By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
What happened at the nondescript roadside motel outside Oklahoma City was just a fleeting encounter during the twisted cross-country odyssey of the terrorists who would carry out the September 11 attacks. Mohamed Atta, alleged leader of the plot, and two companions wanted to rent a room, but couldn’t get the deal they wanted, so they left.
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 911.
”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.