U.S. seeks clues to hijack preparations

FBI eager to uncover terrorism accomplices

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 05, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the evening before last month's terrorist attacks, two of the suspected hijackers made stops at automated teller machines, a Wal-Mart store and a gas station in Portland, Maine, before turning in for the night at a nearby Comfort Inn.

Security cameras captured those movements Sept. 10 by Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari. The next morning, surveillance video recorded the two men again as they passed through security at the Portland airport to catch a commuter flight to Boston, where they would board one of the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center.

The grainy shots have helped investigators build a rough timeline of the two men's final hours. But as they disclosed the chronology yesterday, FBI agents said they hoped to generate still more leads about what the men did and who, if anyone, they met with in Portland who might have aided in the plot.

Investigators are particularly interested in Atta, the reputed leader of the 19 suicide hijackers in the Sept. 11 assaults on New York and Washington.

Agents following the money trail are reviewing a series of wire transfers between Atta and Mustafah Ahmed, a Saudi who is a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden and is wanted for questioning by the FBI.

Atta, and possibly some of the other hijackers, are believed to have returned thousands of dollars unused in the plot to Ahmed in the days before the attacks. The Associated Press reported yesterday that authorities are investigating whether the name Ahmed was an alias used by a top aide to bin Laden, the exiled Saudi militant whom the United States has blamed for the attacks.

A detailed summary of intelligence information about the attacks released yesterday by the British government said that one of bin Laden's closest and most senior associates was responsible for the attack. It did not name that person.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who are leading the U.S. investigation, declined to comment yesterday on the evidence made public in London.

In an appearance yesterday with local police officers who have helped with the multifaceted investigation, Mueller said the bureau is pursuing 260,000 tips and leads.

The FBI director also said that forensic experts are examining about 3,000 pieces of evidence collected from the four airliner crash sites and other places.

Mueller also said that since Sept. 11, the FBI has launched 120 hate-crime investigations, including 15 cases opened Wednesday of possible cases of vigilante action against Muslim and Arab Americans.

Agents are keenly focused, though, on the financial trail to try to solve the case and prevent terrorist violence. Mueller noted that the government has frozen about $6 million in bank accounts in the United States and overseas as part of an effort to dry up the reservoir of funds that terrorist organizations draw upon to support their operations.

The Senate Banking Committee, led by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, unanimously approved legislation yesterday that would strengthen U.S. money-laundering laws, particularly relating to the ability of foreign banks to conduct business with the U.S. financial system.

The measure is expected to be considered by the full Senate next week, along with a broader package of anti-terrorism measures.

The money-laundering bill, pushed by the Justice Department, would force U.S. banks to maintain more detailed records on foreign account holders. It would also give federal authorities the power to monitor financial networks in the United States who are part of the mostly paperless banking system used in parts of Asia and Africa known as hawala.

In Portland, investigators have security camera photos that show Atta and Alomari stopping at two ATMs the night before the attacks. Agents would not discuss what kind of transactions the men made at the machines.

The men first stopped at a Key Bank drive-up ATM at 8:31 p.m., the FBI said. About 10 minutes later, a series of security photos showed the men at a Fast Green ATM machine in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno restaurant. In one of the pictures, Alomari can be seen in the foreground, grinning.

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