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Captured suspect may know 9/11 details

The al-Qaida lieutenant appears to have been involved in those attacks and others, but he seems unlikely to tell much.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2002


The al-Qaida lieutenant appears to have been involved in those attacks and others, but he seems unlikely to tell much.

HAMBURG, Germany -- As investigators reconstruct the lives of the Sept. 11 hijackers before they moved to the United States, Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the conspirators they left behind, has emerged as a chief lieutenant for the terrorist cell.

Binalshibh, one of the world's most-wanted men, was captured last week in Pakistan after a yearlong search. The arrest is potentially the biggest break so far for the joint American and German effort to unravel the twisted skein that was the Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy.

"One by one, we are hunting the killers down," President Bush said Saturday morning at Camp David. "We are relentless, we are strong, and we are not going to stop."

Although Binalshibh surprised the world last week with an on-camera interview, broadcast by the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera, in which he claimed responsibility for much of the attack planning, it is not likely that Binalshibh will freely tell American interrogators what he knows.

Binalshibh presumably knows details about how the hijackers used cell phones, e-mail and Internet chat rooms to communicate with one another and with al-Qaida chiefs in Afghanistan, and how al-Qaida funds were moved around the world to finance the estimated $500,000 hijacking operation. He doubtless is privy to the locations and identities of al-Qaida operatives in the United States and Europe -- and, perhaps, what else al-Qaida has planned for the West.

The potential significance of Binalshibh's capture also lies in the discovery that he left his fingerprints on virtually every aspect of the hijacking plot, as well as other terrorist operations blamed on al-Qaida.

In April, after a tanker truck bomb killed 19 tourists at a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, police searched the Duisberg, Germany, home of a Moroccan man suspected of complicity in that attack and found Binalshibh's former Hamburg telephone number.

Binalshibh's address book was recovered after Sept. 11 from the Hamburg apartment he shared with hijacker Mohamed Atta. It contains the telephone number of Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, an alleged al-Qaida leader held in Spain.

Spanish police said that two months before the hijackings, Binalshibh, using the alias Ramzi Mohamed Abdela Omar, flew from Germany to Spain, where he met secretly with Atta and other al-Qaida figures. According to Binalshibh's Al-Jazeera interview, the reason for the meeting was to put the "finishing touches" on the hijacking plans.

Intelligence sources in Germany and the United States have been quoted as saying Binalshibh also was present at a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 where the plot evidently was discussed with two other hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

A European intelligence official, according to the New York Times, said this summer that Binalshibh also was wanted for questioning in connection with the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000 in Yemen. Binalshibh was in Yemen a month before the attack.

* * *

Binalshibh is named, though not charged, as a "supporting conspirator" in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan arrested in Minnesota a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, and accused by federal prosecutors in Virginia of complicity in the hijackings.

According to the Moussaoui indictment, Binalshibh received tens of thousands of dollars from an unidentified source in the United Arab Emirates and passed those funds on to Moussaoui in Oklahoma and to hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi in Florida. Moussaoui called Binalshibh in Germany at least once.

Binalshibh reportedly was captured unharmed Wednesday morning after a gunfight in Karachi, Pakistan, in which police killed two and arrested 10 others -- most of them Yemenis like Binalshibh, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in a CNN interview.

Hundreds of police officers and soldiers were involved in the shootout, which lasted for three hours. Submachine guns, pistols and grenades were later found in the building where Binalshibh was taken into custody.

The role played by American law enforcement and intelligence agencies in arranging Binalshibh's capture was unclear. On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. officials said CIA operatives were involved in the raid.

There also were conflicting reports over Binalshibh's whereabouts. ABC News, which first reported his capture, said Friday that he was in American custody in Germany. The Washington Post quoted sources as saying that Binalshibh was "in the process of being transferred to a U.S. airbase in Afghanistan for detention and attempted interrogation."

Knight Ridder cited a senior Pakistani law enforcement official as saying the prisoners were in joint U.S.-Pakistani custody and were being interrogated by Pakistani intelligence officials, FBI agents and CIA officers.

They were being held in a safe house in Karachi belonging to the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, a powerful military intelligence agency, according to Knight Ridder. Binalshibh was expected to be turned over to exclusive U.S. custody, the Pakistani official told Knight Ridder.

Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily, said Saturday that he would seek the extradition of Binalshibh to Germany, where he has been charged with 3,000 counts of murder for his role in the attacks.

An extradition to Germany could raise serious legal snarls with the United States. Germany, like other European Union partners, customarily has refused to send prisoners in its custody to countries where they could face the death penalty.

The New York Times reported Saturday that American officials had not decided whether Binalshibh would be charged in the United States with criminal violations or would be held as an enemy combatant.

* * *

Binalshibh, 30, moved to Germany in 1995. In seeking asylum, Binalshibh falsely claimed to be a political refugee from Sudan.

His application was denied, but Binalshibh remained in Hamburg illegally, enrolling as a German language student at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, the same school where Atta studied urban planning.

According to the university, Binalshibh never became a full-time student and instead took a job as a warehouse worker for a local computer company while the hijacking plans were laid.

On at least four occasions, Binalshibh tried and failed to obtain a U.S. visa that would have allowed him to join Atta, Al-Shehhi and a third Hamburg student, Ziad Jarrah, at flying schools in Florida -- and, presumably, aboard one of the four planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on the morning of Sept. 11.

At one point, bank records show, Binalshibh wired a $2,200 down payment from his German account to the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Fla., the school later attended by Jarrah.

Had his visa request been granted, Binalshibh might have become the fifth hijacker aboard United Flight 93, piloted by Jarrah, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

The two planes that hit the World Trade Center and the one that crashed into the Pentagon carried five hijackers, leading to a yearlong speculation about a missing 20th hijacker.

When Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah left Germany for Florida, Binalshibh and another Atta roommate, Said Bahaji, remained to provide the hijackers with logistical backup.

Another former Hamburg student, Mounir el-Motassadeq, who transferred funds from Al-Shehhi's account to Binalshibh and others, also has been charged by Germany's chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, with complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.

El-Motassadeq's trial is scheduled to begin next month, and it is conceivable that prosecutors may seek to compel Binalshibh's testimony in that case or that el-Motassadeq's lawyers might call Binalshibh as an exculpatory witness.

The relationship between Atta and Binalshibh dates at least to 1998, the year the two men and Al-Shehhi moved into a student apartment in Hamburg.

Atta, Binalshibh and Bahaji, who like Binalshibh fled to Pakistan shortly before the hijackings and is also wanted by the German government, later shared another apartment and formed a fundamentalist Islamic prayer group at the Hamburg university's student union.

Shortly after Sept. 11, investigators unearthed a videotape from Bahaji's October 1999 wedding in which Binalshibh was recorded speaking vehemently of the "danger" posed by Jews.

German prosecutors say that it was also in October that the first plans were laid to attack the World Trade Center.

The next month, prosecutors say, Atta, Al-Shehhi, Jarrah and Binalshibh traveled from Hamburg to an al-Qaida training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Two months after that, Binalshibh reportedly was in Malaysia meeting with hijackers Almihdhar and Alhazmi at a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

After Atta, Al-Shehhi and Jarrah left Hamburg for South Florida in the summer of 2000, Binalshibh wired tens of thousands of dollars to their U.S. bank accounts, money that Binalshibh received from unidentified sources in the United Arab Emirates and that is thought to have came from the al-Qaida treasury.

* * *

In the Al-Jazeera interview, Binalshibh recalled receiving a phone call from Atta three weeks before Sept. 11, in which Atta passed him a coded message, in the form of a puzzle, containing the date of the attack: "two sticks, a dash and a cake with a tail," a rebus for 11-9, the European form of 9-11.

Only days before Sept. 11, 2001, Binalshibh, Bahaji and a third student, Zakariya Essabar, fled Germany for Pakistan and Afghanistan. From the airport in Dusseldorf, where he was about to catch a flight to Madrid, Binalshibh telephoned one of the hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, in the United States, according to Der Spiegel, a German magazine.

While Binalshibh was in transit, Atta and Al-Shehhi received telephone calls from a pay phone in a bar next to a Madrid mosque. Then Binalshibh dropped out of sight and resurfaced last week.

-- Information from the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Associated Press and Knight Ridder was used in this report.

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