First public indictment in attacks probe issued

San Diego student is charged

Man accused of lying about his relationship with suspected hijackers

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 20, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The federal grand jury probing last month's terrorist attacks issued its first public indictment yesterday, accusing a San Diego college student of lying about his relationship with two suspected hijackers.

The student, Osama Awadallah, is not charged with helping plan or carry out the deadly hijackings. But five weeks after the attacks, the perjury case against him is the first detailed glimpse of the New York grand jury's work.

It comes as federal authorities are increasingly focused in other directions. Since Oct. 1, the FBI has responded to more than 2,500 suspected anthrax scares and, in recent days, has worked to track the source of confirmed cases in New York, Washington, Florida and New Jersey.

At the same time, investigators still trying to unravel who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks are turning their attention overseas.

Another warrant issued

German prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant yesterday for a Moroccan man suspected of helping plan the attacks - the third such fugitive warrant issued by German authorities.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily is also expected to meet Monday with Attorney General John Ashcroft in Washington to discuss the investigation.

The probe remains the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history, with 350,000 leads and 830 people arrested or detained.

Ashcroft said this week that the government is "still devoting the resources which we think are appropriate," and yesterday's indictment in Manhattan was an example of the continuing effort.

"Every witness brought before a grand jury as part of the investigation of the horrible attacks on Sept. 11 - indeed as part of any investigation - has an absolute obligation to tell the truth throughout his or her testimony," said Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York.

Investigators believe that Awadallah, 21, a Jordanian citizen, crossed paths in San Diego with Nawaq Alhamzi and Khalid al-Midhar, two of the suspected hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, whose names were on a government watch list of suspected terrorists.

An FBI affidavit says that one unidentified witness recalled seeing Alhamzi and al-Midhar together on a number of occasions in San Diego early last year, including at the gas station where Awadallah worked.

Awadallah admitted during grand jury testimony Oct. 10 that he knew Alhamzi and had seen him 35 to 40 times in the San Diego area between April 2000 and January, court records indicate. He denied knowing al-Midhar or anyone named Khalid al-Midhar .

In addition to the witness who placed all three at the San Diego gas station, the FBI affidavit alleged that Awadallah had submitted an exam booklet in a college class in which he made reference to "Nawaq" and "Khalid," writing:

"I have always wanted to meet as much people as I can. I have met many people from many countries. One of the [quietest] people I have met is Nawaf. Another one his name Khalid."

Awadallah, who was studying English as a second language at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., was charged with two counts of making false statements to a grand jury. His case is the second perjury case to arise from the huge criminal probe.

In Arizona, a federal grand jury last week charged Faisal M. al Salmi, of Tempe, Ariz., with lying to investigators about knowing one of the suspected hijackers.

Al Salmi had told investigators a week after the terrorist attacks that he had "no knowledge or association" with Hani Hanjour, a suspected hijacker who authorities believe also was on the Pentagon flight, the indictment said.

In fact, the indictment charged, al Salmi knew Hanjour and had spoken with him on several occasions, including "at least one occasion when they spoke of a mutual interest in aviation."

In Europe, German authorities have issued arrest warrants for three men they believe played key roles in planning the attacks on the United States. The latest warrant, issued yesterday, was for Zakariya Essabar, 24, of Morocco.

Earlier, Germany issued arrest warrants for Ramzi Binalshibh, 29, of Yemen and Said Bahaji, 26, a Moroccan living in Germany. All three are being sought on charges of murder and forming terrorist organizations.

In the United States, authorities are balancing the criminal probe with intensive efforts to prevent new terrorist violence and to prosecute false alarms.

A Minnesota woman was charged yesterday with making a false terrorist bomb threat against the Mall of America outside Minneapolis.

In Pine Bush, N.Y., a man was charged with a false anthrax threat at a local bank.

Local involvement

After criticism that the FBI had failed to adequately involve state and local police in prevention efforts, Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III met for 90 minutes yesterday morning with local law enforcement groups.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who had publicly questioned the FBI's approach, called the meeting productive and said he expected local police to begin playing a greater role in spotting and thwarting new threats.

"We're not looking for access to super-secret information," Norris said. "We're just looking for information that will help us best defend our cities."

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