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Al Qaeda Agent's 9/11 Role Comes Into Focus

Ammar al-Baluchi, once considered a bit player, is alleged to have served as trainer and banker for several of the hijackers.

May 21, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Until recently, Ammar al-Baluchi was considered a peripheral player in Al Qaeda, a functionary who made travel arrangements and wired money for terrorists.

But new government disclosures place Baluchi in a larger role in the Sept. 11 preparations and rank him No. 4 among the conspirators captured by U.S. forces after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, investigators say he was instrumental in acquiring a Boeing 747 flight simulator and a Boeing 767 flight-deck video for the hijackers to practice on before heading to the United States.

"He was turning up everywhere we looked -- like a chameleon," recalled one federal agent who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations.

A man of many names, Baluchi seemed to have his hand in everything.

He allegedly served as travel agent, personal banker and mother hen for at least nine of the 19 hijackers, sending them off from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for their fateful rendezvous in the United States.

Baluchi also reportedly sent onetime "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla on his way to Chicago with thousands of dollars and travel documents, though Padilla was captured as he stepped off the plane.

He tried to sneak a terrorist into New York to blow up gas stations on the East Coast, according to evidence in another terrorism trial. And when he was captured in April 2003, he was found hiding in his native Pakistan with the man behind the suicide attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole.

A few of Baluchi's activities were sketchily cited in the Sept. 11 commission report and elsewhere. He has been variously identified as Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and, more simply, as "Losh" in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. In the plot to blow up gas stations on the East Coast, he presented himself variously as "Habib" to one collaborator and "Mustafa" to another.

But it was not until the end of the sentencing trial of avowed Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui that a clearer portrait of Baluchi emerged.

The last piece of evidence in the trial was a four-page document in which the government, for the first time, officially identified the six top Al Qaeda figures captured in the Sept. 11 plot.

The captives were listed in order of importance, and Baluchi came in at No. 4.

Believed to be in his late 20s, Baluchi was born into the business. The man at the top of the list, Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is his uncle. His first cousin is Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Baluchi's multiple identities kept investigators at bay. Finally, it was his own slip-up in providing personal contact information for a wire transfer to hijacker Nawaf al Hamzi that "helped the FBI unravel his aliases," the Sept. 11 commission said.

Others on the list: No. 2, Ramzi Binalshibh, and No. 3, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, both Sept. 11 financiers; No. 5, Walid Muhammad Salih Bin al-Attash, also known as "Khallad," who helped formulate the Sept. 11 operation after his earlier success orchestrating the 2000 attack on the Cole; and No. 6, Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man now confirmed as the intended 20th hijacker who was denied U.S. entry by Customs officials in Florida shortly before the attacks.

Baluchi was reportedly hiding with Attash in Pakistan when both were captured in a raid by local officials in April 2003. A month earlier, Baluchi's uncle, Mohammed, was apprehended, and Baluchi and Attash were trying to take up his mantle and push ahead with new terrorism plots. One was the plan to blow up East Coast gas stations.

The government document described Baluchi as "a key travel and financial facilitator for the Sept. 11 hijackers," a role assigned to him by his uncle. His work on the Sept. 11 plot began as early as January 2000 when, at his uncle's request, "he purchased a Boeing 747-400 flight simulator" using the credit card of Marwan al Shehhi, who piloted the second plane into the trade center.

In spring 2001, Baluchi's uncle sent him to Dubai to organize "hotel reservations, future travel arrangements and local shopping needs" for the hijacking teams.

"In the end," the government said, "Baluchi assisted at least nine of the hijackers as they came through Dubai en route to the U.S. He helped them with plane tickets, travelers checks and hotel reservations. He also taught them everyday aspects of life in the West, such as purchasing clothes and ordering food."

The Sept. 11 panel said "Ali Abdul Aziz Ali," or Baluchi, also used funds from Shehhi's credit card to acquire a Boeing 767 flight-deck video and pilot literature, and had them shipped to his workplace, a computer wholesaler in the United Arab Emirates.

But the July 2004 commission report doubted that Baluchi was clued in to the magnitude of the Sept. 11 operation. Rather, the panel said, he would have "assumed the operatives he was helping were involved in a big operation in the United States." But "he did not know the details."

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