THE FBI has identified a man it believes was meant to be the 20th member of the 11 September hijacking team and has intensified an international manhunt to track him down.
The suspect, a 29-year-old Yemeni called Ramsi Binalshibh, shared a house in Hamburg with Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader, and has been wanted by prosecutors in Germany for some time.
Now US prosecutors believe he intended to be on United Airlines flight 93, the only one of the doomed planes with four rather than five hijackers on board, which crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.
Mr Binalshibh tried and failed to enter the United States three times over the summer, yesterday's Los Angeles Times said. He had wired a down- payment of $2,200 (£1,500) to attend a flight school in Florida with another of the named hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, but could not obtain a visa, apparently because of a suspected link to the bombing of USS Cole in Aden harbour in October last year.
He and two other terrorism suspects, both of whom are sought by German police – Said Bahaji and Zakariyah Essaabar – are believed to have left Hamburg shortly before 11 September. Their whereabouts are not known.
The FBI has assumed the existence of a "20th man" since the first week of the investigation. Suspicion fell initially on Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan arrested in Minnesota in August after raising suspicions at a flight school.
He was transferred to New York as a material witness shortly after the attacks, where he remains in custody and has refused to co-operate with the investigation. No strong evidence of links between Mr Moussaoui and the known hijackers has emerged, however, suggesting that his role was marginal at most.
Mr Binalshibh, also known as Ramzi Omar, was named by the FBI's director, Robert Mueller, in a meeting with federal prosecutors on Wednesday.
According to the LA Times, which quoted a number of the meeting's participants, Mr Mueller said that a search of Mr Moussaoui's computer had yielded information on crop-dusters and the dispersal of chemical agents but nothing to connect him to the hijackers.
Mr Mueller went on to reveal the FBI's suspicions about Mr Binalshibh. No details were available of what the FBI thought his role on flight 93 was meant to be, or of the FBI's precise reasons for believing he was supposed to be involved.
Mr Binalshibh was a student in business administration in Hamburg, where he lived in a three-bedroom flat that was frequented by a number of the suspected hijackers and their associates. The FBI believes the organisers behind the 11 September attacks were based in Hamburg.
Until now, he had been suspected only of planning and preparing the attacks – "providing criminal assistance" in the words of the international arrest warrant issued by Germany's chief prosecutor.Reuse content