WASHINGTON — The FBI is questioning a French Algerian man, detained since last month in Minnesota on suspicion of illegally entering the United States, to determine if he was supposed to join 19 hijackers in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, intelligence and law enforcement officials said Sunday.
Habib Zacarias Moussaoui was picked up by immigration officials outside St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 17, after the staff at a flight school that he attended grew suspicious and reported him. Moussaoui offered to pay thousands of dollars in cash for lessons on a jumbo jet flight simulator, but "he just wanted to learn steering, not landing," a U.S. official said Sunday.
U.S. officials alerted French authorities to Moussaoui's detention, and were told that he was an operative of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.
Moussaoui was in the Sherburne County Jail awaiting deportation proceedings when the hijackings took place on Tuesday in a well-orchestrated plot that authorities now blame on Bin Laden's organization.
Moussaoui stood and "cheered" when he watched the planes smash into the World Trade Center on television, a jail supervisor said.
The FBI moved him to New York three days later. "He is being interrogated," an official said.
Investigators cautioned that they still don't know whether Moussaoui is directly tied to the terrorist plot, or simply acted in a way that raised suspicions. He refused to talk to investigators after he was initially detained, officials said.
The disclosure comes at a time when U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies are under scrutiny over whether they missed crucial signs or opportunities that could have provided a warning of the impending attacks.
The CIA had warned the FBI in late August that two other suspected Bin Laden associates were in the United States, but agents failed to find them. The two are suspected of ramming an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon. Hijackers flew two other passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York and a fourth hijacked jet crashed in Pennsylvania.
Suspect Taken Away After Attacks
Congress and the Bush administration are both planning investigations of the failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect the terrorist conspiracy and prevent the catastrophic assaults.
A Sherburne County, Minn., jail supervisor, who gave his name only as Sgt. Olson, said federal authorities called on Tuesday, immediately after the attacks, and asked that Moussaoui be placed in protective custody "in an isolated cell" until they could come get him. Olson said a large group of FBI and immigration agents arrived on Friday and took him away.
During his four-week stay at the jail, Olson said, Moussaoui repeatedly asked to speak to an immigration official "so he could go back to France. He was desperate to get out of there, like a lot of other guys."
Olson said Moussaoui was well-behaved and did not stand out or cause problems. But, he added, Moussaoui was watching television when the hijackers first hit the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and pictures of flaming wreckage filled the screen.
"As soon as he saw it, he stood up, cheered, walked to his cell and closed the door," Olson said, citing accounts by several jail officials. "On that same day, federal agents called and asked us to isolate him away from the other inmates."
French police said Moussaoui had "a similar profile to the kamikaze bombers" who carried out the U.S. attacks, according to an unidentified police source quoted in Liberation, a Paris newspaper. It said French intelligence knew of Moussaoui because he had made numerous trips to Afghanistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be based, and had contacts in Chechnya, where Bin Laden is supporting Islamic rebels.
As a result, French intelligence designated Moussaoui as a target for surveillance, according to French media accounts. They said he was born in the southern French town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, had lived for a while in Britain, and is 31 years old.
Officials said Moussaoui enrolled last February at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., and obtained a student pilot license on March 2. He underwent three months of entry-level training in a single-engine Cessna 152 but left abruptly in May before he had won his pilot's license. School officials there could not be reached Sunday.
He studied during the summer at a Pan Am International Flight Academy facility in Eagan, Minn. But school officials became suspicious and called authorities when Moussaoui, who only had a student pilot license, wanted time on a Northwest Airlines flight simulator. The flight simulators can be programmed to show flight patterns and visual guides for airborne approaches to various U.S. cities, including Washington.
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