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U.S. Seeks 29 Who Gained Visas in Scheme

Fraud: Officials say two men who roomed with Sept. 11 hijacking suspects are among 71 people who received documents in Qatar.

July 10, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The United States has launched a nationwide manhunt for 29 people from the Middle East who were issued fraudulent visas as part of an illegal scheme run out of the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar, according to State Department officials.

Two men who roomed with suspected hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are among the 71 people who obtained the illicit visas, officials said.

As a result of a secret investigation, code-named Operation Eagle Strike, 31 of the 71 are in custody, State Department officials said. One of the suspected hijackers' roommates is among those held.

Two of those in custody were arrested during the last week in Baltimore and near Detroit on suspicion of illegally obtaining visas. It was unclear Tuesday evening whether any of the others in custody had been formally charged.

"Thirty-one people have been taken into custody, 29 are actively being sought, six persons have departed the United States," State Department spokesman Frederick Jones said. The others were spouses and minors.

The FBI and State Department are trying to determine whether any of those issued the fraudulent visas are terrorists or whether they are simply people who wanted to pay their way into the country for other reasons. So far, U.S. officials say it is premature to make a connection between the visa scheme and terrorism, although each case is being investigated for any possible ties to Al Qaeda or other extremist groups.

"In the post-9/11 world, we look at everything as a potential danger," said a senior law enforcement official who requested anonymity.

Added a State Department official: "In this environment, this is a train wreck."

The FBI is particularly concerned about Rasmi Subhi Salah al Shannaq and a man whose name is either Ahmed Ahmad or Ahmed Ahmed. They lived near Washington, in northern Virginia, with two of the Sept. 11 hijacking suspects, according to the law enforcement official.

Investigators are trying to determine whether a third man who obtained an illegal visa was also a roommate of alleged hijackers Hani Hanjour, one of the suspected plot leaders, and Nawaf Alhazmi. Both were on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Hanjour is believed to have been the pilot.

Al Shannaq, a 27-year-old Jordanian, was arrested in Baltimore on June 24 and indicted by a grand jury last week, charged with unlawfully obtaining a nonimmigrant U.S. visa, an offense that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and up to $250,000 in fines, according to court papers.

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Susan Gauvey ordered Al Shannaq held without bail.

Al Shannaq may be most valuable for what he knows about those involved with the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. officials hope that he can provide information on the hijackers' contacts in the U.S. and abroad, their financial sources and their means of communication. Al Shannaq is reportedly cooperating with U.S. authorities.

Al Shannaq allegedly obtained his fraudulent visa on Oct. 1, 2000, and entered the country at the end of that month.

Al Shannaq and his fiancee have lived in recent months at his father's home in Baltimore, according to media reports in that city. He recently worked at a pizza restaurant, although he reportedly was fired for being unreliable.

Ahmed or Ahmad has not been charged but is under investigation, the law enforcement official said.

The other person known to have been arrested is Majed Ghazi Yousef Sarhan, a 34-year-old Jordanian who was detained last week in Troy, Mich., on charges of illegally obtaining a visa in Qatar.

Among the other recipients of fraudulent visas are several Jordanians and Saudis, according to the Justice Department. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia.

The investigation began in January following a tip from an informant last November that an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Qatar was granting fraudulent visas for payment of $10,000, according to an affidavit from Edward Seitz, a special agent with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. The probe was so secret that not even senior members of the State Department were aware of it.

Both local and American employees at the embassy in Qatar, a petroleum-rich sheikdom on the Persian Gulf, are under investigation. But the primary focus is on a Virginia man who is believed to have sold the visas for between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash while working in the embassy, according to a federal law enforcement official who also asked to remain anonymous.

He is currently under 24-hour surveillance, according to law enforcement officials.

Described as a State Department employee, he is one of only a handful of workers who processed visa applications in Qatar over the past several years. He is a U.S. citizen who had returned from Qatar to the Washington area for training when he was confronted by agents from the Diplomatic Security Service.

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