Two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly left their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter and an open safe in the master bedroom.
In the weeks following the attacks, law enforcement agents discovered that the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers and phone calls were made between the home and those who carried out the death flights, including leader Mohamed Atta. The investigation into the ties between the hijackers and the Saudi residents of the upscale community wasn’t reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who cochaired the bipartisan congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said he should have been told about the findings, saying it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11. … No information relative to the named people in Sarasota was disclosed.”
The U.S. Justice Department, the lead agency that investigated the attacks, refused to comment, saying it will discuss only information already released.
The Saudi residents then living at the stylish home, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii and his wife Anoud, could not be reached, nor could the then owner of the house, Esam Ghazzawi, who is Anoud’s father. The house was sold in 2003, records show.
The FBI investigation began the month after 9/11 when Larry Berberich, senior administrator and security officer of the gated community known as Prestancia, reported that two weeks before the hijackings the Saudi couple, living with their small children in a three-bedroom home at 4224 Escondito Circle, left in a hurry in a white van.
They abandoned three recently registered vehicles, including a brand-new Chrysler PT Cruiser, in the garage and driveway.
After 9/11, Berberich said he had “a gut feeling” the people at the home may have had something to do with the attacks, prompting the FBI’s probe that would eventually link the hijackers to the house.
As an advisor to the Sarasota County sheriff, Berberich was with the group that received President Bush during his visit to a Sarasota school on the morning of 9/11. He alerted sheriff’s deputies.
Patrick Gallagher, one of the Saudis’ neighbors, had become suspicious even earlier, and had sent an email to the FBI on the day of the attacks. Gallagher said law enforcement officers arrived and began an investigation, with agents swarming “all over the place, in their blue jackets,” he recalled.
Jone Weist, president of the group that managed Prestancia, confirmed the arrival of the FBI, which requested copies of the Saudis’ financial transactions involving the house.
Berberich and a senior counterterrorism agent said they were able to get into the abandoned house, ultimately finding “there was mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms … all the toiletries still in place … all their clothes hanging in the closet … TVs … opulent furniture, equal or greater in value than the house … the pool running, with toys in it. The beds were made … fruit on the counter … the refrigerator full of food. … It was like they went grocery shopping. Like they went out to a movie … [But] the safe was open in the master bedroom, with nothing in it, not a paper clip. … A computer was still there. A computer plug in another room, and the line still there. Looked like they’d taken [another] computer and left the cord.”
During an interview, Graham said he was surprised he wasn’t told about the probe when he was co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 even though he was especially alert to terrorist information relating to Florida.
“At the beginning of the investigation,” he said, “each of the intelligence agencies, including the FBI, was asked to provide all information that agency possessed in relation to 9/11.”
The FBI not informing the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency’s failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.
The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a “very large” file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. “They did very little with it,” Graham said, “and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. … I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that.”
The final 28-page section of the Inquiry’s report, which deals with “sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers,” was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.
The grounds for suppressing the material, Graham believes, were “protection of the Saudis from embarrassment, protection of the administration from political embarrassment … some of the unknowns, some of the secrets of 9/11.”