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From the Los Angeles Times

3 Accused of Direct Roles in Hijackings

Inquiry: U.S. officials seek German fugitives called close associates of the suspected terrorists. Two of the men tried to gain entry to the U.S. months before the attacks.


Times Staff Writers

October 24, 2001

WASHINGTON -- U.S. authorities said for the first time Tuesday that they have identified three Al Qaeda operatives from Germany who they believe played key roles in the Sept. 11 hijackings, and FBI agents are working aggressively to apprehend the fugitives as their probe shifts overseas.

U.S. investigators, working with their German counterparts, believe the three suspected terrorists were "closely associated" with three of the suspected hijackers, including suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said. Two of the fugitives tried to gain entry to the United States months before the attacks, apparently to join the hijackers, but were denied entry, law enforcement sources said.

One of those whose visa requests were rejected at least three times by U.S. Embassy officials in Germany also has been linked to the terrorist attack in Yemen on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole.

Germany has already put out arrest warrants for the three men in recent weeks. But Tuesday was the first time U.S. law enforcement officials have publicly identified them or anyone apart from the 19 suspected hijackers who died, as direct participants in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ashcroft's remarks, made in a joint appearance with German Interior Minister Otto Schily, underscored the recent shift in the terrorist investigation's focus from the United States to Europe, where many of the hijackers first organized and trained in the 1990s.

"It is clear that Hamburg, [Germany], served as a central base of operations for these six individuals and their part in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks," Ashcroft said.

Sought in the international manhunt are Said Bahaji, 26, believed to be a Moroccan national; Ramsi Binalshibh, 29, of Yemen; and Moroccan national Zakariya Essabar, 24.

Schily, who was in Washington to meet with U.S. officials about the status of the worldwide terrorist investigation, and Ashcroft stressed the unusual scale of their bilateral probe, which includes the temporary assignment of 12 FBI agents in Germany.

But there were signs of tensions as well.

Schily said he told Ashcroft that the United States "shouldn't play the scapegoat game" by portraying Germany as Al Qaeda's hub when in fact other European nations, as well as the United States, also failed to spot the terrorists within their own borders.

Schily and Ashcroft skirted what could prove an even more sensitive diplomatic hurdle if the fugitives are eventually apprehended: the question of whether they would be extradited to the United States to stand trial.

"Obviously we'd want them in the United States," said a senior Justice Department official who asked not to be identified. The problem, however, is that Germany does not allow capital punishment and has a policy of extraditing suspects only if it is assured that "the death penalty is not applied," said Hans Dieter Lucas, spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington.

In an extradition case earlier this year in France, Ashcroft bowed to French demands and agreed not to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a doctor who performed abortions in a highly publicized murder in upstate New York in 1998. But with the public outrage surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, the political pressure may be even greater to seek the death penalty against anyone directly involved in plotting the attacks, analysts say.

Ashcroft said Tuesday that the extradition question will have to wait. His first priority, he said, is to apprehend Bahaji, Binalshibh and Essabar before they can carry out another attack.

"As we've observed the Al Qaeda network, we've found that individuals involved in one set of terrorist acts frequently move on to develop and to work on the perpetration of others," Ashcroft said. "We are very focused . . . on apprehending them."

U.S. and German intelligence officials suspect that the three men fled Germany days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ashcroft said their current whereabouts are unknown.

Giving new details about the movements and connections of the Al Qaeda operatives, Ashcroft told reporters that Bahaji, Binalshibh and Essabar all lived with Atta for a time in Hamburg before Atta left for the United States last year.

Bahaji, a German citizen, went to the same technical university that Atta attended from 1992 to 1999. The two petitioned the university for a Muslim prayer room, as Atta pursued a more orthodox devotion to Islam. Bahaji left Germany on Sept. 3, Ashcroft said.

Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen, tried to enroll in a Venice, Fla., flight school with the help of suspected hijacker Ziad Samir Jarrah, who studied flight training and aeronautics in Germany from 1996 to 2000 and then moved to Florida. But Binalshibh had multiple U.S. visa applications rejected and was never able to enter the United States, according to a law enforcement official.

