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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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