Forgery at terror's heart

Deceit: Investigators tracking al-Qaida's activities have been stymied by the group's obsessive use of identity fraud.

January 19, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The Shanghai Senator cargo ship left the port of Baltimore on Aug. 24, carrying with it a crate bound for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that contained 4,860 pounds of "household goods." No one thought much of it at the port, where thousands of such shipments leave every year for destinations around the world.

But weeks later, as suspicions abounded after the suicide attacks on Sept. 11, some port business leaders began to wonder: Had some of the terrorists come to the Baltimore docks to deliver their belongings home to the Middle East?

"We were looking at the records and the alarm bells just kind of went off," said Bud Getty, shipping manager at Hale Trans Co. "These hijackers had been living around here, and we had these strange coincidences that we didn't know what to make of."

Tipped off by officials at Hale, the FBI in early October collected documents at the port that they hoped would shed some light on the shadowy paths of the hijackers. One of three Arabic men who hired a shipping broker to deliver crates of household goods to Saudi Arabia in August and September had listed a Laurel address not far from where five of the terrorists had been living before the deadly attacks. Another of the men in the Hale records had the same last name as one of the hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi.

But rather than helping, Hale's information led down a long, twisted trail that law enforcement officials have become all-too accustomed to following. The FBI won't comment about the records from the port, saying they are part of an intelligence file. But it's likely the shipments were one of the tens of thousands of leads that have led nowhere in the government's frustrating efforts to document the activities and whereabouts of al-Qaida members.

Such roadblocks are common in tracking down clues on a worldwide terrorist group that has taken elaborate steps to hide its methods. After nearly five months of trying to unravel al-Qaida's pre-Sept. 11 activities, investigators are finding the paths of the group's members to be heavily obscured in a document maze that terrorist leaders have deemed essential to ensure that operatives blend into communities.

A review by The Sun shows that identity tampering and leaving a convoluted trail is as much a priority in al-Qaida's operations as recruiting assassins and bombers. Records show that the group's missions are usually built around falsified identity documents, frequently changing addresses, common Arabic names and the basic staples of American identity fraud.

Consider this message, bluntly stated by the leader of an al-Qaida cell to colleagues at a secret meeting in a cramped Italian apartment that was recorded covertly by Milan police early last year: "The main thing now is security, do you understand?" said Essid Sami Ben Khemais, a Tunisian national who was unaware his apartment had been bugged by authorities. "We must be most careful above all with documents and identities, because without them ... we're lost."

Khemais, arrested in April for leading an extremist group with ties to Osama bin Laden that was planning to bomb the American embassy in Rome, didn't spend nearly as much time talking about explosives as he did about organizing Islamic forgery rings and recruiting bands of thieves who looted passports from town halls throughout Europe. In code, he often talked about stolen travel documents as "books," "green sweaters," and "trousers."

The layers of false identification and fraudulent government records that terrorists have used have combined with their elusive biographies to greatly complicate the investigation. At times, the paths left by the terrorists have become so murky that it's unclear where they lived, how they got there, and whether they used false identification - or why.

One such case is that involving Lucy Marsden, a homemaker and corsetiere from Bennington, Vt., who died in 1965 at the age of 74. More than three decades later, her family is wondering how Saeed Alghamdi - one of the hijackers aboard Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania - may have ended up with Marsden's Social Security number. The match shows up in credit card records and the Social Security death index, although investigators haven't been able to confirm whether the Saeed Alghamdi in the records is the same man who hijacked Flight 93.

"Is it just a coincidence, or is this another clever thing they did to melt into our society?" said Katherine Marsden, daughter-in-law to Lucy Marsden. "You just don't know who to trust anymore."

Social Security officials acknowledge that six of the 19 hijackers from Sept. 11 were using Social Security numbers illegally. Another man linked to al-Qaida, Lotfi Raissi, a 27-year-old Algerian pilot from London who is believed to have trained four of the suicide hijackers, was identified in British court papers as having used the Social Security number of Dorothy Hansen, a retired factory worker from Jersey City, N.J., who died in 1991.

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