Alleged Hamburg Cell Shares Many Links With Hijack Suspects
By Dan Eggen and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2001; Page A03
U.S. and European authorities believe that three men wanted by German authorities helped plan the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and may hold the key to an investigation that has yielded few living suspects, law enforcement officials said yesterday.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in Washington that the three fugitives -- Said Bahaji, Ramzi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar -- were part of a terrorist cell in Hamburg that included three men believed to have been at the controls of aircraft that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11.
The fugitives and the hijackers -- Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah -- lived at various times in the same Hamburg apartment and all were allegedly members of a terrorist cell that was part of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and operated in that city since at least 1999, U.S. and German officials said.
"Their connections to the hijackers are extensive," Ashcroft said of the fugitives during a Justice Department news conference, where he appeared with German Interior Minister Otto Schily. "It is clear that Hamburg served as a central base of operations for these six individuals and their part in the planning of the Sept. 11 attack."
Also yesterday, authorities in Berlin said they have arrested a Turkish militant who was trying to board a flight from Frankfurt to Iran with detonators, a suit designed for protection against biochemical attack and a farewell note to his wife packed in his luggage.
Prosecutors said they have found no link between the Turkish militant, Harun Aydin, and the Hamburg cell that plotted the U.S. hijackings. But the Oct. 17 arrest underscores the extent of the alleged terrorist network in Germany, which is struggling to cope with the threat while resisting aggressive security measures that many Germans associate with the Nazi era.
"It is true that some of the terrorists have been in Germany and have prepared these cruel attacks, and we must say we failed to see it before," Schily said at the Washington news conference. "But to be very open-minded, we all together failed to see it."
U.S. and European investigators for weeks have viewed Germany as the cradle of the plot to hijack the jetliners and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and another, unknown target. German authorities had named the three fugitives as accomplices in warrants issued for their arrest.
But Ashcroft's statements yesterday provided the clearest indication yet of the importance of the three fugitives, who investigators believe have key information about how the plot was financed and planned. His remarks again underscored the central role played by the terrorist cell on Marien Street in Hamburg, where Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah lived while attending schools there in the 1990s.
"This takes us back to people who have a central role in this," one U.S. law enforcement official said yesterday. "They could be the key to this case."
Fewer than 10 of the more than 830 people detained so far are suspected of being associated with the hijacking plot, and none may be as central as the fugitives, U.S. officials said. The FBI has sent at least a dozen agents to Germany to help track leads.
U.S. and German authorities portray the hijackers and the fugitives as both terrorist associates and friends. Several appear in video and photographs taken at Bahaji's wedding.
Among the connections outlined by Ashcroft and German officials:
• Essabar, a Moroccan citizen, tried to travel to Florida in February, when Atta and Al-Shehhi were known to be there, Justice officials said. German authorities have said previously that Essabar failed in two attempts to get a U.S. visa in December 2000 and January 2001.
• Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen whose last name is listed on some documents as Omar, also was turned down for a U.S. visa, although he had put down a deposit at a Florida flight school, German officials say.
• Atta and Binalshibh started a Muslim prayer group in Hamburg, and both worshiped at the al-Quds mosque there.
• Essabar studied at the same University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg as Jarrah, and the two worked at the same car dealership in Hamburg in the summer of 1998.
• Video and photographs seized from Bahaji's apartment show that the other two fugitives and two of the hijackers, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah, attended his wedding. German police also believe a Syrian businessman tied to bin Laden's network was there.
• Bahaji, a German citizen who briefly served in the military and is expert with computers, is now believed to have been in charge of logistics for the Hamburg cell, including working with the hijackers so they could secure U.S. visas.
As early as 1998, German intelligence locked onto Bahaji, whose father is Moroccan, following a trail that linked him with bin Laden associates. But intelligence officials dropped the surveillance after they could make nothing of Bahaji's role.
German officials believe all three fugitives have fled Germany, and they suspect the trio is in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Pakistani officials said they have no record of Bahaji or Binalshibh entering the country.
In Berlin, the federal prosecutor's office said it was investigating Aydin for allegedly planning "serious acts of violence as a member of a terrorist group with an Islamic fundamentalist background." The prosecutor's office also said Aydin is suspected of "giving instructions for serious crimes such as murder and manslaughter."
Aydin is allegedly a member of a Cologne-based extremist group that planned a failed suicide attack on the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, during 1998 celebrations marking the country's 75th anniversary. In a plot with similarities to the Sept. 11 attacks, the group allegedly planned to crash a plane into the tomb while Turkish leaders were gathered there.
The Cologne group, Islamic State, is headed by Aydin's brother-in-law, Muhammed Metin Kaplan, who is serving a four-year prison term in Germany for calling for the killing of a rival. Aydin was acquitted in the same trial.
A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor said that the terrorist group to which her office had linked Aydin was not Islamic State. The spokeswoman, Frauke Scheuten, declined to say if Aydin was suspected of membership in the al Qaeda network.
Aydin was arrested at the Frankfurt airport as he tried to board a flight to Tehran after police found suspicious items in his luggage that included combat clothing, a mask, his will and a CD-ROM advocating Islamic holy war and suicide attacks, officials said.
Aydin's lawyer, Michael Murat Sertzos, claimed the bag did not belong to his client, who checked it for a Turkish man he met at the airport. "He had no intention whatsoever of dying a martyr's death," said Sertzos, who denied police reports that Aydin had written a farewell letter to his wife.
Finn reported from Berlin.