Mysterious Trip to Flight 77 Cockpit
Tuesday, September 10, 2002
TUCSON -- Hani Hanjour was 19 when he arrived here from Saudi Arabia to study English at the University of Arizona in 1991. He lived four blocks from the campus mosque, in a seven-bedroom rooming house covered with cactuses the size of ping-pong paddles. He stayed for over a year and when he returned home his older brother Yasser found him a changed man.
Rather than embracing American pop culture, Hani seemed to have discovered fundamentalist Islam in the Arizona desert. He rejected music and television and grew out his beard, a symbol of piety. He spent long hours in prayer, his only companion the Koran.
Yasser was a Koranic scholar, but even he found his brother's transformation startling. He spoke with Hani for hours, trying to wrench him from his isolation, until over time he came to believe that he was back to normal. Hani remained religious, Yasser thought, but hardly the kind of fanatic who would seize the controls of an airliner and turn it into a weapon of mass destruction.
"We never expected this; we still don't believe it," Yasser said recently in an interview from Taif, Saudi Arabia, his hometown. "We are still waiting for him to come knocking on the door."
To this day, Yasser doesn't know what happened to his brother in Tucson. Neither, it seems, does anyone else. Hanjour's abrupt transformation in the early 1990s is one of many tantalizing, if inconclusive, clues that only hint at why a decade later, authorities believe, Hanjour was in the cockpit when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, killing 184 victims.
Documents and analysis by terrorism investigators suggest that Tucson was one of the first points of contact in the United States for the jihadist group that evolved into al Qaeda. Two group members who preceded Hanjour later became al Qaeda leaders, according to authorities. The city's principal mosque, the Islamic Center of Tucson, held "basically the first cell of al Qaeda in the United States; that is where it all started," said Rita Katz, a Washington-based terrorism expert. However, like other issues surrounding Hanjour, the connection is elusive and it is unclear whether the strain of radical Islam that once ran through here may in some way have shaped him.