New York Times
November 1, 2001

U.S. Says 3 Detainees May Be Tied to Hijackings


WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft disclosed for the first time today that the government had apprehended suspects who were believed to have had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Mr. Ashcroft said that three Arab men who lived in Michigan had been found in possession of airport diagrams, as well as false immigration forms, a fraudulent American visa and a false alien identification card, and that they were "suspected of having knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Other law enforcement officials have previously identified the three Arab immigrants as suspects in the investigation of the September terrorist attacks, although they say there has been no evidence to tie them directly to hijacking plans. They said that in his comments today, Mr. Ashcroft was apparently referring to a diagram for an airport in Amman, Jordan.

Mr. Ashcroft cited the detention of the three men as proof of the value of a nationwide effort by federal law enforcement agencies to round up immigrants with ties to terrorists.

The Justice Department also announced that as part of a broad immigration crackdown, it had placed 46 groups on a list of suspected terrorist organizations whose members or supporters would be barred from entering the United States.

The move, required under an anti- terrorism bill signed into law by President Bush last week, greatly expanded the number of groups whose members would, in most cases, automatically be denied an American visa.

Among those added to the watch list were several Middle Eastern charitable organizations and food companies that are accused of funneling money to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

Mr. Ashcroft used a news conference to announce the list and offer details of the larger immigration crackdown.

The three men in Michigan had previously been identified by law enforcement officials as Arab immigrants who were believed to be part of Al Qaeda and whose suspicious belongings had been found in a Detroit apartment last month.

On Monday, Mr. Ashcroft issued a public warning of imminent terrorist attacks over the next week. He suggested today that the threat had not eased. "I have no reason to indicate that there is any reason for people not to be as careful as we have asked them to be," he said.

Other law enforcement officials have said that the warning resulted from intelligence suggesting that bin Laden associates had been intercepted talking about imminent terrorist attacks against the United States.

The government's roundup of immigrants has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups and from some members of Congress. Today, Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, both Democrats, wrote to Mr. Ashcroft, asking him to list the identities of the detained immigrants and the charges against them. The lawmakers asked that the Justice Department "take all steps to ensure that their fundamental constitutional rights are protected."

So far, more than 1,000 people have been taken into custody under the program, many of them on relatively minor immigration charges.

"It is difficult for a person in jail or under detention to murder innocent people or to aid or abet in terrorism," Mr. Ashcroft said. "As a nation of immigrants, America welcomes friends from other countries who wish to visit, to study, to work. But as Sept. 11 vividly illustrates, aliens also come to our country with the intent to do great evil."

Mr. Ashcroft offered a detailed explanation of the government's "spitting on the sidewalk" policy, in which immigrants suspected of terrorist ties are apprehended for even minor, unrelated charges, just so long as they are taken off the street.

"Aggressive detention of law breakers and material witnesses is vital to preventing, disrupting or delaying new attacks," Mr. Ashcroft said, citing the investigation of the three men in Michigan.

He did not name them, but other law enforcement officials have identified them as Karim Koubriti, 23; Ahmen Hannan, 33; and Youssef Hmimssa.

On Sept. 17, F.B.I. agents raided a Detroit house at 2653 Norman Street, looking to question Nabil al-Marabh, a suspected member of Al Qaeda. Mr. Marabh's name was on an apartment in the building, but he was gone.

Instead, the F.B.I. found Mr. Koubriti, Mr. Hannan and a man named Farouk Ali-Hamoud inside the apartment. According to an affidavit by Robert Pertuso, the Detroit F.B.I. agent heading the investigation, the men told him that they had lived in the apartment for only two weeks and that Mr. Marabh may have lived there earlier.

Inside the apartment, agents found Skychefs Detroit Metropolitan Airport identification badges for Mr. Hannan and Mr. Koubriti, who had both once worked there as dishwashers, and a day planner with notations in Arabic. Mr. Pertuso said some of the notes related to an American military base in Turkey. There were also notes about "the American foreign minister" and Alia International Airport in Amman.

Agents say Mr. Koubriti told them that the documents, which also included passport pictures and false identifications, belonged to another man, Mr. Hmimssa, who had previously lived in the apartment. Mr. Hmimssa was later arrested in Iowa. He, Mr. Koubriti and Mr. Hannan were indicted on charges of fraud and misuse of documents.

Mr. Marabh was arrested on Sept. 19 in a suburb of Chicago. Mr. Marabh, who is now being held as a material witness in New York, had held a commercial driver's license and permit to haul hazardous materials.

Although some senior law enforcement officials have said previously that they believe the men are connected in some way to the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Ashcroft's remarks today were the first time a senior government official had acknowledged those suspicions publicly.

The addition of the 46 groups to the terrorism watch list will almost certainly create new tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia, since several prominent Saudis are affiliated with the charity groups operating in Afghanistan, including the Wafa Humanitarian Organization and the Al Rashid Trust.

Also added to the list were what the Justice Department identified as Palestinian Hizballah, Turkish Hizballah, the Italian Red Brigades and suspected terrorists groups from Ireland, Indonesia and Rwanda.

Until today, 28 groups were on the terrorism watch list, including the Palestine Liberation Front, the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Now, there will be 74 groups.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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