Key to Hamburg al-Qaida cell may lie with Ramzi Binalshibh

Sunday, September 15, 2002

HAMBURG, Germany -- Germany's investigation into the Hamburg suicide hijackers after the Sept. 11 attacks kept returning to one man: Ramzi Binalshibh.

Prosecutors here -- and elsewhere -- are convinced he holds the key to the details of how the al-Qaida cell in this northern port town operated so chillingly efficiently.

With Binalshibh now in custody, German officials want to bring the 30-year-old Yemeni back on an international warrant for allegedly providing logistical support for the Hamburg cell.

"We are very happy that they got him," said German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin on Saturday.

Binalshibh was apprehended this Sept. 11, in Karachi, Pakistan, after a raid by Pakistani and CIA operatives.

German authorities have another suspected member of the cell in custody -- Mounir el Motassadeq. He was charged last month with more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization.

But Binalshibh is believed to have been the key contact person in the Hamburg cell, according to German federal prosecutors, and could possess information crucial to understanding how the hijackers were recruited into the al-Qaida network. And how they communicated with Osama bin Laden.

Federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said recently the turning point for the group's transformation into a terror cell came when Mohamad Atta, Binalshibh, and Said Bahaji -- another fugitive cell member -- moved into a Marienstrasse apartment in November 1998.

Marwan al-Shehhi, though living in Bonn at the time, was a frequent visitor.

The cell members came individually to Germany as students between 1992 and 1997, and prosecutors believe they were recruited into al-Qaida after arriving.

Atta and al-Shehhi, who were cousins, were the first two chosen as pilots in the attacks. Atta then chose Binalshibh and Jarrah to fly the other two planes, Nehm said last month in detailing charges against el Motassadeq.

At the end of November, 1999, the four prospective pilots -- Binalshibh included -- traveled to Afghanistan to secure financial and logistical help for the planned attack. They returned to Hamburg in the summer of 2000.

Despite repeated attempts, Binalshibh was denied a visa to the United States to attend flight school with Jarrah in Venice, Fla., while al-Shehhi and Atta studied at another school in the same city.

They settled on Zacarias Moussaoui, who went to the United States in February 2001, but was arrested that August when instructors at his Minnesota flight school grew suspicious.

Moussaoui is in U.S. custody and on trial for his alleged role in the attacks.

But just because he was out as a pilot didn't mean that Binalshibh was out of the plot.

"After his exclusion as the fourth pilot, Binalshibh became the most significant contact person inside the network," Nehm said.

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