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Next Door to Mohammed Atta
Israeli agents were living in Florida and tailing the future death pilots – until their cover was blown.
by Oliver Schröm
Die Zeit
October 14, 2002

On April 30 of last year the US Air Force sounded an alarm. The security division of the Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City warned of an "intelligence ring of Israeli art students". American law enforcement agencies had earlier learned that a noticeably large number of Israeli students had applied for jobs at software development and technology firms that primarily served government agencies. The obvious suspicion was that the young Israelis were members of a spy ring. A specially formed task force, consisting of employees of the DEA, INS and Office of Security Programs, looked into the matter.

The young Israelis were placed under surveillance and their personal details were analyzed by computer. Die Zeit obtained the 61-page final report, according to which, 120 Israelis, organized into cells of four to six persons, formed a tightly organized and efficient espionage network. A few of the putative students were actually specialists on eavesdropping, radio technology, or counter-terrorism.

The Israelis were arrested, interrogated and subsequently deported. In the world of intelligence, espionage among friends is an everyday occurrence. In this case too many people were involved for the matter to be covered up. But both the Israeli government and American authorities tried to downplay it.

Not until after the attacks of September 11 did the consequences of the spy ring become clear. Apparently the agents were not interested in military or industrial facilities, but were shadowing a number of suspects, who were later involved in the terrorist attacks against the US. According to a report of the French intelligence agency that Die Zeit examined, "according to the FBI, Arab terrorists and suspected terror cells lived in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as in Miami and Hollywood, Florida from December 2000 to April 2001 in direct proximity to the Israeli spy cells."

According to the report, the Mossad agents were interested in the leader of the terrorists, Mohammed Atta and his key accomplice, Marwan al-Shehi. Both lived in Hamburg before they settled in Hollywood, Florida in order to plan the attacks. A Mossad team was also operating in the same town. The leader, Hanan Serfati, had rented several dwellings. "One of Serfati's apartments was located on the corner of 701st St. and 21st Ave. [sic] in Hollywood, right near the apartment of Atta and al-Shehi.", French intelligence reported later. Everything indicates that the terrorists were constantly observed by the Israelis. The chief Israeli agent was staying right near the post office where the terrorists had a mailbox. The Mossad also had its sights on Atta's accomplice Khalid al-Midhar, with whom the CIA was also familiar, but allowed to run free. The Mossad apparently warned their American counterparts several times about the terrorists, especially about al-Midhar. The American government later admitted that they had received such warnings prior to September 11. But at most that there were attacks planned against American installations outside the United States.

Die Zeit has learned that a few weeks before the attacks, Israeli intelligence gave US authorities a list with names of suspects who were staying in the US for the purpose of preparing attacks. Apparently not until shortly before September 11 did the CIA recognize that al-Midhar was dangerous and asked law enforcement agencies to look for him.