WASHINGTON—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.
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.