Washington A terrorist cell operating out of Hamburg, Germany, since at least 1999 included three of the hijackers and three accomplices who are being sought in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday.
Ashcroft said the three fugitives, Said Bahaji, Ramsi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar, are sought for planning the attacks. German authorities previously issued international arrests warrants for the three.
"Their connections to the hijackers are extensive," said Ashcroft, appearing at a news conference with German Interior Minister Otto Schily. He identified the three hijackers as Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the suspected pilots of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and Ziad Jarrah, suspected of flying the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Ashcroft said the three hijackers were roommates in Hamburg while attending school there in the 1990s. He said Binalshibh and Atta started a Muslim prayer group in Hamburg and Essabar went to Florida in February at a time when both Atta and al-Shehhi were known to be there. And Essabar, Jarrah and al-Shehhi all appeared in a video of Bahaji's wedding, he said.
"It is clear that Hamburg served as a central base of operations for these six individuals and their part in the planning of the Sept. 11 attack," Ashcroft said.
But he added that the fugitives were part of a network that also operated in the United States.
Bahaji, Binalshibh and Essabar "are all wanted for membership in a terrorist organization that has existed since at least 1999 in both Germany and the United States," said Ashcroft.
Schily declined to provide information about evidence developed in Germany that the three fugitives planned the Sept. 11 attacks, citing the investigation. Ashcroft said others probably also helped plot the attacks.
U.S. authorities have arrested or detained over 900 people in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, but so far no one has been charged directly with plotting or participating in the attacks.
Asked why there have been no charges brought in the United States when German authorities have pinpointed three fugitives responsible for planning the attacks, Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said, "When we feel it's appropriate to bring charges against individuals, we will do so."
Ashcroft said 12 FBI agents have been assigned to various locations in Germany to assist in the investigation.
Ashcroft also said the Justice Department will release copies of anthrax-contaminated letters mailed to NBC's Tom Brokaw and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, as well as the envelope used to mail another anthrax letter to the New York Post. But he said authorities don't have the evidence to link the anthrax letters to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We must say we failed to see it" beforehand, Schily, the German minister, said of the attacks on New York and Washington. "But to be very open-minded" about it, "we altogether failed. ... We have to re-examine our security system."
Schily said Monday that foreign exchange companies operating globally could have been used by terrorists. He would not name specific companies but urged money exchange firms to cooperate.
"I don't want to mention some names, but it also includes the role of some companies doing the exchange of money and delivering money. Maybe they are situated in the United States," said Schily, who oversees interior security in Germany, where several suspected hijackers lived and may have plotted the Sept. 11 hijackings. He was in Washington on Monday to meet with Bush administration officials.
A Saudi man who apparently holds a student pilot's license was arrested in Missouri on a bank fraud charge. The FBI has not tied Adel F. Badri to last month's attacks in which terrorists crashed airliners in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
In New Jersey a man detained following the attacks has been charged with lying to an FBI agent about checks he wrote and deposited into his bank account.
Mohammad Pervez lived with two other detainees, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan. Investigators have taken particular interest in those two men since they were detained in Fort Worth, Texas, the day after the attacks, carrying hair dye, about $5,000 in cash and box-cutting knives.
Pervez was accused of lying when he said he didn't know about certain checks and money orders that moved in and out of his bank account, according to an Oct. 16 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York City by the FBI.
Badri was charged with bank fraud for cashing allegedly forged checks worth $10,000, according to an FBI affidavit released by the Justice Department.
The checks were written on an account at Chevy Chase Bank in Maryland that had been closed. According to the FBI, the closed account's holder was Fatmah Ibrahim, a woman who Badri said lives in Virginia and works for a "specific organization in Washington, D.C." Badri denied writing the check for himself.
Authorities tracked down the organization and found no record of the woman, and a forgery expert said Badri wrote the checks, the FBI said.
Badri deposited the checks on Oct. 4 and 5. By Oct. 11 various checks and debit card charges totaling more than $10,000 were incurred on his account, including a $603 debit card purchase of a US Airways plane ticket, more than $700 in cash withdrawals, a $20 car rental charge and $200 in payments for cellular phone service.