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Suspect Freed Pending Trial in Visa Fraud Case

Crime: Jordanian is one of 71 people suspected of paying $10,000 each to get papers in Qatar. He and two others have been linked to Sept. 11 figures.

July 11, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A Jordanian was released from custody Wednesday pending trial on visa fraud charges, as State Department officials confirmed that they are investigating how he and two other men with links to suspected Sept. 11 hijackers obtained visas from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar.

Rasmi Subhi Salah al Shannaq was one of at least 71 people who paid $10,000 or more over the last several years to get the visas from someone working at the embassy in Doha, capital of the Persian Gulf sheikdom, according to senior State Department officials.

Authorities have launched a nationwide manhunt for 29 people believed to be holding illicit visas--mostly Jordanians and Pakistanis--and have detained 31 others who also entered the United States.

Among those taken into custody were Al Shannaq and two other men who spent several months last year sharing a Virginia apartment with two of the suspected hijackers, officials said.

Six other alleged buyers of the fraudulent visas have fled the country and an additional five were spouses or children.

A federal judge in Baltimore ordered Al Shannaq freed Wednesday after a prosecutor said that, despite the Jordanian's links to suspected hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi, he appears to have had no involvement in the September attacks.

Nevertheless, Assistant U.S. Atty. Harvey Eisenberg told the judge that authorities remain interested in Al Shannaq and two other men who allegedly roomed with Hanjour and Alhazmi: Ahmed Ahmed and another man whose name has not been disclosed by the FBI.

"We have legitimate questions," Eisenberg told U.S. Magistrate Susan Gauvey. "We want to know as best we can in a free society what went on there."

The judge ordered that Al Shannaq be kept under 24-hour electronic monitoring at his parents' home until trial. She did not set a date for the next court proceeding.

Hanjour and Alhazmi were aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 attacks.

The State Department and the FBI are investigating whether there are terrorist links to Al Shannaq or any of the 70 others who allegedly received illegal visas, a senior State Department official said.

The official said Ahmed and the third roommate are being held and that at least eight men who participated in the alleged visa scheme have raised suspicions among FBI officials for their apparent involvement in some kind of terrorist or criminal activity.

Al Shannaq, 27, was arrested in Baltimore on June 24 and indicted by a grand jury last week.

He was 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.

Court-appointed attorney Jim Wyda said his client has no connection to any kind of terrorist activity.

In a briefing Wednesday, State Department officials discussed their ongoing investigation into the alleged visa fraud, which they have dubbed Operation Eagle Strike. They said the probe started with a tip from an informant in November that an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Qatar was granting fraudulent visas for at least $10,000 each.

Local and U.S. employees at the embassy in Qatar are under investigation. So far, however, State Department officials have not figured out how the 71 people came into possession of the fraudulent visas, or who solicited the payments from them.

While authorities believe someone "on the inside" helped orchestrate the scheme for profit, "we don't know what actually happened," said another department official.

At least three U.S. Embassy officials are under investigation by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service for allegedly playing a role in the scheme, after their signatures were found on fraudulent visas, one official said. So far, none has been charged, disciplined or suspended.

And while 71 fraudulent visas have been identified, "there may well be more," said the senior State Department official.

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