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Evidence

Secrets left in an airport parking lot.

By September 13, the FBI released a complete list of all nineteen Al Qaeda hijackers; by September 27, it released their photographs. Crucial to unraveling the case so quickly was the evidence the hijackers left behind: the luggage of ringleader Mohamed Atta, which hadn’t made his early-morning connection in Boston for Los Angeles–bound American Airlines Flight 11; the passport of Satam al-Suqami, found outside the World Trade Center by a passerby, who handed it to an NYPD detective shortly before the Towers collapsed. And then there was the richest trove of evidence: a car left at Washington’s Dulles airport by Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, part of the team that commandeered Flight 77 and flew it into the Pentagon.

Airport police located the beat-up blue 1988 Toyota Corolla, California license plate 3JFZ283, on the afternoon of September 12, tracing it quickly back to Alhazmi. From there, the FBI applied for a search warrant to examine the car. Early on September 13, an FBI Evidence Response Team began to dismantle the car after ensuring that it wasn’t rigged with explosives.

Over the coming hours, days, and weeks, FBI agents recovered and traced more than 50 key pieces of evidence from the vehicle [E2], originally purchased by al-Mihdhar in February 2000 in California. The Bureau loosely categorized evidence into two buckets: “evidence with lead value,” that is, evidence that helped further the investigation, and “tradecraft evidence,” which helped establish how the hijackers operated. Taken together with receipts from grocery stores and ATM withdrawals, the car’s contents helped the Bureau establish the hijackers’ actions in the months before the attack. “These guys were pack rats,” said FBI agent Jacqueline Maguire, who served as the lead agent on the Flight 77 hijacking and continues to work the 9/11 investigation today. After spending much of the past decade in an FBI evidence warehouse in Virginia, the Corolla is now located at FBI headquarters in Washington.


Garrett Graff, the editor of The Washingtonian, is the author of The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.


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