Tales of Terror

In the chaotic days following the attacks, a reporter came to expect the unexpected

It was the day after planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and I stood on a sidewalk in North Miami staring at FBI headquarters. Newsweek magazine had called that morning and asked me to help track the terrorists who lived in South Florida in the months before the mayhem. I was dispatched to cover a fed press conference at which names might be made public, but that event never occurred. It soon became clear to me, and to every other journalist baking in the sun, that Washington wasn't going to let its field-op cousins in Miami utter even a word about the bad guys.

Restless, I drifted to the nearest corner, away from my colleagues. A car pulled up. The window was rolled down and a balding, heavyset man, obviously Middle Eastern, pointed across the street at FBI HQ -- a large building that bears no logo or other identification.

"Is that FBI headquarters?" the balding man asked me, with a pronounced accent.

I told him it was. He thanked me, drove across the street, stopped at a barricade manned by agents armed with large, black automatic weapons, and was allowed to penetrate the perimeter. He parked, climbed out of his car, and, after a few minutes, an FBI agent emerged from the building. They talked, I watched, and, on a hunch, wrote down the license tag number. Twenty minutes later the men shook hands and the visitor pulled out. When I tried to flag him down, he gunned it and was gone. Apart from one mildly curious cameraman, none of the other hacks had even noticed.

Looking for any way to escape the ennui, I called the research desk of Newsweek and had them trace the license tag on their national databases. A half-hour later the lead came back. At a certain address in Hialeah, a large family by the name of Zakkout occupied several apartments. Among the first names were several that were obviously Arab, including Abdul. I confess that my brain was flooded with thoughts of a Muslim terrorist nest, operating amid all those Hialeah Cubans. It was a reporter's wet dream, a bit of media mania, a hint of hysteria bubbling beneath the journalistic sang-froid.

A half-hour later, I found the large beige building of terraced apartments in Hialeah Gardens and knocked on door number 210. The lady who answered -- middle-age, Middle Eastern, and attractive -- was cautious, even a bit anxious. She peeked around the edge of the door. She was much more wary of me than I needed to be of her. Over the next ten days this would become a pattern. South Floridians of Arab descent didn't need strangers ringing their doorbells. Not that week and not for some time into the future.

I let her know I was a reporter, not a cop or a vigilante, and that ameliorated her anxiety, to a degree. No one named Abdul lived there, she said. I explained how I'd been led there and described the man I had seen. She nodded. Possibly I was looking for her husband, one Sofian Zakkout. She invited me in.

The nest turned out to be one of FBI collaborators. Sofian Zakkout is the director of the Florida chapter of the American Muslim Association of North America. He had gone to the FBI to offer his organization's help in developing information on the hijackers. South Florida Muslims, he said, number about 150,000, and they belong to local Islamic centers and have other haunts. "For example Arab men never cook for themselves," Zakkout told me. "I can tell the FBI the Middle-Eastern restaurants and groceries where those guys probably went; maybe we can help them find other terrorists. In fact what we want to do is find them ourselves, we the Muslim Americans. This has been terrible for us."

I asked him if he could give me the list of the same businesses he had offered the FBI. He did, about ten restaurants and markets in Broward -- with names like Damascus, Aladdin, Sahara, and Grape Leaves. Just before I left, he turned to me. "You should also check out Subway sandwich shops," he said. "Muslims like gyros."

The next day I was in Hollywood, just leaving a bar named Shuckums, where Mohammed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, and another man had spent several hours the Friday before the attack. The news had broken the day before, and the place saw more journalists pass through in 24 hours than the Washington Press Club did in the same time frame. One reporter was leaving when I got there, and a camera crew was just arriving when I left. Shuckums was already old news.

I was headed for my car when I noticed right across the street a Subway sandwich shop. I entered and found two young African-American women behind the counter. I produced a newspaper photo of Atta and asked if they had seen him. They asked why I wanted to know, and I said he was one of the hijackers. They both took a closer look and their eyes sprang open. Alicia Watkins jabbed at the newspaper.

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