His most recent visa application was made in May, according to federal investigative reports obtained by The Times. And FBI agents told officials of the Florida flight school that Binalshibh was rejected because of unspecified involvement "with the bombing of the USS Cole," according to Arne Kruithof, president of the school.

Binalshibh, a former bank employee in Yemen, also attempted a fourth time to obtain a U.S. visa in Sana, Yemen, nearly a year earlier, the reports show. He left Germany on Sept. 5.

Essabar, a Moroccan citizen who appears in Bahaji's wedding video in Germany with Jarrah and suspected hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi, also made arrangements to travel to Florida last February. He applied for a U.S. visa twice but was turned down and apparently never entered the United States, the law enforcement official said.

Although Ashcroft would not detail the role that the three fugitives are believed to have played in the Sept. 11 attacks, he said that "their connections to the hijackers are extensive."

Germany has alleged in its arrest warrants that the three men have been part of a terrorist organization since at least 1999 and that they are being sought for "planning and carrying out the attacks" of Sept. 11, Ashcroft noted.

U.S. authorities have not brought criminal charges against anyone for allegedly taking part in the terrorist attacks. U.S. officials investigating the attacks have arrested more than 900 people who they suspect may have information about the hijackings, but almost all have been held for immigration violations or other charges not related to the attacks. About a dozen have also been detained as "material witnesses."

U.S. officials acknowledge that their priority is stopping future attacks rather than building cases for criminal prosecution. Asked why the United States had not brought terrorism charges against anyone, Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Tuesday: "When we feel it's appropriate to bring charges against people, we will."

Germany's more than 500-strong special investigative commission, including 100 police and security agents in Hamburg, is being augmented by 12 to 15 FBI agents who are mostly coordinating information between the two countries, Hamburg police and intelligence officials have said.

Under German law, foreign law enforcement officers have a very limited range of operation. FBI agents are allowed to observe German police in the gathering of evidence but not to pose questions directly. With the language barrier and limited numbers, the agents currently in Germany seldom take part in interrogations, instead sifting through the reports and relaying important details back to the United States.

German Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm also has a representative at the Department of Justice in Washington, a senior government official involved in the terrorism probe said. Also, the Federal Criminal Office, which oversees the 16 state-level services that approximate the FBI in its duties, has agents in Florida and Washington.

Because the German domestic intelligence and police forces are organized on the state, rather than federal, level, investigators concede that coordination among the German agencies involved is stalled by bureaucracy and an elaborate system of power division.

The internal controls intended to prevent law enforcement's abuse of civil rights, as occurred during the Third Reich, was actually designed by U.S. and other Allied officials during their occupation and administration of Germany in the years after World War II.

In France, meanwhile, cooperation between the FBI and local law enforcement officials in the terrorism probe appears to be strong.

Last week, the FBI's legal attache in Paris even broke the agency's media blackout to offer a brief comment to a newspaper, praising a French judge who has led a probe that netted more than a dozen suspects accused of plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Two FBI agents are also stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, where the relationship with local authorities has been problematic.

U.S. agents have taken a keen interest in Belgium's arrests related to the alleged plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Last month, Belgium police arrested a Tunisian accused of intending to be the suicide bomber in that case, and later found a cache of suspected bomb-making chemicals.

But to the dismay of U.S. officials, judicial authorities in Belgium have been reticent about sharing even basic information.

That has stymied the FBI's hopes of quickly culling the suspect's contacts for ties to European terrorist networks and possibly to the Sept. 11 hijackers, according to knowledgeable officials and news reports.

_ _ _

Lichtblau reported from Washington and Williams from Berlin. Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2002, The Los Angeles Times


Photos
Ramsi Binalshibh
Ramsi Binalshibh (AP)

Said Bahaji
Said Bahaji (AP)

Zakariya Essabar
Zakariya Essabar (AFP)

Two young Afghan refugees sprint past a Pakistani border guard.
Two young Afghan refugees sprint past a Pakistani border guard. (DON BARTLETTI / Los Angeles Times )

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