The man who gave a ride to Zacarias Moussaoui, and his descent into indefinite federal detention

Saturday, July 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ His name is Hussein al-Attas. He is 24 years old. Ten months ago, federal agents arrested him at the mosque where he worshipped and took him away.

He has been locked in solitary confinement ever since, his only companion a Spanish-speaking prisoner on the other side of the wall, to whom he speaks through the air-conditioning vent.

Neither his family in Saudi Arabia, nor his Muslim friends in this college town will speak for him. They are afraid, they say, of endangering themselves. And of making life harder for al-Attas, held by the Justice Department in downtown Manhattan as a material witness in connection with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

His attorneys, silenced by a federal gag order, defend their client during closed hearings and in legal motions filed under seal.

Al-Attas has not been charged with a crime.

He is the university student who gave a ride to Zacarias Moussaoui, a Muslim extremist arrested last summer after spooking administrators at a Minnesota flight school with his badgering insistence on learning to fly jumbo jets.

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is the only person charged with conspiring to help 19 hijackers who plowed two passenger jets into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Al-Attas, born in Riyadh to Yemeni parents, was his friend and, briefly, his roommate in this suburb, home to the University of Oklahoma, 20 miles south of Oklahoma City.

Behind the veil of silence, those who know al-Attas say he is a good and honest man. Perhaps too naive, perhaps too willing to listen when he should have walked away. Speaking on condition of anonymity, saying they fear retribution from immigration officials, they described his ways as quiet and kind, his soul as sensitive and devoted to Islam, his beliefs unbowed before the temptations of America.

But confidential FBI reports reviewed by The Associated Press present a different young man _ one who said he might fight, if called upon, to defend Islamic beliefs. A stranger in a strange land who kept secrets in his deeply conflicted heart and lied to federal agents last August.

The FBI reports and interviews in Norman provide one of the most detailed profiles to date of a Sept. 11 material witness: A young man who spoke of loneliness and isolation, of shaming himself by doing poorly in school and hiding it from his family, and of keeping company with Moussaoui, who offered to lead him to the pure, outer limits of Islamic faith where Muslim law is the only law.

Others have also been jailed as material witnesses, but the government will not say how many. The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service rounded up more than 1,200 people after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Justice Department figures. Most have been deported or released, though 74 remain in custody, the department said Thursday.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the detention of material witnesses ``is vital to preventing, disrupting or delaying new attacks.'' They have not been identified, he said, because to do so could create a ``public blacklist'' violating their privacy and subjecting them to harm.

The little-used practice is intended to hold witnesses without whom a criminal trial might be jeopardized. In the current cases, witnesses are allowed no visitors save their attorneys, some of whom privately say weeks and months passed before clients were allowed to make a first phone call.

In April, a New York federal judge ruled that the material witness designation was illegal in one detainee's case. The government has appealed.

Meanwhile, al-Attas pays a heavy price for befriending a fellow Muslim with violent beliefs and driving him from Oklahoma to Minnesota in a 1991 four-door Subaru.

According to the confidential FBI reports, Hussein Ali Hassan al-Attas told federal agents he entered America in 1995 on a student visa, determined to obtain a university degree in engineering so he could return to Saudi Arabia and continue the legacy of his four older brothers, all successful engineers in a country exploding with development projects and petrochemical opportunities.

But his heart did not dwell in the land of pipe fittings and blueprints. After flunking several classes, he changed his major to mathematics, a step away from his family's wishes but close enough to please.

In Norman, he met other young men from the Middle East, sent like him to study state-of-the-art oil and building technologies, and to bring that knowledge home.

He found solace at Norman's Islamic Society and mosque, a white house surrounded by a black fence two stoplights from campus. It became his home, the imam his father figure, the other young men his brothers. He taught the Quran to children there, a vocation he came to love but one not prestigious enough for his family, friends said.

On a recent night, as a massive thunderstorm approached from the north, the call to prayer crackled over a loudspeaker, riding the close darkness. Under the unforgiving glare of incandescent lighting, three women gathered in a back room, separated from husbands and brothers who prayed next door.

The three faced east toward Mecca, in this case a window with tinted glass, making it look as if each woman were praying before a darkened image of herself. Behind them, young girls sat in metal folding chairs, tugging at their headscarves and poking each other behind their mothers' backs.

After choruses of Allahu akbar, God is great, the scratchy public address system carried an invitation to stop and tell a visitor about ``our innocent brother Hussein al-Attas.''

So timidly, but with fine, open smiles, the women asked about al-Attas. Is he all right? Will he be released soon? We are so worried for him.

Questions put to them were gracefully avoided. I do not want to say anything, one confessed. After Sept. 11, we were even afraid to come to the mosque. For a time, everyone stayed home.

A young man came forward, after the women had gone. He met al-Attas in 1999, at the local Target, he said. Al-Attas noticed him and extended his hand.

``He said 'We are the same,''' the 23-year-old student recalled. He asked not to be identified, saying federal agents had already searched his home because of his friendship with al-Attas, and he feared another visit.

The two spent a lot of time together, he said. Both loved soccer. Both thought of marriage, but the uncovered heads and bodies of American women repelled them. So did America's morals, or to their way of thinking, the lack of them.

