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September 26, 2001, Wednesday
TRACES OF TERROR: THE F.B.I.; For Agent in Phoenix, the Cause of Many Frustrations Extended to His Own Office
By JIM YARDLEY AND JO THOMAS (NYT) 2103 words
Published: June 19, 2002Published: June 19, 2002
The year was 1990, and of the thousands of newcomers arriving in Arizona, at least two were not lured by the blue skies and the dry desert heat. Kenneth Williams, fresh from the F.B.I. Academy, came as a rookie agent and would soon become the terrorism expert at the bureau's office here. Hani Hanjour, only 18, came to study English, and later flying. He would become a terrorist.
Their paths would apparently never intersect. In his years in Arizona, Mr. Hanjour overcame the mediocrity of his talents as a pilot and gained enough expertise to fly a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon. But according to former agents, Mr. Williams could not overcome the limitations placed on him, namely a Phoenix field office whose commitment to fighting terrorism did not match his own.
In recent months, Mr. Williams has earned national praise after the disclosure that senior officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ignored his memorandum last July calling for a nationwide canvass of flight students from the Middle East. The rejection of that memo, combined with the whistle-blower testimony of Coleen Rowley, an agent in the bureau's Minneapolis office, has created the impression of a Washington bureaucracy impeding the work of the offices in the field.
But an examination of Mr. Williams's tenure as an agent, and of Mr. Hanjour's simultaneous flight training, shows that many problems now attributed to F.B.I. headquarters also existed in Arizona. For much of the 1990's, some former agents say, the Arizona division, preoccupied with fighting drugs, treated international terrorism as a low priority, even though Tucson had been one of the nation's earliest hubs for radical Muslim groups.
''This has always been the lowest priority in the division; it still is the lowest priority in the division,'' said James Hauswirth, who retired from the Phoenix office in 1999 but stays in contact with other agents. Last December, Mr. Hauswirth wrote a letter to the bureau's director, Robert S. Mueller III, criticizing the way terrorism was handled by the Arizona division, which comprises the bureau's several offices in the state, the main one here.
Only last year the Phoenix office, citing budget cutbacks, disbanded the surveillance unit often used by the division's terrorism squad. And Mr. Williams, regarded as the best terrorism agent in the office, had to interrupt his pre-Sept. 11 investigation of Middle Eastern flight students in order to spend six months on a high-profile arson case. He filed his flight-student memo to Washington a month after the arson case was solved. ''He fought it,'' Mr. Hauswirth said of that assignment. ''Why take your best terrorism investigator and put him on an arson case? He didn't have a choice.''
Guadalupe Gonzalez, since 1998 the special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, defends the handling of international terrorism on his watch. Mr. Gonzalez agrees that the top priority in the office before Sept. 11 was fighting drugs, because of Arizona's standing as a busy transshipment point for narcotics from Mexico. Still, he says, he and other supervisors did not neglect efforts against terrorism.
''I think the work that was done in Arizona was good,'' said Mr. Gonzalez, who is leaving the office in August to take over the Dallas office. ''It's kind of like timing. If Sept. 11 had been a year later, maybe other things would have evolved. It's like guessing. We can all guess about what could have happened.''
Resources to fight terrorism were limited, however. The Arizona division grew enormously during the 1990's, partly because of antidrug programs like the Southwest Border Initiative. Of the division's current total of 230 agents, Mr. Gonzalez said, roughly 60 are dedicated to drug work, while about 16 handle international and domestic terrorism, a task that includes monitoring domestic militias; one former agent says the number of agents dedicated to guarding against international terrorism is about eight. In last year's annual ranking of office priorities, Mr. Gonzalez said, drugs ranked first, international terrorism fourth.
One former Arizona agent, Roger Browning, who retired in 2000, said the fact that the Phoenix office dedicated substantial resources to customary crime fighting was understandable. But he questioned whether the F.B.I. needed to be so heavily involved in drug work -- the domain of the Drug Enforcement Administration -- and said agents wasted too many hours on tasks like chasing deadbeat dads.
Fear and Frustration
Mr. Hanjour, who remains the least known of the four men believed to have piloted the hijacked airliners, has often been described as meek and hesitant, hardly the sort to attract F.B.I. scrutiny. He first came to Arizona in 1990 to visit a brother in Tucson who had arranged for him to take an eight-week English course. He soon returned to his native Saudi Arabia to work on a family farm, and his time in Tucson appears to have been uneventful.
But if Mr. Hanjour had apparently not yet come in contact with terrorist groups, the Tucson he visited in 1990 was already a well-established stop for Islamic militants. During the 1980's, their enemy had been the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. Alkhifa, a group that recruited fighters and raised money for the jihad in Afghanistan, had one of its three American offices in Tucson. Federal authorities believe that by 1990, after the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden had absorbed Alkhifa into Al Qaeda, his new terrorist organization.
Mr. Williams, now 42, a graying and mild-mannered man who declined to be interviewed for this article, did not initially join the Arizona division's international-terrorism squad in 1990. A former police officer, he spent about a year working criminal cases, the sort of work that ambitious agents pursue to build a résumé of arrests and drug seizures. He joined the international-terrorism squad about a year later and also worked on the SWAT team.
