Terrorist search leads FBI agents to Md. suburbs

Hijack suspect traced to Laurel apartment

Terrorism Strikes America

September 16, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber, Andrew A. Green and Michael James | Del Quentin Wilber, Andrew A. Green and Michael James,SUN STAFF

LAUREL - The worldwide search for suspects in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington intensified yesterday as federal agents detained 25 people for questioning and gathered more than 36,000 leads, some of which have sent FBI investigators combing the Maryland suburbs for clues.

Among the leads FBI agents are pursuing in the Prince George's County section of Laurel is a recent residence of Mohamed Atta, 33, believed to be one of the hijackers on board American Airlines Flight 11, the first to have crashed into the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning.

Federal investigators refused to say how long they believe Atta might have lived in Maryland or what he was doing here. But yesterday, residents at a sprawling apartment complex in Laurel said FBI agents have been knocking on their doors and showing them photographs of Middle Eastern suspects.

"They [the FBI] showed up and showed me some pictures, and they asked me if I'd ever seen them before, but I hadn't," said 31-year-old Kim Harvey, a resident of the complex in the 9500 block of Muirkirk Road.

Another resident, Erik Larson, 37, said three investigators came to his door and showed him similar pictures.

"One looked like it had been taken inside a bank," Larson said. "There were three pictures. One looked like it had been taken off of a driver's license that had Arabic writing on it."

Laurel, a small city split among Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, has surfaced in another aspect of the investigation. The FBI has announced that it wants to question Moataz al-Hallak, an Islamic cleric who lives at the Muirkirk Road apartment complex and who investigators believe might have information related to the attacks.

Al-Hallak is the former imam - the equivalent of a priest or rabbi - of the Islamic Society of Arlington, Texas, and was a friend of Wadih el-Hage, a follower of Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. El-Hage was convicted in the spring on charges that he participated in a global terrorism conspiracy that included the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.

Stanley L. Cohen, al-Hallak's lawyer, said the FBI told him last week that someone had claimed that al-Hallak "mentioned several days before the World Trade Center attack that `there's going to be a bombing, and I don't want to be there.'"

Al-Hallak, 41, was contacted at his apartment yesterday by The Sun. He answered the door and said he was in the midst of praying. He referred questions to Cohen.

In 1999, a federal prosecutor said in court that al-Hallak had served as a contact between members of the bin Laden organization, but the government has never charged him.

The special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas office, Danny Defenbaugh, was quoted last week as saying, "We are looking for Moataz, and we would like to talk to him because he may have some information that might be of assistance to us."

Cohen said the FBI had threatened to have his client jailed as a material witness if he did not submit to questioning. He said his client condemned violence and strenuously denied having any prior knowledge of the bombing.

The lawyer added that al-Hallak, who now teaches at an Islamic school in Laurel, refused to speak to the FBI because he did not trust it, but will comply with a subpoena, talk to a federal prosecutor or appear in front of a grand jury.

Cohen said the FBI announced it wanted to question al-Hallak before talking to him or his lawyer.

"It's more of this xenophobic, anti-Islamic hysteria," Cohen said. "They think they can slander anyone they want. They wanted to send the message that he's dangerous or involved in the attacks, none of which is true."

The agents wanted to talk to his client, Cohen said, "for the same reason the FBI has been visiting mosques and Islamic organizaitons all over the U.S. and in particular Washington and Virgina. Anyone who has brown eyes and brown skin and prays five times a day is getting a visit, and my client said, `Enough.'"

In another Maryland connection, two of the suspected hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, bought tickets over the Internet and picked them up at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, according to an FBI memorandum.

Khalid Almihdhar and Majed Moqed both booked their tickets for the flight from Dulles International Airport through the American Airlines Web site. They used a frequent flyer account they had established the day before and picked them up at BWI on Sept. 5. Both men paid in cash.

The investigation also began heating up in other parts of the country. Twenty-five people have now been arrested for immigration violations as part of the probe, government officials said.

Among the 25 are two men detained at an Amtrak station in Fort Worth, Texas, who were interviewed by FBI agents, taken into custody and flown to New York. The men, who said they were from India, identified themselves as Ayub Ali Kahn, 51, and Mohamed Jaweed Azmath, 47.

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