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Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 6 News List

Retracing the German trail of the Sept. 11 plotters

THE HAMBURG CELL The country's officials say they have learned, among other things, the ease with which terrorists can blend in with foreign students in big cities


Shortly after Sept. 11, when the US sent out urgent inquiries for leads on the suspected hijackers, German officials quickly traced three of the ringleaders to an apartment in this affluent northern port.

It was an important break. But the names and address -- Marienstrasse 54 -- suddenly seemed familiar, German investigators say, and then they realized why: In 1998 and 1999, they had those same men and that same apartment under surveillance because of suspected links to an operative for Osama bin Laden.

When nothing came of the surveillance, it was abandoned. Yet during that period, the investigators now ruefully admit, Mohamed Atta and his colleagues used the apartment as a base to plan the Sept. 11 attack. "We have learned a lot in the meantime," confessed a senior German government official, referring to the group, now known as the Hamburg cell.

Open society, open target

Among the lessons, investigators say, is just how easily terrorist plotters can blend in with innocent foreign students in large Western cities like Hamburg, making their detection challenging even when the police have them directly in their sight. The Hamburg cell members were indistinguishable from hardworking Arab and Muslim students seeking only to gain skills and education. For the tenants of Marienstrasse 54, the aim was to turn the West's techniques into the means of its own destruction.

The tenants under surveillance included not only two of the actual hijackers but three other plotters who slipped into Pakistan and probably Afghanistan in the days before the attack. Today, American and German investigators say, those three are among the most wanted men on earth. They know as much as anyone alive about the plot, and they are dangerous, likely to attack again.

In recent days, German and US officials have been meeting in an effort to pin down everything they know about the three fugitives. One, Ramzi Muhammad Abdullah bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni, whose real name may be Ramzi Omar, may well have been the missing 20th hijacker who failed to participate in the Sept. 11 attacks because he was denied a visa, the FBI recently said.

Another was perhaps even more important, the logistical brains behind the cell. He is Said Bahaji, a student of electrical engineering who fooled German intelligence as well as his father-in-law.

The third is Zacarias Moussaoui, who was detained in Minnesota.

Osman Kul, whose daughter, Nese, married Bahaji at a local mosque in October 1999, said he had little grounds for displeasure when he learned of the couple's plans. Over coffee in his living room, Kul said he did not know until much later that some of the seemingly nice young men at the wedding were radical Muslim students involved in the plotting for Sept. 11.

Kul, the son of Turkish immigrants to Germany, admits that he would have preferred a son-in-law of Turkish descent. But he was pleased when Bahaji, now 26, and Nese, who just turned 21, had a son, Omar, last spring.

Since Sept. 11, Kul, like German investigators, has had a different view. Bahaji is thought to have obtained apartments, organized financing and communications, and helped the German hijackers apply for visas to the US. Though he probably never intended to participate directly in the hijackings, his activities show how seamlessly the group blended into student circles in working class neighborhoods.

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