HAMBURG, Germany — A Syrian-born businessman who appears on the White House list of 27 alleged bankrollers of terrorism insisted Tuesday he had never met any of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers and had not even heard of Osama bin Laden in 1995 when he entered into a short-lived business deal with a suspected Bin Laden aide.
Mamoun Darkazanli, a slight 40-year-old who has lived here in a two-room apartment with his wife for nearly 20 years and ekes out a living selling lamps and housewares, said in an interview in his tiny kitchen that the accusations are "completely false."
But the naturalized German citizen conceded he co-signed a Deutsche Bank account in 1995 as a favor for Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, allegedly one of Bin Laden's lieutenants. Salim was arrested in Bavaria in 1998 and extradited to the United States to be tried for the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa earlier that year. A Sudanese, Salim allegedly stabbed a New York prison guard in an escape attempt last November.
Darkazanli also said he recognized Marwan Al-Shehhi, one of the hijackers aboard the second plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, from pictures beamed around the world. He said both men attended the same mosque in Steindamm street every Friday. But he said he had never talked to Al-Shehhi.
"All of this is completely false," Darkazanli said of U.S. claims that he is one of the financial lifelines for terrorism. "If this were true, the police would long ago have arrested me."
He also denied claims by Der Spiegel magazine that he formed the link between Bin Laden and the Hamburg terrorist cell that plotted the U.S. attacks.
Hamburg Police Chief Olaf Scholz confirmed that Darkazanli is under surveillance, but said authorities have no evidence of any crime.
Some information provided by U.S. authorities proved to be nearly five years out of date.
President Bush's executive order freezing the worldwide assets of the 27 named individuals and organizations listed Darkazanli's company as an import-export electronics firm on Hamburg's central Lange Reihe street, premises he vacated in January 1997 because the building was being renovated. The telephone number provided by Washington had been out of service for years.
German investigators have not issued an arrest warrant for Darkazanli because "we have no evidence on which to base this," Scholz said. "If the Americans have such evidence, they haven't given it to us."
U.S. Refuses to Reveal Details of Evidence
A U.S. official said the Bush administration was satisfied with the evidence linking Darkazanli's company to Bin Laden. The official, who requested anonymity as a matter of policy, refused to detail any of the evidence, however.
"Nobody has disputed the fact that that trading company is involved in legitimate business," the official said. "But at the same time, there is certainly reason to believe and evidence pointing to the fact that they have engaged in other activities to support Bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Bin Laden's organization is known as Al Qaeda, or "the base."
David Aufhauser, general counsel at the U.S. Treasury Department, said that even unwitting involvement with terrorists may have been enough to earn a slot on the U.S. list.
Scholz was coy when asked if he was confident that his U.S. partners in the investigation were providing all the intelligence they have.
"The problem with not getting all the information is that you never know what you aren't being told," he said.
Asked if Germany was complying with Bush's order to freeze the assets, Scholz replied with a hint of sarcasm: "American laws are different from ours. We have no laws that can order the rest of the world how to behave."
A spokeswoman for Deutsche Bank declined to confirm whether any specific accounts had been frozen in response to Bush's edict.
"What I can say is that we are, of course, closely cooperating with the German and the American investigation authorities," said Daniela Elvers in Frankfurt.
Darkazanli proclaimed himself "ruined."
"Who will want to do business with me now?" he demanded. But he added that he did not feel remorse for helping Salim. "I only ask myself if what I'm being asked is legal, not whether the person asking might one day be accused of terrorism."
Darkazanli's former shop on Lange Reihe was where Salim showed up in early 1995, saying he'd been steered there by mutual business contacts for help in cutting the red tape of starting a Sudanese radio station.
Darkazanli said the only trail tying him to Bin Laden is the March 6, 1995, bank signature card. He noted investigators should be able to easily verify that no more than a few hundred dollars ever passed through the account.