Day Planner Studied For Terrorism Clues
Two Suspects Draw Interest of Probers
By Allan Lengel and Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 2, 2001; Page A19
DETROIT -- For more than a month, federal investigators working on the Sept. 11 attacks have been trying to identify the owner of a day planner that contained a crude sketch of an American military base in Turkey and a reference in Arabic to a planned terrorist attack on former U.S. secretary of defense William S. Cohen.
Investigators stumbled upon the book in a blue-collar neighborhood in southwest Detroit during a Sept. 17 raid of a two-story brick duplex on Norman Street. They were searching for Nabil al-Marabh -- a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network -- who had once lived there.
Al-Marabh, 34, was arrested two days later at a liquor store outside Chicago. Nine days later, U.S. Secret Service agents arrested Youssef Hmimssa, a 30-year-old Moroccan whose fake identification documents appeared in the same bedroom as the day planner, federal sources said. Investigators are taking a close look at Hmimssa as the possible owner of the day planner, but have not ruled out al-Marabh or some unknown person, the sources said.
Hmimssa and al-Marabh have emerged as among the most interesting of the more than 1,000 people detained since the Sept. 11 attacks. On Wednesday, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft referred to Hmimssa at a news conference, saying he and two other men under arrest in Detroit were part of the "aggressive detention of lawbreakers and material witnesses" that was "vital to preventing, disrupting or delaying new attacks."
As authorities move about the country, investigating the tentacles of terrorism, officials here are trying to determine whether al-Marabh, Hmimssa and others were part of an al Qaeda cell in Detroit, which hosts one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East.
Six weeks after the terrorism attacks, the evidence against the two men is tantalizing but inconclusive, a collection of questions without clear answers.
In the days after Sept. 11, al-Marabh was among the first people linked to the hijackers. It was widely reported that U.S. Customs Service investigators were looking at his financial dealings with Ahmed Alghamdi and Satam Al Suqami, two of the men who hijacked planes that took off from Boston and slammed into the World Trade Center's towers.
Al-Marabh was also identified as a close friend of Raed Hijazi, a former Boston cab driver, on trial in Jordan for his alleged role in an aborted plot to blow up plush Jordanian hotels and tourist sites where Americans and Israelis planned to celebrate the millennium. Hijazi has told U.S. and Jordanian authorities that al-Marabh was an agent of bin Laden.
Al-Marabh has proved elusive over the years, slipping in and out of Canada and bouncing from Boston to Detroit before his Sept. 19 arrest.
Like Hijazi, al-Marabh and Hmimssa were cab drivers -- al-Marabh in Boston, Hmimssa in Chicago.
Hmimssa came to the United States through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 1994, using a fake French passport under the name "Patrick Vuillaume," sources said.
He moved through several different addresses in the city, some in working-class Arab or immigrant neighborhoods, others in the upscale North Side. Somewhere along the way, he became adept at using computers. He was also experienced in the use of fake identification, assuming the names Edgardo E. Colon and Gheorghe Andreica, court records show.
In March 2000, Hmimssa initiated a credit card scam that netted more than $150,000 in goods, according to a federal indictment in Chicago. Hmimssa allegedly created fake credit cards, using information skimmed off customer credit cards at a suburban Chicago steak house.
Although authorities have not so far linked Hmimssa to al Qaeda, similar credit card scams have been used by al Qaeda cells.
On May 23, Hmimssa was arrested for credit card fraud and possession of a handgun. He was released pending trial, on the condition that he meet regularly and cooperate with U.S. Secret Service agents investigating the case.
On June 5, he failed to show for an appointment. Agents did not find him when they went to his apartment in West Gordon Terrace, a luxury condominium on the North Side of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field.
A roommate told the agents that he saw Hmimssa leave around 4 a.m. with four or five bags, court records show. His green Mitsubishi 2000 Eclipse was found in St. Paul, Minn., later that day.
Hmimssa next turned up in Detroit. In early June, he moved in with two men, Ahmed Hannan and Karim Koubriti, sharing an apartment in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a large Arab population.
A neighbor, Ahmed Altairi, 60, said he found it odd that the men, particularly Hmimssa, sat for hours in front of their apartment in a small black car. "They'd stay all night in the car," he said.
Meanwhile, around the same time, al-Marabh was also listing the Norman Street address in Detroit, two miles from Hmimssa's apartment in Dearborn. Al-Marabh was also a fugitive, wanted because he failed to visit his parole officer after receiving a six-month suspended sentence in Boston for stabbing a roommate during an argument.
In June, al-Marabh was caught by U.S. immigration authorities in the back of a tractor-trailer, carrying fake Canadian documents and trying to sneak into the United States at Niagara Falls, Canadian immigration records show.
U.S. officials turned al-Marabh over to Canadian authorities, who released him on bond into the custody of his uncle after al-Marabh said he was "stateless," according to records. News accounts later said the uncle worked for a religious school in Canada run by a man known to Canadian authorities as a terrorist.
Al-Marabh soon vanished and made his way back to Detroit. In August, he obtained a duplicate license in Detroit, listing a new address in Dearborn.
By then, Hmimssa had already moved from the Detroit area to a two-bedroom apartment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of the oldest mosque in America. He arrived in a Ford Taurus with a friend who put up $900 for the first month's rent and security deposit, said the apartment manager, Robert Dickson.
Hmimssa identified himself as Michael Saisa. He said he worked for a computer software company in Chicago that was thinking of expanding into Iowa.
"We all thought he was odd," said one neighbor who asked not to be identified. "He never spoke to you. He always had a ball cap on; he never looked at you." Another neighbor, Donald Allen, said Hmimssa would stay out all night and return around 5 or 6 a.m., only to turn on his computer.
"He taught me a little about Islam," Dickson said. "He hated the state of Israel. He had disdain for the Saudi royal family and said nobody in the Arab world likes them."
After Sept. 11, Dickson said, Hmimssa was upset that his computer business would suffer. "He seemed more concerned about his own situation than the 5,000 people who died," Dickson said. "That kind of rankled me."
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, the FBI was looking for al-Marabh, who was on an FBI watch list after the attacks.
On Sept. 17, federal agents raided al-Marabh's former residence on Norman Street in Detroit, arresting all three men inside. Two of the men were Koubriti and Hannan, Hmimssa's old roommates from Dearborn. They denied knowing al-Marabh.
Koubriti gave agents consent to search the apartment. Within minutes, he told them that there were false documents in the bedroom, an FBI affidavit said.
Agents found a false passport and Social Security card in the name Michael Saisa. The passport bore Hmimssa's photo. They also found the day planner, which mentioned a visit to a U.S. base in Incirlik, Turkey, by the "American defense minister." Cohen canceled his trip to the base in December, in part because he was concerned about a credible terrorist threat.
Hmimssa's roommates said they had kicked Hmimssa out of the Dearborn apartment and were holding the false identity documents for Hmimssa in case he returned for them, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino said during a Sept. 21 court proceeding.
One of the men was eventually released. Koubriti, Hannan and Hmimssa, all Moroccans, are still being detained on charges of possessing false documents. To confirm ownership of the day planner, a federal grand jury in Detroit has subpoenaed handwriting samples from all three.
Dickson said he told FBI agents that Hmimssa had once said he "would kill bin Laden himself if he had the chance."
"The FBI agent said, 'did he mean it?' I said, 'I couldn't decide whether he was serious or not.' I don't know."
Lengel reported from Washington and Pierre from Detroit. Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago, and researchers Margaret Smith and Bobbye Pratt, also contributed to this report.