It was Halloween night, 2001. The horrors of 9/11 were still fresh on the the minds of Americans.
At a time when everyone was on edge, the sight of a man disposing documents in a dumpster behind a Bradenton storage facility aroused suspicion. Summoned to the scene, Manatee County sheriff’s deputies confronted the man, who had a Tunisian passport.
According to FBI records, authorities searched the dumpster and found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight-to-fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice [Fla.] and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”
The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pa., took flying lessons.
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This intriguing tale and at least one other are contained in a batch of partially redacted documents released this past week as part of ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation by the online news site BrowardBulldog.org. The suit, filed in 2012, seeks the FBI’s files from a once-secret investigation into a family of Sarasota Saudis who left the country abruptly about two weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars.
The main figures in the family were Abdulaziz al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud, and her father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince.
The report of the Bradenton incident is in some way linked to the al-Hijjis’ saga, although precisely how is unclear. The link might be spelled out in one of the many redacted passages. Nor is it clear in the unredacted portions who the man was or whether he was detained. An FBI letter accompanying the documents says the redactions have to do with national security and other exclusions.
The documents — the fourth batch released in response to the BrowardBulldog lawsuit — were located via court-ordered text searches using the names of the al-Hijjis and Ghazzawi. U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch in Fort Lauderdale is currently reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 records.
“This release suggests that the FBI has covered up information that is vitally important to public safety,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org. “It’s startling that after initially denying they had any documents they continue to find new documents as the weeks and months roll by. Each new batch suggests there are many, many more documents.”
“There needs to be a full-scale explanation of what’s going on here,” Julin said.
A second FBI document released last week, dated Feb. 2, 2012, is similarly tantalizing — and similarly murky.
On that day, according to the document, FBI offices in Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., received information from Washington stamped “secret” stating that a “person of interest” in the FBI’s massive 9/11 investigation had returned to the United States.
The person, whose name is redacted, was reported to be “traveling to Texas and LA for business/tourism.” The person apparently told authorities upon entering the country that he could be reached in Charlotte. He provided a telephone number “associated with furniture manufacturers in North Carolina,” the report states.
Details about that were blanked out. But the report also states, “Tampa is notified that a person of interest to Tampa regarding the PENTTBOMB investigation has a valid visa for re-entry into the U.S.” PENTTBOMB is the FBI’s code name for its 9/11 investigation.
Whether this person was ever detained, interviewed or allowed to go about his/her business is unclear in the unredacted passages.
In all, the FBI released 11 pages. They contain statements reiterating that the al-Hijjis had departed the United States in haste shortly before 9/11 and that “further investigation” had “revealed many connections” between them and persons associated with “attacks on 9/11/2001.”
Those statements flatly contradict the FBI’s public statements that agents found no connection between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 plot.
Yet they dovetail with the account of a counterintelligence source who has said investigators in 2001 found evidence — phone records and photographs of license plates snapped at the entrance to the al-Hijjis’ Sarasota-area neighborhood — that showed Mohamed Atta, other hijackers and former Broward resident and current al-Qaeda fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji home.
None of that information, or even the fact that an investigation in Sarasota took place, was disclosed by the FBI to Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks or to the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the joint inquiry.
The documents are stamped secret. The portions that were not released are supposed to be kept under wraps until 2039.
The government has asserted the classification is necessary because the censored information pertains to foreign relations or foreign activities, including confidential sources.
“This could be about information considered embarrassing to Saudi Arabia,” said Julin. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The report on the man and the dumpster — although the encounter happened on Halloween 2011, the document is dated April 2002 — contains additional information, though the deletions make its full meaning difficult to discern.
It says the Tampa FBI office “has determined that [blank] is an antagonist of the United States of America. [Blank] resides in Jerusalem. [Blank] allegedly has held regular and recurring meetings at his residence to denounce and criticize the United States of America and its policies. [Blank] is allegedly an international businessman with great wealth.
“In November 2001, [blank] visited the United States for the first time. He traveled to Sarasota, Florida, opened a bank account and made initial queries into the purchase of property in south central Florida. [Blank] intends to establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida. [Blank] revealed that [blank] is fearful of [blank] and fears that [blank] intends to begin offensive operations against the United States if he is able to purchase property and establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida.”
Three follow-up lines are blanked out.
Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org.