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Boston arm of terrorist group being sought

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

Authorities in Boston yesterday began searching for a local cell of the terrorist group suspected of carrying out the most crucial part of the most coordinated, audacious terrorist attack ever directed at Americans.

While federal, state, and local law enforcement officials said it remained unclear who commandeered a pair of Boston-to-Los Angeles flights and plowed them into the World Trade Center in New York, they were trying to find out whether the plot was at least partially planned in Boston.

Superintendent in Chief James Hussey of the Boston police said a task force of local police, the State Police, the FBI, and other federal agencies was trying to determine who was behind the hijackings. He said the FBI was leading the investigation, but the FBI declined to discuss potential suspects.

Several law enforcement sources said the presence in Boston in the late 1990s of two men with links to the Saudi-born, anti-American terrorist Osama bin Laden had made his organization one of the prime suspects. But authorities said they had no other clues that would implicate the bin Laden organization and were not ruling out other suspect groups.

A federal law enforcement source said that suspected Palestinian extremists, who bitterly oppose US policy in the Middle East, had been under surveillance recently in the Boston area.

Investigators are keeping an open mind. But many investigators suspect that the most likely terrorists were Islamic extremists. Some clues may have been a copy of the Koran, an instructional videotape on flying commercial airliners, and a fuel consumption calculator in a pair of bags that did not make it onto the doomed American Airlines Flight 11 that left Boston at 7:59 a.m. yesterday and crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers an hour later.

The bags belonged to a man with an Arabic name who investigators believe was one of the hijackers. He got on Flight 11 after flying into Logan from Portland, Maine, but his bags missed the connection.

Jeffrey Monroe, director of transportation for the city of Portland, Maine, which runs the airport and seaport, said that two FBI agents came to the airport yesterday afternoon for what they said was a routine check of all airports in the northeast that had connecting flights to Boston yesterday morning.

Two flights left from Portland to Logan in the early morning, both American Airlines flights.

The agents reviewed the airport's security tapes, which were captured by cameras that record everyone in the airport.

A former FBI agent, who was based in Boston for more than a decade, said it was no surprise that at least part of the operation was launched here, saying that the bin Laden organization and other extremist groups have members and sympathizers in the area.

Boston, has ''a lot of terrorist cells in this area,'' he said. ''It's a facilitator for terrorist activity. There have been cells here of bin Laden's associates. They're entrenched here. They're able to use this area because of the proximity to New York and to fold into the local population, and they're able to facilitate terrorist attacks.''

Boston has in the past been home to trusted agents of bin Laden, the Islamic fundamentalist who allegedly directs an international terrorist conspiracy directed at the United States from Afghanistan.

The Globe reported in February that the FBI had investigated the Boston activities of a pair of former taxi drivers, Bassam A. Kanj, a Lebanese native, and Raed M. Hijazi, a Palestinian, after they were tied to separate militant and terrorist plots last year. Both plots were allegedly financed by bin Laden.

Kanj, 35, who had lived in the Boston area for 15 years, was killed in northern Lebanon in January 2000 during an attack against the Lebanese Army. Hijazi, a Boston resident for about two years, was jailed in Jordan and is awaiting trial on charges that he planned to blow up a hotel filled with Americans and Israelis on New Year's Day 2000.

Senior FBI officials told the Globe at the time that they were trying to determine what activities, if any, Kanj and Hijazi may have been involved with in the Boston area on bin Laden's behalf. The officials said it was possible that neither was involved in a terrorist cell while in Boston, but were living and working here to raise money for their families while awaiting orders from the bin Laden organization.

Within hours of yesterday's attack, State Police detectives and a Norfolk County prosecutor were interviewing employees of a Norwood air charter company after learning of reports that a trio of men who appeared to be from the Middle East had tried to charter a corporate jet at Norwood Memorial Airport on Monday. Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating refused to comment.

But Fred Snyderman - the chief executive of Eastern Air Center, which offers charter jet service at the small airport south of Boston - said that he had spoken with his two charter agents and that both had dismissed the report as an unfounded rumor.

''There were no Middle Eastern people here trying to rent a plane,'' Snyderman said. ''I only have two people working here taking care of that, and neither one of them saw anything like that happening.''

Bin Laden is the scion of a rich family whose father was a favored contractor for the Saudi royal family. The senior bin Laden is said to have been the father of dozens of children by numerous wives. Several of Osama bin Laden's relatives have resided on and off in Boston during the past decade.

One relative, Mohammed M. bin Laden, owns six luxury units at the Flagship Wharf condo building in Charlestown. All purchased in the mid-1990s, the six condos range in assessed value from $296,000 to $877,000. Phone calls to the units went unanswered.

Two scholarship funds at Harvard's Law School and School of Design were established several years ago by one of bin Laden's brothers, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden.

A spokesman for Harvard said yesterday that the school had previously satisfied itself that Osama bin Laden had no connection with the programs, and that those members of the family who did participate in the programs were estranged from him.

Investigators face a daunting challenge, because all the witnesses to the hijackings were killed in the crash. But authorities are hoping that the cockpit recorder will be recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center and that it will contain a recording of the confrontations that took place during the hijackings.

Joseph Lawless, director of public safety for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan Airport, said it was too soon to know whether there was a security breach that allowed armed hijackers to board the flights that originated at Logan.

''We consider ourselves as secure, if not more secure than any other airport,'' Lawless said.

Lawless said there was no radio communication indicating a problem with either flight that left Logan.

Hussey said the investigation ''will have to start with people working on the aircraft.''

A former TWA official said he knew of at least two cases in which members of a cleaning crew smuggled weapons on board which were later used to hijack planes. In one case, a gun was taped behind a fire extinguisher, while in the other a gun was put in a first aid kit.

One source familiar with the airline industry said that, given enough time and money, it would not be difficult for terrorists to smuggle weapons onto a domestic flight. He said terrorists could arrange to have weapons moved onto an airliner by having terrorists or sympathizers hired as air cargo handlers or airline cleaners. The weapons could then be brought on board and concealed without ever having to pass through a security checkpoint.

''If you have a year or more to plan, how hard can it be to get someone hired to clean the trash out of an airplane,'' the source said.

Domestic flights are more vulnerable than international flights, the source said, because international flights - fewer in number and with fewer passengers - are policed more carefully.

For example, passengers arriving in the United States from overseas are often met by ''profilers'' trained to ask questions designed to detect drug traffickers and terrorists.

But no such system for interviewing domestic flight passengers exists.

Police, meanwhile, fear that innocent Arabs living in the Boston area may be singled out for retaliatory attacks.

''We are very aware of that possibility, and we will do everything we can to avoid anything like that happening,'' Hussey said.

Police are trying to prepare for any possibility, and dispatched extra police officers in boats around Boston Harbor, he said. ''After what happened today, we have to be prepared for anything and everything.''

Judy Rakowsky, Stephen Kurkjian, Ralph Ranalli, Matthew Brelis, and Michael Rezendes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A7 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.