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Fugitive Called 20th Hijacker


WASHINGTON — A Yemen-born roommate of alleged terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta is the much sought-after 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, FBI Director Robert Mueller told federal prosecutors on Wednesday.

An intensive international manhunt is underway for Ramsi Binalshibh, who did not make it aboard one of the four hijacked planes only because he was unsuccessful in three attempts to get into the United States, government officials said late Wednesday night.

They said Atta, suspected of coordinating the attacks, had tried to help get Binalshibh into the country to take part in the hijackings. Binalshibh, also known as Ramzi Omar, was a student in Hamburg, Germany, where he shared an apartment with Atta and others believed to have participated in the hijackings.

The disclosure essentially makes Binalshibh the only surviving person suspected of being a designated hijacker in the attacks, which killed about 4,300 people.

Authorities are said to be aggressively and urgently looking for Binalshibh, 29, on several continents.

"He's not in the United States," said a government official, who confirmed Mueller's disclosure. "At least we don't think he's in the United States."

Justice Department officials and the FBI declined to comment on Mueller's remarks, which were made in a closed-door session of federal prosecutors attending a counter-terrorism workshop.

Since the first week of their investigation into the attacks, the FBI has believed that 20 men were meant to participate, in part because five men were aboard each of the two commercial airliners that were rammed into the World Trade Center and a third that crashed into the Pentagon.

A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, had only four men aboard. It took off from Newark and crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa. Officials believe the hijackers intended to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol or another Washington landmark but failed to make it after passengers apparently tried to take back control.

Counter-terrorism authorities said the conspiracy was tightly controlled and that intelligence information indicates each of the four groups of hijackers was to include trained pilots, organizers and at least two strong and well-trained men who would provide the "muscle," keeping passengers at bay and away from the hijackers in the cockpit.

It was not known what Binalshibh's role was or what led the FBI to suspect that he was to be the 20th hijacker.

Mueller also told the prosecutors that a man arrested in Minnesota before Sept. 11 had little, if anything, to do with the hijacking plot, even though he has been widely described as the 20th hijacker by the media and even some government officials.

That man, Zacarias Moussaoui, is still being held in New York as a material witness in the case. Moussaoui was detained Aug. 17 on immigration charges after officials at a flight school near Minneapolis grew suspicious and called authorities, saying he wanted to learn how to fly planes but not to take off or land.

Mueller said that Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, told authorities just the opposite--that he simply wanted to take off and land planes, not to fly them, government officials confirmed.

Mueller told prosecutors that a computer seized from Moussaoui's apartment had nothing on it to indicate any connection to the plot.

The computer did yield evidence that Moussaoui had been looking at Web sites featuring crop dusting and dispersal of chemicals, and French authorities had warned he is an Islamic extremist.

That helped prompt authorities to ground crop-dusting planes and raised questions about whether the FBI should have interviewed him earlier to see if he was planning any terrorist attacks.

A senior FBI official said in an interview Wednesday that agents scoured credit card records, travel patterns and other information but found nothing to indicate that Moussaoui ever crossed paths with the 19 hijackers.

'You'd think if he was the 20th hijacker, there would be connections," said the FBI official. "The investigation simply hasn't linked him to the hijackers."

Eliminating Moussaoui as the 20th hijacker prompted authorities to consider others as suspects. And Binalshibh has been linked to the hijackers since early on in the investigation.

Federal authorities told officials of the Florida flight school that Binalshibh was rejected from entering the U.S. due to unspecific involvement "with the bombing of the USS Cole" in 2000.

Germany's chief prosecutor has issued international arrest warrants for Binalshibh, German-born Said Bahaji and Zakariyah Essaabar, a Morrocan, alleging that they helped plan and prepare for mass murder.

Authorities accused the men of providing criminal assistance to the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks, making them potentially culpable for "several thousand murders."

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