“I am nothing”

The Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota called the local Minneapolis FBI office regarding its new student — Zacarias Moussaoui — in August 2001. Until recently, the employees involved in making the call have remained silent. Today’s Star Tribune carries a story by Washington correspondent Greg Gordon: “How 2 men helped FBI bring down Moussaoui.” Tim Nelson and Hugh Sims are the two men to whom the headline alludes (the story refers confusingly to Sims as “Hughes” at one point). Gordon’s story provides a more rounded picture of the story told at length in the current issue of Rake magazine based on an interview with Pan Am flight trainer Clancy Prevost: “The grounded man.”
The suspicions of Nelson, Sims and Prevost were raised on the first or second day of Moussaoui’s training. In the Rake article, Prevost is quoted asking Moussaoui if he is a Muslim. Moussaoui tenses up and answers, “I am nothing.” The Star Tribune reports that on the day after Moussaoui started his training, Nelson asked two pilots training for a Syrian airline how Moussaoui’s Arabic was. (Moussaoui had described himself as coming from the south of France.) When told that Moussaoui was a native speaker of Arabic, Nelson thought to himself, “Oh great, one more strike.”
The second day after Moussaoui began his flight training at the Eagan facility, both Nelson and Sims called the Minneapolis office of the FBI and shared their concerns. Agents promptly followed up and responded by arresting Moussaoui, detaining him on an immigration charge. Although the Minneapolis office sought permission to search Moussaoui’s laptop computer, permission was not granted to seek a warrant before 9/11 because of the government’s apparent belief that it lacked probable cause. See Dan Eggen’s Washington Post story: “Moussaoui probe pushed U.S. limits.”
The Rake article runs with a sidebar on Minnesota connections to the war on terror: “The Minnesota cell.” The sidebar omits reference to local indictments suggesting Minnesota’s place as the home of activity related to illegal financial networks funneling money to the Mideast. This skeptical 2003 story from the Minneapolis-based alternative weekly City Pages usefully summarizes one set of indictments: “Operation paper tiger.”
It’s worth noting that Moussaoui held himself out as seeeking training for “a simulated flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport.” I don’t know what, if anything, to make of it, but it is an interesting element of the story.

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