Virginia man with link to hijacker ordered held without bond as essential witness

Wednesday, September 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Virginia man whose name and phone number were found in a car registered to one of the 19 suspected hijackers was ordered held without bond Wednesday. A prosecutor described him as an essential witness and ``he may be more.''

U.S. Magistrate Curtis Sewell ordered Mohamed Abdi of Alexandria held following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington.

When Abdi was arrested, FBI agent Kevin W. Ashby testified, he had a ``torn-off piece of newspaper'' containing an article about Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was convicted of conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles airport as part of a millennium terror plot. Ressam testified at a separate trial earlier this year that he spent six months training at terrorists camps in Afghanistan.

Abdi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, works as a $22,000-a-year security guard, said Joseph Bowman, his lawyer. He did not say where Abdi is employed. Ashby testified that Abdi also had worked for an airline catering company at Reagan National Airport several years ago.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer, who described Abdi as an essential witness and possibly more, argued that he should be held without bond. ``The pressure on him to abscond will be incredible,'' he said.

Abdi was one of two men ordered held without bond Wednesday in Alexandria. After a separate hearing, Sewell granted the government's request to detain Herbert Villalobos, who was arrested Monday in Arlington, Va.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, said that about 20 people have been charged since the Sept. 11 attacks with fraudulently obtaining licenses to transport hazardous materials.

Declaring that terrorism ``is a clear and present danger to Americans today,'' Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday that some people who sought such licenses may have links to the hijackers of the four planes that crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, killing thousands.

``Intelligence information available to the FBI indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents,'' the attorney general told Congress.

Villalobos was charged with helping one of the suspected hijackers, Abdulaziz Alomari, obtain a fraudulent Virginia ID card. His lawyer argued that the charge did not warrant holding him without bond, but Sewell disagreed.

``One of the unspoken issues after the events of Sept. 11'' is ``is it going to be business as usual,'' Sewell said. ``I suspect not.''

Abdi was charged with forging his landlord's signature on housing subsidy checks he was receiving from Arlington County and cashing the checks.

Investigators said the name ``Mohumed'' and a phone number registered to Abdi were written on a Washington road map found inside a car parked in a lot at Dulles International Airport, where American Airlines flight 77 was hijacked. The plane, a Boeing 757, smashed into the Pentagon.

The car, found the day after the hijackings, was registered to Nawaq Alhamzi, identified by the FBI as one of the hijackers of the American flight, the records said. The FBI also found a cashier's check made out to a flight school in Phoenix; four drawings of the cockpit of a 757 jet; a box-cutter-type knife; and maps of Washington and New York.

Bowman, appointed by the court to represent Abdi, said the Alexandria man is just ``a guy trying to make his way'' who had ``his name found in an unfortunate place.''

When he was arrested, Abdi told authorities he had donated his car to the Salvation Army in 1999 and speculated that the map with his phone number and name had been left in that car and somehow transferred to Alhamzi's car.

But Ashby said the FBI determined that Abdi did not have that phone number in 1999.

Ashcroft's warning about trucks carrying hazardous materials came one day after the government lifted a two-day grounding of all crop-dusters. Canadian authorities said Wednesday they have received reports of suspicious inquiries abut crop-dusting planes from two aerial spraying companies in Saskatchewan.

Nabil Al-Marabh, 34, a former Boston cab driver taken into custody in Chicago last week by investigators, holds a commercial driver's license and is certified to transport hazardous materials. Al-Marabh has been moved to New York for questioning.

The focus on trucks with hazardous materials follows disclosures that Mohamed Atta, suspected of piloting one of the two hijacked passenger airliners that struck the World Trade Center, was interested in farm crop-dusting planes. Ashcroft said the FBI had gathered information raising fears that agricultural aircraft could be used in a biological or chemical attack.

A convicted terrorist collaborator testified just two months ago about another potential threat, saying in court that he trained for a chemical attack at a camp inside Afghanistan where poison was unleashed to kill dogs.

``In regard to targets in general ... we were speaking about America,'' Ahmed Ressam testified in July. Ressam said terrorist trainers discussed dispensing poison through the air intake vents of buildings to ensure the maximum amount of casualties.

In the probe of the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI is investigating whether some of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center practiced their approaches by renting small planes at New Jersey flight schools and flying along the Hudson River toward the twin towers.

In France, seven people with possible ties to Osama bin Laden were placed under investigation _ one step short of being charged _ on Tuesday in connection with a probe into possible attacks on U.S. interests in France. An eighth person who eluded capture here was detained in London, the French Interior Ministry said Wednesday.