Herald-Tribune: Sarasota family had 'many connections' to 9/11 terror attacks
Contrary to previous statements made by the FBI to the news media, a family living in the south Sarasota neighborhood of Prestancia had “many connections” to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to newly released FBI documents.
The family, Anoud and Abdulazziz al-Hijji, had links to 9/11 hijackers — including Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who trained at a Venice flight school in preparation for the assault on New York and Washington, D.C., that killed 2,996.
Anoud al-Hijji is the daughter of Esam Ghazzawi, a powerful Saudi businessman with long ties to the Saudi royal family. The al-Hijjis have denied any involvement or relationship with the 9/11 hijackers.
But the family abruptly left the Prestancia home that they had lived in for six years roughly a week before the 9/11 attacks, leaving behind clothes, food, children's toys and other living essentials.
In the newly declassified documents, the FBI's Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force reported that the exit was done “quickly and suddenly.” The family left no forwarding address at the time, according to Realtors and property managers who were interviewed by the federal agency.
After being alerted to the family's hasty exit by nearby residents and investigating the circumstances and participants, the FBI said it concluded that the family had no connection to the terrorists.
“At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” Steven E. Ibison, the FBI special agent in charge of the agency's Tampa field office, said in a Sept. 15, 2011, statement made in response to media questioning about the al-Hijjis at that time.
But portions of the FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by BrowardBulldog — a journalism organization led by former Miami Herald reporter Dan Christensen, who has been investigating the attacks — seem to directly contradict those statements.
“Further investigation of the (name deleted) family revealed many connections between the (name deleted) and individuals associated with the terror attacks on 9/11/2001,” a portion of declassified FBI documents state.
The agency redacted many of the names in the 31 pages released under exemptions that protect people's names in law enforcement records. But it is clear who the subjects are because the documents specifically cite the al-Hijjis' residence, which was 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota's “Estates at Prestancia” development at the time FBI agents were investigating.
Though the FBI stands by its statements, the documents renew questions — previously raised by former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and others — that the U.S. has not fully disclosed the extent of its knowledge about links between the 9/11 attacks and Saudi officials.
A majority of the terrorists who orchestrated and participated in the attacks were Saudis.
The story of the Prestancia home came to the fore again this week because of a story by BrowardBulldog. Christensen and his organization has been litigating with the federal government in an effort to obtain classified FBI reports that illustrate the relationship between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 terrorists.
Abdulazziz al-Hijji could not be reached for comment, but in email correspondence with The (London) Daily Telegraph a year ago, he strongly denied any involvement in 9/11.
“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did,” al-Hijji wrote.
Among the more explosive revelations in the BrowardBulldog story is that an unidentified “family member” — purportedly of the al-Hijji family — was a flight student at Venice's Huffman Aviation, according to the FBI documents marked “secret” but with the word since crossed through.
Huffman gained notoriety in the wake of 9/11 as the place where suicide hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi learned to fly. Those two men were in the cockpits when jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers.
The story also references documents detailing a third person on a redacted FBI list as having “lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation” and being “arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.”
The BrowardBulldog noted that the recently released FBI documents disclosed nothing about Wissam Hammoud, an al-Hijji friend who is now serving a 21-year prison sentence for weapons violations and for attempting to kill a federal agent.
Hammoud, 47, and an “international terrorist associate,” according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told investigators after his 2004 arrest that al-Hijji may have known some of the hijackers and that he considered Osama Bin Laden “a hero.” Though he acknowledged knowing Hammoud well, al-Hijji denied knowing 9/11 participants or revering Bin Laden in an interview with Christensen last year, the BrowardBulldog reported.
Hammoud was arrested in Sarasota County during July 1995 for driving with a suspended license, according to County Clerk of the Court records. He was subsequently given probation and the case was closed.
Though much about the allegations and evidence connecting the home in Prestancia to the 9/11 attacks is not new, the matter has lingered because of a lack of closure.
Questions remain, too, for Pat Gallagher, who was among the Prestancia residents who contacted the FBI in the aftermath of the terror attacks after “suspicious activity” — the agency's phrase — at the al-Hijji residence at Escondito Circle, including the family's sudden exit.
Though the house has since been sold twice, at the time it was owned by Ghazzawi, an importer and exporter whose circles included the Bin Laden Group.
Ghazzawi's influence also extends to his children. His 42-year-old son, Adel, is a board member of the New York-based think tank EastWest Institute, which counts the likes of Michael Chertoff, a director of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and co-author of the Patriot Act, and retired Gen. James L. Jones, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, among its members.
The younger Ghazzawi operates Conektas, a firm in the United Arab Emirates that helps multinational companies establish businesses in the Middle East.
Abdulazziz al-Hijji was completing undergraduate work at the University of South Florida when he lived in the Ghazzawi house. He went on to receive a bachelor's in computer science.
FBI records indicate that he took a job after graduation with the Saudi oil concern Aramco in London, though he no longer appears to be working there, BrowardBulldog reported.
Interviewed by the FBI, Anoud al-Hijji said the family's flight was a “regularly scheduled departure.”
But the FBI conducted a substantial investigation centered on the al-Hijji household.
