Germans Identify More Terror Suspects
Police Watch Five People Who May Have Provided Support to Sept. 11 Hijackers
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 17, 2001; Page A21
BERLIN, Nov. 16 -- German investigators have identified a new group of five people in Hamburg who they believe provided financial and other support to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers and may have critical knowledge of the terror attacks, law enforcement and government sources said today.
German police, operating under a legal system that is very different from the one in the United States, where more than 1,000 people have been swept into custody, have not arrested the five. They are under surveillance while police attempt to build a case against them and will be arrested if they attempt to flee, the sources said.
The five suspects, whom the sources did not identify, are said to be part of an Islamic extremist network in Germany that is the subject of an intense investigation. Police said the network was discovered after Sept. 11 and has no links with other previously identified terror cells in Europe, including a group in Frankfurt that planned to bomb a marketplace in Strasbourg, France.
"It's a separate and distinct network," said a government official, who added that investigators believe it operates only in Germany but is linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden. The group has more members than the five now under surveillance in Hamburg, the official said.
Investigators trying to reconstruct the Sept. 11 plot have repeatedly found the trail leading to a group of Muslim students who lived in Hamburg. Disclosure that five people are under surveillance further enlarges the size of the group that might have been involved in planning and executing the attacks.
Police are uncertain whether the Hamburg cell led by Mohamed Atta, suspected by investigators as the ringleader among the hijackers, was part of this larger network or merely relied on it for certain kinds of support while proceeding with its own plans to attack sites in New York and Washington. They suspect the latter, the sources said.
German police identified the five and others in backtracking from Sept. 11 over the prior movements and communications of three suspected hijackers, including Atta, and three suspected accomplices who are now fugitives.
Although the sources would provide few details on the new suspects, they said none of the five is among people in Hamburg previously identified as possible Sept. 11 accomplices, including a Syrian businessman who police have linked to the al Qaeda network and who was brought in for questioning and released.
Investigators are said to believe the five provided logistical or financial support to Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, who as Hamburg-based students formed the nucleus of a terrorist cell in the city and took part in the Sept. 11 attacks. The five also had direct contact with three men who lived with the suspected hijackers at various times and are now wanted on suspicion of being accomplices to mass murder.
German prosecutors have issued international arrest warrants for Said Bahaji, a German citizen; Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni; and Zakariya Essabar, a Moroccan, all of whom fled shortly before the attacks. Police believe they flew from Germany to Pakistan, then entered Afghanistan in early September.
Both Binalshibh and Essabar wanted to attend flight-training schools in the United States, but U.S. authorities repeatedly rejected their visa applications, police said.
Unlike Binalshibh, the five now under close watch in Hamburg may have stayed behind in Germany because they formed a separate group and believed they were insulated from suspicion, the sources said.
Police have been reluctant to obtain arrest warrants for the five, fearing that without enough evidence to hold them, the warrants could expire before the police can build a strong case.
At that point, German law might allow the suspects to review some of the evidence against them, and they might be able to exercise the right to leave the country, the sources said.
"It's a question of timing," said a government official. Law enforcement agencies are building a case, he said, but he stressed that the deconstruction of terrorist cells remains a difficult task for police agencies subject to democratic rules.
To prevent recurrence of the abuses of the Nazi era, German law subjects police to a very rigorous procedure before an investigation can be launched and arrest warrants can be issued. The formal initiation of an investigation, which has occurred in this case, must be based on evidence that supports a compelling suspicion of wrongdoing.
That allows police to place the suspects under surveillance and take them into custody if they appear to be preparing to flee. But police are reluctant to arrest suspects until they have confidence in the evidence, the official said.
In another development, Canadian authorities today disclosed the formal arrest of an Algerian wanted by the United States on charges of helping to supply guns and counterfeit credit cards in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. Samir Ait Mohamed, 32, has been held in secret by Canadian immigration authorities since July 28.
The U.S. complaint charges Mohamed with an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiring to provide material support for a terrorist act and conspiracy to commit credit card fraud.