Two remain in federal custody

Sunday, November 11, 2001

NEWARK, N.J. -- They worked 12-hour days at the Newark Penn Station newsstand, selling newspapers to commuters headed to the World Trade Center and other Manhattan destinations.

Then, a day after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan ended up in Texas, having traveled nearly 1,600 miles in two days by airliner and train. Their luggage contained $5,600, an assortment of passports and box-cutting knives similar to those believed to have been the terrorist hijackers' weapon of choice.

When confronted by police looking for drug couriers, they appeared nervous. Azmath volunteered: "I did not have anything to do with New York."

They remain in federal custody, held as material witnesses but not charged with any crime.

Authorities have not disclosed any information that would connect the two to the hijackings, although the FBI acknowledges receiving reports that suspected hijack ringleaders Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were seen last summer in the neighborhood where Khan and Azmath lived.

A man who shared their apartment, Mohammad Aslam Pervez, was charged last month with lying to investigators about more than $100,000 in transfers into and out of his bank account.

Praising America

Yet people who know Khan and Azmath say they doubt the pair were involved in terrorism. They describe the men as quiet and hardworking, and say they never heard either utter a bad word about America.

In letters to relatives in India, Azmath and Khan proclaim their innocence.

"They are doing their duty by making their inquiries," Azmath wrote to his wife, Tasleem, in Hyderabad, India, "and I am confident that after completing their inquiries, we will be released very soon."

Khan and Azmath lived in the Journal Square neighborhood, where store signs and billboards often make their pitches in English and Arabic. They lived around the corner from a mosque attended by followers of the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman who were convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

The two men "praised America as a paradise where they were able to realize their dream of improving the economic condition of their families," said Khan's sister, Syeda Fatima, in an interview in Hyderabad.

Travel through St. Louis

On Sept. 11, Azmath and Khan boarded a TWA airliner at Newark International Airport, bound for San Antonio. Friends had offered them jobs in Texas, Khan's brother, Mohammed Zahir Shah, said in Hyderabad.

When flights were grounded after the hijackings that morning, Khan and Azmath landed in St. Louis.

They paid cash for Amtrak tickets to San Antonio, and that alerted police, who thought they might be drug couriers. Their train stopped in Fort Worth on Sept. 12, and officers found Azmath and Khan asleep in separate cars.

Azmath told officers that he and Khan were going to visit a friend in San Antonio for at least a month. Khan told another officer they planned to stay a week.

After the men consented to a search, police found box cutters, clothing and hair dye, plus Muslim religious items. Khan's brother said the knives were tools the men had used to open boxes in the newsstand.

Investigators also noticed that the pair's bodies were shaved.

A day earlier, investigators searching the luggage of suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta had found what appeared to be instructions for the suicide hijackers. Excerpts released by the Justice Department included this instruction: "The previous night, shave the extra hair from the body, pray."

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