Officials Seek Hijacker Who Wasn't
FBI Suspects Yemeni Man, Denied U.S. Visa, Is Missing Figure in Sept. 11 Plot
By Peter Finn and Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 16, 2001; Page A39
BERLIN, Nov. 15 -- Now one of the world's most wanted men, Ramzi Binalshibh did not cut much of a figure when he was a student in Hamburg, allegedly working closely with some of the men who hijacked four airliners in the United States on Sept. 11.
Neighbors and fellow students remember almost nothing about him -- a small figure, they say, sometimes in traditional Arabic dress, generally in the shadow of Mohamed Atta, a key figure in the conspiracy.
The FBI said Wednesday that Binalshibh, 29, a citizen of Yemen, was probably meant to be part of the team that took over United Airlines Flight 93, the jet that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. That would make him the missing "20th hijacker." The three other hijacked planes each had teams of five aboard, but Flight 93 had only four, leading investigators to theorize that one was missing.
Binalshibh was not aboard the plane, investigators now believe, because he was unable to get a visa to the United States, where he wanted to study at a Florida flight school. After other alleged hijackers left Hamburg for the United States, he remained behind. He disappeared six days before the attack.
Now Binalshibh and two other men are being sought as critical witnesses to the genesis and planning of the suicide attacks. With the investigation in Germany winding down as leads hit a dead end, authorities have issued international warrants for their arrests.
If they are still alive, the men are probably in Afghanistan, running for their lives in the face of U.S. and rebel attacks, German police sources speculated.
Binalshibh, also known as Ramzi Omar, came to Germany in 1997, ostensibly to study economics. Physically slight, he had what seemed to German speakers an unassuming personality, though this may have been because of his poor command of the language.
German authorities say Binalshibh appears to have been at Atta's side from the first days of planning for the attacks.
The two helped set up an Islamic study group at Hamburg Technical University, where they were enrolled. Together with Said Bahaji, a German citizen whose father was Moroccan, they rented an apartment on Marien Street on Dec. 1, 1998, that became a headquarters for a terror cell. Another hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi, later lived there, and Ziad Samir Jarrah, who was on the Pennsylvania flight, was a frequent visitor.
They called the second-story walk-up dar el Anser, or "Home of the Followers."
Binalshibh had been preparing to study economics at Hamburg University. University officials said he later dropped his language classes, a requirement for non-German speakers before entering into a degree program, in July 1999. The details of his life after that remain a mystery.
But one fact that has come to light is Binalshibh's interest in learning how to fly an airplane in the United States. A worker at the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Fla., said today that Binalshibh applied at the school but never obtained a visa to enter the United States. The FBI has collected all paperwork related to Binalshibh, she said.
Binalshibh wired $2,200 to the school with his application. FBI investigators told officials there that Binalshibh was denied a visa because of suspected links to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, according to published reports. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the visa denial.
When Atta and others left for the United States in 2000, Binalshibh stayed behind, registering at four different addresses in Hamburg before he fled, police said. He was last noticed in Hamburg in August of this year.
In early September, Binalshibh's roommate, Bahaji, apparently the terrorist cell's logistics specialist, arrived in the Pakistani city of Karachi aboard a Turkish Airlines flight, according to authorities in Islamabad. He was accompanied by two men, initially identified as Abdullah Hussainy, a Belgian of Algerian origin, and Ammar Moula, a French citizen.
Police here now believe that these two men were in fact Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar, 24, a Moroccan who also lived for a period on Marien Street. Essabar also apparently wanted to participate directly in the Sept. 11 attacks, police said.
Officials said they believe the men have slipped across the Afghan border.
Before FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III named Binalshibh as the likely missing 20th hijacker, federal authorities had focused on Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent. He was arrested in Minneapolis three weeks before the attacks after he drew suspicion at a Minneapolis flight school. He is being held on immigration charges.
Mueller has said investigators had found no evidence linking Moussaoui with the Sept. 11 plot, according to officials familiar with his remarks. The FBI is now operating under the theory that Moussaoui may have been part of a planned second wave of terrorism, meant to carry out biological or chemical attacks, law enforcement officials have said in recent days.
Other sources familiar with the investigation, however, said today that both Moussaoui and Binalshibh could have been planning to be hijackers.
Masters reported from Washington; staff writers Dan Eggen and Joe Stephens in Washington contributed to this report.