Government probe focuses on bin Laden, intelligence intercept

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- From broken bits of hijacked airplanes to intelligence intercepts, the FBI is collecting evidence in its search for those responsible for Tuesday's twin terrorist attacks. Officials said early evidence pointed to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.

At the Pentagon and World Trade Center, agents sifted through the rubble.

"The FBI evidence recovery team has found parts of the fuselage outside" the Pentagon, Fairfax County chief Michael Tamillow said Wednesday. "As we go in we're now identifying smaller parts of the plane. Everyone is looking for the black box recorders." Those recorders could contain conversations from the cockpits of the doomed planes.

One investigative focus was in Florida, where agents sought search warrants amid evidence that suspected sympathizers of the accused terrorist were operating in the area, officials said.

"Everything is pointing in the direction of Osama bin Laden," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A flight manifest from one of the ill-fated flights included the name of a suspected bin Laden supporter. And U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between bin Laden supporters discussing Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, Hatch told The Associated Press.

"They have an intercept of some information that included people associated with bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit," he said. Hatch declined to be more specific.

Officials cautioned it was too early to definitively assign blame but said early evidence was pointing toward bin Laden.

Ruling Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, said they doubted the wealthy Arab could have been behind the attacks. Bin Laden previously has been tied to terrorist attacks against Americans overseas.

Whatever the case, each detail gathered in the hours immediately after the breathtaking devastation in New York and Washington pointed toward a carefully planned plot executed by knife-wielding hijackers to ensure the maximum casualties at two of Americas most famous landmarks.

Law enforcement officials told the AP that early evidence suggested the attackers may have studied how to operate large aircraft and targeted transcontinental flights with large fuel supplies to ensure spectacular explosions -- and maximum destruction.

Thousands were believed dead in New York and Washington.

"These heinous acts of violence are an assault on the security of our nation," Attorney General John Ashcroft declared as thousands of federal investigators fanned out across the country pursuing leads.

"We will expend every effort and devote all the necessary resources to bring the people responsible for these acts, these crimes, to justice," he said.

Farewell phone calls from passengers and at least one flight attendant on the four targeted flights described a similar pattern: hijackers working in groups of three to five, wielding knives, in some cases stabbing flight crews as they took control of the cockpit and forced the planes toward their intended targets.

One of the passengers was Barbara Olson, the wife of Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who called her husband as the hijacking was occurring. She was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that left Washington Dulles International Airport heading for Los Angeles but which eventually crashed into the Pentagon.

Olson told her husband the attackers had used knifelike instruments to take over the plane, and forced passengers to the back.

"She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn't so but it is," Theodore Olson said.

A father in Easton, Conn., received a similar harrowing call from his adult son, who was flying with his wife and child on a plane that left Boston and eventually crashed into the World Trade Center.

Lee Hanson told authorities his son Peter called twice in short cell phone calls that cut off. In the first call, the businessman said a flight attendant had been stabbed. In the second call, the son said his plane was going down, law enforcement officials said.

"He called to his parents' home, and so in that way they were so together in that moment," the Rev. Bonnie Bardot told a memorial service held Tuesday night in Easton.

A flight attendant aboard the second jetliner that struck the World Trade Center managed to call an emergency number from the back of the airplane, an American Airlines source said. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the flight attendant reported her fellow attendants had been stabbed, the cabin had been taken over and they were going down in New York.

And a San Francisco woman told KTVU-TV that her son, Mark Bingham, 31, called her from aboard United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. "We've been taken over. There are three men that say they have a bomb," Alice Hoglan quoted her son as saying.

Hatch and several law enforcement officials confirmed they had linked at least one of the suspected hijackers who showed up on one of the flights' manifests to bin Laden's organization.

The FBI was seeking search warrants in Broward County in southern Florida and Daytona Beach in central Florida. A car was towed by authorities at one of those locations.

Other leads were being pursued. Authorities examined a van seized in New York for possible clues, while a car found at the Boston airport where one of the planes was hijacked reportedly contained an Arabic language flight manual.

Ashcroft briefed about 250 members of Congress late Tuesday on the progress of the investigation. Lawmakers referred repeatedly to the terrorist attacks as an act of war warranting retaliation.

"This is a war situation we're in," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said, adding that Tuesday's tragedy likely would alter Americans' sense of security and lead them to forgo some freedoms for added safety in the future.

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