9/11 suspect denies funding hijackers

At hearing, Saudi detainee disputes role in attacks

March 30, 2007|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Washington -- A Saudi suspected of being a major player in the Sept. 11 attacks, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, has denied accusations that he played a key supporting role, saying he never wired money to the hijackers and didn't know specifics of the plot, according to a transcript of his military commission hearing released yesterday.

U.S. authorities, as well as the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the attacks, have long alleged that al-Hawsawi was a top lieutenant of the plot's mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Al-Hawsawi, they say, was the senior paymaster, arranging funding and travel for several of the 19 hijackers, two of whom wired nearly $18,000 back to him in the days before the attacks.

But at a military tribunal hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last week, al-Hawsawi spent much of his time distancing himself from those accusations, even as he confirmed his associations with almost everyone involved.

Much of the evidence against him came from bank records and Western Union receipts that allegedly show him engaging in financial transactions with some of the hijackers.

But the unclassified summary of evidence read at the hearing did not mention any instances in which he allegedly sent money to them. When specifically asked during the hearing if he had done so, al-Hawsawi said he had not.

During the hourlong Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing, al-Hawsawi then confirmed that he had received four wire money transfers from Mohamed Atta and another of the hijackers, and that he knew the men and had been communicating with them.

But, he said, "I don't know the reason why" they sent the money, adding that he put the money into his own account and kept it there.

Al-Hawsawi also said he learned that something was up only hours before the attacks, when he was ordered to immediately leave his temporary home in the United Arab Emirates for Pakistan - first by Mohammed's chief deputy and then by the al-Qaida chieftain himself.

"On Sept. 11, I knew there was an operation," al-Hawsawi told the tribunal members.

Later, he added, "In the beginning I was surprised by the size of the operation. It was mostly a surprise to me."

Al-Hawsawi is one of 14 "high-value" detainees who were held in undisclosed locations and interrogated by the CIA. President Bush ordered them brought to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in September so they could face trial before military commissions.

Al-Hawsawi freely acknowledged having met Mohammed, four of the hijackers and even, on several occasions, Osama Bin Laden. He acknowledged being in touch with Atta and attending an al-Qaida training camp, although he denied being a member of the terrorist group.

When asked why he knew so many of its leaders, he said, "I help all the jihadists."

But, he added, "I have never taken an oath to be a jihadist."

Even so, al-Hawsawi distanced himself from two of the primary pieces of evidence against him - a laptop and a 19-page address book seized during raids in Pakistan in March 2003 in which al-Hawsawi and Mohammed were captured. The seized items provided U.S. and Pakistani authorities with a bonanza of information about other important al-Qaida figures and their whereabouts and activities.

According to the summary of evidence, the laptop's hard drive contained detailed al-Qaida expense reports from the prior year, including information about the organization's spending "through various incoming and outgoing rupee, euro, riyal and dirham fund transactions."

It also contained the names of al-Qaida members who had been killed or wounded, al-Qaida "family allowance information" and detailed information that had been gathered for families of operatives. In addition, it had information about the families of 22 Yemeni al-Qaida operatives, according to the summary of evidence.

Al-Hawsawi acknowledged that the laptop was in his possession when he was arrested. But he said that other people had downloaded material and that he didn't know who "was responsible" for whatever it contained. He said he knew the computer contained information about Yemeni families "but he did not know they were from al-Qaida," according to his translator and military handler.

As for the address book, one of al-Hawsawi's questioners said that the detainee had complained a week before the hearing that it wasn't his.

"It could not be something he owned," the official said, paraphrasing al-Hawsawi, "because he didn't know enough people to fill a 19-page phone" book.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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