German officials link Sept. 11 plans to Afghanistan

Ringleader, 2 accomplices were trained by al-Qaida there, investigator says

August 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

German investigators say they have evidence that Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the attacks Sept. 11, and two accomplices trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan from late 1999 to early 2000. They have also established a clear link between al-Qaida and a recent attack on a Tunisian synagogue, a top official said.

The timing of the Afghanistan training, outlined yesterday by a senior investigator, provides the strongest evidence that plans for the attacks on the United States were worked out there. Less than six months after leaving Afghanistan, Atta and the other two men enrolled in U.S. flight schools.

Previous reports have said that Atta and other conspirators trained in Afghanistan, and FBI officials have said privately that all 19 hijackers are believed to have spent time there. But the investigator, Klaus Ulrich Kersten, director of Germany's federal anticrime agency, the Bundeskrminalamt, provided the first official confirmation that the pilots had been in Afghanistan and of the first dates of the training.

Five Arabs identified

Kersten said in an interview at the agency's headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, that Atta was in Afghanistan from late 1999 until early 2000. He said four other Arabs from Hamburg attended camps there about the same time. Two of them, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad al-Jarrah, also flew hijacked planes Sept. 11.

The others, Said Bahaji and Ramzi Binalshibh, both disappeared shortly before the attacks and have been charged in Germany as accomplices.

"According to our knowledge, Atta traveled to Afghanistan for some months in 1999 until early 2000," Kersten said. "Whether he had been there before, we do not know. We know that Jarrah, Shehhi, Binalshibh and Bahaji were also in Afghanistan in the same time period, but we do not know if they were together."

Atta, Shehhi and Jarrah went to the United States in June 2000 and enrolled in flight schools in Florida. Atta and Shehhi flew the two airliners that hit the World Trade Center, and Jarrah flew the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Kersten, the top official in Germany's equivalent of the FBI, also indicated that al-Qaida is still operating. He said al-Qaida leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti identified by American officials as a key planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, was phoned by a suicide bomber three hours before the bomber set off a blast outside a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, in April that killed 21 people.

Kersten said the bomber, Nizar Nawar, called the Kuwaiti, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, shortly before Nawar pulled up outside the synagogue in a truck.

"There are indications that this attack in Djerba was perpetrated with the blessing or approval of al-Qaida," he said. "We can say Sept. 11 and Djerba with certainty were Qaida."

Links to other plots

Mohammed may be the link between Sept. 11 and other al-Qaida plots. American authorities said intelligence reports placed him in Germany in 1999, when Atta and others lived there. He also may be tied to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and has been charged in a plot to blow up as many as 12 American jetliners over the Pacific in 1995. American authorities said Mohammed might be a relative of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, leader of the group that carried out the 1993 bombing.

In the interview in Weisbaden, Kersten acknowledged that substantial amounts of the planning for Sept. 11 had occurred in Germany. But he said the authorities had evidence that the plot originated with top al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.

"We know that the initial decision to carry out a terrorist act came from Afghanistan, more specifically, from the top Qaida leadership," he said. "We believe, too, that there were then further phases when the plans were made more precise, not only in Germany, and involving many other people.

"The threat still exists, and it is as great as before," he said. "There is no decline in action, and there are indications of new plans. Al-Qaida is not defeated, maybe weakened."

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