It was an incident of no particular importance, except for one
thing. The owner of the motel remembers Atta being in the company of
Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker," who was arrested
prior to September 11 and now faces conspiracy charges in connection
with the terror assaults.
If this recollection is correct, the entire incident, and its
absence from the public record, raises new questions about the FBI
investigation of Moussaoui and even the 1995 destruction of the
Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Already the FBI has endured a
withering political and media critique for failing to aggressively
investigate Moussaoui and his contacts during his four weeks in
custody prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. Some FBI officials have responded by characterizing
Moussaoui as only a minor player. But the report from the motel owner,
if proven, could change that. And it also could force the FBI to
reopen its investigation of Middle Eastern connections to the 1995
Oklahoma City blast, because convicted bombers Timothy McVeigh and
Terry Nichols reportedly stayed at the same motel, interacting with a
group of Iraqis during the weeks before the bombing.
AT PRESS TIME, THE ERRATIC MOUSSAOUI, WHO IS representing himself,
was attempting to plead guilty and bring his trial to a close. The
34-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent had previously filed
some 94 hand-scrawled, rambling motions attacking the government's
case and its right to prosecute him.
But that circus obscures a conundrum of a different sort. The
government's case, as outlined in its new six-count conspiracy
indictment, is largely circumstantial, lacking any definitive link
between Moussaoui and the 19 hijackers identified by federal
authorities. All of which makes the apparent shelving of the
Moussaoui-Atta sighting all the stranger. In fact, even though
multiple sources contend that the FBI interviewed the motel owner,
there's no indication that prosecutors were told. It's possible that
the FBI found the motel owner's identifications wrong or his story
unreliable. But it's still odd that, in interviews with the Weekly,
Justice Department prosecutors seemed to know nothing about the motel
encounter, especially because agents reportedly told the motel owner
they would pass the information on to Moussaoui's defense team.
The motel co-owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the
incident occurred around August 1, 2001, just six weeks before 9/11.
"They came in around 10 or 11 a.m. and started talking to my desk
clerk," he said. Even though he was working about 10 feet away from
the trio, the owner didn't really pay any attention at first. "They
were asking my clerk, who no longer works here, about a weekly rate
for our rooms." (The former clerk could not be reached for comment.)
The motel, explained the owner, sets aside some rooms with small
kitchenettes to rent on a weekly basis. "But they were all taken." He
said the clerk explained the situation, but the visitors were
persistent. "Finally, my clerk asked me to talk to them."
The motel owner said that Moussaoui and a man who appeared to be
Marwan al-Shehhi -- who helped crash a jetliner into the south tower
of the World Trade Center -- were friendly and said a few things, but
Atta was clearly the leader. "He did most of the talking and seemed
very serious," said the owner, adding, "I was standing face to face,
about two feet away from Atta, and talked to the three of them for
about 10 minutes. Atta asked if he could rent one of the other rooms
at a weekly rate, and I told him no.
"I asked him what they were doing here in the area. And Atta told
me they were going to flight school. I thought he meant [Federal
Aviation Administration] training in Oklahoma City. But Atta told me
no, they were taking flight training in Norman.
"I said I didn't understand why they wanted to rent one of my
rooms, since we were about 28 miles from Norman and there are a lot of
reasonably priced motels a lot closer. But he said they had heard good
things about my place
and wanted to stay there. I told them I was sorry, but we couldn't
accommodate them. Atta finally said okay. Then they all thanked me for
my time and left."
After the attacks, said the motel owner, he recognized his visitors
in photos from television reports. "I was really stunned," he said.
Then he decided to call the FBI hot line. The motel owner said he
didn't hear right back from the FBI. In the interim, he also spoke to
a former law-enforcement officer who was investigating reported
sightings of Mujahid Abdulquaadir Menepta at the same motel during the
mid-1990s. Menepta, reportedly a friend of Moussaoui's, was arrested
30 years ago in Colorado for aggravated robbery and served more than
three years in prison.
After September 11, Menepta publicly defended Moussaoui, calling
him a "scapegoat." The FBI arrested him as a material witness and
subsequently charged Menepta with a federal gun violation. He pleaded
guilty and in April 2002 was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
He was never charged with any terrorism-related crime. But during the
preliminary hearing on the gun charge, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Agent Jeffrey Whitney testified that a confidential source placed
Menepta at a meeting of a radical Islamic group in St. Louis where he
allegedly threatened to shoot any police officer who entered the
mosque. Menepta's attorney challenged the credibility of this report
A former desk clerk at the motel -- a different clerk from the one
who purportedly dealt with Atta and Moussaoui -- told the Weekly
that he remembered Menepta because in 1994 and 1995 -- prior to
the Oklahoma City attack -- Menepta frequently visited the motel
office. There, he bought coffee and talked for hours to this clerk.
The clerk and his wife, who both formerly worked at the motel, said
they picked Menepta's picture out of a photo lineup prepared by a
law-enforcement officer who had interviewed the motel owner.
This officer, who also spoke to the Weekly on condition of
anonymity, said that after the motel owner told him about the
Moussaoui sighting, he contacted a member of Oklahoma's Joint
Terrorism Task Force, which includes the FBI.
