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THE WORLD

Sept. 11 Probe Spotlight Is on Yemeni

Suspect: Man on tape seems to have anticipated events. But officials don't even know if he's alive.

June 01, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — A Yemeni has become the target of terrorism investigators on three continents because his wiretapped comments 13 months before Sept. 11 about aerial attacks could have been references to the U.S. hijack plot, officials said Friday.

The suspect, Abdulsalam Ali Ali Abdulrahman, remains mysterious, as do conversations taped by Italian police in August 2000 and early 2001 that alluded to airports, airplanes and attacks that would make history.

Italian and U.S. investigators are working together to determine whether the suspects whose meandering conversations were overheard had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Italian officials.

"We are asking the Americans what information they may have, their analysis," said an Italian intelligence official who cautioned that the wiretap transcripts are inconclusive. "Is Abdulrahman alive? Where is he? Who is he?"

Based on Egyptian intelligence information, Italian investigators allege that Abdulrahman, 42, had ties to Al Qaeda while acting as a "section chief" of a Yemeni intelligence service and carrying a diplomatic passport.

A Yemeni government source confirmed in a telephone interview that Abdulrahman traveled on a diplomatic passport, but he said he did not appear to be a government official.

"From what we've found, he was not a member of the political security service," said the Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's not hard for businessmen or VIPs to get diplomatic passports here. He may have been an informant.... The police are looking for him as a result of this news. There is a big investigation."

Yemen, a country struggling with lawlessness and Islamic extremism, is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden's father. A suspected Al Qaeda bombing killed 17 Americans aboard the destroyer Cole in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000.

Finding Abdulrahman and learning more about him would help determine whether the Italian intercepts are a piece of the Sept. 11 puzzle. The transcript in a May 15 prosecutor's report obtained by The Times is part of a case in which police wiretapped apartments, cars and cell phones and recorded countless hours of shoptalk by suspected terrorists about fake documents, holy war and the glories of martyrdom.

Abdulrahman appeared to predict the use of airplanes as weapons against the United States, to the delight of his associate, an Egyptian terrorism suspect named Abdelkader Mahmoud Es Sayed, the imam of a mosque in Milan, Italy. Es Sayed allegedly headed an Al Qaeda cell that provided logistical support and helped recruits travel to training camps in Afghanistan. He is believed to have died in last year's U.S. airstrikes in that country.

Just after Abdulrahman predicted destruction that would be "written about by all the newspapers of the world," Es Sayed asked about Bin Laden, according to the transcript.

"Is Abdullah being hunted?" Es Sayed said, using what Italian investigators say is a common alias for Bin Laden.

"Yes, but they won't do anything to him," Abdulrahman responded. "Even if there's a diplomatic agreement between the Americans and the Yemenites, they greatly underestimate our strength."

Italian officials allege that Abdulrahman provided fraudulent documents and airline tickets to Islamic extremists in Europe, particularly Switzerland. His brother Nabil Ali al Hela was arrested in 1998 in connection with a terrorist act the previous year in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to the report.

At the time of the taped conversation, in August 2000, Hamburg-based Ramzi Binalshibh--another Yemeni, who is a former roommate and accused co-conspirator of suspected Sept. 11 plot leader Mohamed Atta--was temporarily back in Yemen. He had been in Germany until late July.

Binalshibh wired money from Yemen to hijackers studying at a Florida flight school Aug. 14, according to U.S. court documents. On Sept. 15, he made an application from Yemen for a visa to attend flight school in the United States, according to the documents. It was the third of four unsuccessful visa applications he made, the last of which was on Oct. 25, 2000, according to the documents.

Investigators are not aware of ties between Binalshibh and Abdulrahman, according to Italian and Yemeni officials. And investigators have not identified the men discussed by Es Sayed and a Tunisian suspect on Jan. 24, 2001, when they mentioned a top-secret matter involving fraudulent documents for "the brothers going to America."

The 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 plot used their real identities and had little known contact with members of Al Qaeda cells in Europe. But Italian officials said it is possible that the documents were meant for other, unknown conspirators.

There are suspicions that the hijackers had accomplices in the United States. In a telephone call intercepted by German investigators within 24 hours of the World Trade Center attacks, a suspect referred to "30 people traveling for the operation."

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