Officials Watched 9-11 Plotters

by Rohan Sullivan
The Associated Press
September 20, 2002

 

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- From restaurants to shopping malls to their secret apartment meeting place, key Sept. 11 plotters moved around Malaysia's largest city in comfortable obscurity. Even two Malaysians assigned as their drivers didn't know who they were.

The al-Qaida members were photographed during their visit in January 2000 by security officials at various places in and around the country's gleaming biggest city, but it was their Malaysian and Indonesian hosts who were the targets of the surveillance, officials say. The visitors' significance was not known until much later, they say.

Malaysia acknowledges small bands of Islamic militants exist in this Southeast Asian country, some of them trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and religious schools in Pakistan.

But the government bristles at suggestions Malaysia was a launchpad for the Sept. 11 attacks, pointing out that the plotters were able to travel the globe for years without raising suspicion and that the most crucial planning took place abroad, including in the United States.

On Friday, intelligence committees in the U.S. Congress will hold a hearing looking into what U.S. agencies knew about two of the hijackers before the attacks.

Malaysian and U.S. officials agree that the two, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaz al-Hazmi, were among al-Qaida members who met in Malaysia in January 2000. Accounts differ about two other attendees.

A Malaysian official who is regularly briefed on the investigation says Malaysian police believe one of them was Ramzi Binalshibh, who reportedly boasted in June that he was in charge of coordinating the cells that carried out the attacks. A U.S. official in Washington said American officials believe he was not at the meeting.

U.S. officials say Tawfiq Attash Khallad, an al-Qaida leader accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, attended. The Malaysian official said Khallad has not been identified by Malaysian officials, though a fourth Arab who used the name Salah Said was present.

Officials on both sides were speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The possibility of Binalshibh's presence in Malaysia -- which came to light just before he was captured after a gunbattle in Pakistan last week -- has sharpened the focus on this Southeast Asian country as a key stop on the plotters' travels in the months before the attacks.

Binalshibh was a member of al-Qaida's German-based cell, whose members were among the hijackers that struck the World Trade Center. Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were aboard the plane that hit the Pentagon. Malaysian security officials say they don't know precisely what the al-Qaida suspects discussed, but their presence here together suggests that the Sept. 11 attacks were among the topics, the Malaysian official said.

"They could have been anywhere in the world," Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said this week. "Wherever they are, it does not mean that the country is providing sanctuary or giving them any support."

Mahathir has won praise from President Bush for his support of the international fight against terrorism. His government has cracked down hard on Islamic militant suspects, arresting more than 60 since April 2001, including a handful accused of helping the al-Qaida visitors.

Mahathir promotes his prosperous, high-tech country of 23 million, most of them moderate Muslims, as a role model for other developing and Islamic nations.

But some say Malaysia's openness has allowed hard-liners and extremists to enter along with traders, migrant workers and tourists.

In a recent report on an al-Qaida-linked militant network in Indonesia and Malaysia, Southeast Asian specialist Sidney Jones wrote that Malaysia in the 1990s had become a "meeting place for representatives of Muslim militant groups of all kinds."

Malaysia developed "a strong policy of reaching out to the Muslim world," Jones, from the Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group, said in an interview. "It was looking for Muslim laborers, it was looking to portray itself as a voice against the West.

"It was not that the Malaysian government gave haven to all these people, but ... I think a lot of these people found it a comfortable place," she said.

In January 2000, the al-Qaida figures entered Malaysia as tourists who didn't need visas. During their few days here, they were assigned two drivers from a cell of Islamic militants that formed part of a network that reached into Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, the Malaysian official told the AP.

The drivers were among dozens of suspected militants arrested in Malaysia in December and January and are still being held. They didn't know the foreigners' identities, but when police interrogators showed them photographs of al-Qaida suspects they identified Binalshibh as one of the men in Malaysia, the official said.

Also under arrest is Yazid Sufaat, a former Malaysian army captain accused of letting al-Qaida members hold their meeting in an apartment he owned near Kuala Lumpur.

Yazid and Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, an Indonesian who Malaysian officials say is a leader of the regional militant network and has al-Qaida ties, were under surveillance at the time. The surveillance captured the foreigners in photographs, the Malaysian official said.

Malaysian intelligence was passed on to the CIA.

U.S. officials have said the CIA learned that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had met in January 2000 with a person later determined to be an al-Qaida leader in Malaysia, and informed the FBI. But the two future hijackers were not put on the State Department's watch list for denying visas until three weeks before the attacks, when they were already in the United States.

Binalshibh, who U.S. officials say helped organize the attacks, was refused a U.S. visa four times.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Thursday that the day after intelligence agencies informed his department about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, every consular office worldwide had been alerted.

"If we had had the information sooner, it is reasonable to believe these two criminals would never have entered the country in the first place," he said.

"If we had had these two pieces to the jigsaw puzzle in advance, could we have seen the whole picture and prevented the attacks? Perhaps. But I don't believe that is a question we will be able to answer with any certainty."



Copyright 2002 The Associated Press

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