Benomrane may have driven al-Hazmi and al-Midhar around Los Angeles and down to San Diego in the first few weeks they were (officially) in the United States. He says whoever he was driving he did so on orders from the Saudi Consulate. The 9/11 Comission believes the men were not Nawaf and Khalid, however the LAPD and FBI continue to believe they were .

He is associated with Djamel Hadjeriowa.

Al-Qaida in Hollywood?

A source of both frustration and pride within the LAPD, the “Hollywood case”—details of which haven’t yet become public—shows how good police work can break up terrorist networks. But this tangled saga also highlights unanswered questions that continue to surround the 9/11 plot. Two senior detectives from the LAPD’s Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Section agreed to discuss the case, provided that they weren’t identified by name, since both remain active terrorism investigators.

The inquiry, they say, began three days after 9/11, when the manager of an apartment building in the heart of Hollywood called the police about a group of French-speaking North Africans who kept rotating into and out of one of his units. Immediately after 9/11, he told police, the men shaved their beards, changed out of traditional Islamic garb, and stopped praying openly and attending the King Fahd mosque, one of the area’s largest, in neighboring Culver City. The manager also claimed that he’d seen the renters remove a license plate from their car, which they pushed to a side street, off the busier boulevard where they usually parked it.

The police quietly sent an officer with a bomb-sniffing dog. The car was clean, but the police impounded it, anyway, for failing to display its plates. They became more suspicious after a series of visits to the apartment. Located in a slightly run-down four-story building in a soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood, it had no furniture save bedrolls on the floor—“earmarks of a classic safe house,” one of the detectives points out. Posters of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a known al-Qaida target, and New York’s glittering skyline adorned the walls. One officer spotted a pair of suitcases in the hallway: the luggage tags showed that they had been on a plane coming from Germany.

Learning that 9/11 bomber Mohammad Atta had belonged to a radical cell in Hamburg, “we knew enough to be worried,” a detective recalls. One of the North Africans, questioned by the police, claimed that the luggage belonged to his brother, who had recently arrived from Germany. But the police found no trace of the brother, either at the apartment or anywhere in L.A.

The North Africans told other inconsistent stories. Virtually all were jobless; several had registered to obtain pilot’s licenses or shown an interest in doing so. (The police later learned that enrolling in pilot’s school was a quick way of securing a student visa.) One was already a pilot. A police check of public records disclosed that he had claimed on an application to have attended a Florida flight school that, it later turned out, one of the 9/11 hijackers had also attended. Public records also showed that he had registered at an address in Arizona, not far from where a second hijacker had gone to flight school. “It wasn’t enough for the FBI at the start, but it was for us,” a detective notes.

The LAPD put the apartment and its residents—as well as their friends and associates, some 250 people in all—under surveillance. Eventually, it assigned more than 150 investigators and support employees to the case. Their focus eventually narrowed to a core of eight or ten suspects. “We knew we were dealing with a network of some kind,” a detective says. But investigators couldn’t prove that the group that they were watching was, as they suspected, an al-Qaida support cell in the heart of Hollywood.

When the police discovered that two of the men initially questioned were in the country illegally, they arrested them. One by one, others under surveillance were quietly arrested on various criminal charges—identity theft, illegal gun possession, and marriage and insurance fraud—none of which even mentioned terrorism. In some cases, immigration authorities deported the men on immigration charges. In other cases, suspects pleaded guilty and went to jail, or voluntarily left the country. One of the two men originally arrested on immigration charges bailed himself out of jail. The second secretly tried to obtain firearms in prison. Deported in 2002, both have now disappeared.

The investigation soon focused on a man who seemed to be at the cell’s hub—Qualid Benomrane, a North African taxi driver mentioned in a footnote of the 9/11 Commission Report. Arrested on immigration charges in early 2002, he told the police that prior to the attacks he had driven “two Saudis” around L.A. and to San Diego’s Sea World, after being introduced to them by Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. Benomrane also told police that someone at the consulate had asked al-Thumairy to take care of the two men.

According to the 9/11 report, Benomrane, shown pictures of Khaled al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 hijackers, at first pulled their photos out of the group he was shown, but later claimed not to recognize them. The 9/11 commission investigators concluded that “the hypothesis that Benomrane’s ‘two Saudis’ were Hazmi and Midhar” couldn’t be substantiated.

But the LAPD detectives who investigated the case remain convinced that Benomrane and al-Thumairy were militants in the al-Qaida support network and that Benomrane’s passengers were, in fact, the two hijackers. “Our investigation found, for instance, that Benomrane had taken photos of the structural supports of the Golden Gate Bridge during a trip to northern California,” a detective says. The LAPD also discovered that Benomrane had taken his two Saudi passengers to a gas station where one of the two San Diego–based hijackers had worked before heading east to carry out his deadly mission. (The FBI, which participated in the investigation, declined comment since the inquiry was classified, but a commission investigator said that the bureau has no record of such a side trip.)

The LAPD investigators decided to question Benomrane in jail once more, but they never got the chance: he was deported on the eve of their visit to see him (a textbook example of one part of government’s not talking to another). Benomrane, too, has disappeared. But using standard policing tactics and procedures, the LAPD investigators broke up what they believe was a cell that supported al-Qaida’s 9/11 mission in ways still not fully understood. “We did all the right things without knowing it,” a detective notes, calling the case the LAPD’s “coming of age” in counterterrorism.

“Only the police are close enough to the ground to be able to go after terrorists like this by using standard criminal investigations,” argues Stephan C. Margolis, who now heads the LAPD’s Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Section. “The FBI has 12,000 agents for the entire country, only some of whom do counterterrorism. Local and state law enforcement includes some 800,000 people who know their territory. We are destined to be frontline soldiers in what could be a very long and complicated war.”