airport, curious about crop-dusters. So he didn't think much of it when three Middle Eastern men showed up in February.
Atta asked a lot of questions, Lester said, and mentioned that he was a student pilot.
"He wanted to sit in the airplane," Lester recalled. "I told him he couldn't do that. The owner wouldn't allow that."
Atta and his two companions, who Lester said spoke in muffled Arabic, just walked around the planes, looking them over.
Lester doesn't believe Atta would have been able to fly the crop-duster.
"It's a totally different airplane," Lester said. "Just 'cause you fly a commercial airplane, you can't just jump in there and fly 'em."
Still, the encounter chilled Lester.
"It's mind-boggling to think something like this could happen to you here in your back yard," he said.
Lester works for Willie Lee, 62, who has been crop-dusting in the Glades for 40 years. Lee said he didn't pay much attention to the visitors, and didn't recognize any of them when the FBI showed him pictures early last week.
Lee said the men came to the airport just about every weekend in July and August -- most recently on Sept. 8, three days before the hijackings. Lee said they asked questions about the flying capabilities of crop-dusters and the amount of chemicals they can hold.
He said they were different from the Arab-Americans who live in Belle Glade. The visitors, he said, were pushy and arrogant.
Lee, who flies an Air Tractor 502, says about 10 crop-dusting outfits are based nearby. His plane holds three hours of fuel and holds 500 gallons of pesticide.
"They gave me the idea they were flight students," Lee said. "They just acted like they were learning how to fly to go back home to fly for a living. I was busy and didn't take a lot of time to talk to them."
Still, he reported the visits to police.
"I never thought anything of it until after the bombings. That's when it dawned on me that it might be unusual that they were asking these particular questions."
Lee said he wasn't impressed with their crop-dusting knowledge.
"From what I got, none of these people were good enough to fly these planes," he said. "It's not easy to start. You can blow the things up right on the ground. It takes some schooling. You just don't get in there and flip a switch and start the thing up."
Belle Glade Police Chief Michael Miller said the FBI had made inquiries about the airport but declined to elaborate.
In a related development, investigators have discovered a manual on crop-dusters kept by Zacarias Moussouai, a man with alleged links to Osama bin Laden who was detained in August in Minnesota after he sought training at a flight school.
It was too much of a coincidence, authorities said.
"The intelligence community came to us and encouraged us to shut down the crop-dusters," FAA spokesman Scott Brenner said.
Investigators also have issued warnings to the trucking industry to watch for any suspicious activity involving the hauling of chemicals, radioactive waste, biological agents and other hazardous materials.
The FBI "has received information on numerous terrorist threats regarding potential use of chemical, biological and/or radiological/nuclear WMD" -- weapons of mass destruction -- according to an alert issued Thursday by the American Trucking Association.
The FBI last week arrested a former Boston cabdriver, Nabil Almarabh, who had financial ties to some hijackers and had recently secured a Michigan license to haul hazardous materials such as dynamite, gases and toxic and radioactive waste. Two men arrested in Almarabh's former Detroit home had licenses to drive commercial trucks, officials said.
"We're trying to exercise an abundance of caution," one FBI official said. "We're not downplaying anything. Anytime we get a suspicious report or circumstances, we are trying to ask people to be on the lookout."
James Callen, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, said the nation's 4,000 crop-dusting planes, which also are used to combat fires and mosquitoes, usually hold 300 to 800 gallons of chemicals. Crop-duster pilots must obtain small-plane commercial licenses and special training for agricultural aviation, Callen said.
Callen said the FBI and FAA have not informed the group of any specific reason for the grounding orders. He said there have been no confirmed reports of stolen planes or chemicals in recent weeks.
Or who knows, they may go after the heartland this time and stay well away from cities with a substantial Arab presence.
I HATE thinking like this. But if only one in a thousand immigrants, students, visitors, is a terrorists, and one in a hundred would shelter or overlook him, that's a lot of terrorists. And a lot of good people, I know, tarred with that brush. Saudis in camps and Afghans in caves are a lot less of a threat than the ones among us.
So we put a freeze on Palestinian visas. Very impressive. Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, come on in. All here, keep your places.
I could be giving them too much credit, but they did manage to kill almost 7000 with a set of box cutters.
Yes, but we won't. We're still mesmerized by "tolerance"...until our cities begin dying, one by one. Then it will be--and perhaps already is--far too late.
I've decided to pass along alerts to people/places in my area. We live in a backwoods type area. There are lots of farmers, and cropdusting planes. Word of mouth seems to be the order of the day. LOL...I have 'targeted' my local farmers' co-op/grainery, our farrier, school, and groceries. I'm trying to get the 'courage' up to 'chat' with the local sheriff.
Compared to any other weapon, this is simply not true.
How do you figure? Biological weapons have to be cultured, and its not like you can purchase the agent on the open market. Anthrax is not easy to grow: it requires tight environmental control to get significant yield (enough to make a weapon). Chemical weapons must be manufactured in a processing plant. Mustard gas and other blistering agents, although chemically simple, require a processing plant to yield enough to make a weapon.
A gasoline (call it napalm) bomb requires... well
Glassware full of a substance to feed the critters is all that is needed. Biology texts provide more than just clues to this. Simple observations under a microscope allow process tuning. Temperature and pressure controls are extremely simple; and, can be excercised by humans using simple gauges and valves. A starter culture can be obtained from a sick critter or human. There are plenty of sick critters and humans in third world countries where inoculations are not commonplace. Strength of the biological agent is increased by taking a culture from an entity that was killed with the preceding strain.
Chemical weapons must be manufactured in a processing plant
Such plant is a great deal easier to build than a steel mill. Biological agents could be cultured in a plant that is easier to build than a steel mill.
Mustard gas and other blistering agents, although chemically simple, require a processing plant to yield enough to make a weapon.
What was the state of industry during WWI? Probably not much more advanced than might be found in any country with electric power. Quanity is "production rate" integrated over time.
The resources of a nation can be coordinated to some astounding results, even in relatively "primative" situations. The resolve of an enemy can usually overcome most anything. By consulting the CIA web page regarding Afghanistan, one can determine that they do have some resources. They also have money. Remember that Afghanistan is not the only nation that houses our enemies.
I'll dredge up some more sites that indicate the reasonable fear of bio-terrorism. There are oodles of them.
Chemical and biological weapons require a significant research/development/manufacturing infrastructure.
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