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Monday, August 09, 2004

Strangers on a Train 

From the Washington Post:
Two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the ringleaders of the plot had a different destination in mind: Chechnya. But a chance encounter with a stranger on a train in Germany led the conspirators in a new direction, eventually putting them in touch for the first time with Osama bin Laden and the leadership of al Qaeda.

The 1999 episode on the German train, disclosed in the final report of the U.S. commission that investigated the attacks, is based on interrogation reports that until recently were kept secret. According to the account, a mysterious passenger -- identified as Khalid Masri, a name that has not previously surfaced in public records of the investigation -- urged the Islamic radicals from Hamburg to put off their mission to Chechnya until they could speak with a Mauritanian businessman, who in turn arranged a personal introduction to bin Laden.

The circuitous path that led the group to Afghanistan is one key piece of evidence cited by the commission in concluding that the Hamburg cell had no intention of attacking the United States until it was recruited almost by happenstance by the al Qaeda leadership to become the field marshals of the Sept. 11 operation.

That finding contradicts a long-held theory advanced by German prosecutors, who have argued that the Hamburg radicals wholly conceived of the plot themselves in Germany and only later traveled to Afghanistan to seek the support and sponsorship of al Qaeda.

According to U.S. and German investigators, the Hamburg cell included 11 core members and supporters who played a role in preparing for the attacks. Of those, three died during the hijackings, including plot leader Mohamed Atta; two are facing trial in Germany; two are in U.S. military custody and one is imprisoned in Syria. Three others remain at large, whereabouts unknown.

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