New York Times
February 8, 2002
Flight Student's Grand Goals Led to Suspicion, Then Arrest
By JIM YARDLEY
MINNEAPOLIS -- Zacarias Moussaoui's e-mail message brimmed with ambition. He wanted to "pilot one of these Big Bird," he wrote in broken English, even though he did not have a private pilot's license. He described flying airliners as "my `Goal' my dream," yet he admitted his qualifications "could be better."
"But I am sure that you can do something," he wrote on May 23 to a sales director at the Pan Am International Flight Academy. "After all we are in AMERICA, and everything is possble."
The message's cheery tone and patriotic flourish hardly befit the scowling public image of Mr. Moussaoui, the man federal authorities say they believe was meant to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11. When the note arrived at Pan Am International's Miami office last spring, it caused no alarm; customers who wanted to spend a few voyeuristic hours on the simulator were not that unusual.
But within hours of Mr. Moussaoui's arrival in mid-August at the company's training center in suburban Minneapolis, employees realized their new student was not some affluent joy rider, said John Rosengren, director of operations for the office.
Mr. Moussaoui wanted technical classroom training to familiarize himself with airliners. He asked questions about protocols for communicating with flight towers. He wanted to learn fast. He paid by pulling a wad of cash — roughly $6,800 — out of a small satchel. Soon, employees began whispering that he could be a hijacker.
"The cash, the Middle Eastern accent, the fact that he had very little pilot training and wanted a significant amount of training in ground school and on the simulator — all of these things together pointed to the fact that this was a significant concern," Mr. Rosengren said.
The e-mail message, obtained by The New York Times
Mr. Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is facing the death penalty on conspiracy charges, and his trial is scheduled for Oct. 14 in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va. His case has been particularly agonizing for federal law enforcement officials, because he was taken into custody nearly a month before the attacks, yet investigators could never piece together what was about to happen.
For more than four months, Mr. Rosengren and other company officials rebuffed requests for interviews. But they agreed to talk today about Mr. Moussaoui after The Times obtained the e-mail message and asked for comment.
Mr. Rosengren said his staff had assumed the whole matter had ended after Mr. Moussaoui was detained in August. He said he was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, shortly after Sept. 11, and told that Mr. Moussaoui was a suspect. It was then, for the first time, that Mr. Rosengren read the e-mail message sent to the Miami office back in May.
"If I had read it prior to Sept. 11, it probably wouldn't have stuck out in my mind," he said. But in hindsight, he said, the idealistic language infuriated him. "It made me angry," he said. "It was like a slap in the face to America."
Even the note's end, once seemingly so innocuous, now seemed grating.
"Have a nice day," Mr. Moussaoui wrote, "waiting for a positive fly
The May 23 date of the e-mail message, which is cited in the indictment against Mr. Moussaoui, suggests that he probably sent it from Norman, Okla., where he was concluding three months of pilot training at the Airman Flight School.
He had come to Oklahoma from London on a visa and his training had not been a success. He had failed to earn a pilot's license because he had never flown solo, despite more than 50 hours in the air with an instructor. His desire for simulator training meant that he had to look elsewhere. Pan Am International, which advertises widely, made for an obvious choice. With 13 centers across the country, it is the second largest flight academy in the country.
In his e-mail message, Mr. Moussaoui conceded his lack of experience but suggested that he was more interested in training than in earning professional certification.
"In a sense, to be able to pilot one of these Big Bird, even if I am not a real professional pilot," he wrote of his goals.
He was vague about which of the "big airliners" interested him the
most, ticking off a list that ranged from a Boeing
"The level I would like to achieve is to be able to takeoff and land, to handle communication with ATC," he wrote, referring to air traffic control, "to be able to successfully navigate from A to B (JFK to Heathrow for example)."
Marilyn Ladner, a corporate vice president for Pan Am International, said the salesperson who received the e-mail message and helped book Mr. Moussaoui for training in Minnesota assumed he was someone who could afford to joy ride on a simulator. "We get doctors and lawyers, and they've got the money, and it's something they want to do," she said. "That's not uncommon."
The price was $8,300, and Mr. Moussaoui used a Visa credit card to make a $1,000 payment on July 11, followed by a $500 payment the next day. On July 31, Pan Am officials sent him, via e-mail, his schedule: classroom instruction on Aug. 13 and Aug. 14, then 12 hours of training over four days on a 747-400 flight simulator.
Mr. Rosengren said he had considered it "a little out of the ordinary" that Mr. Moussaoui had requested the classroom instruction but that no one had any reason to be suspicious before he arrived. Mr. Rosengren said he met the new student on Aug. 13, when Mr. Moussaoui was paying the office finance manager.
"At some point, he had a bag of money with him," Mr. Rosengren recalled, saying the student had settled in cash his outstanding $6,800 balance. But Mr. Moussaoui's demeanor did not seem unusual. "He seemed friendly at the time," Mr. Rosengren said. "We've had people show up with quite a bit of cash before, so that wasn't extremely unusual."
That same day Mr. Moussaoui went to a building called the Commons, where he had his first session of classroom instruction. The instructor, Mr. Rosengren said, immediately became concerned and wondered why someone who was not a pilot and had so little experience was trying to pack so much training into such a short time.
The instructor said Mr. Moussaoui knew nothing about airliners. The instructor said he seemed particularly interested in flying once the plane was in the air.
"He was concerned about why we were training him," Mr. Rosengren said of the instructor. "The more he was able to talk to him, the more he decided that he was not pilot material."
The next morning, on Aug. 14, the office held its monthly meeting of instructors and administrators, and Mr. Moussaoui's name quickly came up. Instructors wondered why he was so interested in learning the protocol for communicating with the flight tower when "it was very obvious that he did not know how to fly an airplane, especially something as big as that."
One of the managers at the meeting said he would be willing to contact a friend who was an agent in the local F.B.I. office. Other employees, Mr. Rosengren said, even began questioning whether Mr. Moussaoui "could have been a hijacker who could have tried to take an airplane filled with passengers."
"There was discussion about how much fuel was on board a 747-400 and how much damage that could cause if it hit anything," he added.
After Mr. Moussaoui finished his second day of classroom instruction, the manager with the friend at the F.B.I. asked Mr. Rosengren for permission to call him. On Aug. 15, an F.B.I. agent, joined by an immigration agent, arrested Mr. Moussaoui on visa violation charges. Frank Dunham, one of Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers, would not comment today.
The tip by the flight school employees, and Mr. Moussaoui's subsequent arrest, prompted an immediate though frustrating federal investigation. Agents learned that a French antiterrorism task force had an open file on him, but no conclusive information linking him to a terrorist group like al Qaeda. Other F.B.I. agents visited the flight school in Oklahoma that Mr. Moussaoui attended before coming to Minnesota.
Counterterrorism officials at F.B.I. headquarters were aware of Mr. Moussaoui's case, partly because they had evaluated and rejected requests by agents in Minnesota to examine Mr. Moussaoui's computer. Law enforcement officials said F.B.I. counterterrorism analysts discussed the case in at least two secure conference calls that included their counterparts at the Central Intelligence Agency. They also consulted with the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications around the world.
Ultimately, though, Mr. Moussaoui remained a puzzle.
Ms. Ladner, the Pan Am International corporate vice president, noted that the new Transportation Security Act, approved by Congress in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, provides previously nonexistent guidelines for how flight schools should deal with applicants like Mr. Moussaoui. Sales people are now required to turn over application information of most noncitizens to the Department of Justice for approval.
"Prior to Sept. 11, it was a guess as to what to do if you had any sort of suspicion," she said. "Everything is different today."
Copyright © 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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