"It had all these Arab-language papers that amounted to the Rosetta stone of the investigation," former FBI agent Warren Flagg said. The former federal prosecutor, who declined to be identified publicly, supported Flagg's account.
"How do you think the government was able to identify all 19 hijackers almost immediately after the attacks?" Flagg asked. "They were identified through those papers in the luggage. And that's how it was known so soon that al-Qaida was behind the hijackings.
The former prosecutor agreed that papers from the luggage helped identify suspects. "I can't speak on the record about that evidence," he said. "This evidence was gathered under grand jury subpoenas and I can't discuss grand jury matters."
The papers discovered in the hijackers' luggage were bolstered by other evidence gathered against the conspirators by the FBI, the former federal prosecutor said. "These guys left behind a paper trail," he said. "They had bank accounts. They rented cars. They had to show what they were doing in the United States. We investigated 9/11 from day one on the assumption that there might be a criminal prosecution."
But when it seemed clear that all 19 hijackers had been killed in the attacks, jurisdiction transferred from various federal prosecutors' offices around the country to Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
Flagg, an FBI agent for 22 years, worked on terrorism cases, among others. Now president of Flaggman Inc., a Manhattan-based investigative firm, he was retired by Sept. 11 but stayed in close touch with former FBI colleagues and prosecutors.
He said he first heard the account of the luggage's significance in the investigation on Sept. 28, 2001, after attending the funeral for John O'Neill, a former top FBI antiterrorism official who died helping others to safety Sept. 11 in his new job as director of security at the World Trade Center.
After the funeral, he said, he fell into conversation with a young FBI agent he had helped train in the New York office. The agent, working on the Sept. 11 investigation, told him about the luggage. The agent said the New England prosecutor helping direct the investigation - whom Flagg also knew - was familiar with the evidence. Flagg said he telephoned the prosecutor that same day and received confirmation of the agent's account.
"I was devastated because word had already leaked out of the hijackers' identities," Flagg said. "But I was also excited that the FBI had so much evidence so quickly."
The young FBI agent, who has since left the agency, works in private industry and is reportedly in Dubai. He could not be reached for comment.
News reports published in late September and early October 2001 described a piece of luggage apparently belonging to Atta that had been discovered at Logan Airport after the attacks.
That piece of luggage was said to contain Arab-language papers amounting to Atta's last will and testament, along with instructions to the other hijackers to prepare themselves physically and spiritually for death. The papers also admonished them: "Check all of your items - your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, your papers. ... Make sure that nobody is following you." Similar papers were also found in the wreckage of another crashed airliner.
Flagg and the former prosecutor, however, said it was the second bag that identified all 19 hijackers.
"That was the one that became the Rosetta stone," Flagg said.
Tracking the hijackers
Luggage left at Portland airport enabled investigators to quickly identify the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers, including leader Mohamed Atta and conspirator Abdulaziz Alomari.
1. Atta and Alomari check out of a Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine at 5:33 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
2. 5:45 a.m.: They drive to Portland airport, arriving at about 5:45 a.m., for a scheduled flight to Boston.
3. They board a 6 a.m. commuter flight from Portland to Boston's Logan Airport.