Although the FBI has denied it even existed, the terrorist support network that provided assistance to Mohamed Atta and his fellow hijackers remains in place today in Florida.
Pointing to current and recent cases involving suspected members of the terrorist infrastructure, private investigators say the network is not only operational but that its members show little or no fear of federal authorities.
Several recent cases in the Venice-Sarasota area illustrate what one investigator called this “frightening situation.”
The first involves 38-year-old Sarasota ‘businessman’ Wissam Taysir Hammoud, a native of Lebanon. Just three days before Christmas last year, while last-minute preparations for the approaching holiday occupied most thoughts, Hammoud went shopping, too… for a hit man.
Hammoud was willing to pay to have two men killed in particularly grisly ways: a federal informant and an agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Hit Man's Headless Holiday
According to the federal complaint, Hammoud told the hit man he wanted the informant tied to a tree, ordering him to then ‘slowly cut pieces of his (the informants) body off."
When he ran out of limbs to cut off, the hit man was told, the informant was to be beheaded.
He wasn’t just talking either. When Hammoud made his alleged solicitation to commit murder, he already had a firearm, a silencer, and a plan.
Wissam Hammoud was arrested in January, and remains in federal custody awaiting trial this Fall.
Why is the case of interest in the 9/11 investigation?
Terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta used a Verizon cell phone with a Sarasota cell phone number (941-685-0468) the MadCowMorningNews has learned, both purchased and later serviced in Sarasota…
And Wissam Hammoud is the authorized Verizon cell phone dealer in Sarasota.
Still, one less devotee of beheading loose on Sarasota streets represents a victory of sorts, right? One would think so. However, disturbing facts in the case point to a darker scenario.
For one thing, Hammoud was only free to launch his grisly plot because Federal authorities had been “looking the other way” when he did something really nasty for the (presumed) first time, back in June of 2001.
Three months before the 9/11 attack Hammoud had already shown his true colors, it developed, boasting to an undercover agent that he shipped machine guns to Hezbollah and negotiated arms deals in Lebanon, where he said he knew arms dealers.
But arms dealers selling machine guns to Hezbollah out of Katherine Harris’s backyard apparently wasn’t novel enough to prompt any action.
Not before the September 11 attack, anyway… Afterwards, you would think, must have been a different story. Right? Well, kind of…
"Being Connected Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry"
In September 2001 Hammoud was indicted on charges that he sold a machine gun and short barrel shotgun to an undercover Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agent.
Convicted the following June, he received a typically draconian Florida prison sentence: a year.
A year of home detention.
Federal authorities apparently weren’t holding his dealings with celebrity terrorist against him. But its hard to cheer this as an example of the U.S. Government’s sensitivity to civil liberties.
Affidavits released with the new indictment revealed, for example, that during the same month he was indicted on the first charge, September 2001, Hammoud had been interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, after an anonymous tip came in saying he had stated that the Oklahoma City bombing was going to be small compared with what was coming.
What he really said, Hammoud told FDLE agents, according to a January 7, 2004 story in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, was that Timothy McVeigh could be considered a martyr for his stand against the U.S. government.
“Man Bragged Of Ties To Terror” read the headline.
The man who supplied Mohamed Atta's cell phone should have known that bragging of “ties to terror” would raise a few post 9/11 eyebrows… But instead of laying low Hammoud felt brazen enough to brag to yet-another witness that he belonged to Hezbollah, this time in March 2003. He also boasted of helping Hezbollah buy assault weapons and night-vision goggles, according to court documents, so they "could kill Jews at night."
In Florida, someone excited about the prospect of “killing Jews at night” might be expected to attract a certain amount of official approbation.
"Assault weapons and cell phones and planes"
But nothing untoward happened to Wassim Hammoud until he threatened the life, almost a year later, of a federal agent, which is apparently where federal authorities draw the line.
The new court documents revealed that Hammoud had been involved in an even-earlier incident with terror overtones. In 1999 he had been one of three men stopped attempting to board a Spirit Airline's flight at Tampa International Airport with more than 11 pounds of ammunition, an assault weapon, a rifle, ammunition, and what the papers called “other gun-related equipment.”
Even before 9/11, even in Florida, it was considered a faux pas to bring your personal armory onto airplanes.
So what happened? Was Hammoud punished for attempting to board with an arsenal fit for paramilitary bank robbers in Los Angeles? Not really. Not so anyone could tell, at least.
“It was not clear if the men faced any charges stemming from that incident,” reported the Sarasota Herald Tribune in a puzzled tone. Maybe a puzzled tone is the right attitude to have, especially if what we’re seeing here isn’t just a case of a bunch of bumbling Dagwood’s walking around with bubblegum stuck to the bottoms of their Florsheim shoes.
The Big Book of Spooks
Maybe was there some kind of unwritten Big Book of Rules for Spooks that said it was okay to engage terrorist-related activity when in Florida.
