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Informer detriot { August 30 2002 }

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   http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/30/national/30DETR.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/30/national/30DETR.html

August 30, 2002
Informer Is Cited as the Key to Unlocking a Terrorist Cell
By DANNY HAKIM


DETROIT, Aug. 29 For nearly a year, the three foreigners picked up at an apartment here a week after the Sept. 11 attacks seemed like just another group of Arab men caught up in the government dragnet. They languished in prison while facing charges that seemed minor; federal agents had actually been looking for the previous occupant when they raided the apartment.

But at least one thing appears to have separated the Detroit trio from hundreds of other Arabs swept up by the government in the last year: a cooperative witness. A fourth Arab man who once lived with the men and who had been charged in the case appears to have become a witness against the other three and is playing a critical role in the government's case.

The picture painted by the indictment issued on Wednesday by a federal grand jury is of a busy terrorist cell working hard to avert suspicion. The men used fake names to open post office boxes and had phony visas so authentic-looking that one veteran investigator of visa frauds said he could not tell the visas were bogus, and they even enlisted a "mentally unstable man" to disguise their notes, federal court filings show.

Much of this evidence comes from an apartment on Norman Street in Detroit which was once the residence of Nabil al-Marabh, who the government believed had ties to Al Qaeda. It was Mr. al-Marabh, 35, that federal agents were looking for when they raided the apartment on Sept. 17. His name was still on the mailbox.

Instead, they found the three men who were indicted on Wednesday as being part of a terrorist conspiracy: Karim Koubriti, 24, and Ahmed Hannan, 34, both Moroccans, and Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 22, an Algerian. A fourth man from Chicago and known as Abdella was also indicted. He is still at large.

The Detroit case has been aggressively investigated by federal authorities since last September when the men were first arrested. The case has stirred debate within the government, government officials said. Some officials have hinted that they suspected the men had ties to Al Qaeda, but others have said that no evidence has emerged to show any definitive connection.

The indictment paints the men as operating a terrorist cell, though no definitive connections to Al Qaeda are revealed. None of the men are now suspected of knowing in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks, government officials said.

While the men are regarded by counterterrorism officials as low-level operatives, the charges against them are serious, particularly an accusation that they conspired to provide material support for terrorism against the United States.

Some officials said today that the case was important but not a breakthrough in understanding terror operations in the United States. The indictment provides little information about the nature of the terror operation that the men are accused of supporting, nor does it indicate how far plans for an attack had progressed.

Investigators did find in the Norman Street apartment a cache of material they considered suspicious, including audiotapes that preached jihad, notes suggesting a plot against William S. Cohen, the former secretary of defense, and a cache of phony ID documents. The indictment said investigators also found a videotape that had surveillance footage of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

It remains unclear whether the material belonged to the three men or to Mr. al-Marabh.

Mr. Koubriti, one of the three men, implicated a fifth man, Youssef Hmimssa, whose picture was found among forged identity documents. Mr. Koubriti said that a day planner that contained notation in Arabic referring to an American airbase in Turkey, the American foreign minister and an airport in Jordan, belonged to Mr. Hmimssa.

Mr. Koubriti and Mr. Hmimssa had lived together in Dearborn. Mr. Hmimssa was arrested shortly after the first raid, on Sept. 28, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Kevin Ernst, a lawyer for Mr. Ali-Haimoud, said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. Hmimssa was cooperating with the government.

"The only difference between October of last year, when the government dismissed the charges against my client because there was no evidence, and today, when they issued the superseding indictments, is one snitch," Mr. Ernst said referring to Mr. Hmimssa.

Mr. Hmimssa's lawyer, Stephen Rabaut, did not return calls. Government officials would not say whether he was an informer.

Jim Thomas, a lawyer for Mr. Hannan, said his client had been held since Sept. 17 without a bond. "He is still, in the face of these very serious charges, presumed to be innocent," Mr Thomas said. "The trial will be scheduled hopefully for some time in January and at that time we expect to have a full and fair hearing in front of impartial jury."

While the case against the three men in Detroit has grown more serious, the case against Mr. al-Marabh, the initial target, appears to be winding down. Mr. al-Marabh, who is being held at a prison in Batavia, N.Y., is likely to be deported to Algeria after pleading guilty to illegally entering the country.

"We brought an immigration violation charge against him; that charge does not contain any evidence linking him terrorism," Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said.

In the indictment against the other men, the government says they were part of a terrorist cell that provided support to other operatives, recruited members, collected intelligence on potential targets and cased the Detroit Metropolitan Airport while all three worked there.

Part of the men's intent was to "cause economic harm to U.S. businesses," the indictment said, and previous documents said they planned an "economic jihad."

The men went to some length to conceal their plan, it said. They used a "mentally unstable man" to try to disguise their writings in a notebook. They used the man, who is not identified in the indictment, to write his name and personal information on some of the notebook pages found in the apartment, which contained plans and sketches of an American airbase in Turkey and a Jordanian hospital. They also had the man temporarily hold on to the notebooks.

It appears that they also had high-quality false ID documents.

Edward Seitz, a special agent for the State Department who has investigated visa fraud for 14 years, testified at an April hearing that one of the visas was so authentic looking that he had to check the agency's database to find out if it was fraudulent.

"It was of such a quality that to the naked eye it would have probably passed," Mr. Seitz said. "It would have passed me."



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