Apr. 17--Former federal terrorism investigators say a piece of luggage hastily checked in at the Portland, Maine, airport by a World Trade Center hijacker on the morning of Sept. 11 provided the Rosetta stone enabling FBI agents to swiftly unravel the mystery of who carried out the suicide attacks and what motivated them.
A mix-up in Boston prevented the luggage from connecting with the plane that hijackers crashed into the north tower of the trade center. Seized by FBI agents at Boston's Logan Airport, investigators said, it contained Arab-language papers revealing the identities of all 19 hijackers involved in the four hijackings, as well as information on their plans, backgrounds and motives.
The luggage saga represents what the former federal authorities describe as an untold story of 9/11 - offering explanations for questions long unanswered about the investigation of the tragedy, such as how authorities were able to identify the hijackers so soon after the attacks.
The former federal investigators said information found in the bag was passed on to Justice Department lawyers, who prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui on charges growing out of the suicide attacks. A Justice Department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said: "Under the judge's order, we're not going to comment on anything relating to the case."
Mohamed Atta, a chief coordinator of the hijackings, and conspirator Abdulaziz Alomari spent the night before the attacks in room 232 of a Comfort Inn south of Portland. They checked out at 5:33 a.m. on Sept. 11. Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said they drove in a rented blue Nissan Altima - eventually seized by the FBI - to Portland International Jetport.
Records show the Altima was parked in an airport lot about 5:45, allowing Atta and Alomari only a few minutes to catch a 6 a.m. commuter flight to Boston's Logan Airport. Although they planned to hijack an American Airlines jet that would take off from Logan later that morning, investigators said they might have gone through Portland in the belief that airport security would be less stringent there.
Once the commuter flight landed at Logan, Atta and Alomari boarded American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles - which they would crash into the trade center.
'A number of telling items'
A staff report to the 9/11 Commission later concluded: "The Portland detour almost prevented Atta and Alomari from making Flight 11 out of Boston. In fact, the luggage they checked in Portland failed to make it onto the plane. Seized after the Sept. 11 crashes, Atta and Alomari's luggage turned out to contain a number of telling items, including correspondence from the university Atta attended in Egypt; Alomari's international driver's license and passport; a videocassette for a Boeing 757 flight simulator; and [a] folding knife and pepper spray, presumably extra weapons the conspirators decided they didn't need."
The report did not say how many bags were checked in Portland, nor did it differentiate them by their contents. But three commission staff members who helped prepare the report said there were two pieces. Two staff members, John Raidt and R. William Johnstone, said it was clear both bags belonged to Atta. "He plopped both of them down on the luggage rack," Raidt said. "Alomari just stood by."
An affidavit filed by FBI agent James K. Lechner in federal district court in Portland reported that two bags checked by Atta were recovered at Logan Airport Sept. 11. They were never placed on Flight 11 before it departed from Boston, Lechner said, but there was no explanation of why they had not been loaded. Lechner described them as "a green Travel Gear bag" and "a black Travelpro bag."
A former FBI agent and a former federal prosecutor who helped direct the New England investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks told Newsday that one bag found in Boston contained far more than what the commission report cited, including the names of the hijackers, their assignments and their al-Qaida connections.