Interviews yield theory of fifth 9/11 hijacking

Some officials think Binalshibh intended to fly plane into White House

October 11, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Authorities interviewing a member of al-Qaida in military custody overseas are pursuing a new theory of the Sept. 11 plot - that the suspect, Ramzi Binalshibh, was planning to pilot a fifth hijacked plane to strike the White House.

The plan was disrupted when Binalshibh, a Yemeni who was captured last month in Pakistan, failed to obtain permission to enter the United States, where he had planned to attend flight school in Florida, senior government officials said.

Evidence that there were plans for a fifth hijack team had also come from the debriefing of John Walker Lindh, but the possibility that Binalshibh was to be the leader of another attack group had not been previously disclosed.

This theory has gained momentum in recent weeks as investigators have assembled new details about Binalshibh's movements around Europe in the months before the attacks.

Investigators have also compiled a fuller picture of his relationship with Mohamed Atta, an alleged ringleader of the plot, and uncovered fresh information about al-Qaida's original plan for the attacks.

More specifics about Binalshibh's role in the plot could emerge as a result of the arrest yesterday in Germany of a Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, who, according to local authorities, shared an apartment in Hamburg with Binalshibh, Atta and at least one other hijacker, Marwan Al-Shehhi.

The officials said that Binalshibh's role in the plot is a main topic of his interrogation at a secret military base abroad.

Military officials have asked Binalshibh about organizational changes in al-Qaida since the Sept. 11 attacks and about plans for further attacks, in the hope that they can help protect U.S. troops overseas.

Those questions have grown more urgent with the recent assaults against U.S. Marines in Kuwait and the release of audiotapes attributed to Osama bin Laden and one of his chief lieutenants, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Zawahiri's tape, which officials said is more likely than the bin Laden tape to be genuine and recently made, threatens new attacks against the United States and couches its anti-American message around the possibility of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The officials said that Binalshibh has so far provided only fragmentary information about the hijackings and al-Qaida's activities since the war in Afghanistan. The officials said he has not acknowledged that he planned to lead another hijacking group.

But investigators said suspicions are growing that Binalshibh might have intended to lead a fifth hijack team. Their belief is based on other information, including interviews of other al-Qaida detainees and Lindh, whose credibility is still being weighed, but who told authorities he had heard that five attacks were supposed to take place.

Moreover, officials have concluded that a few secretive, face-to-face meetings were crucial to the evolution of the plot.

They said their discovery that Binalshibh met with Atta several times in 2000 and in Spain in 2001 contributed to their belief that Binalshibh was an important participant.

Binalshibh's visa applications were denied each of the four times he applied.

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