German officials provided the Central Intelligence Agency with the telephone number and the first name of one of the 11 September hijackers in March 1999 but received no information back on what efforts were being made by the Americans to track him.
The apparent failure of the CIA to make use of the tip-off has already become a key focus of the independent commission investigating the circumstances of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and what errors were made by US intelligence in failing to head it off.
This latest revelation promises to pile fresh humiliation on an already embarrassed CIA. While investigators have now unearthed a long list of clues about the al-Qa'ida attacks that were missed by US intelligence or not properly followed up, none were as early as this one provided by Germany.
"There was no response," a senior German intelligence official told the New York Times after describing the information that was passed on. It included the first name of Marwan al-Shehhi and a telephone number in the United Arab Emirates. Al-Shehhi was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 175 that struck the South Tower.
Concern about the continuing activity of al-Qa'ida was heightened again yesterday after Arabic language television stations broadcast two audio tapes purportedly carrying messages from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. One, carried by the al-Jazeera network, included a fresh warning to President George Bush.
"We remind Bush that he didn't destroy two-thirds of Al-Qa'ida. On the contrary, thanks be to God, al-Qa'ida is still in the holy war battleground raising the banner of Islam in the face of the Zionist-Crusader campaign against the Islamic community," it said. A second tape criticised steps in France to bar Islamic headgear in schools.
The heads of both the CIA and the FBI testified to the US Congress last night that there is no let-up in the scrutiny of al-Qa'ida. The Americans are especially worried that the Olympic Games in Athens and the political conventions of the Republican and Democrat parties in New York and Boston this summer might be targets.
Meanwhile, US officials were moving quickly to downplay the significance of the 1999 tip-off regarding Al-Shehhi. "A first name - and a common one at that - is a scrap of information and doesn't take you anywhere without the benefit of hindsight" one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission probing the attacks, conceded that the information could have proved pivotal, particularly since al-Shehhi was a member of the al-Qa'ida cell in Hamburg where the plot was mostly hatched. He was also a roommate of Mohammed Atta, another of the conspiracy leaders.
"The Hamburg cell is very important" to the investigation of the attacks, Mr. Zelikow, adding that the intelligence on Mr. Shehhi "is an issue that's obviously of importance to us, and we're investigating it".
An earlier report on the failings of US intelligence completed by a congressional committee did make reference to al-Shehhi. However, because of a squabble with the CIA over the extent to which intelligence information could be declassified, it did not reveal the fact that the Germans had also provided the phone number.
Both al-Shehhi and Atta left Germany in 2000 to train at an al-Qa'ida camp in Afghanistan. After returning to Germany late that year they left once again, traveling to the US where they enrolled ina flight training school together.Reuse content