Saturday, February 5, 2011

AMERICA'S ORDEAL: Murky Facts Plaguing Probe,

September 21, 2001, Newsday, "Murky Facts Plaguing Probe,"

[Newsday 9/21/01]

by John Riley and Shirley E. Perlman,

On Sept. 1, a man using the name Nawaq Alhamzi registered at the Pin-Del Motel in Laurel, Md. He was recorded as having an address of 161 Lexington Ave. in New York City, and holding New York driver's license number 3402142-D.

On Sept. 14, the FBI identified Alhamzi as one of the 19 hijackers involved in last week's terrorist attacks, and investigators eventually found their way to the Pin-Del Motel.

But the records, apparently, led nowhere. The address turned out to be a Quality Hotel in Manhattan, whose records show they never had a guest by that name. New York's Department of Motor Vehicles says that it never issued a license to anyone with that name, and uses numerical codes that don't resemble the one in the motel's records.

Such dead ends, by most accounts, have become commonplace as FBI agents and reporters try to pin down murky facts about the hijackers, and yesterday - amid reports that some of those identified as hijackers are alive and well - FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged that his agency still is confused about the true identity of several of the hijackers named last week.

"I know I said at the outset that I had a high level of confidence on the identities of the hijackers. We have several hijackers whose identities were those of the names on the manifests," Mueller said. "We have several others that are still in question. The investigation is ongoing, and I am not certain as to several of the others."

Mueller's comments followed interviews earlier this week in which the father of Mohamed Atta - identified as a hijacker of one of the flights that destroyed the World Trade Center and a key player in the entire plot - said from Egypt that he had spoken to his son after the crashes, and reports in both Arab and American newspapers that Saudi Arabian officials have been in touch with men who have the same names as several suspected hijackers.

Among them: Waleed Alshehri, the son of a Saudi diplomat and a pilot with Saudi Arabian Airlines. After the FBI identified a man by that name as a hijacker, it seized records from Embry Riddle Aeronautical College in Daytona Beach, Fla., of a graduate by that name, and some press reports identified him as the son of a Saudi diplomat.
But Saudi Arabia's al-Medina newspaper quoted Saudi diplomat Ahmed Alshehri as saying that his son was still alive and a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines. Saudi papers have reported that other men with the same names as hijackers had been victims of passport theft.

Another sign of the confusion: An alert issued Wednesday by the Federal Reserve Board asking banks to supply information about financial transactions in the names of the suspected hijackers indicates that one hijacker named by the FBI - Khalid al-Midhar - is now believed to be alive. The spelling of the names of several other suspects has been changed from the list the FBI released Sept. 14.

Similar uncertainties, according to the Department of Defense, continue to surround the possible association of hijackers with training programs for foreign military officers at U.S. military installations around the country. Although the Defense Department has acknowledged that people with the same names as those attributed to hijackers were associated with such programs at bases in Florida, Alabama and Texas, a spokeswoman said yesterday they weren't sure whether those individuals were in fact hijackers.

"There are some discrepancies of ages used by the hijackers that don't match with the people who went to our schools," said Air Force Lt. Col. Ginger Blazicko. "The FBI is specifically investigating that."

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said at a briefing yesterday that the hijacker names issued by the FBI were based on the "best information available" last week, and that investigators were looking into questions of stolen identities. However, she refused to specify how many names or which names were in doubt.

Experts said the confusion probably reflected a mixture of difficulties with Arabic spellings, confusion of people with identical names, identity theft and purposeful efforts to sow confusion by the hijackers.

"These people are clever," said Michael Gunter, a terrorism expert at Tennessee Technical University. "This is another world of changing identities and false identities. We may not ever know who some of these people were after all the name changes, the transliterations, the spelling differences."

In other developments in the hijacking investigation yesterday, federal agents outside Chicago arrested Nabil al-Marabh, a man they have been seeking because of reported contacts with two of the hijackers. Agents arrested three other men in Detroit on Wednesday during a raid on an apartment they believed was occupied by al-Marabh.

The FBI said al-Marabh, who was working at the Seven Day Liquor Store, was being held on an Immigration and Naturalization Service request, and on a warrant issued in Massachusetts for assault with a knife. A FBI spokesman said the agency was working to make sure that the al-Marabh who was arrested was the man agents were looking for.

Besides his reported contacts with two of the hijackers, investigators also reportedly have found links between al-Marabh and Raed Hijazi, an alleged associate of Osama bin Laden who is jailed in Jordan on charges that he plotted to blow up a hotel there during the millennium celebration on Jan. 1, 2000. The Detroit News reported yesterday that it had located a Michigan driver's license issued last year to a Nabil al-Marabh to drive trucks carrying explosives and radioactive material.

Also yesterday, police in India provided new information on two Newark men who were on a flight out of Newark Airport to San Antonio on the morning of the hijackings, and were held after an altercation with Drug Enforcement Administration resulted in the discovery of box cutters and cash in their possession. They are being held in New York.

Indian police said both men had obtained more than one passport. The man identified by U.S. officials as Ayub Ali Khan was actually Gul Mohammed Shah, and had obtained a false passport under the name Khan in 1992. The other man, Mohammed Jaweed Azmat, had obtained a passport in 1991, giving false names for his parents and dates of birth different from those on a 1984 passport.

Tom Brune of Newsday's Washington bureau contributed to this story, which was supplemented with wire reports.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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