BOSTON – Terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden has strong family ties and a group of supporters in Boston, where the two hijacked airliners that demolished the World Trade Center took off.
One of bin Laden's brothers set up scholarship funds at Harvard, while another relative owns six condominiums in an expensive complex in Charlestown, just outside Boston. Two bin Laden associates once worked as Boston cab drivers, including one who was jailed in Jordan on charges of plotting to blow up a hotel full of Americans and Israelis.
Bin Laden's ties to Boston are now being closely scrutinized as authorities focus their investigation on terrorist cells with possible ties to him, said Robert Fitzpatrick, the former second-in-command at the FBI's Boston office.
"The activity of this group here is obviously significant," Fitzpatrick said Wednesday.
Investigators are interviewing drivers from Boston Cab Co., where two known associates of bin Laden once worked, to see if they had ties to baggage handlers, who in turn may have supplied weapons to the hijackers, Fitzpatrick said.
"They are going to look at the cab drivers again — since they are predominantly Middle Eastern — and they are going to look at a possible link between them and the baggage handlers," Fitzpatrick said, based on his information from law enforcement colleagues.
"They could thwart the security by having a baggage handler put the material aboard the plane. That link is being investigated."
Last year, the FBI investigated the Boston activities of the two cab drivers, Bassam A. Kanj, a Lebanese native, and Raed M. Hijazi, a Palestinian. The men were tied by investigators to separate military and terrorist plots allegedly financed by bin Laden.
Both men lived for years in Boston and Everett, a suburb north of Boston.
Kanj, 35, was killed in Lebanon last year in an attack against the Lebanese army. Hijazi was charged in Jordan with plotting a New Year's Day 2000 hotel bombing.
Bin Laden, a rich Saudi exile who is believed to be living in Afghanistan, also has had family members living in the Boston area for the past decade.
In 1994, one of his brothers, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, made a large donation to Harvard Law School to fund visiting scholars to do research in Islamic legal studies.
Harvard Law spokesman Michael Armini would not disclose the amount of the gift, but typically it takes about $1 million to establish a research fellowship. The sheik established a second scholarship at the Harvard School of Design.
Harvard officials were quick to distance the school from Usama bin Laden, emphasizing that he has no role in the scholarship programs.
"This is in no way connected to Usama bin Laden, who has been ostracized from his family and from Saudi Arabia," Armini said. "The purpose of this gift was to foster mutual understanding between the western and Islamic legal worlds."
Stephen Walt, a professor of international politics at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, likened the relationship of the bin Laden brothers to that of University of Massachusetts President William Bulger and his brother, reputed mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, who is among the FBI's 10 Most Wanted.
"I think that bin Laden is responsible for his action, but his brother is not responsible for Osama's actions, and vice versa," Walt said.
Another relative, Mohammed M. bin Laden, owns six condominiums in the ritzy Flagship Wharp condominium complex in Charlestown. His relation to bin Laden could not immediately be determined. A woman who answered the telephone at the management company for the complex refused to answer questions.
The condos were bought in the mid-1990s and range in assessed value from $296,000 to $877,000, The Boston Globe reported.
Juliette Kayyem, a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, said Boston has several factors that may have attracted bin Laden's supporters.
"Our proximity to the Canadian border and Boston being a big city where people can hide is likely why Boston became the center," Kayyem said. "Also being on the Eastern Seaboard, we have wide-bodied jets with large fuel tanks. When you don't have other weapons, that's your weapon."