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Suspected Hijackers: 19 Quiet Lives That Shattered the World

Inquiry: 'Nice,' 'normal' guys had few belongings but access to lots of cash. Tantalizing clues show path to destruction.


Two of them were American-trained Saudi fighter pilots. One graduated from America's foremost flight university. One drank Stoli and orange juice and one advertised for a Mexican bride.

The 19 men identified by the FBI as suspects in the World Trade Center and Pentagon hijack attacks were largely anonymous young men from the Mideast who entered the United States without notice and lived quietly within the law for years.

They studied flying, lived in nondescript suburban apartments and seldom called attention to themselves. Most lived for a time in Florida. Others were scattered in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona and Southern California. Some apparently had recent access to large amounts of cash but lived modestly, some alone, some with one another.

Then, in the last several weeks, they began disappearing from their neighborhoods. They hid out in low-rent motels and, in one instance, filled trash baskets with Boeing flight manuals.

They reappeared Friday on a list of suspects in the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. The FBI said it did not know for certain where most of the men came from, exactly where they lived in the United States or how old they were. Several had names so common in the Middle East that tracking them down might never be possible. If the hijackers used false names when they boarded American and United flights Tuesday morning, it might be even more difficult to ever discover their true identities.

One law officer in New Jersey, where two of the suspects were said to have lived, echoed the view of many struggling in the early days of the investigation.

To anyone looking for a quick explanation of what happened and why, the suspects left a faint trail.

"I don't know if these guys were supposed to be here two months or two years, but I searched and found no evidence that they were ever here," said Det. John Loertscher of the Wayne, N.J., Police Department.

There were, however, some tantalizing clues left behind.

A defense official said two of the hijackers were former Saudi fighter pilots who had studied in exchange programs at the Defense Language School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

One law enforcement source said investigators had already uncovered credit card charges for $50,000 worth of airplane tickets.

Three of the men lived as recently as last year in San Diego.

The FBI identified Nawaq Alhamzi as one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. A man by that name moved to the Parkwood Apartments in San Diego in 1999, according to manager Holly Ratchford. He settled into the neatly kept 187-unit complex, many of whose residents are Middle Easterners.

The manager said Alhamzi, polite and an "attractive guy," was cleanshaven, about 5 feet, 4 inches, with a thin build. He paid his rent on time and never caused trouble. He lived in his apartment with another man from the Middle East, Ratchford said. "There wasn't anything suspicious about him."

In the mornings, it was not uncommon for Alhamzi to stop by the rental office and say hello. He often chatted a bit and had coffee and cookies.

Alhamzi said he was a student, the manager said, but never elaborated about what or where he was studying. FBI agents visited the complex Friday morning. The agents asked about three other men who moved out last weekend.

"They always came in together and always left together," neighbor LaBaron Coker said of the three men. "I saw them moving out. They had a rental truck."

They used the pool, but only when no one else was there, neighbor Freddy Evans said. "They were strange. Three grown men playing in the pool like kids."

Alhamzi apparently moved from the Parkwood to a home in a quiet residential neighborhood just east of San Diego, where he and another suspect, Khalid Al-Midhar, rented rooms from Abdussattar Shaikh, who has been a member of the San Diego Citizens Police Review Board. Shaikh is a retired English professor at San Diego State University .

He was co-founder of San Diego's Islamic Center. He lives in a two-story beige house on a bluff overlooking Spring Valley in east San Diego County, at the end of a long rural road with no sidewalks. It's filled with books and pamphlets on Islam. It's a gathering place for young Middle Eastern men who share their culture and faith.

Alhamzi and Al-Midhar often talked about Islam and were homebodies, he said. Shaikh said Alhamzi lived with him from September to December.

"I met Nawaq at the Islamic Center in San Diego," Shaikh said. "He told me he was looking for a place to live, so I rented him a room. He was a loner, and he didn't talk much. I don't think he had any friends. While he lived with me, I never saw him use a telephone. I wondered if he had any family at all."

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