FBI: No link between Sarasota family and 9/11 plot
Tampa’s FBI office said the agency investigated the disappearance of a Saudi family from their Sarasota home days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and found no links to the terrorist plot.
By Dan Christensen
Special to The Miami Herald
A top Florida FBI agent said Thursday that members of a Saudi family living quietly near Sarasota were questioned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but no evidence was found that linked them to the hijackers who slammed jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A week after The Miami Herald published a story showing ties between the family and some of the terrorists, Tampa’s head FBI agent, Steven Ibison, released a statement Thursday saying the FBI investigated “suspicions surrounding” the Sarasota home, but never found evidence tying the family members to the hijackers.
“There was no connection found to the 9/11 plot,” said the statement, released to the St. Petersburg Times.
The agency’s statement came just days after U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., asked for a House investigation into the events surrounding the Sarasota family, which abruptly left the home several days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leaving behind three vehicles, food in the refrigerator and toys in the swimming pool.
The FBI’s official version, the second in a week, conflicts sharply with reports from people who worked at the homeowners’ association and a counterterrorism officer who joined the investigation.
A senior administrator at the luxury community told The Herald that cars used by the 9/11 hijackers — the tag numbers noted by security guards at the gate — drove to the entrance asking to visit the family at various times before the attacks. One of the cars was linked to terrorist leader Mohamed Atta, said administrator Larry Berberich.
In addition, a counterterrorism officer who requested anonymity said agents also linked telephone calls between the home and known hijacking suspects in the year before the attacks.
So far, the FBI’s response to the discovery has drawn criticism from former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who said he was never told of the Sarasota investigation when he was co-chair of the congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Thursday’s FBI statement said the agency provided all the information to the congressional inquiry.
Graham, who appeared on national television this week, said the FBI failed to provide information in the years after 9/11 linking members of the terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.
“It was not because the FBI gave us the information. We had a very curious and effective investigator who found out,” Graham told the MSNBC cable television network.
In an appearance Monday on MSNBC, Graham said he spoke with President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He said he has gone to the White House’s chief of counterterrorism to ask that the administration look into the Sarasota case.
The FBI, which has not released any results of its investigation, said family members who lived in the home owned by Saudi financier Esam Ghazzawi were tracked down and interviewed about the case after the attacks.
It was not clear from Thursday’s statement whether the FBI or Saudi intelligence conducted the interrogations. The family was believed to have flown to Saudi Arabia after briefly stopping in Virginia several days before Sept. 11.
Scott McKay, a Sarasota lawyer for the Prestancia Homeowners’ Association in its claim for unpaid dues, told The Herald that the FBI tried to get him to bring back the Saudis to Florida for the sale of the home.
McKay said he tried on behalf of the agency, but Ghazzawi was able to sign his name before a notary at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003.