Maybe the Sunshine State was one of those places where hoodlums from everywhere under the sun roam at will with no fear of harassment. What the Mob calls “an open city." A place where anything goes. An ‘open city’…not for mobsters, . but for spooks. A place where they can feel free to stash retirement condos, cigarette boats, & Lear jets.
Maybe Florida just naturally attracts the same clientele as that alien bar in the original Star Wars.
Our final example from Terrorland concerns Belal Al-Thabteh, 27, a native of Jordan living in Bradenton (next to Sarasota) and a part time college student at a local community college. He got caught recently depositing more than $60,000 in cash within two days at eight separate Manatee County banks, and then wiring the cash to his native Jordan in amounts under $10,000, a money laundering practice known as “smurfing.”
This came a week after he had purchased a new car for $18,000 in cash. Where does a community college student with no visible means of support and who moved to the U.S. just six years ago get that kind of cash?
"A Kinder, Gentler Jihad"
Al-Thabteh supporters were at his preliminary hearing in Tampa's federal courthouse last month. Ahmed Bedier of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Tampa told reporters he was concerned that the arrest was a case of racial profiling. "Ever since 9/11, there has been this paranoia and fear to prevent the next 9/11," said Bedier.
Al-Thabteh’s friends and supporters had also publicly rooted for him right after 9/11, when several windows were shattered at a convenience store he managed. Abdul Biuk, assistant principal of the Islamic Academy of Florida, a private Muslim school in Tampa, pronounced himself in favor of tolerance and against broken windows of all kinds.
His message sounded kind of…you know. Groovy.
“Allahu Akhbar” meets “We Shall Overcome.”
Uniting as one group of Americans was his dream, Biuk said. "With globalization, tribes don't exist anymore. Basically we are one big group and we live together.” Alas, just a month later Biuk himself felt the sting of “racial profiling.”
His school, the Islamic Academy of Florida, was raided by federal agents, who carted out dozens of boxes the administration trailer. The school had been founded by his boss, Sami Al-Arian, from Tampa, whom he had known for almost 20 years. Now the federal government was indicting Al-Arian as the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the United States.
Buik thought they were just being picky. "He's been lynched academically. Our feeling is that he has 100 percent been mistreated."
When people think of Central Florida, they think vacations & beaches, sunshine & fun, Tomorrowland & Universal Tours. But after the 9/11 attack, when investigators gathered together the threads in what was supposed to have been “the largest worldwide criminal probe in history,” the picture that emerged was too much of a shock to report.
Nestled in with the more traditional Florida attractions described as being “fun for the whole family” was an ominous new theme park, which had risen unbidden from the murky Florida swamp.
"Welcome to Terrorland"
Some wag called it “Terrorland.”
The big question is why this dark carnival should still be right in our midst and open for business.
“There are many rich people who fund what we do,” Mohamed Atta once boasted, after being stung in an argument with his one-time American girlfriend about which of their cultures was the most barbaric.
“He said there was someone in Florida—some rich Arab—who had a lot of money,” Amada Keller recalled. “He asked me, ‘Are you aware that when we come over here, your people pay to have us set up businesses?’”
“Eventually, he told me, his people were going to try to take over this country,” she told us. “He said: ‘I’ve been in this country many times before. I can come in and go out of America. And no one ever knows.’”
Atta’s arrogance may be being justified in Florida today. And if it is, it perhaps owes something to the stealthy-but-powerful organization which showed its face briefly recently at the airport in Lynchburg, Virginia.
'Cokeheads for Jesus'
As you recall, a previously-unknown company with no assets housed inside of Huffman Aviation inexplicably won a big bid from the city of Lynchburg to run a facility at the Lynchburg Regional Airport over a much-larger local Lynchburg aviation company which had then cried foul.
Britannia Aviation had no expertise running an aircraft maintenance hanger facility, but they won a 5-year lease from the city of Lynchburg anyway. Some wondered whether this strange circumstance owed anything to the million dollar loan Lynchburg’s most famous resident, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, had received and then neglected to repay from Huffman Aviation owner Wally Hilliard, where Britannia Aviation had been hiding unnoticed.
In the brouhaha which followed it was learned that Britannia Aviation was a dummy front company which nonetheless had friends in high places not just in Lynchburg but in Venice as well. Britannia had a “green light” from the DEA in Venice, authorities there were told, and local police had been warned to leave them alone.
Earlier this year Britannia folded, and its five-year lease was assigned to another company in Lynchburg, with one slight modification which permits the offering of “flight school services.”
The proud new lease-ee is Falwell Aviation.
It is unknown at press time whether Falwell Aviation at the Lynchburg Airport belongs to Lynchburg televangelist Jerry Falwell. At least one reporter following the case has been heard muttering that we might all be better off not knowing.
We can sympathize.
“The 19 hijackers who carried out the worst act of terror ever to occur on U.S. soil worked with little outside help,” said the Washington Post in a report on the state of the FBI’s investigation several months after the attack.
It may not be true. But at least its neat.
NEXT WEEK: AN IDIOT'S GUIDE to "TRAFFICKING WITH THE TALIBAN"