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9/11 suspect denies he served as paymaster

Times Staff Writer

A Saudi suspected of being the senior paymaster for the Sept. 11 attacks, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, has denied wiring money to the hijackers or knowing specifics of the plot, according to a transcript of his military commission hearing released Thursday.

U.S. authorities, as well as the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the attacks, have long alleged that Hawsawi was a top lieutenant of plot mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, an Al Qaeda chieftain. Hawsawi, they say, arranged funding and travel for several of the 19 hijackers, two of whom wired nearly $18,000 to him in the days before the attacks.

But at a military tribunal hearing last week at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Hawsawi distanced himself from those accusations, even as he confirmed his associations with almost everyone involved.

Much of the evidence against him comes from bank records and Western Union receipts that allegedly show him engaging in financial transactions with some of the hijackers.

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But the unclassified summary of evidence read at the hearing did not mention any instances in which he allegedly sent money to them. When specifically asked during the hearing if he had done so, Hawsawi said he had not.

During the hourlong Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing, Hawsawi confirmed that he had received four wire money transfers from Mohamed Atta and another hijacker and that he had been communicating with them.

But, he said, “I don’t know the reason why” they sent the money, adding that he had put the money into his own account and kept it there.

Hawsawi also said he learned only hours before the attacks that something was up, when he was ordered to immediately leave his temporary home in the United Arab Emirates for Pakistan -- first by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s chief deputy and then by Mohammed himself.

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“On Sept. 11, I knew there was an operation,” Hawsawi told the tribunal members.

Later he added: “In the beginning, I was surprised by the size of the operation. It was mostly a surprise to me.”

Hawsawi is one of 14 “high-value” detainees who were held at undisclosed locations and interrogated by the CIA. President Bush ordered them brought to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in September for military commission trials.

As part of that process, Hawsawi, Mohammed and others have appeared in recent weeks at hearings in which some additional evidence against them has trickled out.

In some cases -- Mohammed’s in particular -- the detainees have volunteered information that has allowed a look into the inner workings of the Sept. 11 attacks and Al Qaeda’s global operations.

In Hawsawi’s case, he freely acknowledged having met Mohammed, four of the hijackers and even, on several occasions, Osama bin Laden. He acknowledged being in touch with Atta and attending an Al Qaeda training camp, although he denied being a member of the terrorist network.

When asked why he knew so many of its leaders, he said, “I help all the jihadists.” But he added, “I have never taken an oath to be a jihadist.”

Hawsawi distanced himself from two of the primary pieces of evidence against him: a laptop and a 19-page address book seized during the March 2003 raids in Pakistan in which Hawsawi and Mohammed were captured. The seized items provided U.S. and Pakistani authorities with a bonanza of information about other important Al Qaeda figures and their whereabouts and activities.

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According to the summary of evidence, the laptop’s hard drive contained detailed Al Qaeda expense reports from the previous year, including information about the organization’s spending “through various incoming and outgoing rupee, euro, riyal and dirham fund transactions.”

It also contained the names of Al Qaeda members who had been killed or wounded, Al Qaeda “family allowance information,” and “detailed information for the families of Al Qaeda operatives.” In addition, it had information about the families of 22 Yemeni Al Qaeda operatives, according to the summary of evidence.

Hawsawi acknowledged that the laptop was in his possession when he was arrested. But he said that other people had downloaded material to it and that he didn’t know who “was responsible” for whatever it contained. He said he knew the computer contained information about Yemeni families “but he did not know they were from Al Qaeda,” according to his interpreter and military handler.

As for the address book, one of Hawsawi’s questioners said the detainee had complained a week before the hearing that it wasn’t his.

“It could not be something he owned,” the official said, paraphrasing Hawsawi, “because he didn’t know enough people to fill a 19-page phone” book.

josh.meyer@latimes.com


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