WASHINGTON -- Authorities searching nationwide for terrorists behind the deadly airliner attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have identified a team of as many as 50 infiltrators who supported or carried out the strikes, a source familiar with the investigation said Wednesday.
The source said 40 of the men have been accounted for, but that 10 remain at large. In the hours immediately after the assaults, he said, agents searching cars and apartments up and down the East Coast found suicide notes that some of the hijackers wrote for their parents.
Also recovered were credit card receipts showing that some of the hijackers paid for flight training in the United States. Another source, a federal agent involved in the probe, said that authorities believe 27 suspected terrorists in all received various kinds of pilot training.
The attackers, who carried Middle Eastern passports, belonged to four independent cells, law enforcement and intelligence officials said. Not all of the members were hijackers, the officials said, and authorities kept the nation's airports closed to commercial traffic for a second day partly to prevent the conspirators from fleeing the country.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI had mobilized 4,000 agents and 3,000 support personnel. He called it "perhaps the most massive and intensive investigation ever conducted in America."
In coordinated attacks Tuesday morning, hijackers rammed two airliners filled with passengers into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a third jetliner into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked aircraft crashed in western Pennsylvania. Authorities said it might have been aimed at a target in Washington or Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Authorities said Wednesday they have identified many of the hijackers, who wielded knives and box cutters and made bomb threats once on board. They carried passports from two nations, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, said after a briefing by law enforcement officials. She said both are in the Middle East.
Federal agents detained a number of individuals on immigration grounds, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, but there have been no arrests. A law enforcement source said one detainee was being held as a material witness.
FBI agents searched at least three flight schools in Florida and asked for information about students who were passengers on the planes and are suspected of being hijackers.
The Florida schools include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Huffman Aviation International in Venice and Flight Safety International in Vero Beach.
Authorities said two of the suspected hijackers entered the United States on work visas. They began learning to fly last summer at a series of aviation schools in south Florida, according to their flight instructor, their landlord and law enforcement officials.
In addition those two, who trained at Venice, Fla., on the Gulf Coast, federal agents were checking for suspects who attended flight schools in Vero Beach, Pompano Beach and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast. Ashcroft said there were three to six hijackers on each of the four planes that crashed Tuesday. Authorities have quickly focused on those who may have learned to fly jumbo jets well enough to guide the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ashcroft said authorities have uncovered "numerous credible leads" by questioning people and serving search warrants from Maine to the southern end of Florida.
FBI agents apparently were drawn to the flying school in Venice, Fla., after finding its name and an Arabic-language flight manual in a car left at the Logan Airport in Boston, from which two of the hijacked planes took off Tuesday morning.
Rudi Dekkers said that two students, one identified as Amanullah Atta Mohammed and the other only as "Marwan," paid $10,000 each by check to attend his Huffman Aviation International flight school at the airport in Venice between July and November of 2000.
The Huffman school is about 25 years old and handles some 800 students a year. It is a small building on the edge of the Venice airport, and 75 percent to 80 percent of the students are foreigners who come to the United States to learn flying because it costs less than in other countries.
Dekkers said his school trains flyers for single- or small-engine aircraft, and that the two men needed such a certificate to qualify for training to fly jets.
Detective Sgt. Mike Treanor of the Venice Police Department confirmed that FBI agents had obtained the two suspects' personnel records from the Huffman school and identified them as two men whom agents believed flew the hijacked jets.
"This one man, Atta," said Treanor, "was confirmed on one of the planes that hit the towers."
Federal agents conducted additional searches across Florida.
Search warrants were served on four homes in Davie and an apartment in Coral Springs, and workers at a restaurant in Hollywood were also interviewed.
In Vero Beach, dozens of FBI agents questioned neighbors about several Middle Eastern men who were reportedly taking classes at the nearby flight school.
The former head of the FBI's New York office, who headed investigations into the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, said that within hours of the attacks, federal agents had talked to the families of nearly every passenger listed on the four airliners' manifests, isolated those who could not be vouched for by their friends and relatives, and pulled their bank, credit card and phone records, as well as their immigration and naturalization papers if they were from another country.
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