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2 Indonesians Seen as Key Link to Terrorists

Inquiry: The men had ties to several hijackers, the FBI says, but may have been simply friends.


WASHINGTON — Two Indonesian men have emerged as either key players in the FBI's stalled investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the innocent victims of their friendship with suspected terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta.

The FBI has intensified its investigation into the two Washington-area men in hopes that they can provide new information about Atta and other key figures in the attacks. The two could be a living link between the terrorists' operation in Hamburg, Germany, where the attacks were planned, and in the United States, where they were carried out.

Agus Budiman and Mohamed bin Naser Belfas knew Atta and others in the Al Qaeda terrorist cell in Hamburg who apparently planned the four hijackings, according to court documents and officials familiar with the case.

While in Hamburg, Budiman, 31, attended mosque with Atta and helped him move into an apartment that ultimately was used as a safe house for half a dozen suicide attackers and planners, according to the officials. Investigative documents compiled by U.S. law enforcement indicate Belfas is an "associate" of Ramsi Binalshibh, who roomed with Atta and whom the FBI recently named as the missing 20th hijacker.

Despite the tantalizing links and clues, officials so far have yet to determine whether the two men were tangential figures who befriended the wrong crowd or were supporting players in the Sept. 11 tragedy.

"I don't know if anybody knows at this point" exactly what, if any, connections the two men had to the hijackers in the United States, said one Justice Department official with knowledge of the case.

Three days after the U.S. attacks, Germany's Federal Criminal Agency police raided Atta's apartment and another nearby that was used by Belfas. German authorities told the FBI that Belfas was a "contact" for Osama bin Laden and was wanted for questioning as a possible suspect or witness.

According to the FBI, Binalshibh twice used Budiman's suburban Washington address to try to enter the United States before the September attacks but was denied a visa both times. The FBI has said Binalshibh, who was born in Bin Laden's ancestral community in Yemen, had planned to join the hijackers who crashed an airliner into a Pennsylvania field. Binalshibh, 29, faces an international arrest warrant.

Budiman was detained Oct. 30 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Arlington, Va., but the FBI later moved him into federal custody for alleged immigration violations and for document fraud. He has denied any involvement in terrorism.

U.S. authorities have refused to say whether Belfas is in custody or cooperating with the FBI. A spokeswoman for the German federal prosecutor's office said Germany had not issued an arrest warrant for him.

Law enforcement documents indicate Belfas used the address of Budiman's brother, Achmad Faisal, when he arrived in the country. Faisal, who lives in an immigrant-filled neighborhood of small brick homes in Silver Spring, Md., told the Indonesian press service Antara that the FBI had offered to reduce charges against his brother if Budiman agreed to cooperate.

Faisal referred all questions Tuesday to Budiman's immigration lawyer, Ivan Yakub, who said he wasn't aware of a proposed deal. He said Budiman had befriended Atta and the other suspected terrorists in Hamburg at the local mosque, but Budiman did not see them after he flew to the United States on Oct. 20, 2000.

Yakub said the FBI interviewed Budiman twice for more than seven hours and gave him a polygraph test after his arrest, all without a lawyer present. "Apparently he passed it," Yakub said. "They told him he wouldn't have any problem. He's not been charged with any terrorism or on any security grounds."

Budiman's arrest warrant charges him with helping Belfas illegally obtain false identification documents by certifying on Nov. 4, 2000, that he and Belfas both lived in Arlington, Va., at an address not far from the Pentagon. Neither man lived there, the complaint said, but Belfas later used the state-issued photo ID card to obtain a Virginia driver's license.

Budiman also is accused of having overstayed his visa by one day before filing for an extension and of having worked illegally as a driver for Takeout Taxi, a food delivery service in suburban Washington. Belfas frequently accompanied him as he drove.

But during a detention hearing in federal court Monday in Alexandria, Va., FBI Special Agent Jesus Gomez unexpectedly began outlining Budiman's alleged ties to Atta and the other suspected terrorists. Gomez said Budiman knew Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Gomez said he also knew Binalshibh.

Gomez said Atta and Binalshibh were roommates and that Budiman helped them move to a new apartment. He said Atta told Budiman that he hated the United States and that Washington was responsible for "most of the wars going on" around the world.

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