In Md., errands, exercise filled hijackers' final days

Bowie flight school, Greenbelt gym used

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 18, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber and Michael James | Del Quentin Wilber and Michael James,SUN STAFF

In the days before crashing American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, the hijackers moved freely around Maryland - working out at Gold's Gym in Greenbelt, taking flying lessons in Bowie, buying tickets for the doomed flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

This, despite the fact that two of them were on the State Department's watch list for terrorists.

As federal investigators piece together the final days of the five suicide terrorists, a picture of their links to Maryland has begun to emerge more clearly.

The men, two of whom bought their plane tickets for the flight at nearby BWI, each signed the guest register at Gold's Gym in the 6200 block of Greenbelt Road with their own names, said Gene LaMott, chief executive officer and president of the international gym chain.

"They were regular patrons of the gym," said LaMott, noting that each of the men paid cash to work out at the facility the week of Sept. 2. "It leaves a sick feeling in your gut. This brings it much closer to home."

The five patrons were Khalid Al-Midhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaq Alhamzi, Salem Alhamzi and Hani Hanjour, all identified by the FBI as being aboard Flight 77 when it left Washington Dulles International Airport on Sept. 11. All of the men are listed as having worked out at the gym, located in a quiet shopping center, between Sept. 2 and Sept. 6, LaMott said.

Also yesterday, FBI investigators continued to stake out a large apartment complex in Laurel, where they have been showing photographs of Arab men and asking whether they've been seen in the area. The apartment complex is home to Moataz al-Hallak, an Islamic cleric who the FBI has said may have information about the attacks.

Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman, refused to comment on any aspect of the investigation yesterday.

Al-Hallak, a teacher at an Islamic school in Laurel who has faced a horde of reporters since his name surfaced in news reports, left a note on his door yesterday.

"I am deeply saddened by the tragic events of Sept. 11," the note read. "I am adding my voice to the voice of the whole world in condemning these vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism. As much as I would like to talk to you, I regret that I am not available for comment."

Alleged ties to bin Laden

Al-Hallak is well-known to federal authorities. A prosecutor has said that federal agents have found evidence that al-Hallak has been linked to Osama bin Laden for more than a decade, although al-Hallak and his lawyer have steadfastly denied any connection to terrorism. Al-Hallak's name and address were held by a bin Laden group that was supporting Afghan rebels in 1990, according to federal officials.

But Al-Hallak, 41, has testified before at least two federal grand juries in New York in connection with the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. He was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against members of bin Laden's organization, including al-Hallak's friend, Wadih El-Hage.

El-Hage, described as bin Laden's personal secretary, was convicted in New York in May of conspiring in the embassy blasts, which claimed 224 lives.

Reticent investigators

Investigators tracking last week's terrorism have been tight-lipped about the Maryland investigation and where they think it may lead them.

Several of the hijackers' names have surfaced in connection with the Maryland probe, including the five men on Flight 77 and Mohamed Atta, 33, one of the men on American Airlines Flight 11, the first to hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Gulotta said that contrary to some newspaper reports, including one in The Sun, Atta never lived in Maryland. He refused to comment on whether Atta or other hijackers may have visited the Prince George's County area or had meetings there.

Federal agents went to Gold's Gym twice in the days after the attacks to question workers and to make copies of the guest registers containing the men's names, said LaMott, Gold's president.

A worker at the Greenbelt gym who would not give his name recalled the men showing up to lift weights in the first week of this month. They did not stand out at the gym, which gets hundreds of visitors a day.

"They seemed like college students from College Park," said the employee. Since the men were there on a guest membership, they were not required to leave addresses.

The FBI has said at least four of the men were living in New Jersey, around the areas of Fort Lee and Wayne. Two of them - Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi - were identified on the State Department's terrorist watch list before the incidents last week.

Al-Midhar and Moqed are known to have traveled to BWI on Sept. 5 to pick up their plane tickets, which they booked through the American Airlines Web site. Both paid cash for the tickets.

Flight training

Another of the hijackers on Flight 77, Hani Hanjour, flew small planes over the Washington area at least three times in the past six weeks while being trained at a Prince George's County flight school.

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