Intelligence agents in the Middle East have been questioning a suspected Al Qaeda operative who was observed meeting last year in Malaysia with hijacker Khalid Almihdhar and other supporters of Usama bin Laden, officials said.
The man has been detained and is being questioned about his possible contact with the hijacker, his suspected involvement in the USS Cole bombing and a foiled plot to bomb a hotel in Jordan filled with Americans during the millennium celebrations, officials said Sunday.
Officials did not provide the man's name. They said he has not been charged with any offense.
Malaysian security authorities videotaped the man in a January 2000 meeting with Almihdhar and other supporters of bin Laden's network. At the time, neither Almihdhar nor the man now in custody were known to be connected to terrorism.
The meeting took on new significance this past summer when information developed in the bombing of the Cole suggested the man held in the Middle East might have been connected to the plot, officials said.
The CIA in August then placed Almihdhar and one of his associates, Nawaf Alhazmi, on a terrorist watch list, but immigration officials discovered the two soon-to-be-hijackers were already in the United States, officials said.
Almihdhar and Alhazmi weren't located before they boarded an American Airlines jetliner on Sept. 11 that crashed into the Pentagon.
The man recently detained is "very important" because he's a midlevel operative in the Al Qaeda network, said a retired intelligence official
He was arrested in the Gulf region within the past two weeks and was taken to Jordan, where he's being interrogated, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The arrest of the suspected Al Qaeda operative in the Middle East comes as the CIA and FBI continue to seek out and detain people linked to the hijackers through phone contacts, Internet communications and financial transactions.
Three people arrested in the Sept. 11 investigation pleaded innocent Monday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., and face trial in mid-December.
Kenys Galicia, a notary public, is charged with falsely notarizing forms stating two of the hijackers were Virginia residents. Luis A. Martinez-Flores, 28, is charged with falsely certifying that Khalid Almihdhar and Hani Hanjour lived with him in Falls Church, Va.
Mohamed Abdi, a security guard, is charged with forging rental housing subsidy checks. Those charges are unrelated to the hijackings but the FBI found his name and phone number on a map in a car registered to one of the hijackers.
Abdi's attorney, Joseph Bowman, said his client doesn't know how his name ended up on the map and suggested Monday he may try to argue the case should be handled by a state court, instead of federal prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors say a Pakistani man who was detained in Detroit and is being held on a voter registration fraud charge in North Carolina has been connected by evidence to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Intiaz Ahmed Siddiqui, 31, was arrested in the Detroit area and was indicted last Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Greensboro, N.C., on one count of voter registration fraud, according to Lynn Clower, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office.
"He said he was a U.S. citizen when indeed he was a citizen of Pakistan," Clower said.
During a detention hearing last week in Detroit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Terbush said the government had information that linked Siddiqui to at least two of the hijackers.
Terbush said the government considers it a "very, very serious matter."
Attorney Neil DeBlois, who is representing Siddiqui, said Friday his client has been held since Sept. 22 on a relatively minor charge just so the government can try to build a case of terrorism against him.
DeBlois said his client is an electrical engineer who came into the United States legally in July 2000 for work. He was employed in California and recently accepted a job in Grand Rapids.
In a seven-page affidavit provided to DeBlois, an FBI agent wrote that Siddiqui visited an Internet travel site at the same time as one of the hijackers, and the pair may have communicated, DeBlois said. He said the affidavit "reads like a cheap novel."