The FBI finally acted on the tip. The motel owner said that on
December 19, 2001, he went to FBI offices in
Oklahoma City for a formal interview, where he was debriefed by an
FBI agent and by Oklahoma City Police Sergeant Jerry Flowers. "We
talked for several hours, and I told them everything I knew." The
motel owner said he would have taken a polygraph exam but was not
asked to do so. The Weekly's law-enforcement source
corroborates the December 19
The motel owner never heard from prosecutors in Moussaoui's case
but got one more call from the FBI several weeks later. "The agent
told me they had passed on a copy of my statement to Moussaoui's
defense team, and I might be getting a call from them. But I was under
no obligation to talk to them. However, I don't know if that was the
truth. Since then, I have never heard from anyone connected to
ONE REASON FOR THE FBI'S APPARent lack of interest might be this
motel's alleged connection to Timothy McVeigh and a group of Iraqis
who worked in Oklahoma City. According to the motel owner and other
witnesses and investigators interviewed by the Weekly, McVeigh
and several of these Iraqis were motel guests in the months preceding
the 1995 bombing. Witnesses also claimed they saw several of the
Iraqis moving barrels of material around on the bed of a truck. The
motel owner said the material smelled of diesel fuel and he had to
clean up a spill. Diesel fuel was a key component of the truck bomb
that blew up the Federal Building.
The motel owner said he and his staff reported this information to
the FBI in 1995. "We did have an ATF agent come out and collect the
originals of the room registrations for that period, but we never
heard back from them. And I never could get the registrations
returned." He added that his previous experience with the FBI made him
reluctant to contact them about Moussaoui. "But I decided it was my
duty to tell them what had happened. So I did."
Former Oklahoma City TV reporter Jayna Davis also interviewed motel
staff and former guests. In the process, she collected signed
affidavits about their contacts with McVeigh and the Iraqis. She tried
twice to give the Bureau this information, but the FBI refused to
accept her materials. (The Weekly first reported on her
investigation in an article published in September 2001.)
The Weekly's law-enforcement source said he has reviewed
Davis' material and considers it credible. "Last December I personally
took the documents to the Joint Terrorism Task Force," he said. "I
told them they should do their own investigation." The response was
not encouraging. He said he was later informed that the Bureau brought
in an analyst, "but I was told it would probably go nowhere. They were
afraid the whole Oklahoma City bombing can of worms would be opened up
and the FBI would have to explain why they didn't investigate this
The Weekly contacted numerous local and federal
investigators and agencies, including the Oklahoma task force, the
U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and the Justice Department. All
declined to comment. Prosecutors on the Moussaoui case also declined
official comment, but their reactions suggested they knew nothing of
the motel encounter.
After being told about the motel owner's interview and allegations,
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer responded with a one-word
question about the sighting: "When?" Spencer then declined further
comment. Another Moussaoui prosecutor, David Novak, also declined
comment. But Novak wanted to know the name of the motel owner.
Other substantial connections already tie the Sooner state to
Moussaoui and, separately, several 9/11 hijackers.
According to the Moussaoui indictment, on September 29, 2000,
e-mail contact with Airman Flight School in Norman. Then, on February
23, 2001, he flew from London to Chicago and then to Oklahoma City.
What he did in the next few days is unknown or at least not accounted
for in the indictment. But on February 26, Moussaoui opened a bank
account in Norman, depositing $32,000. From February 26 to May 29, he
attended flight school in Norman. Then he suddenly quit the school.
Between July 29 and August 4, Moussaoui made calls from public pay
phones in Norman to Germany. On August 1 and 3, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh
wired Moussaoui a total of about $14,000 from two train stops in
Germany to somewhere in Oklahoma. This wire transfer does imply a
connection to terrorist plotters because al-Shibh, an alleged al Qaeda
member, wired money to other hijackers. On August 3, Moussaoui
purchased two knives in Oklahoma City. And on August 10 or 11, an
acquaintance drove Moussaoui from Oklahoma to Minnesota for enrollment
in a new flight school. Authorities arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota on
August 17 on an immigration violation. As has been widely reported,
Moussaoui attracted attention because he said he was interested in
flying a plane but not learning how to take off or land. He was in
federal custody when the 9/11 attacks occurred.
As for the terrorists who took part in 9/11, Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi
visited the Airman Flight School in Norman in July 2000, according to
the Moussaoui indictment. (The motel owner identifies al-Shehhi as the
third person with Atta and Moussaoui when they allegedly inquired
about a room.) And on April 1, 2001, Nawaf al-Hazmi, who helped hijack
American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, was
stopped for speeding in Oklahoma and given two tickets. The Oklahoma
state trooper found no outstanding warrants and turned al-Hazmi loose.
The media has since reported that the CIA had been tracking al-Hazmi,
but never told the immigration service or the FBI that he was a
suspected terrorist during his 21-month U.S. stay. Authorities have
never publicly accounted for Atta and al-Shehhi's whereabouts during
the time of the alleged motel encounter.
The Moussaoui indictment lays out a tantalizing possible
association between Atta and Moussaoui, but never puts the two in the
same place at the same time. The link could exist, however, along a
dusty Oklahoma roadside, off Interstate 40, at a small motel that is
indistinguishable from hundreds of others, except for its possible
connection to terrorists.