Report Details Role Of Moroccan on 9/11
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
BERLIN, May 23 -- A Moroccan man who remains at large was assigned by a top al Qaeda leader to travel to the United States to take part in the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, but was unable to obtain a visa, according to a new intelligence report provided to a German court by the U.S. government.
After he failed to enter the United States, Zakariya Essabar took on another key assignment, according to the report. In late August 2001, he traveled from Germany to Pakistan bearing a simple verbal message for the al Qaeda leadership: "eleven nine," an alternate rendering of the date the plotters had chosen for the attack.
Essabar was named as a fugitive by the German government shortly after Sept. 11, as investigators began to piece together the trail left by the Hamburg-based cell to which many of the hijackers allegedly belonged. While Essabar's role as a messenger and his efforts to get a visa have been reported before, the intelligence document describes his role in the plot as more important than previously disclosed, stating that he had been specifically groomed by the top leadership of al Qaeda to become a hijacker.
The intelligence report is based on the interrogation of another central al Qaeda figure from Hamburg, Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen who was captured in Pakistan in 2002 and is being held by U.S. authorities at a secret location. A copy of the report was obtained by The Washington Post.
Essabar was to locate an al Qaeda contact called Mukhtar in Pakistan, according to the report. After he had trouble finding Mukhtar, he "contacted Binalshibh at a call center in Germany" at a prearranged time and date. The report doesn't specify whether he eventually met with Mukhtar.
While the document sheds some new light on how the plot developed, U.S. officials cautioned the German court that Binalshibh has given conflicting accounts about the involvement of Essabar and others in the conspiracy.
According to the report, Binalshibh told his interrogators on two occasions that while Essabar was instructed by al Qaeda's military chief, Abu Hafs, one of several names used by Muhammad Atef, to acquire a U.S. visa, he did not know the purpose of the assignment. On another occasion, Binalshibh "claimed to know nothing" about Essabar at all, the report stated.
There were 19 hijackers aboard the four planes that plunged from the skies on Sept. 11. While U.S. investigators have long suspected that there were plans for a 20th hijacker -- with five people assigned to each plane -- they have never answered the question of who that person was supposed to be.
Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who took flying lessons in Minnesota before the attacks, has also been described as a likely candidate by U.S. officials. Moussaoui pleaded guilty last month in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to taking part in a broad al Qaeda conspiracy leading up to Sept. 11, but denied that he was supposed to be one of the hijackers that day, saying instead that he was to fly a plane into the White House at a later date.
According to U.S. and German officials, Binalshibh also tried early on to obtain a U.S. visa to participate in the attacks, but was rejected several times.
The intelligence report about Essabar was delivered to German officials on May 9 for use in the retrial of Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan, who is facing more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder, among other crimes, for his alleged role as a member of the Hamburg cell. The report is scheduled to be made public Tuesday in a Hamburg court.
Motassadeq traveled with some of the hijackers to Afghanistan to receive military training at al Qaeda camps, and prosecutors say he later covered up for the hijackers' absence in Germany when they went to the United States. He was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the decision was overturned on appeal.
The U.S. Justice Department provided a separate batch of intelligence reports last August based on interrogations of Binalshibh and the alleged central planner of the hijackings, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Since then, German prosecutors and the judicial panel overseeing Motassadeq's retrial have pressed for more intelligence reports about the Hamburg cell and have complained about the U.S. government's refusal to allow al Qaeda operatives in its custody to appear as witnesses.
The report given to the Germans earlier this month also includes summaries of statements given to interrogators by another suspected al Qaeda leader, a Mauritanian businessman named Mohamedou Ould Slahi. According to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the Sept. 11 commission, Slahi played an important part in events leading up to the attacks by encouraging members of the Hamburg cell to abandon plans to fight in Chechnya and instead go to Afghanistan, where investigators say they met Osama bin Laden and were recruited to become hijackers.
U.S. officials have not officially acknowledged that Slahi was in their custody. His relatives said he was arrested in Mauritania on Sept. 27, 2001, and has not been seen since. His interrogation statements appear to be consistent with the Sept. 11 commission's description of his role.
In a letter accompanying the Slahi and Binalshibh statements, Justice Department officials told German authorities that no more intelligence reports would be forthcoming for use in the Motassadeq trial.
They said that U.S. federal prosecutors had filed a motion to give the Germans additional summaries of "statements made by enemy combatants," but that the request was rejected in April by Judge Leonie M. Brinkman of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, who ruled that the disclosures could affect the sentencing phase of Moussaoui's trial. A jury is scheduled to decide next year whether Moussaoui should be sentenced to death.