Investigators arrest nine people in nationwide search to protect movement of hazardous materials
WASHINGTON (AP) – Law enforcement authorities arrested nine people in three states Wednesday on charges of fraudulently obtaining licenses to transport hazardous materials.
The arrests in Missouri, Michigan and Washington state followed FBI warnings that terrorists may strike next using chemical or biological weapons. Authorities said as many as 20 people who had the bogus permits, some of whom may have connections to the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, were being sought for questioning but may not be linked to the attacks.
None of those arrested Wednesday have known connections to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden.
Some of those arrested had obtained the permits in Pennsylvania, where a driver’s license examiner for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation office in Pittsburgh provided permits to people who didn’t take required tests, had suspended licenses or were otherwise not eligible, according to court records.
The examiner was not identified.
Three people were arrested in Washington state, four in Detroit, and one in Kansas City, Mo. The location of the ninth arrest was not available.
The examiner dealt with a middle man identified in court records as Abdul Mohamman, who brought the examiner at least 20 people who fraudulently obtained the licenses.
The concern about licenses to haul chemicals first surfaced last week when authorities arrested Nabil Al-Marabh, 34, a former Boston cab driver taken into custody in Chicago last week. Al-Marabh holds a commercial driver’s license and is certified to transport hazardous materials, records show.
The arrests came as the government increased its pressure Wednesday on a former airline food worker whose name and phone number were found in a car registered to one of the terrorist hijackers, persuading a federal court to detain him without bail.
Prosecutors described Mohamed Abdi of Virginia as an essential witness and said ”he may be more.” Abdi’s lawyer insisted he knew nothing about the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another man, charged with helping a hijacker get a photo identification card, was also denied bail by a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Va., as prosecutors sought to keep possible suspects jailed until it could be determined whether they were tied to the attacks.
Meanwhile, a federal prosecutor in New York said Al-Badr Al-Hazmi, a San Antonio radiologist detained for close to two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and released Tuesday, never was a subject of the investigation.
Al-Hazmi ”voluntarily answered all questions put to him,” said U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White. ”He was not and is not a subject of this investigation.”
Across the globe, authorities continued to crack down on terrorism suspects. In Spain, police detained six Algerians allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the suicide jet attacks, and to a group suspected of planning attacks on U.S. targets in Europe.
In Britain, authorities captured a French national alleged to have been involved in a plot to attack U.S. interests in Europe. France has already placed seven other suspects in the case under formal investigation, a step before being charged.
Authorities say the eight all are believed to have ties to bin Laden. Evidence found during arrests in France last week suggest the suspects were part of a group scouting out European locations for attacks, with the U.S. Embassy in Paris a prime target.
Abdi’s name and phone number were on a Washington road map found in a car registered to Nawaq Alhamzi, identified by the FBI as one of the hijackers who commandeered an American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Abdi was arrested on forgery charges unrelated to the attacks.
FBI agent Kevin W. Ashby testified that when Abdi was arrested he had a 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 terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
Investigators said the name ”Mohumed” and a phone number registered to Abdi, a security guard and naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, were written on a map found inside the car parked at Dulles International Airport, where American Airlines Flight 77 took off.
A cashier’s check made out to a flight school in Phoenix, drawings of a cockpit of a 757 and a box-cutter knife were also found in the car.
Ashby said Abdi ”could offer no explanation” how his name and phone number turned up on the map in the terrorist’s car. When Ashby pressed for an explanation, Abdi said he donated his car to the Salvation Army in 1999 and that perhaps he had left the map behind in the car. However, Abdi didn’t have that phone number in 1999, Ashby testified.
He said that Abdi worked for an airline catering company at Reagan Washington National Airport in the early to mid-1990s.
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, U.S. Magistrate Welton Curtis Sewell granted the government’s request to detain Herbert Villalobos, who was arrested Monday in Arlington, Va.
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.
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