Hijacker tied to attacks on U.S. embassies, ship

Investigators claim Khalid Almidhar played `key roles' in bombings

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

October 06, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Investigators have discovered that one of the suspected hijackers of the jet that crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11 was tied to two previous attacks against American targets by Osama bin Laden's terror network, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

As a result, U.S. investigators say, Khalid Almidhar has taken on a "more prominent" role in their investigation.

On Thursday, the British government released a document that said one unidentified hijacker involved in the attacks Sept. 11 played "key roles" in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998 and the attack in October last year on the American destroyer Cole in Yemen. But the British did not release the hijacker's name.

Yesterday, U.S. officials identified the hijacker as Almidhar. U.S. investigators said they had clearly linked Almidhar to the Cole attack and "possibly" to the embassy bombings, senior U.S. government officials said yesterday.

British officials, relying primarily on information developed by their own intelligence sources, say they believe Almidhar played a significant role in both attacks, senior U.S. and European intelligence officials said yesterday.

Until now, investigators had identified only one principal organizer of the attacks - Mohamed Atta. But among the 19 suspected hijackers, Almidhar now appears to have the strongest connection to al-Qaida, bin Laden's terrorist network, because he is the only one known to have ties to the group's earlier attacks on U.S. targets.

Almidhar's precise role in the earlier attacks remains unclear. Even as investigators look at him more closely, they are finding it extraordinarily difficult to track his movements in the United States and around the world. U.S. law enforcement officials have spelled his name different ways and are not even certain that his name really is Khalid Almidhar.

Federal investigators are confronted with an elaborate conspiracy that is even more difficult to untangle because those who carried it out are dead and the documentary trail they left behind is littered with time-line gaps, confounding contradictions and a long line of aliases. The Justice Department and the FBI have acknowledged that some of the hijackers may have used stolen identities.

Still, a senior law enforcement official discounted the possibility that another man, not Almidhar, took seat 12B on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon. The official said surveillance videotapes and witness interviews placed Almidhar, the man pictured on the FBI Web site, at Dulles International Airport on the morning of Sept. 11.

Almidhar emerged as an important figure when it was disclosed that he was one of two hijackers placed on a U.S. government watch list of suspected terrorists on Aug. 21. The other hijacker, Nawaf Alhamzi, was placed on the watch list because he flew from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles on Jan. 15 last year with Almidhar, intelligence officials said.

In early January last year, Almidhar attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, officials said. The CIA obtained a secret video of the meeting a few weeks later and eventually matched Almidhar's picture with that on his passport, one official said.

The Malaysian meeting came a week after a failed attempt by al-Qaida to attack a U.S. destroyer. After the attack on the Cole, officials say, they eventually concluded that a central figure in the Cole bombing had attended the Malaysia meeting. This discovery, they say, elevated the importance of Almidhar. But that discovery was not made until this past summer, when Almidhar was placed on the watch list.

But in January last year, Almidhar was virtually unknown to U.S. intelligence officials, so the surveillance tape raised no flags.

An intelligence database indicates that Almidhar left the United States in June last year. Subsequent movements remain unclear.

After the CIA went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Aug. 21 and asked them to put Almidhar on its watch list of suspected terrorists, the State Department immediately revoked his visa. Two days later, realizing that their suspect had arrived back in this country on July 4, the CIA alerted the FBI that Almidhar was in the United States.

The FBI was still looking when someone with the name Almidhar sat down in seat 12B of American Airlines Flight 77 at Dulles International Airport early on Sept. 11.

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