FBI keeps presence in Laurel

Agents maintain watch

link sought to hijack suspect

Terrorism Strikes America

September 17, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber and Michael James | Del Quentin Wilber and Michael James,SUN STAFF

LAUREL - First, they viewed the horror of terrorism in New York and Washington on their television screens. Now they're seeing the investigation unfold right in their neighborhood.

Karl Rosip was watching television coverage of the terrorist attacks Wednesday in his apartment in the 9500 block of Muirkirk Road when he answered a knock on the door. FBI agents wanted to ask him some questions and show him some photographs.

"That brought it much closer to home," said Rosip, 27. "Having FBI agents come to your door. ... You wonder where these [terrorists] were. Then you find out one of these guys might be living close to you."

In the hours after terrorists plunged planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, FBI agents began scouring an apartment complex on Muirkirk Road, looking for a possible Maryland connection to the attacks.

At least one of the suspected hijackers - Mohamed Atta, 33, who was on America Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center - stayed at a Laurel residence for a short time before the attacks and met with others there, said investigators who refused to divulge the address.

The FBI also has said that it wants to question Moataz al-Hallak, an Islamic cleric who lives at the Muirkirk Road apartment complex in Prince George's County. Investigators believe al-Hallak might have information related to the attacks.

As of yesterday, the investigators were still there, and residents were increasingly disconcerted.

John McCoy of the 9500 block of Muirkirk Road said that neighbors told him that they called police about strange cars parked in their neighborhood - hoping to shoo the people away. But the cars never left, McCoy said. "If they knew something, it would be nice to get the word out," he said.

Only a few feet away from McCoy, a man wearing sunglasses sat in a black Chevrolet Tahoe. He was speaking on a cellular telephone and had a map propped next to the dashboard. When approached by a reporter, the man lowered his window two inches.

"Are you a federal agent?" the man was asked. "Call the front office," the man answered, and quickly shut the window. A few minutes later, the man pulled out.

Other residents noticed a Ford van with construction equipment on its roof and tinted windows. It showed up at the complex entrance, perhaps Saturday, and its motor has been running with no one at the wheel, residents said. Several said they pounded on the van but received no answer.

On Wednesday or Thursday, FBI agents approached residents in parking lots or knocked on their doors, showing them photographs of two men, residents said. The men appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, they said.

About a dozen residents said they told agents they did not recall seeing either of the two men shown in the photographs. At least one of the photos seemed to be from a surveillance camera in a bank or convenience store, residents said.

Several residents said yesterday they thought one of the men in the photographs might have been Atta. And two said FBI agents told them that the men in the photographs might have lived in the neighborhood for a time.

"They said some of these lived around this neighborhood and that upset me," said Nadim Raddar of the 9500 block of Muirkirk Road. "I was shocked."

On Thursday, two agents knocked on Ellen Leland's door. They showed her the same photographs. "It was kind of nervewracking," the 18-year-old said.

In the past few days, residents said they noticed FBI agents sitting in cars - Dodge Intrepids with tinted windows and black Chevrolet trucks - keeping watch.

Stanley L. Cohen, al-Hallak's lawyer, said he could not figure out the surveillance. Cohen said his client condemns violence, did not participate in the attacks and had no previous knowledge of them. He called the FBI investigation a "witch hunt."

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 of participating in a global terrorism conspiracy that included the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.

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