FBI investigates whether suspects stole identities

Washington Bureau

The Justice Department is investigating whether some of the 19 hijackers it says were responsible for last week's terrorist attacks, as well as others it is seeking in connection with the plot, may have used stolen identities to facilitate their entry into the U.S.

When FBI Director Robert Mueller released the hijackers' names late last week, he expressed confidence that the list represented the identities of those who seized the four airliners. But several reports have surfaced of the supposed hijackers, or those with similar names, apparently alive and well in the Middle East.

"The names on the list are the best information that we have," a Justice Department official said Wednesday, but "we are investigating the possibility of identity theft and false identification."

Waleed M. Alshehri was said to be on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, but his father reportedly has said he is a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines and is still alive. Saeed Hussein Al Ghamdi, a pilot listed by the FBI as one of the hijackers, told the Tribune that he is in Tunisia.

The Saudi press has reported that Amer Kamfar, originally named by the FBI in connection with the attacks, is a pilot living in Saudi Arabia.

And Abdulaziz Alomari, also allegedly on a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center, is "alive and well and in Saudi Arabia," a Saudi Embassy official said. "He presented himself on Thursday or Friday and was interviewed by U.S. officials. My understanding is he was cleared."

The Justice Department would not confirm that U.S. officials had interviewed Alomari.

Saudi officials said they have long had problems with criminals faking Saudi passports, partly because of that country's open relations with the United States.

Stealing the identities of others may have been a way for those with connections to terrorist organizations to enter the country and operate more easily, taking flying lessons for example. Saudi nationals are subjected to far less scrutiny than people from Middle Eastern countries less friendly to the United States.

If the identities were appropriated, it would further complicate an FBI investigation that is already enormously tangled. In addition to plowing through elaborate relationships among operatives in the United States, their accomplices and benefactors overseas, investigators would have to determine precisely who they are investigating.

In the meantime, the FBI continued to expand its net Wednesday. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is holding about 115 people in connection with the investigation, up from 25 a few days ago. The number of people the FBI is seeking for questioning has increased from just over 100 to about 200.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who along with the FBI's Mueller is briefing President Bush on the investigation each morning, visited the Pentagon on Wednesday to review the crash site. He then issued what has become an almost daily declaration that the investigation is gaining momentum.

"We are going to pursue every lead and we will prosecute every infraction," Ashcroft said. "We will intensify efforts."

Source of income unknown

That includes a harder look at how the hijackings were financed. Some of the 19 suspected hijackers lived in the United States for years without any visible source of income, neighbors say.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., at the FBI's request, has sent out an alert to banks asking them to look for any relationships they may have had with the alleged hijackers.

"Any financial institution that identifies such a relationship, such as a bank account, or a transaction, such as a wire transfer, with any of the named suspects should complete and file a suspicious activity report," the FDIC's letter said, also urging banks to immediately contact the FBI.

In addition to the 19 hijackers, the FDIC asked banks to look for transactions involving two other individuals. The Justice Department would not provide details on the two.

The FBI list sent to banks revealed that four of the suspected hijackers at one time shared addresses in a neighborhood in Falls Church, Va.

Anti-laundering action

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, released a new strategy to combat money laundering and dismantle large-scale criminal enterprises.

The new money laundering plan, which is required by law each year, was scheduled to be released Sept. 12 but was postponed after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. It was not revised to address money laundering issues raised as investigators look into the financing of the hijackers and their possible link to Osama bin Laden.

The plan also includes new law-enforcement teams in Chicago and San Francisco to join the existing one in Los Angeles in investigating money laundering by suspected terrorists.

After meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told reporters Wednesday that his country would investigate any reports of money from his country helping pay for hijackers' activities.

"Any allegations of any funds moving from anywhere, especially from our country to anywhere, we will of course look at, and if it is true, measures will be taken to prevent it," Al-Faisal said.

But he appeared skeptical that residents of his country were bankrolling terrorists in a major way.

"All the information we have [is] that the funds that are going to terrorist organizations from the Middle East generally, and from Saudi Arabia in particular, are far less than the funds going to those terrorist organizations from Western countries," Al-Faisal said.

Possible warnings

Information also continued to surface about possible warning signs that emerged long before the hijackings. A spokeswoman for the Philippine Embassy said her country told the U.S. government in 1995 that a suspected terrorist admitted to Philippine authorities that he was trained for suicide flights to destroy "vital targets" in the United States.

