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Tracking terrorists

Some hijackers trained at U.S. flight school

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WASHINGTON — At least one hijacker on each of the four planes in Tuesday's terrorist attacks was trained at a U.S. flight school, the Justice Department says. Well over 50 people may have been involved in the hijackers' well-financed operation.

A number of people who could be involved in the plot were detained overnight for having false identification, Justice Department Mindy Tucker said early Thursday. She declined to say how many were detained or where they are being held.

No arrests had been made as of early Thursday, she said. Authorities have not yet recovered black boxes from downed planes but hoped Thursday to find the black box from the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania, Tucker said.

Officials are close to releasing the names and possibly the country of origin of the hijackers. Nearly all have been identified, Tucker said.

Meanwhile, the FBI has received over 2,000 tips on an 800 number set up early Wednesday. Some of the calls have produced helpful leads.

"Both cash and credit cards were used" by the hijackers "to purchase tickets, hotel rooms and other things," Tucker said Wednesday.

The FBI's massive investigation stretches from the Canadian border to Florida, where some of the participants learned how to fly commercial planes before the attacks. Tucker said flight schools in more than one state were involved in the training of the hijackers, several of whom had pilots' licenses.

The investigation also reached into the Midwest — one person was taken into custody on an immigration issue in Minnesota, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Authorities wanted to question the individual about the plot, but the person refused and requested a lawyer, the source said. Authorities are also requesting information from a Minnesota flight school where those suspected in the attacks may have trained.

Multiple cells of terrorist groups participated in the operation, and the hijackers had possible ties to countries that included Saudi Arabia and Egypt, said law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Officials said authorities were gathering evidence that the terrorist cells may have had prior involvement in earlier plots against the United States and may have been involved with Saudi exile Osama bin Laden. That includes the USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the foiled attack on U.S. soil during the millennium celebrations.

The identities of more than a dozen of the men who hijacked the four planes with knives and threats of bombs have been ascertained, the officials said.

For some suspected accomplices, "we have information as to involvement with individual terrorist groups," FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said 12 to 24 hijackers commandeered the four planes, and a government official said another two dozen or so are believed to have assisted them. At least one of the suspects receiving advanced flight training in Florida was a commercial pilot from Saudi Arabia.

In Florida Thursday, FBI agents were interviewing three Saudi Arabian flight engineers who are taking classes at Flightsafety International's flight school in Vero Beach, Fla., company spokesman Roger Ritchie said. He declined to name the engineers.

The school does not have simulators for Boeing 767 and 757 aircraft such as the ones involved in Tuesday's attacks, Ritchie said.

Thomas Quinn, a New York-based spokesman for Saudi Arabian Airlines, said many of the airline's pilots came to the United States for flight training.

Ashcroft said the investigation was complicated by "the destruction of those who perpetrated the crime and much of the evidence being destroyed."

About 40 of the people involved in the attacks have been accounted for, including those killed in the suicide attacks, but 10 remain at large, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday night on its Web site, citing an unidentified source with knowledge of the investigation.

Some of those involved in the plot left suicide notes, but they are not believed to have been the hijackers, a government source told The Associated Press. It's unclear whether those who left the notes actually killed themselves.

The Times said authorities believe 27 suspected terrorists received pilot training.

Authorities detained at least a half dozen people in Massachusetts and Florida on unrelated local warrants and immigration charges and were questioning them about their possible ties to the hijackers.

Search warrants were executed in Florida, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Sealed warrants went out in several other states, officials said.

A Venice, Fla., man said FBI agents told him that two men who stayed in his home while training at a local flight school were involved in the attacks. Charlie Voss, a former employee at Huffman Aviation in Venice, said the FBI told him one of the men was named Mohamed Atta. A student at Huffman Aviation identified the second man as Marwan Alshehhi.

Citing federal authorities, the Miami Herald reported Thursday that Atta was one of four suspects who died on American Airlines Flight 11, the first jetliner to crash into the World Trade Center.

"This could have been the result of several terrorist kingpins working together. We're investigating that possibility," one law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the briefing he received Wednesday from law enforcement left him with the same impression.

"Most of it today points to Osama bin Laden, but the speculation at the end of the road is that he and his network were very much involved with Hezbollah, Fatah and other" terrorist organizations, Grassley said.

The senator said authorities told him all of the hijackers were of Middle Eastern descent and that they had "a tremendous amount of ground support for each hijacker."

Fatah is headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has denounced the attacks.

In other developments:

President Bush fervently defended his decision amid Tuesday's crisis to hopscotch across half the country before returning to Washington, where officials believed the White House itself and Air Force One were terrorist targets.

"I believe I took the appropriate — I know, I don't believe — I know I took the appropriate actions as the commander in chief to be in a position to be able to make the decisions necessary for our government to handle the crisis," Bush said Thursday.

The president saw for himself Wednesday the burned-out gash in the Pentagon left by a hijacked jetliner.

During a visit to the wounded symbol of American military might, Bush thanked weary rescuers at the Pentagon and at the destroyed World Trade Center in New York for forging ahead with their search even as hopes faded of finding survivors.

"Coming here makes me sad, on the one hand. It also makes me angry," Bush said after spending a full minute staring at the Pentagon's ripped side. He is scheduled to visit New York on Friday.

Bush spoke by phone Thursday with more world leaders to receive condolences and seek support for the United States as it struggles to recover from the most devastating terrorist attack in its history.

"We have just seen the first war of the 21st century," Bush told reporters after speaking by phone with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "I am confident there will be universal approval of the actions this government takes."

"We declare our genuine sorrow and unreserved condemnation of this criminal act," said Sakher Habash, a leader of Fatah in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Hezbollah, a Lebanese group backed by Iran and Syria, has repeatedly denied it has cells operating outside Lebanon but has not yet commented on the attacks.

Ashcroft said numerous promising leads were being followed up. "The Department of Justice has undertaken perhaps the most massive and intensive investigation ever conducted in this country," he said. Ashcroft said all possible federal personnel and resources have been committed to the investigation, including thousands of agents and support personnel.

Two of the hijacked planes destroyed New York's World Trade Center, one plane heavily damaged the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were investigating whether one group of hijackers crossed the Canadian border at a checkpoint and made their way to Boston, where two jetliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.

Two suspects flew from the Portland International Jetport in Maine to Boston, where they boarded the deadly flights, Maine Gov. Angus King said. The two men apparently were using New Jersey driver's licenses and left behind a rental car with Massachusetts plates that was impounded and hauled to the Maine State Police crime lab.