U.S. Develops Picture of Overseas Plot
Saturday, September 29, 2001; 12:04 AM
The terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were bankrolled with $500,000 from overseas that financed an operation planned and launched several years ago in Germany, with crucial support in Britain, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan, senior government officials have concluded.
U.S. investigators have determined that at least four of the 19 suspected hijackers were trained at camps in Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda network is believed responsible for the assaults on New York and Washington. They also have tentatively concluded there are links between bin Laden and most of the other hijackers, according to information gathered by the Justice Department, FBI and CIA.
Government investigators are becoming increasingly convinced that one or two other hijackings were in the works, officials said, and are focusing on three men in U.S. custody who received flight training. One was detained while seeking flight simulator training in Minnesota before the hijackings, and two others were arrested on a train in Texas after departing oa jet that was grounded after the attacks, sources said.
Government officials said other people in the United States might have provided minor assistance or had knowledge that a terrorist operation was underway. But the FBI has found little evidence so far that the teams of hijackers received much support here, sources said.
"There seems to be no U.S. mastermind," one official said.
The Justice Department has cast a global dragnet over the last two weeks in a hunt for accomplices. It is narrowing its criminal investigation to a number of individuals and is beginning to formulate criminal charges that could be filed against them, sources said. But a senior Justice official declined to predict when the first indictment might be handed down.
"We are past the first phase, and we are beginning to sharpen and focus the investigation," one Justice official said. "You don't get smoking guns in a case like this. The key is going to be in the details, in putting together the pieces, and we've gone a long way to doing that. . . . We're looking with particularity at a number of people."
The disclosures provide the most complete picture yet of the direction and scope of the U.S. investigation into the deadliest terror attack in American history, which has left 6,500 people missing or dead in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The hijackings have led to arrests on every continent but Antarctica.
In tracing $500,000 flowing into U.S. bank accounts used by Mohamed Atta and other suspected members of the hijacking teams, the FBI has documented numerous large cash withdrawals and a long trail of hotels, rental cars and airplane trips that largely dispel any notion of an austere plot, a senior government official said. Previous reports have said the attacks cost no more than $200,000.
Some of the money used to prepare the attack has already been linked to accounts in the Middle East, the source said, and investigators have documented instances of simultaneous withdrawals from the same account in different cities.
"This was not a low-budget operation," the official said. "There is quite a bit of money coming in, and they are spending quite a bit of money."
Investigators are convinced that the details of the terror plot were hatched in Hamburg, Germany, where Atta and two other suspected hijackers, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, are believed to have run a terrorist cell out of a second-floor student apartment.
The FBI is doubling its contingent of agents working on the investigation in Germany, in the belief that the trail will lead from there to the Middle East, one official said. The initial concept for the Sept. 11 attacks likely came from Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, another official said.
Investigators have found that the suspected leaders in the plot moved in and out of the United States beginning at least 18 months ago, with lower-level hijackers not arriving until this year. Atta returned to Germany at least twice after arriving in the United States, a source said.
"There were two groups on each plane," one senior official said. "You've got the brains, who are the pilots and the leaders, and then you have the muscle coming in later on. They were the ones who held the passengers at bay."
The FBI is deeply suspicious of the circumstances surrounding three key men who have been detained in the case. Zacarias Moussaoui was taken into custody in Minnesota in August after he attempted to pay cash to learn how to steer, but not take off or land, a jumbo jet.
Moussaoui is not cooperating with authorities.
Two others, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan, were detained on an Amtrak train Sept. 12 in Fort Worth with hair dye, large amounts of cash and box-cutter knives like the ones used in the hijackings. The men, who had lived in Jersey City, had flown on a plane from Newark to St. Louis that was grounded after the attacks. Both men had flight training, one source said.
FBI agents have combed the passenger manifest on that flight and have not found anyone else who is believed to be a potential hijacker, an official said.
Adding another important element to the global investigation, British authorities yesterday accused an Algerian pilot of training four of the hijackers, including the apparent pilot of the jet that crashed into the Pentagon.
During an extradition hearing in London, British prosecutor Arvinda Sambir suggested that Lotfi Raissi, 27, may have been a knowing participant in the terrorist plot, and that U.S. authorities might charge him with conspiracy to murder.
"The hope is that he will be able to tell us who planned what and when," added one senior U.S. official.
However, the British prosecutor left open the possibility that Raissi may have instructed the hijackers at an Arizona flight school without knowing their intentions. Defense lawyer Richard Egan said Raissi "adamantly denies any involvement in the recent appalling tragedies."
In a sign of U.S. investigators' intense interest in the case, eight FBI agents attended the hearing at Bow Street Magistrates' Court. The court ordered Raissi held in jail for another week, pending a second hearing on the U.S. extradition request.
