Attorney denies client has 9-11 ties

Jordanian who roomed briefly with two hijackers remains in federal custody

July 09, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

An attorney for the Jordanian man arrested last month in a raid at his family's rowhouse in Southeast Baltimore said yesterday that the man has no ties to terrorist activity despite accounts that he roomed briefly with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"These folks, unfortunately for us, lived in our country for a long time and had innocent contact with a lot of people," James Wyda, federal public defender for Maryland, said after a court hearing for Rasmi Al-Shannaq, who is charged with visa fraud.

Al-Shannaq, 27, appeared briefly in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday to acknowledge the one-count indictment charging him with obtaining a fake visa in October from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar. He did not enter a plea.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey ordered Al-Shannaq jailed until a detention hearing tomorrow. A federal prosecutor said the government was concerned that Al-Shannaq could be a flight risk.

Outside court, Wyda described Al-Shannaq as "very, very frightened" by the federal charge against him and said his client had been wrongly portrayed in news accounts as having a connection to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"There have been rumblings and rumors in this case that he has ties to the hijackers and to terrorists, and there is no evidence of that," Wyda said. "What we have right now is a fairly minor fraud case. ... I can say emphatically that I have no knowledge that the charges in this case have anything to do with Sept. 11."

Federal officials have said that Al-Shannaq lived for two months last summer in a Northern Virginia apartment with two of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour, who were on the plane that struck the Pentagon.

Wyda would not comment on that account or say where Al-Shannaq had lived before staying at his father's home in Highlandtown.

Al-Shannaq's father, Subhi Al-Shannaq, and several other relatives were at the federal courthouse for yesterday's hearing. They refused to comment, but the elder Al-Shannaq was visibly angered by the crowd of television cameras and reporters

After Al-Shannaq's short court appearance, his father told a reporter: "It's over. There is nothing to see. You take my business!"

In a financial affidavit, Rasmi Al-Shannaq said he was unemployed and has no assets. Before his arrest, he had made deliveries for a neighborhood pizza parlor and had helped his father sell flowers in Southeast Baltimore.

Investigators have said they have no indication that Al-Shannaq was involved in planning the Sept. 11 attacks, or that he had any prior knowledge of them. But federal officials have expressed hope that he could provide crucial information about the hijackers.

Authorities have said Al-Shannaq has been cooperative in their investigation.

Al-Shannaq was arrested June 24 at his family's home in the 600 block of S. Lehigh St. on charges of overstaying his visa. He faces an immigration hearing, but that has been postponed by the visa fraud charge, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey E. Eisenberg said in court.

Al-Shannaq was indicted last week by a federal grand jury on the visa fraud charge.

Al-Shannaq was transferred yesterday from the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the U.S. Marshals Service. Officials would not disclose where he is being held because of concerns about his safety.

Eisenberg and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Welsh, who watched yesterday's hearing, declined to comment outside the court.

Officials previously linked Alhazmi and Hanjour to another Jordanian immigrant, Eyad Alrababah.

Alrababah went to authorities after the attacks to say he recognized a published photograph of Alhazmi and had helped him and, officials believe, Hanjour find an apartment.

It is not known whether that is the same apartment where Al-Shannaq lived.

Alrababah was deported last month after he admitted helping immigrants fraudulently obtain U.S. driver's licenses.

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