WASHINGTON -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who authorities now believe first conceived of the Sept. 11 attacks, apparently met with the terrorist plot's chief suicide hijackers in 1999 in Hamburg, Germany, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday.
A senior intelligence official said "several different sources" had put Mohammed at the shabby Hamburg apartment that was used as a safehouse by three of the Arabs who are believed to have piloted the hijacked planes, as well as by several others implicated in planning and funding the operation.
The new intelligence may help to solve one of the major puzzles about Sept. 11 -- who outside the hijacking teams helped coordinate their actions and provided the link to senior al-Qaida leaders. Mohammed is now believed to have filled at least part of that pivotal role.
The intelligence official said interrogation of al-Qaida prisoners captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as "tracing of documents" and other raw intelligence collected in recent months, indicated that Mohammed was one of the few people with direct knowledge of the recruiting, training, funding and other operational details behind the attacks.
"The number of people central to this plan was very small," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was one of them.'
Although Mohammed was little known to the public until this week, officials said he has now been tied to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a foiled 1995 attempt to bomb 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Washington area.
"He is the Forrest Gump of al-Qaida," a Bush administration official said. "He has more of a presence in some of their plots than we had previously known."
The official said that counterterrorist experts had focused their attention over the last two years chiefly on the more high-profile Abu Zubeida, the al-Qaida operations chief who was captured in March in Pakistan.
"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been quiet and had stayed off the airwaves," the official added. "In hindsight, I don't think people appreciated how important a player he had become in the al-Qaida hierarchy. We are learning all that now."
Mohammed was indicted by a U.S. court in 1996 for his alleged role in the airliner plot, but the federal arrest warrant was sealed so he wouldn't know that authorities were scouring the globe looking for him.
Officials said it was still unclear precisely when Mohammed visited Hamburg, or which of the hijackers he met there. Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah - who are believed to have piloted three of the hijacked planes-lived in the northern German city for most of 1999.
Atta's two roommates - Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Said Bahaji - also are suspected of participating in the plot. Unable to get a U.S. visa, bin al-Shibh helped wire tens of thousands of dollars to the hijackers and to Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested before Sept. 11 and later was charged with conspiracy. Investigators have said that Moussaoui was supposed to take bin al-Shibh's place as the 20th hijacker.
Mohammed's whereabouts are unknown, although officials hinted that at least one unsuccessful covert operation was launched to capture him in the late 1990s in the Middle East.
"We don't have a real good bead on where's he been," another intelligence official said. "Obviously we'd love to talk to him."
U.S. authorities are offering a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to his capture. He is believed to be in Afghanistan, Pakistan or the two countries' lawless border area.
Mohammed initially was known as an accomplice of Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and a 1995 plot to detonate bombs aboard 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean.
Mohammed now appears to have had early links to the larger terror network. His citizenship remains in question - the FBI says he is from Kuwait, while other officials suspect he may be from Baluchistan, a Pakistani province. Moreover, he has had access to significant sums of money, an indication that others may be backing him, officials said.
"I was always under the impression that he had connections; he could move around, had money and could go from one place to another," said the former official.
Later, authorities linked Mohammed to the 1998 bombings of the two U.S. embassies in Africa. On Wednesday, they said his role in those attacks was still being investigated.
Since Sept. 11, authorities have struggled to piece together the complex plot, as well as the al-Qaida hierarchy and network that spawned it. They now have concluded that Mohammed had quietly risen from a low-level figure to a position of relative authority.
He had access to Zubeida and bin Laden, and authorities now believe that he thought up the Sept. 11 plot, possibly incorporating elements of the first World Trade Center attack and the botched airliner plot.
"He's definitely a player," said the Bush administration official Wednesday. "He's definitely a major guy. People have known about him for a while."
The latest information places him in Hamburg in 1999, after the Sept. 11 cell had been assembled.
The young Arabs who formed it had arrived in Germany over the previous decade, but all were in Hamburg and were in contact with one another by 1998.
Atta came first, arriving as a student in 1992 from his home in Egypt. In early 1999, he moved out of student housing and into a refurbished apartment on Marienstrasse that investigators think served as the base for the cell.
Al-Shehhi moved to Germany from the United Arab Emirates in 1996, settling two years later in a Hamburg apartment close to Atta's. Jarrah arrived in the fall of 1997.
German investigators think that the Hamburg group was chosen by al-Qaida for their technical skills and relative sophistication. The investigators say the three probably were singled out at al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, probably in late 1998 or early 1999.
In any case, German federal police say airline records show that the three presumed pilots, plus Bin al-Shibh, flew to Pakistan in late 1999, presumably en route to Afghanistan. The three pilots were in Florida by July 2000, the first leg of the U.S. travel that ultimately would end in the airborne attacks.
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