Recovered letter links 3 hijackings, Ashcroft says

Document provides instructions, spiritual guidance to terrorists

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 29, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Copies of a four-page handwritten letter, containing Islamic prayers along with blunt instructions for "the last night" and "when you board the plane," were found in one suspected hijacker's suitcase in Boston, in a second hijacker's car in Virginia and in the wreckage of a third plane in rural Pennsylvania, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said yesterday.

The chilling document provides the strongest evidence yet that the four hijackings on Sept. 11, and the subsequent attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were part of a coordinated terrorist plot, he said.

"It is a disturbing and shocking view into the mind-set of these terrorists," Ashcroft said as the FBI released copies of the letter in its original Arabic. "The letter provides instructions to the terrorists to be carried out both prior and during their terrorist attacks."

As he made public that crucial piece of evidence, Ashcroft said that 480 people have been arrested or detained in the probe of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Along with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Ashcroft also raised the possibility that investigators are looking beyond Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden as they try to track down the plot's mastermind.

"One should not focus on one individual, but focus one's attention on a series of networks across the world," Mueller said. "We quite obviously want to identify the ties - not to just one individual, but any individual which may, or who may, share responsibility for what happened on Sept. 11."

The number of people taken into custody has grown significantly since Monday, when Ashcroft said 352 people had been detained and an additional 392 were wanted for questioning. Little information has been made public about most of them.

The Justice Department has not made public its translated version of the letter, believed to have been a kind of how-to manual and spiritual guide for the 19 suicide hijackers.

FBI officials said they were concerned that some Muslim Americans might be offended by the letter or that other groups might try to undermine the translation, also considered critical evidence in the investigation.

Details of the letter first were reported yesterday in The Washington Post. The newspaper translated the document as instructing the suspected hijackers to "Check all of your items - your bag, your clothes, knives, your will, your IDs, your passport, all your papers" and to "make sure nobody is following you."

A translation released late yesterday by the Reuters news service said the letter also instructed the hijackers, "Pledge allegiance to death and renew the intention. Know the plan well from all aspects. Expect a reaction or resistance from the enemy."

Ashcroft said that while the letter contained many religious references, "I do not believe it to be representative of Muslims or the Islamic faith."

The letter is "a stark reminder of how these hijackers grossly perverted the Islamic faith to justify their terrorist acts," he said.

Justice officials said they did not know who wrote the letter. Ashcroft said one copy was found in Boston in a suitcase belonging to Mohamed Atta, 33, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.

The suitcase never was put on the plane, and FBI agents found it at the Boston airport.

Another copy of the letter was found in a car left behind in the parking lot of the Washington Dulles International Airport. Ashcroft said the car belonged to Nawef Alhamzi, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

A third copy was found in the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in western Pennsylvania after passengers apparently fought the hijackers.

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