Patricia Paez, a press officer at the embassy, said that information was provided to the FBI and the U.S. Embassy in Manila after the arrest of Abdul Hakim Murad in January 1995. Murad was under investigation for allegedly planning the assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Murad and Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were indicted in the U.S. just months later in a 14-count federal indictment that accused them of plotting to blow up 11 airliners over the Pacific in a day of rage at the United States.

The indictment also charged the two with the death of a Japanese airline passenger in a December 1994 bombing of a Philippine Airlines flight bound for Tokyo.

Murad, who reportedly had attended flight schools in the United States, was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison without parole for conspiracy and for the passenger's death.

Criminal charges

Across the country, FBI agents continued to question and detain those with possible connections to the hijackings. In Detroit, they held three men who are charged with possession of false documents.

These are the first criminal charges filed as part of the investigation, though there is no clear link between the suspects and the attacks.

FBI agents went to the 2600 block of Norman Street in Detroit to track down Nabil Al-Marabh, who is on the list of people investigators hope to question about the hijackings. He wasn't there, but the FBI found three others in the apartment--Ahmed Hannan, 33, Karim Koubriti, 23, and Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 21. Hannan identified himself as the owner of the apartment.

The agents noticed two employee ID badges for LSG Sky Chefs at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. When agents asked about these badges, the men said they used to work for the airline catering company, according to court papers.

As agents began searching the apartment, Koubriti pointed them to false documents that he said had belonged to a former resident. These included a passport, Social Security card and a visa issued to "Michael Saisa," as well as an immigration form and immigrant identification card.

Agents also found a day planner in the apartment with notations in Arabic mentioning an "American base in Turkey," the "American foreign minister" and "Alia Airport," which is in Jordan. The planner also included sketches of what appeared to be an airport flight line, including planes and runways.

A spokesman for Sky Chefs confirmed Hannan and Koubriti worked as dishwashers at the Detroit airport from May to July. Spokesman Bill Slay said their badges were "common-issue employee IDs" that allowed them access only to a workplace off the airport grounds.

Learning fighting tactics

More details also are emerging about the hijackers' lives in the months and years before the attacks. Many of them sought training in martial arts classes and gyms. In South Florida, FBI agents visited several gyms to look into this angle.

Bert Rodriguez, the owner of U.S. 1 Fitness in Dania Beach, said he gave FBI agents computer records and membership contracts, including one for Ziad Jarrahi, a suspected hijacker who lived 10 blocks from the gym and is believed to have piloted the United flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Rodriguez taught Jarrahi in one-on-one classes on fighting and defense tactics, he said. The 17 or 18 classes Jarrahi took were not traditional martial arts.

"He said he wanted to train in defensive tactics for close quarters; attack and control," Rodriguez said, adding that his students for such training are usually corrections officers or police.

"It's very practical stuff, all based on the science of leverage and the human body," Rodriguez said. "It doesn't look like judo or something. It's punches, grabs and smacks, and quick moves that control another person. I can bring someone down very quickly."

A South Florida man who operates a chain of gyms said at least five of the accused hijackers signed up for one-month memberships in July. Jim Woolard, the gyms' owner, said the FBI visited him last week and asked for records for the suspects.

Neighbors describe routine

While some of the suspects in the hijacking were preparing for their operation in Florida, others were living in Laurel, Md.

Neighbors at the Valencia Motel say they were suspicious of the five Middle Eastern men staying in Room 343 the week before Sept. 11.

Young, clean-shaven and dressed in crisp, clean clothing, Khalid Al-Midhar, Majed Moqed, Hani Hanjour, Nawaq Alhamzi and Salem Alhamzi stuck out at the residential motel, said Toris Proctor, who lives with his family in 342.

They kept a strangely regimented routine every day, he said. They ignored neighbors' greetings, never spoke English to their neighbors and sometimes appeared to laugh among themselves at the low-income people hanging around the motel all day.

"I'd see the same five guys every day, maybe two or three times a day," said Proctor, 22.

They emerged from Room 343 every morning about 10 a.m., he said. Three men got into a blue Toyota Corolla parked in front of their room, while two others walked across Washington Boulevard to a strip mall.

Proctor said the men went into Pizza Time every day. They would return in 15 minutes, get into a car and drive off, returning and leaving again later in the day, always appearing to take all of their luggage with them, said Proctor, who said he is unemployed and hangs around the motel every day.

Tribune staff reporters Stephen J. Hedges, Doug Holt, Jeff Zeleny and David Heinzmann in Washington, Monica Davey in Florida, Ray Gibson in Chicago and E.A. Torriero in Cairo contributed to this report. The staff of the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune newspaper, and Tribune news services also contributed.

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