January 31, 2002
Suspect Calls Malaysia a Staging Area for Terror Attacks
By PHILIP SHENON and DAVID JOHNSTON
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 — An operative of Al Qaeda arrested in Malaysia has begun cooperating with investigators and provided new evidence to show that the Southeast Asian nation was a major staging area for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, Bush administration officials said today.
The operative, a former Malaysian Army captain, has acknowledged meeting in Malaysia with at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, as well as with Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33- year-old French citizen who is now in a Virginia jail cell and is the only person charged so far with involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.
They said the United States was negotiating with the Malaysian government in hopes that the retired Malaysian soldier, Yazid Sufaat, 37, could be extradited here to face charges.
The negotiations have been difficult, officials said, because of repeated public statements by the Malaysian government insisting that the predominantly Muslim nation could not have been a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks.
American and Malaysian officials say they believe that Mr. Sufaat was a crucial organizer of a gang of Muslim extremists known as the Malaysian Militant Group, or Jemaah Islamiah, that is part of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda. Mr. Sufaat was one of 23 people believed to be extremists detained by the Malaysia police in the last two months.
Officials said Mr. Sufaat appeared to have operated as a paymaster for Mr. Moussaoui, who was arrested in the United States last August after he raised suspicions among his instructors at a Minneapolis flight school and to have provided him with bogus business credentials from a Malaysian technology company.
Officials said they had found evidence that Mr. Sufaat provided Mr. Moussaoui with at least $35,000 in meetings near Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, in September and October of 2000. American investigators say Mr. Moussaoui deposited about $32,000 a few months later in a bank account in Norman, Okla., where he first attended flight school in the United States.
Lawyers for Mr. Moussaoui, who is of Moroccan descent and who has been linked by French intelligence agencies to Al Qaeda, have entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf on charges that he conspired in the Sept. 11 attacks. One of the defense lawyers, Edward B. MacMahon, had no comment tonight when asked about Mr. Sufaat.
American officials said the evidence showed that Mr. Sufaat had met in January 2000 with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, at his condominium outside Kuala Lumpur.
Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi subsequently traveled to the United States for flight training, and they were among the suicidal hijackers who commandeered the American Airlines jet that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Officials had previously acknowledged that Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi were under surveillance on their trip to Malaysia, and that as a result of their meetings in Kuala Lumpur with Al Qaeda operatives, they were placed on an immigration watchlist in the United States. By the time their names were added to the list, however, the two men had already entered the United States.
Investigators say that Muslim extremists in Malaysia appear to have organized "sleeper cells" of Islamic militants throughout Southeast Asia, and that they may have given direction to a network based in neighboring Singapore, which had planned to blow up the embassies there of the United States, Israel, Australia and Britain.
The plot was apparently foiled when 13 terror suspects were arrested in the tiny, tightly policed city- state in recent weeks. During questioning, officials there said, the suspects described a well-organized terror network stretching across several nations in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, which has a large Muslim population, and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Investigators say they believe they have established a link between Mr. Sufaat and Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, a 30-year-old Indonesian living in the Philippines who is suspected of organizing the embassy attacks in Singapore.
Mr. Ghozi was arrested this month in the Philippines, where the authorities said they seized a cache of rifles, explosives and bomb-making equipment believed to have been part of the plot. Officials said the evidence suggested that Mr. Ghozi had separately ordered Mr. Sufaat to purchase tons of explosives for use in the attacks.
The arrest in Malaysian of Mr. Sufaat and the others accused of being Islamic extremists had created a problem for the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has rejected the suggestion that his country could have been used as a staging area for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"As far as we know, there is no Malaysian connection in the attacks in the U.S.," Mr. Mohamad said earlier this week.
Asked specifically about the possible role of Mr. Sufaat in the terrorist strikes, the prime minister replied, "Let's see the evidence — it's very easy to say." He continued: "Did he plan everything? I doubt it. It is too sophisticated an operation."
Malaysia site of Sept. 11 plotting, FBI report says
By Jack Kelley, USA TODAY
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Several al-Qaeda operatives met in Malaysia during 2000 to plan the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, according to a new FBI report that says the predominantly Muslim nation has emerged as "one of the primary operational launch pads" for the attacks.
Some of the al-Qaeda operatives also planned to blow up the U.S., Israeli, British and Australian embassies in nearby Singapore with 4 tons of explosives, senior U.S. officials say.
Together, the FBI report and interviews with the officials suggest why U.S. leaders increasingly see Malaysia as a key front in the war on terrorism. The FBI report, examined by a USA TODAY reporter, also sheds light on the alleged activities of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French citizen who was the first person charged in the USA in the Sept. 11 investigation.
The report says Moussaoui, 33, got money for flight training in the USA from Yazid Sufaat, an alleged al-Qaeda operative in Malaysia who previously had met with two of the 19 suicide hijackers. U.S. agents have not linked Moussaoui directly to any hijacker, but this is the second time they have tied him to an alleged al-Qaeda paymaster suspected of supporting the hijackers.
The U.S. indictment that charges Moussaoui with being part of an al-Qaeda conspiracy to kill Americans alleges that al-Qaeda operative Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni cleric and associate of hijacking leader Mohamed Atta, also sent money to Moussaoui last year. Bin al-Shibh is the subject of an international manhunt.
According to the FBI report and U.S. officials:
In January 2000, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, two hijackers aboard the jet that hit the Pentagon, met with other al-Qaeda members in a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The operatives included a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors.
The meeting was hosted by Sufaat, a member of the militant Muslim group Jemaah Islamiah, which U.S. officials say is linked to Osama bin Laden. Soon after the meeting, Al-Midhar and Alhamzi entered the USA and enrolled at a flight school in San Diego.
In October 2000, Sufaat met with Moussaoui in the same condominium. Law enforcement officials allege that he gave Moussaoui papers identifying Moussaoui as a "marketing consultant" for Infocus Tech, a Malaysian company. The papers were signed by "Yazid Sufaat, Managing Director." (Infocus Tech officials say Moussaoui never worked for the company.)
Sufaat agreed to pay Moussaoui $2,500 a month and $35,000 up front, U.S. authorities say. Moussaoui arrived in the USA in February 2001 and deposited $32,000 in a bank in Norman, Okla. He attended flight schools in Norman and in Minnesota before he was arrested on immigration charges in August. FBI agents found the papers that mentioned Infocus Tech in Moussaoui's apartment in Minneapolis.
Moussaoui now is being held in Alexandria, Va., awaiting a federal court trial in October. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Sufaat, 37, was arrested Dec. 9 as he returned to Kuala Lumpur from Afghanistan, where authorities say he fought against the U.S.-led coalition. He is one of 23 suspected al-Qaeda operatives who have been detained in Malaysia.
Also in October 2000, Sufaat received instructions from another alleged al-Qaeda operative, Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, to purchase 4 tons of ammonium nitrate, a powerful explosive. Authorities say Ghozi, 30, an Indonesian also known as "Mike" and "Abu Saad," was a demolitions expert for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group seeking to create an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
Sufaat bought the explosives through a company he owned called Green Laboratory Medicine, according to law enforcement sources. They say he planned to bomb the U.S., Israeli, British, and Australian embassies in Singapore, as well as office buildings that housed U.S.-based companies.
Ghozi was arrested Jan. 15 in Manila by Philippine immigration officials acting on a tip from police in Singapore.
Malaysian officials say the 4 tons of ammonium nitrate — four times the amount used to destroy the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 — has disappeared from the warehouse where the plotters had been storing it. They say they believe the explosives have been taken out of the country.