Six weeks after 9/11, agents found that Prestancia's digital scan system had picked up at least two license plates registered to Atta and Ziad Jarrah, another 9/11 terrorist, who had allegedly visited the Escondito Circle house in the months leading up to the attacks. The men purportedly identified themselves to security guards.
But the declassified FBI records say the agency “appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community.”
Graham — the former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and chairman of the joint congressional inquiry into U.S. intelligence gathering surrounding the terrorist attacks — said he remains convinced that the federal government at several levels has failed to divulge all it knows about 9/11 and its Saudi connections.
He contends that 28 pages of a final report to Congress were censored because they dealt with the Saudi role in 9/11.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had a special and mutually beneficial relationship since 1957, when the Saudi king made a state visit to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
King Saud visited the U.S. with an entourage of at least 60, one of whom appears to have been Esam Ghazzawi's father, Abbas.
At the time, Eisenhower agreed to sell Saudi Arabia up to $500 million worth of weapons in exchange for permission to maintain an airbase in Saudi territory.
The deal did not gel overnight. Abbas Ghazzawi apparently worked on it, after flying into New York from Madrid on Jan. 25, 1957, according to a passenger list kept by U.S. officials. The elder Ghazzawi was accompanied by three other Saudis, including a man who would later serve as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Faisal al-Hegelan.
The Ghazzawi family's ties to America grew stronger years later when, in 1970, 17-year-old Esam Ghazzawi married American Deborah G. Browning. Their first child, Adel, was born that year on Nov. 19.
The family later established what has been a long presence in Southwest Florida, through the purchase of a pair of bayfront lots on Longboat Key's Putter Lane. Neighbors had little interaction with the man they referred to as “the Arab.”
“That's what we called him,” said former neighbor Betty Blair. “We didn't know his name. All we knew was his kids were in camp so he came for the summer. Two little boys.”
Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi bought the Prestancia home in September 1995, records show.
Five months earlier, Anoud Ghazzawi married al-Hijji. He was 19 and she was 17, their Sarasota County marriage license shows.
While here, they made an effort to blend in, driving popular cars like a Volkswagen Beetle, a Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Chevy Tahoe.
But they did not stay completely under the collective radar. FBI documents reference a dispute with the Prestancia Community Association over unpaid homeowner dues.
The Ghazzawis were frequent visitors to the al-Hijji household, neighbors, acquaintances and an attorney familiar with the case said.
Carla DiBello knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi on several occasions. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” said DiBello, who now lives in Beverly Hills and is in charge of developing business for Kim Kardashian Productions.
As for how Esam Ghazzawi made his living, “all I know about him was that he worked for the King of Saudi from what Anoud told me, but she was always very secretive about what her dad did for them,” DiBello said.
Ghazzawi is still active in business in the Middle East, and sits on the board of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, which makes connections for global firms.
When United Parcel Service wanted to do business in Saudi Arabia, for instance, EIRAD became its handler.
When the al-Hijjis left Southwest Florida for Saudi Arabia “on or about 08/27/2001,” according to the FBI documents, they flew first to Washington, where they met Esam Ghazzawi.
When Ghazzawi left the U.S., Adel Ghazzawi apparently took over the family's affairs here.
It was Adel, then 30 and an American citizen, who tried to get a Prestancia lien lifted so the house could be sold. The lien came after the series of brushes with Prestancia's community association.
“The HOA had great difficulties with them,” said Jone Weist, at that time property manager for much of Prestancia. “It was nothing criminal, but this is not a neighborhood where you let the grass grow for a month.”
Problems mounted when the family departed in 2001, leaving a large mound of garbage at the curb. Eventually, a foreclosure lawsuit was filed.
When not helping his family, Adel Ghazzawi worked with Conektas, a company that “assists multinationals in developing synergistic relationships with credible partners to successfully penetrate and establish solid businesses in the Middle East region.”
“Adel has a vast wealth of business, family and personal relationships within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” his biography reads.
On the EastWest website, Ghazzawi says he has raised more than $1 billion for Middle Eastern projects.
The family ultimately settled the homeowner case and sold the house in September 2003 for $440,000, to Joel Schemmel, records show. Schemmel has since sold the property, according to the county.
Because Floridians made up his former political constituency and many of the 9/11 terrorists lived in the Sunshine State just prior to the attacks, Graham has made it a personal mission to delve into the connections between the attacks and Saudi Arabia.
Graham, 76, says that neither he, nor his staff, ever received any information regarding the alleged activities in Prestancia from the FBI or other law enforcement.
The FBI contends there is a good reason for that.
“At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” Ibison said in 2011.
Now, despite the documents from their files, the agency is standing by its assessment.
“What Ibison said back then, that is the conclusion, knowing everything we know today,” David Couvertier, an FBI spokesman, said Tuesday. “The Bulldog is getting information that was already taken into consideration.”
But Graham is unswayed.
In an interview Tuesday, Graham said he is “extremely pleased” with the FBI's release of new documents.
“Basically, they said they had conducted an investigation and hadn't found anything,” Graham said. “Now we know that as far back as April of 2002, they had a statement in their files written by a responsible law enforcement official, who I cannot name, saying there were many connections between the hijackers and this family in Sarasota.”
“There are more than those 30-some pages of documents which would indicate that the public statements of the FBI are not accurate,” Graham said.