9/11 fugitive, airline plot link is hinted

British, German police pursue investigation

August 16, 2006|By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | SEBASTIAN ROTELLA,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- British and German authorities are investigating a potential link between an alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound planes and a fugitive in the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said yesterday.

The slim but intriguing lead emerged yesterday, as British authorities announced an inquiry into suspected diversion of charity funds to militant groups, made a new arrest and conducted 46 searches in connection with the alleged airliner plot.

Investigators are examining possible contacts between an unidentified suspect arrested in London last week and Said Bahaji, an accused Moroccan-German member of the Hamburg cell who fled to Pakistan days before the hijackers struck, authorities said.

One of the 24 suspects held here, mostly British Pakistanis allegedly with ties to a militant network in Pakistan, might have tried to communicate with Bahaji through e-mails to the Moroccan's wife, Nese, who lives in Hamburg, authorities said. The e-mail contacts apparently took place in 2004 and 2005, they said.

"There are indications about contacts of some of the terror suspects to Germany," said Annette Ziesig, spokeswoman of the German Ministry of the Interior. "This is being checked at the moment. We have good and very close contacts with the British authorities. We cannot give more detailed information at the moment in order not to endanger the investigations."

If there was a relationship between the British plotter and Bahaji, it could suggest that Bahaji remains active and prominent in the al-Qaida network, which has found refuge in Pakistan and might have played a role in the airplane plot.

Wanted on charges of murder in connection with Sept. 11, Bahaji is one of the few members of the Hamburg cell who have not died or been imprisoned or prosecuted. He was a roommate in Hamburg of Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker, and Ramzi Binalshib, an imprisoned coordinator of the group. Bahaji allegedly took advantage of his German citizenship to provide logistical support and cover as the plot developed.

On Sept. 4, 2001, Bahaji flew to Pakistan's port city of Karachi with three Algerian extremists, joining an exodus of operatives involved in the impending attacks. He then reportedly made his way to an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. His trail ended there, but he remained in touch with his wife via e-mail, according to trial evidence presented in Germany last year.

In July, German police arrested a Moroccan extremist accused of having trained in explosives at an Algerian camp and recruiting militants for Iraq. They said the Moroccan had acted as a conduit for messages between Bahaji and his wife.

An FBI official said U.S. authorities had no specific knowledge of the suspected contact between the accused British extremist and Bahaji. But the official said the FBI and the CIA are still hunting for Bahaji and believe he is being sheltered in Pakistan by al-Qaida.

The FBI official said Bahaji and other al-Qaida operatives who initially fled to Afghanistan, where U.S. military forces are now active, had shifted to Pakistan.

In another development involving Pakistan and Germany, British newspapers have reported that two suspects being held by Pakistani police in connection with the alleged airline plot had German contacts and that one traveled to Germany in the past.

Also yesterday, a British watchdog agency disclosed that it has opened an inquiry into reports that funds raised by a Muslim charity, Crescent Relief, were diverted by the plotters. The Charity Commission also confirmed that the charity has a direct connection to the family of Rashid Rauf of Birmingham, alleged to be a key figure in the case.

Pakistani authorities have said Rauf's arrest in Pakistan spurred the round-up last week of the suspects here. Those suspects include Rauf's brother, Tayib.

The charity was incorporated in 2000 and its founding directors then included businessman Abdul Rauf, now 53, the father of the two suspects, according to documents provided by the Charity Commission.

The founders described the goal of the charity as to help "refugees, epidemic and natural disaster victims," as well as the homeless and drug addicts, according to the documents.

Recent reports in the Western and Pakistani media have asserted that charities collecting funds to help victims of last October's earthquake in Pakistan might have been used to funnel money to militant groups in Pakistan and to the plotters themselves.

Without providing specifics, a spokeswoman said the watchdog agency is examining those allegations.

In Washington, U.S. Treasury officials confirmed that they are helping British and Pakistani authorities trace money believed to have helped finance the plot to see whether any of it came from charity groups and from Pakistani militant organizations such as the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba and its successor organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

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