VERO BEACH, Fla., Sept. 13 — For the last several years, a handful of Middle Eastern men made their way to Florida to learn how to fly. Some took classes at a high-tech aviation center here, while at least one learned to handle passenger jets at an aeronautical college in Daytona Beach. Still others took lessons on propeller planes at a flight school on Florida's Gulf Coast.
In each case, the authorities now believe, the skills they learned on American soil may have helped them carry out the worst act of terror in this country's history.
In Washington today, officials said that 18 men hijacked the planes that crashed on Tuesday into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Several of the suicide fliers attended aviation academies in Florida. At least one fellow student is at large and believed to be armed; another is in custody, apparently cooperating with federal agents.
Unlike the terrorists implicated in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, who plotted in secretive cells, many of these men went out of their way to live openly and to blend in.
Some knew one another and lived as neighbors in comfortable homes on quiet streets. Some brought their wives and children with them and took shopping trips to the mall in their Plymouth Voyagers. Their children attended public schools and played computer games with the neighborhood children.
Some occasionally drank too much in local bars. While apparently preparing for the most extraordinary of crimes, they lived seemingly unexceptional lives.
Here in Vero Beach, for instance, Abdul Rahman Alomari, a Saudi Arabian pilot who officials say helped hijack one of the planes in Boston, arrived in July 2000 to take classes at FlightSafety Academy. He signed a $1,400-a-month lease to rent one of the pastel stucco houses that line 57th Terrace, settling next door to another Saudi student, Adnan Zakaria Bukhari, and just a few miles away from another friend, Amer Mohammed Kamfar.
Neighbors watched the men come home each day dressed in the signature white shirts and gold-and-black epaulets that identified them as FlightSafety trainees. They had large, beautiful families, the neighbors said. And while they did not often make heavy conversation, usually offering just a friendly wave or hello, they also seemed not the least bit secretive or mysterious.
Ray M. DeFossez, a truck driver who lives across the street from the Bukharis and Alomaris, recalled today that the families typically left their garage doors open when they left home. "They weren't hiding anything," Mr. DeFossez said.
And so it was quite a surprise when a squad of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents roused the neighbors at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday and shepherded them in their nightclothes to the end of the block, telling them that the nearby houses they were about to search might be booby-trapped with bombs.
The shock only deepened as the agents whisked Mr. Bukhari away to their Miami field office for sustained questioning about the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks. Mr. Kamfar's neighbors, meanwhile, would soon learn that the police had issued an all-points bulletin for the him, warning that he might be heavily armed. And while the F.B.I. has not confirmed the names of the suspected hijackers, local law-enforcement officials here have suggested, at least, that Mr. Alomari, the father of four who lived across the street from Mr. DeFossez, was one of them.
Roy Raymond, the Indian River County sheriff here, said that some 30 F.B.I. agents and another 30 local law enforcement officers were involved in the raids on four houses here, and that Mr. Alomari seemed to be the bureau's primary interest. Sheriff Raymond said he understood that Mr. Bukhari had been helpful.
"It was my indication that he was cooperative," Sheriff Raymond said, "and that he's being treated more as a witness than a detainee." Mr. Kamfar, meanwhile, apparently remains at large. That came as unsettling news to his former neighbor, Hank Habora, who said that Mr. Kamfar introduced himself simply as "John" when moving in to a rented house next door last fall. The man and his wife, who wore a full-length Muslim garment known as a chador and spoke little English, had four children and possibly an infant.
"They were just regular people, didn't make a lot of noise," Mr. Habora said. "From their trash, you could see that they shopped at Wal- Mart and ate a lot of pizza."
Two weeks ago, Mr. Habora said, the entire family moved away abruptly, discarding much of their clothing and other belongings in the trash. A van pulled up to the house and honked, he said, and the family got in and drove off.
"If he was dangerous, he never showed it while living here," Mr. Habora said. "But it kind of makes you nervous, thinking that they lived next door all that time."
Further up the coast in Daytona Beach, another man being investigated, Waleed Al Shehri, learned how to fly at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a four-year institution considered a leader in training pilots. He graduated in 1997 with a degree in aeronautical science and the skills to handle a commercial jetliner.
As a foreign student, he hardly stood out at Embry-Riddle. The university says its student body represents more than 100 nations, many of them from Middle East.
Mr. Al Shehri is from Saudi Arabia, and Embry-Riddle officials said he attended on a full, four-year scholarship paid for by the Saudi Arabian government, an arrangement not considered unusual. He was regarded by faculty members as studious and intelligent. Quoting law enforcement officials, several Florida papers said Mr. Al Shehri died on one of the planes, but federal authorities would not confirm the names of any suspects.
"A very mild mannered person, small in stature," recalled Dr. Frank Richey, 62, a professor in the school of aeronautical science who was among several faculty members interviewed by the F.B.I. about Mr. Al Shehri. "He seemed to be very friendly. He was probably one of the last persons I'd expect to do something like this. He didn't appear to be a religious fanatic at all."
