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THE HUNT FOR AL QAEDA

U.S. Ties 5 to Afghan Camp

Yemeni May Be Storehouse of Sept. 11 Information

September 15, 2002|TERRY McDERMOTT and DIRK LAABS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HAMBURG, Germany — The capture of fugitive Ramzi Binalshibh last week in Pakistan gives investigators their first opportunity to fully understand the inner workings of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A frustrating yearlong investigation that had been successful only on the fringes suddenly has the potential to penetrate to the center of the plot, according to U.S. and German officials.

"You can't overstate the importance of capturing Binalshibh," said one U.S. Justice Department official.

Even before the capture, German Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm called Binalshibh "the essential person" in the plot. Investigators believe that Binalshibh was a key conduit for both money and information between the hijacking teams in the United States and the Al Qaeda command in Afghanistan.

Whether Binalshibh will cooperate with investigators is not known, but he wasn't hesitant about proclaiming his role--and pride--in the attacks in an interview he reportedly granted to the Arab satellite television network Al Jazeera early this summer. In that interview, broadcast last week, a man claiming to be Binalshibh described himself as a coordinator of what he referred to as the "Holy Tuesday" attacks.

German officials are comparing audiotape of the broadcast with tapes they had previously obtained of Binalshibh speaking at a wedding celebration in Hamburg. Binalshibh is under indictment in Germany as a conspirator in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. If the voices match, the Al Jazeera tape will provide an ad hoc confession.

More urgently, in addition to crucial details of Sept. 11 planning, officials hope that Binalshibh can provide information on current Al Qaeda operations. He was accompanied at the Al Jazeera interview by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who many investigators think was the initiator of the Sept. 11 attacks and who has since risen to the top tier of the Al Qaeda hierarchy. Mohammed described himself in the Al Jazeera interview as head of Al Qaeda's military department, so he would presumably have full knowledge of current Al Qaeda plans, some of which Binalshibh might also possess.

The Al Jazeera interview apparently took place in Karachi, Pakistan, in June. It was in Karachi on Wednesday that Binalshibh was captured before a fierce gun battle that left two men dead. Pakistani officials said it was only by luck that Binalshibh was not one of those killed.

Mohammed has been sought by U.S. law enforcement since Philippine police foiled a 1995 plan to blow up a dozen American airliners over the Pacific. The Filipinos believe that the idea to use airliners as bombs was Mohammed's, and he apparently carried it forward to its eventual fruition last September. Other captured Al Qaeda officials have told investigators that Mohammed brought the idea to Al Qaeda's leadership.

Mohammed told Al Jazeera that a decision was made in 1999 to mount an operation against the United States. Late that year, Binalshibh and the three men from Hamburg who piloted the hijacked Sept. 11 jets visited an Al Qaeda camp outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. Investigators believe that it was at that meeting that the Hamburg men agreed to take part in a suicide attack against the United States.

Shortly after the meeting, Binalshibh traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where, according to investigators, he met with other future hijackers from Saudi Arabia and the man suspected of coordinating the October 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen. German investigators say Binalshibh was in Yemen at the time of the Cole attack, just as he seems to have been present nearly every step of the way leading to Sept. 11.

He appears in the investigative record so frequently that some German investigators now think that Binalshibh, not Mohamed Atta, could have been the moving force behind the formation of the Hamburg cell. Among other things, the investigators note that Binalshibh's photograph was found among the belongings of several dead or captured Al Qaeda fighters, as if he were a sort of revered figure.

Binalshibh was born in a remote mountain region of Yemen in 1972. He is reported to have worked in the administrative section of the International Bank of Yemen in Sana, the capital, before arriving surreptitiously in Germany in 1995. Investigators are unsure of the precise date of his arrival. The first known record of him in Germany was his September 1995 application for political asylum under the name Ramzi Mohamed Abdellah Omar. He claimed in that application to be a university student fleeing persecution in Sudan. While his application was reviewed, Binalshibh was assigned to live in a camp for asylum seekers, in the small town of Kummerfeld, just north of Hamburg.

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