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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Cloud of Suspicion Hangs Over Hijack Suspect's Ex-Roommate

Probe: Young German's brief association with Ziad Samir Jarrah at a Florida flight school landed him on an FBI watch list.

November 15, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMBURG, Germany — When Thorsten Biermann arrived at the Florida Flight Training Center a year ago for a six-week course for an instrument license, he was pleased to be housed with three other German-speaking students in a school-owned apartment within walking distance of the airfield.

One of his roommates, a congenial Lebanese, was even willing to cook most of the group's dinners and lend the others his red Mitsubishi--the only transportation the four students had.

But the Lebanese left a nightmare legacy when he turned in his key. He was Ziad Samir Jarrah, one of the suspected Sept. 11 airplane hijackers, and the young German has been tainted by association.

Because Biermann hails from Hamburg, where Jarrah and at least two others identified by the FBI as hijackers lived, his name turned up on an FBI watch list. His bank account was frozen and police pored over his transactions. Journalists have showed up with cameras at his mother's house in their hunt for accomplices in the terror attacks.

German police have nothing on him, but they have warned him he may still be branded an undesirable in U.S. immigration computer records.

The shadow cast over Biermann's reputation has discouraged him from pursuing his lifelong desire to work for an airline. He is left with a tedious job in a medical insurance office while he waits to see if distracted FBI agents will clear his name.

"It was a coincidence that both Jarrah and I were from Hamburg; maybe that is what raised suspicion," said Biermann, noting that none of the other Germans or Austrians who moved in and out of the apartment he shared with Jarrah had been placed on the FBI watch list.

U.S. diplomats in Berlin have assured Biermann by telephone that he is no longer considered a suspect, said embassy spokesman Mark Smith. But Smith said after consulting with FBI agents that U.S. authorities "don't know if there is any provision for providing written assurance that he has a clean bill of health."

On the embassy's advice, Biermann made a visa application Thursday to the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt to test whether any trace of the watch-list taint remains in the immigration system.

Even if he is granted the visa, Biermann worries that the stain could linger. He noted that his name was still on a watch list Finnish authorities published on the Internet a few days after U.S. officials told him he had been cleared.

Biermann said he realized that police would want to talk to him as soon as he learned Jarrah was among the Sept. 11 suspects. He contacted Hamburg police on Sept. 17 after seeing TV pictures of his former Florida roommate.

"I realized I would be considered a witness and figured it was better to go to police myself than wait until I was summoned," he said. "I thought I would probably be there about 30 minutes, but it took six hours. I was amazed and a little worried."

Interrogators wanted to know about Jarrah's behavior, his activities, his contacts and resources. The young German remembered some details, but said he had already forgotten many others. Biermann had never met Jarrah before both showed up at the flight school in October 2000, and hadn't seen him since returning to Germany last Dec. 13.

Biermann chose the Venice, Fla.-based flight school for his instrument rating lessons because he had already earned a private pilot's license there in 1999.

Both instruction and the hourly plane rentals are much cheaper in the United States than in Germany, Biermann explained, making U.S. schools popular among those in the early stages of training. To rent a single-engine plane in Hamburg costs about $230 an hour, compared with about $100 at most U.S. airfields, he said.

Biermann's first inkling of trouble came when an Austrian journalist called him in mid-October to ask if he had been part of the Hamburg terror cell.

After being told at his branch of Hamburger Sparkasse that his account was frozen and police were reviewing his banking records, he went back to the local Federal Criminal Office agents who had interrogated him to ask them to find out why he was on the FBI list.

German police referred him to the U.S. Consulate here, where diplomats advised him to call the embassy in Berlin, where he was given phone numbers for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, which sent him to the FBI satellite office in Frankfurt. Biermann recalled that an agent who answered the phone in Frankfurt told him his troubles were of no concern to the FBI.

"He was unbelievably rude. He said outright that he didn't care if I was having trouble because of the list," Biermann said. "I was quite surprised. I had the impression from my time in the United States that officials there are more polite and helpful than here in Germany. I still have that impression for the most part, but this FBI agent was unbelievably arrogant."

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