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.
Novelist John Lantigua is a former New Times staff writer. His Ultimate Havana was published by Signet in April.
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.
"That's Mohammed!" she screamed. "He was in here Thursday." Not only had Atta been in there five days before the attack, he had called in an order once per week for the past three weeks. He used his own name to place the orders. "He always ordered six veggie specials on wheat, and he always wanted them cut into quarters," she said. It was apparent that Atta had been holding meetings of cell members somewhere nearby in the weeks before the attack.
Alicia said on the previous Thursday Atta had picked up the sandwiches with another man who told her he was a pilot. No other journalist had found these girls. In fact the FBI hadn't been there yet.
Most of the time during "The Tracking of the Terrorists," reporters were simply reacting to FBI sightings. The feds showed up somewhere, and before long the locust media swept in. Apartments, condos, motels, flight schools, libraries in Broward -- where the villains availed themselves of free e-mail service. In many of these venues, the FBI had asked or ordered individuals not to talk.
But at World Gym in Boynton Beach, where three of the hijackers had trained, Joe Farnoly, a personal trainer, talked to me about the men. He gave me what he had just repeated for two camera crews: how they showed up several mornings per week; how they never spoke to anyone else and simply smiled whenever he said hello. When I asked him what machines they had used, he took me to one section of the gym and told me something he hadn't told TV: "They never used anything but the upper body machines. They didn't do anything cardiovascular, or for the legs. They were getting ready to overpower people on those planes. That's why they were here."
I spent two days showing photos of the hijackers to hookers in Hollywood. I figured if young men who were about to commit suicide had done some drinking that Friday, maybe they had also gone looking for love. One lady working the east side of U.S. 1 said Alshehhi looked familiar, but she was too strung out to stake a story on.
Meanwhile the Newsweek research desk had found a possible Hollywood address for Alshehhi in 1999. The spelling of the last name was very close. The landlord told me a woman of Pakistani descent had rented the place and lived with a man who matched the description of Alshehhi. Her name was Anita. I traced her to another apartment less than a mile away, called the manager of that building, and was told that, yes, she still lived there.
That evening I waited for her to arrive from work. I asked a neighbor, but she didn't know when Anita might get home. I sat in my car in the small parking lot as night fell. At about 9:00 a gold Toyota matching the description I had of hers pulled into the lot. I could see a woman behind the wheel. She started to park near me but stopped, then backed up and wheeled off quickly down the street. The manager had obviously called to tell her a journalist was looking for her, and she didn't want any part of me.
I waited awhile longer to see if she returned. She didn't. So I drove back to Miami and returned the next day at 7:30 a.m. When she didn't emerge from the house by 9:00 a.m., I knocked on the door. After a minute a heavyset, bleary-eyed woman in her thirties answered. Her looks were clearly Middle Eastern, although she spoke English without a foreign accent. I introduced myself. We talked and within a few minutes she had convinced me that she didn't know Marwan Alshehhi, or any other hijacker. "Are you the one who was waiting last night?" she asked.
I said I was.
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"Well, I'll tell you something," she said. "You made me cry all night."
"You don't know what it's like to be me these days," she said touching her face. "To look the way I do. It's very scary. I was raised here and educated here. I'm an American. I'm not a terrorist. Now my landlord and my neighbor are wondering why you're looking for me." She shook her head. "This isn't fair."
I apologized again and said I hoped it all passed over soon. Then I drove back to Miami and a day later I stopped tracking terrorists.