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Cold Trail

It’s not easy finding a terrorist in L.A.

You’d think that out of 767 people in custody across the country for their possible ties, however thin, to al Qaeda or some other Osama support group, one of two might have roots here.

The FBI, of course, has said very little about its September 11 investigation. In most cases, no names, no detailed reasons for detention, nothing about links to terrorism.

In this age of no information, I got a break. Last week, someone emailed me the FBI’s “watchlist” of 366 suspected terrorists and 14 organizations thought to be sympathetic to terrorism. The 22-page document, sent to financial regulators around the world, was posted by mistake on the Internet by Finland’s Financial Supervison Authority. The Web page was shut down several hours later. The FBI was not happy with what it called a security breach, but as one agent said, with resignation, “Stuff happens.”

The information, gathered by the FBI and European counter-terrorism agencies, includes names, birth dates, addresses past and present, Social Security numbers and aliases. The watch list contains the names of five people with ties to the L.A. area, including Saeed Al-Ghamdi, who is believed to have been one of the four hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 persons on board.

I took the list and tried to piece together the L.A. angle on terrorism. It was not an entirely satisfying journey. Some of the addresses are old, and, needless to say, the FBI beat me by several weeks.

According to the FBI report, as late as December 1996 Al-Ghamdi lived in a 176-unit apartment house on Bedford Lane in Chino Hills. The building has been turned into condominiums, and the phone numbers for the building’s previous owners, an Arizona property company, no longer work. Al-Ghamdi may have used as many as five aliases and three birth dates, and lived in eight addresses in six states: New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

I didn’t bother to go to Chino Hills to pursue this cold trail, preferring to check out an address in the Wilshire district. In a rundown, white-stucco, three-story apartment building on Kenmore Street, in a mostly Latino neighborhood, 40-year-old Saudi Arabian Ali Abusharifah stuck out. “I remember him because the building has mostly Latinos living here. So it was strange that he was here,” says Vivian Williams, a longtime resident, who was the building’s manager for about six months.

Williams described Abusharifah as “short, kind of chubby and very quiet.” She says he lived there for several months, some four or five years ago. “I saw him a few times. He was always alone, but he seemed okay,” she says. Williams says her only real contact with Abusharifah came when he had a plumbing problem. “I had to go into his apartment, and I remember he had a lot of Arabic-language magazines lying around his living room.”

Williams says that Abusharifah told her he was moving out to live with his elderly mother. “He said she was moving, and he wanted to help her out.” She also says that he still gets mail at the building. The former manager says the FBI talked to some of the tenants several weeks ago.

The Islamic Center of Southern California, which houses the nearest mosque, lies east of the Kenmore apartments. Sarah Eltantawi, who directs communications for the Muslim Public Affairs Council and works closely with the Islamic Center, says she didn’t recognize Abusharifah’s name. “The FBI came and talked to us, but they didn’t ask about him or anyone else. They just wanted to know if they could help us with any hate-crime problems,” she says. The council has started a hate-crimes hotline, and they’ve received 30 calls over the last two weeks.

The FBI document lists four aliases for Abusharifah, and says that he moved to Santa Ana and then to Vero Beach, Florida. His phones in Florida have been disconnected.

Another name on the list is 36-year-old Malek Mohamed Seif. He lived at a well-kept, white-stucco house/guest house combination on Franklin Street in Santa Monica, a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, just south of Colorado Avenue. According to public records, Seif, who used four aliases and two different Social Security numbers, lived in Santa Monica as recently as April 2000. A tenant says the FBI was out several weeks ago to talk to people.

From Santa Monica, Seif moved to Arizona. He was then traced to Michigan. However, his phone numbers have been disconnected.

Safia Shaikh, also on the list, is currently living in Culver City. According to published reports, she said she separated from her husband, Abdussattar, five years ago. Her husband still lives in Lemon Grove in San Diego County. I wasn’t able to reach Shaikh, but she told the Associated Press she didn’t know the hijackers.

It’s unclear why she is named. However, it might be because her husband, a retired professor, rented rooms in his house to two of the alleged hijackers who crashed the jet into the Pentagon — Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi — and four people arrested as material witnesses. Abdussattar Shaikh reportedly knew nothing of their backgrounds and has cooperated with the FBI.

The list also contains the name of a Tunisian who used to live in an apartment in Riverside. The FBI document states that the man, who used three variations on his name, has most likely returned to his homeland.

I’m back home, too, amazed at how little people in L.A. know about their neighbors, and am waiting for FBI agents to call and fill in all the details.


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