Washington, D.C.The 9-11 Commission's emotion-charged hearing this week in New York comes amid more intimations that the federal government, and perhaps local ones, had advance knowledge of a coming attack.
In April 2000, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report of September 2002, a "walk-in" source appeared at the FBI's Newark office and told agents he had been to a training camp in Pakistan and there learned hijacking techniques and received arms training. The man said he was to rendezvous with five or six other people in the U.S. to participate in a plot that involved hijacking a plane and flying it to Afghanistan. There were to be pilots among the group. If the mission aborted, then the plane would be blown up. The walk-in passed an FBI polygraph, but the agency was never able to verify the story. So said the Senate report. That apparently was the end of it.
However, on May 9 of this year, the London Sunday Times carried a report that amplified the original story. The paper said that in 2000 a waiter at a Manchester curry restaurant had been approached by an Al Qaeda recruiter at an Oldham mosque and was offered money to do "a job." According to the paper, the man, whose life is now threatened by Muslim militants, went to Lahore, and there learned how to carry out a hijacking and became familiar with the inside of a Boeing cockpit. "I knew they wanted me to do some kind of operation in which I would die," he told the Times, "but my life was such a mess that in my mind I was already dead." After completing his instruction in Lahore, he went back to Britain, was given money, and was dispatched to New York, where he was supposed to be met by a contact. But on the flight over, the man began having fond thoughts of his wife and baby and decided he didn't want to die. Upon landing, he slipped his contact, took a bus to Atlantic City, gambled away his money, and then turned himself over to the FBI.
The FBI didn't believe him, and according to the Times, shipped him back to Britain, where the cops interrogated him and let him go. Now the FBI is trying to get him back.
Meanwhile, 9-11 families have been pushing the commission to find out if the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force was asleep at the switch when a man thought to be a tourist from the Middle East was detained in June 2001 while taking photos of surveillance cameras, federal buildings, and police stations in Lower Manhattanin effect, conceivably casing the area in preparation for the 9-11 attack. This situation is all the more suspicious since we now know the federal government had warnings of a coming attack. And not just an attack, but an attack by planes crashing into buildings. The WTC was mentioned as among the possible targets. So where was this task force? And what did Mayor Giuliani know of this incident? What did the feds tell New York about the warnings they had received?
The story, reported at the time by the New York Post, was as follows: The Federal Protective Service, which guards federal property, spotted a man with Middle Eastern features taking photos of a federal building in Lower Manhattan. Federal agents confiscated his film, made photocopies of his visa and passport, and wrote down his address, then took him to an immigration agent to check his status. An FBI agent interviewed the man and released him on grounds that there was no legal reason to hold him. But when the confiscated film was developed a few days later, "the feds panicked," the Post reported, attributing that to "sources." The pics were of security cameras, police posts, security checkpoints, and exits and entrances at the new and old Manhattan federal courthouses, 26 Federal Plaza, and the federal building at 290 Broadway. Finally the feds checked out the man's ID and discovered that both his passport and visa were phony and that his address didn't exist.
Another version of what may or may not have been the same incident appeared last week in The Washington Post, which said three different people were involvedtwo Yemenis, including one longtime resident of Brooklyn, were taking photos for another Yemeni, living in Indianapolis. The FBI checked out the two Yemenis, according to the Post, and concluded that they had nothing to do with terrorism, but the Indianapolis man disappeared and agents have never have been able to find him.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.