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Key 9/11 Planner Is Named

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. intelligence officials believe they have identified a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks--a mysterious Kuwaiti already wanted for his alleged role in a 1995 plot to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean, authorities said Tuesday.

“It looks like he’s the man, quite honestly,” one Bush administration official said of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a key lieutenant to Osama bin Laden. “We believe he is probably the leader of this. We have reason to believe it was his idea to create the plan for the four hijackings and [that he] discussed the plan with ... Bin Laden.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he had been briefed recently on Mohammed’s alleged role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and was told that the information was coming from the interrogations of “various people,” including Al Qaeda members in custody.

In particular, captured Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubeida has told his interrogators of Mohammed’s role in the plot, according to the Bush administration official and a second U.S. official. Both spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation and the fact that Mohammed is still at large and believed to be hiding somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

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A third person, an FBI counterterrorism official closely involved in the investigation, also described Mohammed as “perhaps the most wanted” of Al Qaeda operatives, possibly even more so than Bin Laden and top aide Ayman Al-Zawahiri, because of his direct operational role in various terrorist attacks.

In an interview with The Times two weeks ago, that FBI official would not specifically discuss Mohammed’s role in the suicide hijackings but cited him as a key fugitive who figures prominently in the investigation.

Some officials, though, downplayed Mohammed’s role. “He’s one of the people believed to be behind it. It may be a stretch to say he’s the mastermind,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “It’s not clear at this point what role he played.”

Mohammed, who is believed to be 36 or 37 years old, was designated one of the Bush administration’s 22 most-wanted terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was linked not to Sept. 11, but to the 1995 plot to blow up airliners. Authorities had placed a $25-million bounty on his head.

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But in recent weeks, those authorities have come to believe that Mohammed discussed the Sept. 11 plot in detail before the attacks not only with Bin Laden but also with Zubeida, who was an operational commander for Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

Authorities say Zubeida put Bin Laden’s global vision for a worldwide Islamic state into action by orchestrating a series of terrorist attacks, managing the training camps in Afghanistan and serving as a liaison with terrorist cells around the world. Tuesday’s disclosures are also the first indication that Zubeida has been tied directly to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Zubeida, a Palestinian who is believed to be about 31, was captured in a raid in Pakistan in late March. He has been interrogated almost continually since recovering from gunshot wounds suffered when he tried to escape.

The Bush administration official said Zubeida’s identification of Mohammed as a key orchestrator of the Sept. 11 attacks occurred over the last two months and that U.S. authorities have been able to corroborate significant elements of his story. The official said such independent corroboration is important because authorities have been highly skeptical of some of the information provided by Zubeida, a hardened terrorist with no obvious reason to help the U.S.

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Information from Zubeida has prompted authorities in recent weeks to go public about potential terrorist attacks on U.S. banks, shopping malls and even the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty--even when they could not find any independent corroboration or even a time, date or place for such attacks.

The Bush administration official speculated that Zubeida may have identified Mohammed as a way of taunting U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

“Zubeida is definitely talking. I think he knows that Mohammed is alive and on the loose and that we won’t be able to catch him,” said the official. “Who knows? It’s all pop psychology at this point. [But] I’m very confident that there were discussions with Mohammed and Abu Zubeida over what ultimately became the 9/11 attacks.”

Authorities have long believed that Mohammed played a significant role in Al Qaeda, ranking one or two levels below Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda’s military commander, in the terror network’s hierarchy. They also think he was involved in the 1998 truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

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“The point here is that we knew of Mohammed prior to 9/11, but no one knew the role he had in the organization, or his significance, until we began the interrogations,” the Bush administration official said. “Our knowledge base of him was limited. But now we know he is an extremely significant player in the Al Qaeda hierarchy.”

The official said the investigation into Mohammed’s alleged role in the plot, and within Al Qaeda, is proceeding at a breakneck pace now that authorities have leads to follow. Already, they believe that Mohammed participated in planning the financial aspects of the Sept. 11 plot as well as conceiving and orchestrating it.

The second U.S. official who confirmed that Zubeida has identified Mohammed as a key orchestrator of the attacks said Pentagon interrogators gleaned the information from him. He would not say where Zubeida is being held or what other information has been released to the White House and to the Justice and State departments.

For years, U.S. authorities have quietly investigated Mohammed for his alleged role in Bojinka, the terrorist plot based in the Philippines to blow up airliners flying routes to the United States from Southeast Asia in January 1995.

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In a test run, a small bomb was detonated aboard one plane and a man was killed, but the plane did not crash. U.S. authorities and their Asian counterparts uncovered the larger plot after a fire broke out in Mohammed’s apartment in Manila.

The conspiracy was orchestrated by suspected Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, who was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef was also implicated in a 1995 plot to crash a small plane into CIA headquarters.

When unveiling their “most-wanted list” in October, U.S. authorities said Mohammed went by many aliases, including Ashraf Refaat Nabith Henin, Khalid Adbul Wadood, Salem Ali and Fahd bin Abdullah bin Khalid.

At the time, Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff--who is heading the Sept. 11 inquiry--described Mohammed as a fugitive “at large from one of the plots that didn’t go off.”

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“Ramzi Yousef, who’s one of the masterminds among the terrorists, had a plan to blow up 12 airliners over the ocean and kill hundreds of people,” Chertoff said in an interview in December on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “They actually tried a test run and exploded a small device on a plane, killed somebody. Ultimately, through good luck and good investigative work, the plot was foiled.”

“This particular individual,” Chertoff said of Mohammed, “is one of the fugitives in the case.”

Mohammed also uses several birth dates, including April 14, 1965, and March 1, 1964, according to the FBI. Authorities describe him as having black hair and brown eyes and being slightly overweight. He also wears glasses on occasion, has olive skin and may or may not wear a beard, according to his wanted poster, which has been distributed worldwide.

The FBI also says Mohammed was born in Kuwait, but even that is a matter of dispute.

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In December, when his name was circulated on the most-wanted list, Kuwaiti leaders officially disassociated themselves from Mohammed, saying he was “not a Kuwaiti,” as U.S. and European officials had claimed.

In an interview with Kuwaiti editors, Kuwait’s information minister, Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah, said Mohammed was actually a Pakistani national who was born in Kuwait and that people born in Kuwait don’t automatically qualify for citizenship.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the Justice Department has identified 23 people in the United States with various levels of “terrorist ties.” At least one of them allegedly had links to Al Qaeda, according to officials who said the men are either in custody or are being closely watched.

Information about the suspects was given to the FBI, officials said.

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Times staff writer Bob Drogin contributed to this report.


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