Confusion Over Names Clouds
Identities of Attackers on Jets
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
New York Times - Sept. 21, 2001, pg. B8
CAIRO, Sept. 20 Many of the 19 hijacking suspects in the terror attacks last week remain shrouded in confusion, with almost nothing known about some and up to five apparent cases of mistaken identity.
The F.B.I. list of hijacking suspects does include the names of at least six missing Saudi Arabian men who left their country, ostensibly to join the Islamic fighters battling the Russians in Chechnya, plus four others whose parents have lost contact with them.
But the lack of the details about the suspects, plus the assertions of mistaken identity, have left their parents refusing to mourn and Saudi Arabian officials dismissive of the entire list.
"The haste in publishing the names of suspects in the attacks has made the media fall into the error of involving innocent people, especially Saudis," Prince Mit'eb bin Abdullah, the deputy commander of the Saudi National Guard, complained to reporters in Riyadh.
The use of wrong names and pictures may indicate that the hijackers filched the identities of fellow Saudis.
In the United States, Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., acknowledged Thursday that there were questions about the identities of several of the hijackers on the list.
"We have several hijackers whose identities were those of the names on the manifest, we have several others who are still in question," Mr. Mueller said while touring the crash site in Pennsylvania of one hijacked plane.
An official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington said there were five mistaken identities on the list, adding that all the men were alive and living abroad.
Saudi officials say part of the problem stems from the proliferation of similar names in Saudi Arabia, as well as the numerous varieties of spelling them in English.
One of the most common surnames on the F.B.I. list is Alshehri. But in English various members of the clan might spell it Alshahri or Alshehiri or Al-Shehri, entangling search efforts.
Far more difficult is the fact that the country's huge tribes repeat the same names over and over again.
Saudis use at least three names: their given name, their father's name, and their tribal name. Between the father's name and the tribal name, many also insert the name of a fourth, favored ancestor. But even brothers do not always choose the same name.
To narrow the search to specific individuals, Saudi officials said they needed at least one and preferably two middle names. What they are given to work with now is a lot of Joe Smiths.
For example, there might be thousands and thousands of people with the name Waleed Alshehri, one of the men whose name appears on the list of suspects who rammed the first plane into the World Trade Center.
For a while, suspicion focused on the son of Saudi diplomat with that name who had studied at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, but his father said he was alive and working as a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines. The confusion apparently stems from the fact that the F.B.I. is matching the names on the passenger manifests to students who have trained in flying.
In the southern Saudi town of Khamis Mushait, however, there is an established businessman named Mohammed Al-Shehri who is missing 2 of his 11 sons. One of them is Waleed Mohammed Al-Shehri.
Mr. Waleed, 21, was studying to be a teacher, while his brother Wail, 26, already had a degree in physical education and was teaching, their father told the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan The older brother was suffering from psychological problems and kept seeking the help of clerics to perform a kind of religious exorcism to cure him, the father said.
Both men disappeared in December while on a trip to seek yet more help and have not been heard from since. They had grown increasingly religious before their disappearance and spoke often about joining the fight in Chechnya, the paper quoted family friends as saying. Their pictures match those released by the F.B.I.
To try to eliminate confusion, Saudi officials said they had repeatedly asked for more information on the suspects, especially longer names, but they had yet to receive it. Plus, in a few cases it appears the hijackers resorted to outright deception.
A passenger using the name Abdel Azia Al-Omari and the birth date of December 24, 1972, is listed on the manifest of the flight that hit the towers first. But a man with the same name and birth date turned up alive in Riyadh, where he told the Al Sharq Al Awsat daily that he had studied electrical engineering at University of Denver. His passport was stolen there in 1995.