Washington Post
October , 2001

Terrorist Hijacking Probe Slows in U.S.

By Dan Eggen

WASHIGNTON -- Fewer than 10 of the 800 people detained since the Sept. 11 terror attacks are suspected of being associated with the hijacking plot, but investigators have learned few details because none of the suspects is cooperating with authorities, senior government officials said this week.

The FBI has also largely abandoned its long-held suspicion that other planes were targeted for hijackings Sept. 11, a senior government official said. Investigators have found innocent explanations for box cutters and other knives discovered on four planes after the hijackings, and they have found no clear evidence of a fifth or sixth attempt, several officials said.

The bureau "is moving more and more away from that," the senior official said. "We don't seem to be able to put it together. We don't see it, and we don't have it."

The narrowing possibilities come as the criminal probe into the terrorist attacks slows dramatically in the United States, shifting its focus overseas as the FBI dedicates more resources to investigating anthrax reports and preventing other terror attacks, government officials said.

"We have in large part discovered most everything we're going to discover here," a U.S. law enforcement official said. "The bulk of the actual investigation is now overseas."

Several senior U.S. officials described the shift in the investigation to overseas targets as a natural progression as investigators sifted through and ruled out the blizzard of leads and tips that flowed into the FBI and other agencies after the attacks.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III have complained in recent days that the anthrax scare including thousands of false reports is taxing the resources of federal investigators. But Ashcroft and other officials have rejected assertions that the workload is impeding the main terrorism probe. "We are still devoting the resources which we think are appropriate," Ashcroft said yesterday.

Five weeks into the largest criminal probe in U.S. history, investigators believe they have assembled a detailed portrait of the activities of the 19 hijackers, who crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center and flew others into the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The work of U.S.-based investigators is now focused on combing through telephone toll records, financial receipts and other documents in search of clues to the accomplices who provided at least $500,000 in funding for the hijacking plot and are believed to be connected to the al Qaeda terrorist group.

The list of people wanted by the FBI for questioning in the United States has shrunk to fewer than 100 as authorities continue to detain and, in nearly all cases, rule out links to the terrorist plot. Hundreds remain in custody on charges of violating immigration rules or other U.S. laws unconnected to terrorism, officials said.

A government official said that none of those detained appear to be "key players" in orchestrating the attacks, though authorities believe that a French Moroccan man detained in Minnesota before the hijackings, Zacarias Moussaoui, was likely meant to be on one of the commandeered planes.

Other suspected associates in custody, officials said, include Nabil Almarabh, a former Boston cabdriver with alleged links to al Qaeda; Lotfi Raissi, who is awaiting extradition in the United Kingdom and is alleged to have trained several of the hijacking pilots; and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan, two Indian men detained the day after the attacks with box cutters.

An undisclosed number of detainees are suspected members of al Qaeda cells who have been operating in the United States but have not been linked to the hijacking plot, sources have said.

Three other men detained in the probe are suspected of involvement in a separate terrorist plot to apparently bomb a U.S. air base in Turkey last year.

Instead, U.S. officials have found the strongest links between the hijacking squads and al Qaeda overseas, especially in countries like United Arab Emirates, which served as a key financial conduit, and Germany, where U.S. investigators believe the plot was hatched by three hijacking leaders who lived there. The FBI has assigned more than 24 agents to assist German authorities.

U.S. officials are more certain than ever that Mohamed Atta, who is believed to have piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center, was the ringleader of the hijacking teams who trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and had contact with al Qaeda operatives in Europe and the Middle East, an official said. Marwan Al-Shehhi, another pilot who was part of the first wave of hijackers to arrive in the United States in 2000, is also viewed by investigators as a key leader.

"Those two seem to have the most money, they traveled the most, and they seem to be key to the planning," the official said.

Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey, speaking to the National Press Club, caused a stir Wednesday by asserting that the immediate grounding of all aircraft Sept. 11 probably prevented other hijackings.

Garvey later said that her answer to a reporter's question was based on reports last month about box cutters and other knives found on other planes. But since those reports, FBI investigators have become less convinced that other hijackings were in the works.

Suspicions were heightened within days of the attacks, when authorities found five box cutters and knives stowed on jetliners after all flights were grounded Sept. 11. In addition, officials arrested Azmath and Khan with box cutters Sept. 12 on an Amtrak train bound for San Antonio after departing a plane grounded in St. Louis.

Investigators have since determined that the knives were innocently left or dropped by plane crew workers or others, officials said, and have found no other suspicious passengers aboard the Sept. 11 flight taken by Azmath and Khan out of Newark. However, authorities believe they have information related to the hijackings.

Staff writer Don Phillips contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001. Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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