``That's what made us stick to our Islam ways,'' said al-Attas' friend. ``I don't see families here, I see everyone for himself. They use beautiful women to sell things with their bodies, and they say we treat women bad. That confuses me.''

The young man's face is strained, as if he were swallowing words struggling to get out. The loudspeaker's message changed. Now it carried fevered warnings to rapt families sitting in Quran lessons.

``Women!'' the instructor called, unloading a repeating-rifle of sins: ``Drugs! Alcohol! Drugs! Alcohol! Going to the beach! Infidelity!

The friend was not listening, but his words kept time and context.

``We live apart. We take care of the woman. We protect our children.''

Al-Attas' faith impressed mosque members. He had memorized the Quran, all 114 chapters. ``We do that when a person really loves Islam,'' said his friend.

Al-Attas didn't talk much about himself or his problems. But there were signs. While his friend progressed from sophomore to senior, al-Attas remained a junior, again switching majors, the last time to general studies.

In February 2001, Moussaoui appeared at the mosque and quickly disturbed worshippers. He was ``too hard-line and outspoken in his beliefs,'' al-Attas would later tell federal agents. Extremely secretive, he called himself ``Shaqil'' _ one word, nothing else.

Five months later, however, al-Attas found himself with Moussaoui for a roommate. It happened this way, he later told the FBI.

The man he had been rooming with got married and asked al-Attas to move out. So, he sought temporary lodging with another mosque member while he searched for a new apartment. The worshipper, Mukkaram Ali, agreed. But Moussaoui had also asked to move in, so the three ended up together.

Moussaoui had come to Norman after enrolling at the nearby Airman Flight School, where he wanted to earn a license to fly light planes. But he irritated people there as well, with never-ending demands that outpaced his abilities.

He was a bad student, instructors said. Frustrated, he quit. Then he asked al-Attas, his new roommate of one month, to drive him to a Minneapolis suburb, where he would enroll in another flight training course. This time, he would study big jets.

Al-Attas left Norman without telling anyone.

``I couldn't believe he did that,'' said his friend at the mosque.

Federal agents arrested Moussaoui and al-Attas as they walked from Room 1414 at the Residence Inn in Eagan, Minn. on Aug. 16. Moussaoui had completed less than two days of classes.

The agents arrived because a nervous instructor reported a new Arab-looking student who paid part of his tuition in cash and insistently asked about commercial jetliners and air traffic control rules.

Al-Attas was held while immigration officials checked his visa. He was cooperative, allowing them to search, without a warrant, the room he shared with Moussaoui, according to confidential FBI reports.

Over two days, al-Attas told FBI and INS agents many troubling things about Moussaoui _ things that would haunt the agency months later, when it was divulged that local agents wanted to investigate Moussaoui more aggressively, but were stymied by FBI headquarters.

Moussaoui believed it was acceptable to kill civilians, al-Attas told the agents. He believed in fighting the ``oppressors'' of Muslims in places such as Chechnya and Kashmir. Did Moussaoui talk of a specific plan to kill? No, al-Attas replied. But sometimes he turned off Moussaoui's rantings.

Al-Attas claimed he kept himself from actually hearing and understanding, the documents said, ``because it is not in his own heart to carry out acts of this nature.''

But there were things al-Attas pondered in his heart. A completed application for a Pakistani tourist visa was found by agents who searched his possessions. He claimed he planned to research cancer treatment in Lahore for a sick uncle.

But that was not true.

Much later, according to FBI reports, al-Attas admitted that Moussaoui encouraged him to go to Pakistan, where he could train to fight as a ``true Muslim.'' Al-Attas said he wasn't sure he should go, that he did not share Moussaoui's more radical beliefs, including that America was an unfit country for Muslims.

On Aug. 18, after mosque members in Norman posted his bond, al-Attas was released. Moussaoui remained in custody. Humiliated and afraid, al-Attas drove back to Oklahoma.

Two days later, at the small apartment he still shared with Ali, FBI agents arrived for a follow-up visit. Al-Attas told them he was ``extremely embarrassed at being arrested.'' He hadn't told his family.

Again, al-Attas told agents he had never heard Moussaoui outline a specific plan to hurt or kill.

The agents left.

They came back on Sept. 11. They called the mosque, where his good friend answered the phone. Al-Attas was not there, he said, but would be returning for afternoon prayers.

He did. From the mosque, he called the agents. I hear you are looking for me, he said.

They took him away, saying he was under arrest for violating his student visa by accepting money for teaching at the mosque. But he was not charged.

On Sept. 17, he was flown to New York City, where he sits in a small cell with a bunk and a toilet, reading the Quran. Occasionally, he is allowed to phone his family in Saudi Arabia and his lawyers.

Al-Attas will likely be deported after testifying against Moussaoui, said lawyers familiar with the case. The trial is tentatively scheduled for fall.

Moussaoui, acting as his own attorney, continues to deny any involvement in the events of Sept. 11.

He has been asked about the friend who drove him to Minnesota. Al-Attas is guilty only of being generous, Moussaoui told investigators.

According to letters mailed from jail, al-Attas is in good spirits. He has asked for an Arabic-Spanish dictionary to better communicate with his fellow prisoner on the other side of the air-conditioning vent.

It is not clear when he may be released, or if he has left behind his zealous hunger for the perfect Islam.