Yemeni Fugitive Linked to Hijackers
Material Witness Ruled Out as 20th Member of Team
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2001; Page A20
FBI investigators have concluded that an alleged Yemeni terrorist wanted by German authorities was meant to be the fifth hijacker on the jetliner that crashed Sept. 11 in Pennsylvania, and have ruled out a previous suspect in that role, officials said yesterday.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told federal prosecutors in Washington that suspected hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta failed in three attempts to secure entry into the United States for the fugitive, Ramzi Binalshibh, according to officials familiar with Mueller's comments.
Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who is being held as a material witness in New York, no longer is believed to have been the 20th member of the Sept. 11 hijacking team. Investigators have found nothing to link him directly to the assaults, Mueller told the group.
Instead, FBI investigators now suspect that Moussaoui may have been part of a planned second wave of chemical or biological attacks, officials said.
Mueller's comments mark an important change in the government's theory of how the 19 hijackers and their accomplices carried out the Sept. 11 plot, in which they killed more than 4,400 people by crashing jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
The comments underscore the importance to investigators of Binalshibh and two other fugitives, Said Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar, who have been indicted on terrorism charges in Germany. The three were part of an alleged al Qaeda terrorist cell that had operated in Hamburg since 1999, and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said they helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Their connections to the hijackers are extensive," Ashcroft said last month.
An FBI spokesman declined last night to discuss Mueller's remarks, which were made during a closed-door meeting of prosecutors at a Washington hotel. But other officials confirmed the account, which was first reported by the Associated Press.
Investigators have long taken a keen interest in Moussaoui, who was detained in August after instructors at a Minnesota flight school raised questions about his behavior. Vice President Cheney said last month that Moussaoui may have intended to be a hijacker on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
But Mueller told prosecutors yesterday that earlier accounts of Moussaoui's behavior were wrong. Moussaoui did not tell instructors at the flight school that he wanted to learn only how to steer a plane in midair. Rather, he told his instructors he wanted to learn only how to take off and land, Mueller said.
Investigators recently learned that their understanding of Moussaoui's statements had been incorrect, a law enforcement official said last night.
A search of Moussaoui's computer after Sept. 11 found information on jetliners and crop-dusting planes, as well as on wind patterns and the way chemicals can be dispersed from airplanes, officials said. That discovery led to a temporary grounding of crop-dusters.
"We still think he was up to no good, but not on Sept. 11," an official said.
Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen whose last name is listed on some documents as Omar, put down a deposit at a Florida flight school before being turned down for a U.S. visa, German officials have said. He and Atta had started a Muslim prayer group in Hamburg, and both worshiped at a mosque frequented by Islamic radicals.
The Hamburg cell, which U.S. investigators believe was the cradle for the Sept. 11 plot, is one example of the extensive ties between the hijackers and alleged terrorists overseas.
Yesterday in London, police arrested a 30-year-old who may be linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, a Scotland Yard official said. No charges have been filed against the unidentified man.
In Spain, police identified three more suspected Islamic militants with links to Osama bin Laden who have operated in that country. The details surfaced one day after Spanish police disbanded a cell of 11 suspected extremists with ties to bin Laden and his network.