WASHINGTON -- U.S. investigators were given the first name and telephone number of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers 2 1/2 years before the terror attacks, but the United States appears to have failed to aggressively pursue the lead, according to U.S. and German officials.
The information -- the earliest known signal that the United States received about any of the hijackers -- has become an important element of an independent commission's investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001, officials said yesterday. It is considered particularly significant because it may have represented a missed opportunity for U.S. officials to penetrate the German terror cell that was at the heart of the plot. And it came roughly 16 months before the hijacker showed up at flight schools in the United States.
In March 1999, German intelligence officials gave the CIA the first name and telephone number of Marwan al-Shehhi, and asked the Americans to track him. The name and phone number in the United Arab Emirates had been obtained by the Germans by monitoring the telephone of Mohamed Heidar Zammar, an Islamic extremist in Hamburg who was closely linked to the important plotters behind the Sept. 11 attacks, German officials said.
After the Germans passed the information on to the CIA, they never heard back from the Americans about the matter until after Sept. 11, a senior German intelligence official said. "There was no response" at the time, the official said. After receiving the tip, the CIA decided that "Marwan" was probably an associate of Osama bin Laden but never tracked him down, U.S. officials say.
The information concerning Shehhi, the man who took over the controls of United Airlines Flight 175, which flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center, came months earlier than well-documented tips about other hijackers, including two others who were discovered to have attended a meeting of extremists in Malaysia in January 2000.
The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has received information concerning the 1999 Shehhi tip, and is actively investigating the issue, said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission.
U.S. intelligence officials and others involved with the matter say they are uncertain whether Shehhi's phone was ever monitored.
A U.S. official said: "The Germans did give us the name 'Marwan' and a phone number, but we were unable to come up with anything. It was an unlisted phone number in the UAE, which he was known to use."
The incident is of particular importance because Shehhi was an important member of the al-Qaida cell in Hamburg at the heart of the Sept. 11 plot. Close surveillance of Shehhi in 1999 might have led investigators to other plot leaders, including Mohamed Atta, who was Shehhi's roommate.
A native of the United Arab Emirates, Shehhi moved to Germany in 1996 and was almost inseparable from Atta in their time there. Both men attended the wedding of a fellow Muslim at a radical mosque in Hamburg in October 1999 -- an event considered an important gathering for the Sept. 11 hijacking teams just as the plotting was getting under way.
U.S. and European authorities believe that Shehhi played a critical role in the Sept. 11 plot and was actively involved in its planning and logistics.
"The Hamburg cell is very important" to the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, Zelikow said. The intelligence on Shehhi "is an issue that's obviously of importance to us, and we're investigating it."
Asked whether U.S. intelligence officials gave sufficient attention to the information about Shehhi, Zelikow said, "We haven't reached any conclusions."
The joint congressional inquiry that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks was told about the matter by the CIA, but only a small part of the information was declassified and made public in the panel's final report in December 2002, several officials said. The public report mentioned only that the CIA had received Shehhi's first name, but made no mention that the agency had also obtained his telephone number.
Officials involved with the work of the joint congressional investigation made it clear that the publication of a more complete version of the story was the subject of a declassification dispute with the CIA. A former official involved with the joint congressional inquiry acknowledged that having a telephone number for one of the hijackers was far more significant than simply having a first name.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA, FBI and other government agencies have been heavily criticized for failing to put together fragmentary pieces of information they received from a wide array of sources in order to predict or prevent the terrorist plot.
The joint congressional panel that investigated the attacks concluded that U.S. authorities "missed opportunities to disrupt the Sept. 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack."
Until now, the most highly scrutinized failure has related to the CIA's handling of information about a meeting of extremists in Malaysia in January 2000 that involved two of the men who would become hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. Although the CIA identified the two men as suspected extremists, the agency did not request that they be placed on the government's watch lists to keep them out of the United States until late August 2001. By that time, they were both already in the country. In addition, while the two men lived in San Diego, their landlord was an FBI informant, but the bureau did not learn of their terrorist links from the informant.
But unlike the leads to Midhar and Alhazmi in San Diego, the earlier information about Shehhi could have taken investigators to the core of the al-Qaida cell at a time when the plot was probably in its formative stages. In addition to Atta, Shehhi also shared an apartment in Hamburg with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another plotter who was blocked from entering the United States and so missed out on joining the hijackers. According to testimony in Germany in December in a criminal case related to the Sept. 11 attacks, Shehhi was one of only four members of the Hamburg cell who knew about the attacks beforehand.