Blast Suspects Got German CashBy Sara Fritz and Robert L. Jackson
Los Angeles Times
The men suspected of exploding a bomb underneath the World Trade Center received tens of thousands of dollars from a bank account in Germany, giving credence to the theory that it may have been the act of a sophisticated international terrorist organization, authorities said Thursday.
Officials still have not determined the precise amount of money transferred to the suspects or the identity of the benefactors. Furthermore, they said they believed that the total amounted to less than $100,000 -- a relatively small sum in comparison to the money a well-funded international terrorist group could afford to spend. And they acknowledged they had no proof the money was spent in connection with the bombing.
Nonetheless, as authorities followed the widening money trail, sources said they were more inclined to suport the view publicly expressed by FBI Assistant Director James Fox that the Feb. 26 bombing was "organized by a large, well-know terrorist group."
Although the money received by the suspects was wired from a bank in Germany, investigators said they suspect the funds actually originated elsewhere -- possibly Iran or Iraq. In Egypt, according to a knowledgeable source, followers of an Egyptian cleric whose New Jersey mosque has figured in the bombing case are known to be funded with Iranian money funneled through Sudan.
Three men have be arrested in connection with the bombing, all of them identified by the FBI with a radical Islamic group that has actively protested last year's jailing of El-Sayed Nosair, who was charged in the 1990 murder in Manhattan of right-wing Jewish leader Meir Kahane. Although acquitted of the killing itself, he was convicted on related weapons charges and sent to Attica State Prison.
The group also has ties to the Egyptian cleric in New Jersey, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who has been linked to acts of terrorism in Egypt, including the murder of President Anwar Sadat. Abdel-Rahman has denied any role in the World Trade Center bombing.
The money was wired to accounts at the National Westminister Bank branch in Jersey City, N.J., just a few blocks from the mosque where Omar's followers -- including at least two of the men arrested in the case -- worshipped.
The two principle suspects, Mohammed A. Salameh and Nidal A. Ayyad, held a joint account at the Jersey City bank that received some of the money from Germany. In addition, money from the same foreign source also was placed in individual accounts belonging to the men.
On Wednesday, investigators underestimated how much money the suspects had received from abroad because they were only aware of only the single joint account at the time.
Even though the suspects received tens of thousands of dollars, each individual deposit was less than $10,000, sources said. Under federal law, American banks handling transactions of $10,000 or more must report them to the Treasury Department, often prompting money launderers and criminals to break large transfers into smaller amounts.
The transactions provide the first publicly available evidence that those responsible for the bombing may not have been hapless amateurs, as they have sometimes been portrayed. That characterization has stemmed largely from the fact that the suspects made no attempt to hide their identity when they allegedly rented the Ryder truck used to carry explosive materials into the World Trade Center.
One federal law enforcement source close to the investigation said authorities "have never bought off on the theory that this was a bunch of bumblers." He noted that the chemical formula used to create the explosion was by no means amateurish.
Ayyad, who was arrested Wednesday, holds a college degree in chemical engineering and was employed as a research engineer at the AlliedSignal Corp. in Morristown, N.J. Authorities said Salameh telephone Ayyad at least four times at his office on the day before the bombing, apparently seeking advice on how to mix the chemicals.
While officials know that Salameh and Ayyad withdrew most of the money from the Jersey City bank accounts prior to the bombing, they acknowledged that they as yet have no evidence that would prove the money was used to buy bomb-making paraphernalia or rent the truck and the storage locker where the chemicals apparently were mixed. The chemicals _ urea, nitric acid and sulfuric acid _ are widely available and relatively inexpensive.