In June 2000, a former San Diego State University student named Mohdar Abdullah and two new friends from Saudi Arabia drove from their apartments in San Diego to Los Angeles International Airport. The trip, Abdullah would later say, was designed to show the men how to get to LAX because one was leaving the country the next day.
After renting a motel room, the three visited the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City to pray. To Abdullah's surprise, his friends already knew several people at the mosque, one of whom would meet them that night at the motel.
Today, investigators believe the encounter of two future Sept. 11 hijackers with a man later deported by the U.S. government demonstrated that Al Qaeda had put a terrorist support network in place in Southern California long before the attacks of 2001.
That conclusion is contained deep in the final report published this week by the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The finding is both alarming and probably unprovable.
The theory hinges on a series of events involving the two Saudi men, hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, as well as the commission's belief that neither man had the language skills or familiarity with the U.S. to easily live here while preparing for the attacks.
"We believe it is unlikely that [Alhazmi] and Almihdhar ... would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival," the 9/11 commission concluded.
But interviews with FBI officials familiar with the investigation and others like Mohdar Abdullah, since deported to Yemen, produce more questions than answers about whether the terrorists had knowing assistance from anyone in California.
On one hand, Abdullah and some counterterrorism officials recall meetings that cannot be explained away to chance. "I don't believe in coincidences," said one federal prosecutor familiar with the Sept. 11 investigation.
But others insist that Al Qaeda, patient and methodical, would not have risked exposing the plot by involving too many participants. They note that investigations suggest not all 19 hijackers were aware they were on a suicide mission Sept. 11.
"Maybe there's been something new," said Larry Mefford, who retired in November as the FBI's head of counterterrorism. "But as of the time of my retirement, there was no credible indication that anyone in Southern California helped the two terrorists with knowledge of the 9/11 plot."
Likewise, Richard Garcia, head of the FBI's Los Angeles division, said he had no evidence that the Sept. 11 hijackers had any help in Southern California from individuals who knew of the planned attacks. "If there was support, I think it was unwitting," said Garcia, adding that it probably took the form of Muslims or people of Middle Eastern descent offering innocent help to others of their faith or background.
Although the commission report does not address current conditions, Garcia said that given the size of the region, "it would be naive to assume there are no terrorists here."
In its report, the culmination of 20 months of investigation, the 9/11 commission said it remained unclear why Alhazmi and Almihdhar came to California.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 plot who was arrested last year in Pakistan, told interrogators that Al Qaeda did not have agents in Southern California. The region was chosen as a meeting place for the hijackers, he said, because it was far from the intended East Coast targets and easy to get to from Asia, where Alhazmi, Almihdhar and others had met to help plot terrorist attacks.
Arriving in Los Angeles in January 2000, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, like the other hijackers, appeared to have had their movements choreographed by Mohammed, according to the report. But unlike the others, they were given special dispensation to visit local mosques and make local contacts, posing as newly arrived college students seeking help getting established.
Although their first two weeks in Los Angeles remain a mystery, commission investigators say, Alhazmi and Almihdhar appear to have quickly received assistance from the Muslim community and specifically people who lived or worked around Culver City's King Fahd Mosque, one of the largest in Southern California.
Why the pair chose that mosque is unclear, the commission said. One possibility, according to investigators, was that they were drawn to Fahad al Thumairy, a Saudi consular official who was a well-known prayer leader. Thumairy was expelled from the U.S. last year for alleged links to terrorists, though officials at the mosque said he was nonviolent and decried the attacks of Sept. 11.
Two weeks after their arrival in Los Angeles, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had another meeting that raised the eyebrows of authorities.