Fbi has new 20th hijacker
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Posted 11/4/2003 11:26 PM Updated 11/5/2003 6:54 AM
FBI has new 9/11 hijacking suspect
By Toni Locy, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The FBI has identified an al-Qaeda operative who agents believe tried as late as August 2001 to join the 9/11 terrorist plot as the "20th hijacker," a top federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
"We are fairly confident we know who No. 20 is," said the official, who is involved in the 9/11 probe and asked not to be identified. The official said the unidentified al-Qaeda operative got into the USA but "had to leave" the country shortly before 19 hijackers carried out the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people. The official would not say why the operative left, whether he is alive or whether he is in U.S. custody.
A top Justice Department official confirmed that FBI agents believe they have identified the 20th hijacker. Both officials said the FBI does not believe the would-be terrorist was accused al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui or Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, an alleged 9/11 paymaster who tried to get into the USA at least four times before the attacks.
If the FBI's theory is correct, one of the enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks would be solved: why United Flight 93 had four hijackers on board when it crashed in Pennsylvania, and the three other hijacked jets each carried five terrorists. Examinations of immigration records and the movements of the 19 hijackers have led the FBI to zero in on the man it believes was supposed to have been the fifth hijacker on Flight 93, the law enforcement official said.
Prosecutors hinted at the FBI's theory in a heavily redacted — or blacked out — footnote that was part of a filing made public Friday in their appeal of a judge's ruling in the Moussaoui case. They wrote that "as late as August 2001, al-Qaeda was still trying to insert new hijackers into the Sept. 11 attacks."
Just after the 9/11 attacks, top Justice Department and FBI officials disagreed over whether Moussaoui, 35, a French citizen arrested while taking flight lessons in Minnesota in August 2001, was to have been the 20th hijacker. His indictment does not identify him as the 20th hijacker; it accuses him of taking part in an al-Qaeda conspiracy to attack U.S. targets.
For more than a year, FBI officials believed that Bin al-Shibh probably was meant to have been the 20th hijacker. But interrogations of captured al-Qaeda leaders and further investigation by the FBI have led to an evolution in the government's theory.
Moussaoui, the only person charged in the USA in the 9/11 conspiracy, admits being a member of al-Qaeda but says he was training for another mission.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has ruled that Moussaoui may question the captured al-Qaeda operatives he says can clear him of any role in the plot: Bin al-Shibh; Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind; and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, an alleged al-Qaeda financier. The government says that would threaten national security.
Prosecutors say Moussaoui was planning to fly a jet into the White House. The law enforcement source says it is unclear whether he intended to pilot a fifth jet on 9/11, or whether he was part of a separate plot.