Dr. Richey added: "He wanted to be a professional pilot. I could tell he was well educated. He was an A or B student, and you don't get those types of grades here without being a quality student."
Real estate records indicate that Mr. Al Shehri lived at an apartment complex in Daytona Beach, and law enforcement officers canvassed it and other addresses in the area on Tuesday night. But he apparently has not lived in Daytona Beach since 1998, and records suggest that he may have moved to Vienna, Va., for an undetermined time.
Whether Mr. Al Shehri ever overlapped with any of the other suspects in Daytona Beach is unclear. Real estate records indicate that a man with the same name as another suspect, Muhammed Atta, lived in Port Orange, a neighboring town, at roughly the same time Mr. Al Shehri attended Embry-Riddle.
Mr. Atta remains a significant focus of the F.B.I.'s attention. A videotape taken from the Portland, Me., airport on Tuesday morning showed him and Mr. Alomari passing through security gates before flying to Boston, officials in Maine said. They made the connection to American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. In the past two days, agents have searched an apartment in Hollywood, Fla., that Mr. Atta rented from May 13 to June 13 along with another suspect, Marwan Alshehhi, who is believed to have been on the United Airlines flight that left Boston shortly after the American flight. The apartment's owner, Lynn DeLano, said agents had taken "bags of stuff," though she said that she had previously been through the unit and had found little besides furniture, phone books and an empty Coke bottle.
Unlike the aviation students in Vero Beach, Mr. Atta and Mr. Alshehhi moved around more frequently. From July to November 2000, they were students of Huffman Aviation in Venice, on Florida's Gulf Coast and for some time in the first half of this year the two lived in Hamburg, Germany. By mid-May, they were back in Florida.
When Brad Warrick saw Mr. Atta's picture on television on Wednesday, he instantly recognized him as the polite, well-spoken man to whom he had rented a car three times in the last six weeks. Mr. Warrick, who owns Warrick's Rent-A-Car in Pompano Beach, said Mr. Atta first came into his office on Aug. 6, and appeared to be someone who had lived in the country for years.
"He seemed to be a businessman," Mr. Warrick said. "His driver's license and insurance matched up to a Florida address, he had a credit card, he spoke very good English, and he carried a briefcase. He seemed pretty friendly."
He first rented a car on Aug. 6, kept it for a week and drove 254 miles. After returning it, he came in for another car on Aug. 15 and kept it for two weeks, driving nearly 2,000 miles. At one point during that rental, Mr. Warrick said, Mr. Atta called him, saying he was in Venice, Fla., and that the "service engine soon" light had come on. Mr. Warrick said he told him not to worry about it.
On Aug. 29, Mr. Atta returned the car for servicing and rented a third one, which he kept out until Sept. 9, driving 1,035 miles, Mr. Warrick said. That car was still sitting in the parking lot, not cleaned or serviced, when Mr. Warrick saw Mr. Atta's picture on television. He called the F.B.I., which sent out agents minutes later and towed the car to Miami, also taking the original rental contracts.
"I realized this car was perfect for the F.B.I. because no one had touched it since Atta drove it," Mr. Warrick said. "It had to be full of fingerprints and stuff."
Later, Mr. Warrick thought it odd that Mr. Atta — who he described as nicely dressed, usually wearing a polo shirt, slacks and dress shoes — had been concerned about the condition of the car and had returned it two days before the hijacking.
"I mean, if you were going on a suicide mission, why not just leave the car at the airport?" Mr. Warrick said. "But he seemed like a model customer. I wish all my customers were like that. Well, I guess not." As the pilots sought to hone their skills, they apparently used numerous flight schools to "practice," as Mr. Atta told the operators of Palm Beach Flight Training in Lantana, Fla., where F.B.I. agents showed up on Wednesday and on Thursday seeking information. For three days last month, Mr. Atta rented a single- engine, low-wing plane for $88 an hour from the school, saying he wanted to increase his flying hours even though the school's operators noted that he was a certified commercial pilot who had 300 hours of flying time.
In addition to the men who are believed to have commandeered the planes, there were signs today that others in Florida knew of their plans. The manager of a Daytona Beach strip club and sports bar said tonight that agents had collected evidence at his club after three Middle Eastern patrons who visited the club on Monday night were heard loudly predicting coming bloodshed in America.
John Kap, manager of the club, the Pink Pony and Red Eye Jack Sports Bar, said F.B.I. agents on Wednesday took credit card receipts, copies of the men's driver's licenses and a Koran. He declined to identify the three men, but said that all three men had central Florida addresses and spent a few hundred dollars on lap dances and drinks between 11 p.m. on Monday and about 2 a.m. on Tuesday, hours before the attacks.
"There were a lot of anti-American things being said," Mr. Kap said in a telephone interview, "and at one point, one of the gentlemen said, `Wait until tomorrow, America is going to see bloodshed.´ "
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