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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE INVESTIGATION

None Jailed Appear Linked to Attacks

Terror: 'Sleeper' cell fears fade as officials find that hundreds jailed likely are not tied to the hijackings.

November 16, 2001|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Nine weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal authorities said Thursday that they have found no evidence indicating that any of the roughly 1,200 people arrested in the United States played a role in the suicide hijacking plot.

The FBI has conducted an exhaustive investigation into whether the 19 suspected hijackers were part of an organized underground of "sleeper" terrorist cells operating within the United States. While investigators continue to look for evidence of such a broad-based conspiracy, so far they have found none, according to several law enforcement officials.

In particular, said one senior law enforcement official, "no links have been established" between the hijackers and the four men believed to be the strongest terrorism suspects: two men from India arrested Sept. 12 on a train in Texas, a former Boston cabdriver arrested outside Chicago and a former flight school student who was arrested in Minnesota in August.

Some authorities emphasize the possibility that investigators, whose efforts have been frustrated by uncooperative witnesses, might still uncover evidence linking the jailed suspects to the plots or other terrorist or criminal activities.

But others maintain that if such evidence existed, the exhaustive investigation by more than 4,000 federal agents would have found it. Agents here and abroad have compared the whereabouts of the suspects and the alleged hijackers, scrutinized all of their bank, credit card, Internet and phone records, and even tracked them back to their hometowns in a search for links, authorities say.

The criminal investigation into the attacks, the largest in U.S. history, has netted about 1,200 detainees, and as many as half of them may still be behind bars on immigration violations or unrelated local, state or federal charges. But with these four central men all but eliminated as potential co-conspirators, the Justice Department has failed to build a case against a single prime U.S. suspect in the terrorist attacks, authorities concede.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has emphasized that the key goal of the investigation is the prevention of other attacks. And, authorities say, though they have provided no evidence, the arrests may have thwarted other terrorist plots.

Meantime, investigators still are collecting bits of information on the hijackers and suspects arrested in the U.S. They have discovered, for instance, that the alleged hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field had been stopped for speeding in Maryland just two days before the hijackings.

But major domestic leads appear to have dried up. As a result, authorities say, they have shifted nearly all of their attention and resources overseas in the continuing hunt for co-conspirators and suspected terrorists.

Nevertheless, investigators remain highly interested in the "mysterious circumstances" surrounding the four central men, the senior law enforcement official said.

4 Central Suspects Undergo Much Scrutiny

The Indian men, Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, were apprehended on an Amtrak train while possessing box cutters. Nabil al-Marabh, the onetime cabdriver, was connected to a suspected member of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and had recently received a Michigan permit to haul hazardous waste, setting off a review of hazardous material drivers.

And the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French Algerian man in Minnesota, contained references to crop dusting and chemical dispersal.

"They act suspicious and you don't know why," said one official involved with the investigation. "It sends flags up."

But, the official said, "to date there are no connections. We're still looking, and the matter is still under investigation. You don't know what will happen in the future, but nothing yet."

Authorities now say they have turned their focus to the dozens of suspects who have been detained in Europe since Sept. 11 and to captured or defected Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan.

U.S. investigators remain convinced that Bin Laden and his top aides orchestrated and financed the hijackings. But they have struggled to determine who may have worked directly with the 19 suspected hijackers and who acted as liaisons with Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan.

"The major investigative activity is coming outside the United States," a government official familiar with the investigation said Thursday. "Most of the main accomplices are located outside the United States."

Worldwide Manhunt Continues for Fugitives

Hundreds of FBI agents have fanned out across Germany, other European countries and the Middle East, working with authorities there in a search for clues, connections and potential suspects.

A number of suspects have been apprehended in Europe, and three fugitives from Hamburg, Germany--including a man who the FBI believes was meant to be the 20th hijacker--are being sought on international arrest warrants.

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