Bombing suspect arrested money traced to Europe FBI follows trail of joint bank account

March 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- A chemical engineer of Palestinian descent who had studied the principles of explosives was arrested and charged yesterday with aiding in the World Trade Center bombing, as federal investigators said they believe that money to finance the bombing came from Europe.

Nidal A. Ayyad, a 25-year-old employee of Allied Signal Inc., became the second suspect directly linked to the Manhattan blast that left at least at least five dead and more than 1,000 people injured.

He was seized at his apartment in Maplewood, N.J., at 6:42 a.m. by a SWAT team of federal agents after a long trail of clues led from the initial suspect, Mohammed A. Salameh, 25, to the young engineer. The clues included a business card the authorities said was found in Mr. Salameh's pocket when he was arrested last Thursday.

Federal investigators said they believe that money used to finance the bombing -- at least $8,000 -- was transferred by wire in recent months from Europe into a joint account in the names of Mr. Salameh and Mr. Ayyad at a National Westminster bank branch situated near a fundamentalist mosque in Jersey City, N.J.

One of the officials, who were trying last night to trace the source of the wire transfer, said that the existence of the money trail "suggests some foreign group was financing them."

The money was withdrawn sometime later by Mr. Salameh, who is suspected of leasing a storage locker where bomb-making chemicals were mixed and renting the van that carried the bomb into a trade center parking garage.

FBI agents who were tracing the money have not yet identified any source, foreign or domestic, that might help explain a motive behind the Feb. 26 attack, which crippled the city's tallest office complex.

But the existence of the joint account, mentioned yesterday in the federal criminal complaint against Mr. Ayyad, and a disclosure from investigators that they were also examining three other bank accounts held by other people who have not yet been charged, added a new dimension to the case.

It also fed a growing perception by investigators that despite accomplishing its goal, the plot to bomb the trade center may have been clownishly inept in many ways.

"I wish I knew if I had amateurs, wannabe terrorists, or terrorists here," said one senior law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity and who, like many of his associates, professed amazement at the evident gaffes committed by the arrested suspects.

Not only, the government contended, were Mr. Ayyad and Mr. Salameh listed as joint holders of the bank account, they also leased a car together in their own names on Feb. 15: a red Oldsmobile Ciera.

In addition, the federal complaint said, Mr. Salameh called Mr. Ayyad at his office four times on Feb. 25, the day before the bombing, from a pay telephone at the storage center where the chemicals were found.

The complaint suggested that Mr. Ayyad accompanied Mr. Salameh to a Ryder truck rental office in Jersey City Feb. 23, when Mr. Salameh used his own name to lease the Ford rental van that was later traced through a fragment of the wreckage and identified as the vehicle that carried the bomb.

The complaint also suggested that Mr. Ayyad drove Mr. Salameh back to the dealer the next day to pick up a missing side-view mirror for the van. And Mr. Salameh himself returned to the dealer three times to demand refund of a $400 deposit, claiming that the van had been stolen from a shopping mall the night before the bombing.

"It's illogical, that's for certain," said another high-ranking official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "Maybe it was their first time out of the box. You wouldn't expect to find that with the Mafia. You can always say it was amateurish, but the end result was a long way from amateurish. You can't argue with the effectiveness of death."

Whatever the explanation, federal agents and New York City police detectives have capitalized on the apparent carelessness of the bombers and on strokes of luck to propel the investigation forward.

They were apparently led to Mr. Ayyad by the business card found on Mr. Salameh, and searches of their residences turned up other leads, including the joint bank account, officials said.

One official said investigators were trying to learn whether the $8,000 deposit and withdrawal involved any attempt to launder the money.

James E. Esposito, director of the Newark, N.J., office of the FBI, declined at a news briefing after Mr. Ayyad's court appearance yesterday to elaborate on how the joint account was used. Robert E. Precht, Mr. Salameh's Legal Aid lawyer, who has responded to questions on his client's behalf, could not be reached last night.

Other officials in the investigation said last night that Mr. Salameh was believed to have used the name "Kamal Ibrahim" to lease the locker in A Space Station, a storage company at 69 Mallory Avenue in Jersey City, where the chemicals were found.

Officials said they did not believe that the bomb was assembled in the 5-by-15-foot, 8-foot-high steel storage unit. But they said they had not determined who drove the van into the garage at the World Trade Center and when.

The complaint said Mr. Salameh and the van were seen at the locker a day before the blast, suggesting that the bomb was driven to the trade center later that day or on the day of the explosion.

Because the bomb is believed to have exploded on a ramp by a drop-off area, some experts have theorized that it could not have been there very long and may have been parked there shortly before the explosion.

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