There was soon tantalizing evidence that Islamic extremists were becoming ever more active in Arizona. In Mr. Hauswirth's letter to Mr. Mueller last December, he cited a 1994 incident in which F.B.I. agents used an informer to monitor a Middle Eastern man who had come to Arizona from New Mexico. The man was believed to be connected to Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the Islamic cleric now serving a life sentence for his involvement in a failed plot to bomb New York City landmarks.
One day, the suspect drove the informer to a desolate stretch of desert and instructed him on using explosive devices. An F.B.I. surveillance team was videotaping the encounter from atop a nearby mountain. Former agents say they do not know the outcome of that investigation, and Mr. Gonzalez, the agent in charge here, declined to comment.
Mr. Williams was continuing his work on the international-terrorism squad in 1996 when Mr. Hanjour returned to Arizona that October. Mr. Hanjour spent substantial periods of time in the state for the next five years, attending at least four flight schools and logging hundreds of hours in the air before earning his license. He was a poor student who often disappeared for weeks or months before resuming his training.
''He wasn't very committed,'' said a former flight instructor who worked with him. ''It took him almost a good three or four years to finish whatever he was doing.''
Inside the cockpit, the former instructor said, Mr. Hanjour was unsure of himself, even frightened, particularly during mandatory stalling exercises, in which an engine is turned off so that a pilot can practice righting the plane and restoring power. The instructor said he had reassured Mr. Hanjour that ''we're not going to fall out of the sky as long as we have wings.''
But ''he was very scared,'' the instructor added. ''He felt very hesitant. He was not one I would send my wife and my kids with.''
Yet, through accumulation of flying hours, Mr. Hanjour apparently built his competency. By the spring of 1999, seeking a commercial license, he was training on simulators at another school and ''doing pretty well,'' the former instructor said. On April 15, 1999, he earned a ''satisfactory'' rating by an examiner from the Federal Aviation Administration and was awarded a commercial license with a multiengine rating.
Roads Not Taken
Meanwhile, former agents say, Mr. Williams and other international-terrorism agents were becoming increasingly frustrated. In 1999, one of Mr. Williams's former informers sued him and the F.B.I. for $17,217, accusing the bureau of failing to pay him fully for expenses and salary after a year of work in a fraud and terrorism investigation. The plaintiff said in court documents that two agents had told him that a new administrator in the office had slashed the budget.
By early 2000, Mr. Williams had received a tip that would ultimately lead to his memo to Washington. He began to investigate Middle Eastern students at a flight school in Prescott, about two hours from Phoenix, and became suspicious that they might be terrorists. But by the account of a former agent, Mr. Williams soon requested a transfer from the international-terrorism squad to a related team, foreign counterintelligence.
He had apparently become worn out by internal politics. ''He was going home with knots in his stomach,'' Mr. Hauswirth said. ''It shouldn't have been that way. Here's a guy who was one of the best terrorism agents in the F.B.I., and he's got to fight city hall.''
Lured by a new supervisor, Mr. Williams returned to the international-terrorism squad in December 2000, but reopening the flight student investigation would have to be delayed. The entire squad was detached to work on a string of high-profile arson cases. In hindsight, that decision has prompted second-guessing, particularly since the best chance to catch Mr. Hanjour would soon present itself.
In February 2001, Mr. Hanjour enrolled at a Phoenix flight school for advanced simulator training to learn how to fly an airliner, a far more complicated task than he had faced in earning a commercial license. At the school, since closed, no one suspected that he was a terrorist. But instructors thought he was so bad a pilot and spoke such poor English that they contacted the Federal Aviation Administration to verify that his license was not a fake. The aviation agency verified the license and offered to find Mr. Hanjour a language tutor.
But it would be four more months before Mr. Williams again focused on flight students. Flight schools in Phoenix say the F.B.I. never contacted them with any concerns about Middle Eastern students. Similarly the aviation agency says its office in Scottsdale, outside Phoenix, never got any notification. So rather than contact the F.B.I., the flight school where Mr. Hanjour was enrolled simply informed him that he was unqualified for the program and so could not earn an airliner license. He decided to continue to train on the simulator for a while anyway.
When the arson case was solved last June, Mr. Williams returned to his investigation of the flight students. It would turn out that he was focused on the wrong men. His primary subject, an often-strident Zakaria Soubra, belonged to a British group that espouses the creation of a single Islamic state worldwide. His lawyer maintains that Mr. Soubra is against violence, and though he was detained in May for an immigration violation, he has not been charged with any crime or connected to the attacks.
Still, Mr. Hauswirth, for one, questions whether using Mr. Williams on the arson case prevented him from further investigating flight students in the Phoenix area. When the attacks came on Sept. 11, international terrorism immediately became the top priority in Phoenix and every other F.B.I. field office. Mr. Williams was placed in charge of the Arizona investigation, with the entire Arizona division working round the clock. But it was apparent that the investigators were starting from scratch.
Agents quickly pieced together Mr. Hanjour's training history and ultimately detained a group of Middle Eastern men who had trained at another flight school in the Phoenix area where Mr. Hanjour had most recently signed up for simulator time.
But none have been linked to the attacks, and most seem to have known Mr. Hanjour only in passing.
Photos: While Hani Hanjour, above, was training to fly, Agent Kenneth Williams was finding roadblocks. (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)
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