Suspect in Fake Visa Scam Could Be Released

Thursday , July 11, 2002




A man possibly connected to the Sept. 11 attacks who has been accused of buying a fake U.S. visa at the American Embassy in Qatar will be released from federal custody and monitored electronically, a federal judge said Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Andre Davis upheld a magistrate's ruling earlier in the day to free the man, whose friends and relatives had pledged $410,000 for his release.

Ramsi Al-Shannaq, 27, a Jordanian citizen who was arrested two weeks ago at his Baltimore apartment, is accused of paying $13,000 for a fraudulently obtained visa at the American Embassy in Doha, Qatar.

At the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, prosecutors said Al-Shannaq, who once shared a home with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was arrested as part of Operation Eagle Strike, an investigation into the sale of fake visas in Qatar. They also charged he tried to obtain a legitimate visa but was denied four times before.

But U.S. Magistrate Susan K. Gauvey said Al-Shannaq had no criminal history, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg had conceded that there was no attempt to link Al-Shannaq with Sept. 11, so Gauvey ruled that he could be set free.

"This is the first step in a long process," said defense attorney Jim Wyda.

Wyda said his client should be released from federal custody by Thursday, and would be handed over to immigration officials. A date has not yet been set for an immigration hearing. Davis, the district court judge, rejected an appeal from Eisenberg later Wednesday.

Al-Shannaq's appearance came the same day federal authorities confirmed a report that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers had opened as many as 35 bank accounts, most of them using fake Social Security numbers, in the months before the attacks. Investigators believe the hijackers used the accounts to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Middle East to fund their operations in the United States.

Federal authorities believe both Operation Eagle Strike and revelations about the hijackers' bank accounts may yield much more information about the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Investigators are widening their search for foreigners suspected of obtaining fraudulent U.S. visas in the Persian Gulf. Three already detained have been tentatively linked to terrorists.

In a little more than two weeks, 31 who obtained the visas in Qatar have been rounded up, including the three suspects. One is Al-Shannaq, who investigators believe roomed in Alexandria, Va., last summer with the two eventual hijackers.

The FBI was tipped off last November that he had obtained the visa for $10,000 in Qatar. He was arrested June 24.

Eisenberg said he was part of the bribery ring that involved payoffs of more than $13,000 a person.

The two other detained foreigners suspected of links to terrorists were not identified.

One of the embassy employees under investigation is an American citizen currently living in Virginia. He has hired a lawyer and is not cooperating with authorities, who are reviewing his finances for evidence of bribes.

The other now lives in Jordan. Together, according to one official, they processed visas at the Doha embassy for about 14 months.

The visas were obtained in Qatar between July 2000 and May 2001 for about $10,000 each, U.S. officials said. Another 29 suspects are being sought. One U.S. official told The Associated Press the operation may have extended beyond the Persian gulf emirate.

"We determined specifically that 71 individuals received visas for which the appropriate written records were not found," Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said Wednesday.

"Our aim is to determine whether terrorists used this scheme," another U.S. official said.

Reeker, meanwhile, announced the retirement of Mary Ryan, who heads the consular service and is the most senior U.S. foreign service officer, at the request of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Ryan, who is an assistant secretary of state, was obliged to submit her resignation at the onset of the Bush administration. But, Reeker said, Powell has asked her to stay on.

She will remain in her post until the fall, participating in such functions as recommending promotions.

The spokesman said Ryan's departure was unrelated to the visas investigation. "This was just that it was time to move on," Reeker said.

The 71 visas were issued to 39 Jordanians, 28 Pakistanis, 3 Bangladeshis and 1 Syrian, officials said.

"We don't know exactly how it was accomplished," one of the officials said on condition of anonymity. "There are a lot of safeguards and checks. But we don't have our facts. It is still under investigation."

A Justice Department task force seeking illegal immigrants has been assigned to locate all those allegedly involved in the bribery scheme.

Meanwhile, in late June, 131 Pakistani nationals were sent home to Islamabad as part of a roundup of illegal immigrants. Other suspected illegal immigrants were sent back earlier to the Philippines, Cambodia, Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, and El Salvador.

James W. Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration & Naturalization Service, praised the "excellent cooperation from the Pakistani government in helping to complete this important mission."

The alleged visa fraud prompted the Diplomatic Security Service to launch Operation Eagle Strike late last year to investigate and to capture people with illegal visas, according to Frederick Jones, a State Department spokesman.

Of the 31 people taken into custody, seven have been released. Five of them are children and two are wives of detained visa holders.

Fox News' Ian Christopher McCaleb, Bret Baier and Teri Schultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.