The original request, issued June 19, said Raissi had given false information on an application for a U.S. pilot's license. Now, authorities want to pursue his alleged connections with the hijackers.
Dressed in a white track-suit top and pants, Raissi spoke only to confirm his name during the brief hearing.
Sambir said that Raissi, who was arrested in Britain last week, had visited the United States several times this year. The evidence against him, she said, includes a videotape of him flying on June 23 from Las Vegas to Phoenix with Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have been the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that hit the Pentagon.
In June, Hanjour was a member of the flight simulator club of the Sawyer School of Aviation in Phoenix, according to the school's spokeswoman. Raissi was also a member of the Phoenix flight simulator club for five months this year and used a flight simulator at a Phoenix area airport at the same time as Hanjour, according to the aviation school.
"He was a lead instructor of four of the pilots that were responsible for the hijackings," Sambir said in court. "We say he was there to ensure that the pilots were capable and trained for this purpose," she added.
Raissi received a U.S. commercial pilot's license in January 1999, with a rating to fly a Boeing 737. Two days later, he was certified as a ground instructor, and in March 1999, he received a license to be a flight instructor.
Raissi lived in a Phoenix apartment complex and listed himself as both a student and employee at Westwind Aviation Academy, a flight school at the Phoenix Deer Valley Airport, according to the East Valley Tribune, a Mesa, Ariz., newspaper. Raissi has said he trained at Westwind in 1997 and 1998, according to documents the FBI showed to another local flight school director.
Westwind was acquired two years ago by Pan Am International Flight Academy, a Florida company. Todd Huvard, a vice president at Pan Am International, said the company was cooperating with the FBI but would not release any information to the press.
Last week, police searched Raissi's apartment in the village of Colnbrook, Berkshire, near London's Heathrow airport, and took a flight manual and a pilot's logbook that had several pages torn out, authorities said.
In an odd twist, a database search of public records shows that Raissi had used the Social Security number of a Jersey City woman who died in 1991. The woman, Dorothy Hansen, was a retired factory worker.
Hansen's grandson, Carl G. Hansen III, 37, said he had never heard of Raissi. Joyce Mastrangelo, Dorothy Hansen's daughter, said she was astounded.
"Oh my God, how did he get that?" Mastrangelo said. "My mother has been dead 10 years."
In other developments yesterday:
* Attorney General John D. Ashcroft released a four-page letter in Arabic that was found among the belongings of men on three of the hijacked jetliners. The letter includes Islamic prayers, speaks of death for a glorious cause, and reminds the reader not to forget his knives and passport.
The letter, first detailed in yesterday's Washington Post, demonstrates how the Muslim hijackers "grossly perverted the Islamic faith," said Ashcroft, who repeated that Muslims in the United States "deserve dignity and respect."
Identical letters were discovered in three places. One was found inside a car parked at Dulles International Airport, starting point of the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. The second was found at the Pennsylvania crash site of United Flight 93. The third was found in the Boston luggage of Atta, who was aboard one of the planes that plunged into the World Trade Center.
* Ashcroft said more than 480 people have been arrested or detained during the first 18 days of a quest he has called the largest criminal investigation in the nation's history.
Although bin Laden has been identified by President Bush as the sponsor of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ashcroft said investigators "have not ruled out the participation of any individual or any organizations in this attack."
* FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III contested reports that FBI agents have posed questions about political beliefs to Muslims, Sikhs and Arab Americans who have been stopped or detained as part of the investigation. He said questioning focuses on relationships with the 19 suspected hijackers and their associates, and "may cross over into relationships that may have sprung out of attendance at, for instance, religious meetings. But there is no effort to delve into either the political or the religious beliefs of individuals."
* In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Secret Service arrested Youssef Hmimssa, who had been wanted under the alias Jalali. Authorities said they believe he may have knowledge of a terrorist threat against former defense secretary William Cohen.
Hmimssa was indicted Thursday, along with two other men, by a federal grand jury in Detroit on two counts of fraud. During a Sept. 18 search of a Detroit apartment, FBI agents seized false immigration papers and a fake passport bearing the name Michael Saisa and a picture believed to be that of Hmimssa or Jalali, two of five aliases cited by authorities. He was also wanted in Chicago on charges of financial-related fraud and false identification charges.
Agents also found a day planner that refers to the "American defense minister" and contains an apparent sketch of the U.S. air base in Incirlik, Turkey. Cohen canceled a visit to Incirlik last December after learning of a "credible threat against him," according to a former Department of Defense officials.
Special correspondent Adi Bloom in London; staff reporters Sari Horwitz, Lena Sun, Scott Higham, Fredrick Kunkle, Allan Lengel, Peter Slevin and Marcia Slacum Greene, and researchers Bobbye Pratt and Margot Williams contributed to this report.