Nation & World

A Sarasota couple with alleged ties to 9/11 attack remains a mystery

mocner@miamiherald.com

Fifteen years after Sept.11, there are still more questions than answers about a Sarasota couple from Saudi Arabia, who many say, were linked to the terrorists who hijacked two planes, crashing them into Manhattan’s Twin Towers and killing thousands.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham joined a panel Thursday night at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, which discussed the couple, and how the Federal Bureau of Investigations withheld loads of records about the family that fled Sarasota just two weeks before the terror attacks.

“The central question is, how could it have happened, that 19 people most of whom did not speak English, most of whom had never been in the U.S. before, could have planned, practiced and finally executed such a sophisticated and heinous plan while maintaining anonymity?” Graham said. “I don’t think they could have done it alone.”

The forum comes about two months after President Barack Obama declassified 28 pages from Congress’ Joint Inquiry report, which connected Saudi Arabian officials with the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 men, women and children in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

The panel was moderated by Dan Christensen — editor of the Florida Bulldog, an independent, non-profit news organization based in South Florida that waged court battles seeking the release of government documents relating to the terrorist attacks, pushing for greater transparency relating to the Sarasota investigation.

“Answers remain elusive and the efforts to find the answers continue,” Christensen said.

On the panel with Graham was Sean Carter, a partner with Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor law firm who is helping lead a lawsuit on behalf of thousands of victims; Thomas Julin, Florida Bulldog’s attorney and a high-profile first amendment attorney in Miami; and Dr. Charles Zelden, an NSU history and political science professor.

Victim’s advocate Sharon Premoli, who was at work on the 80th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck, told her story through a voice recording that blasted through sound speakers. She detailed how she escaped from the building and how a police officer gave her his oxygen mask.

“The ground rocked and the roar from the clouds was indescribable,” she said. “My lungs were packed with dust. My legs were rubber when I realized I was on top of a bloody body. I don’t know the name of the police officer or fire fighter but I owe them my life.”

During the panel, the speakers expanded on how, despite a handful of public records requests and two lawsuits, the FBI claimed the Saudi couple had no connection to the hijackers and that there was no investigation.

After much prying by the Florida Bulldog, officials stated the opposite: that they did investigate the couple but found nothing.

When Christensen requested the investigation in 2011, federal officials said there were no records. That’s when Christensen joined Graham and Thomas Julin, Florida Bulldog’s attorney and high-profile first amendment attorney in Miami and sued in 2012.

The FBI then sent the Florida Bulldog a 35-page memo that outlined the Saudi couple, whom indeed did have connections with the hijackers.

In 2014, a judged ruled that the FBI must search their servers and turn over any documents. Shortly after, the FBI Tampa field office turned up 80,000 pages related to the terror attacks, but they are all “classified.”

“It’s been two years and we’re still waiting,” Julin said. “Still waiting to see what's in those records.”

As far the Sarasota couple, records show they fled the country just two weeks before the attack, leaving behind valuable items like their cars, clothes and even food in the fridge.

The couple, whose names are blanked out from the released records, even trained with the hijackers near Sarasota and had their contact information in their cellphones.

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