FBI refused agents' request in Aug. on possible hijacker

Investigation was sought after flight training effort

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 06, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The FBI held back its agents in August from opening a criminal investigation of a man who investigators now suspect was meant to be the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior Justice Department official said yesterday.

Zacarias Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was arrested Aug. 17 on immigration charges after he tried to learn how to fly large jet aircraft, but expressed no interest in mastering how to take off or land.

Senior officials at FBI headquarters rejected requests from agents in Minneapolis for a wider investigation on two occasions, even after a French intelligence agency warned the bureau in a classified two-page cable Aug. 27 that Moussaoui held "Islamic extremist beliefs."

Other law enforcement officials said the information about Moussaoui was reviewed by a counterterrorism panel before Sept. 11. The threat analysis committee set the issue aside because the panelists, among them officials from the FBI and CIA, were unable to determine whether Moussaoui represented a threat.

Law enforcement officials said that it remained unclear whether an earlier and more aggressive investigation of Moussaoui might have turned up evidence that could have helped the authorities stop the Sept. 11 plot. Moussaoui remains in custody and refuses to cooperate with investigators.

But the accounts of law enforcement officials indicate that in the days before the Sept. 11 attack, analysts at the FBI and the CIA were advised of the suspicious activities of an immigrant linked to Muslim extremism who wanted to fly a large commercial jetliner, but whose interest seemed limited only to steering the plane in flight.

Moussaoui's significance and whether he had a role in the plot remain under investigation. Investigators have no clear-cut evidence, but he fits the profile of some hijackers - a well-educated immigrant, linked to Muslim extremists who arrived in the United States seeking flight training.

The officials have said that they suspect Moussaoui was meant to be aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Federal authorities have said that of the four airliners hijacked Sept. 11, only Flight 93 had four hijackers aboard instead of the five-man teams on the other three flights.

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