NEWARK, N.J. – They seem to have several striking connections to the World Trade Center attacks, yet two New Jersey men currently in federal custody claim they're innocent.
Now authorities have to decide whether they've got two conspirators in the worst terrorist attack in history — or if they've got two innocent Indian men whose only crime is to have lived a series of striking coincidences.
A day after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan were arrested in Texas after having traveled nearly 1,600 miles in two days by airliner and train. Their luggage contained $5,600, an assortment of passports and box-cutting knives similar to those believed to have been the terrorist hijackers' weapon of choice.
When confronted by police looking for drug couriers, they appeared nervous. "I did not have anything to do with New York," Azmath volunteered.
Acquaintances said the two men couldn't possibly be terrorists. The pair worked 12-hour days at the Newark Penn Station newsstand, ate fast food for lunch, downed cold beers at quitting time and went home to a dingy apartment in Jersey City, where they cooked dinner on an ancient stove and watched action movies from the local video store. Friends describe the men as quiet and hardworking, and say they never heard either utter a bad word about America.
Both men remain in custody, held as material witnesses but not charged with any crime.
Law enforcement officials won't comment publicly about their case. But officials familiar with the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, have repeatedly placed Azmath and Khan among a handful of people who are under the most intense scrutiny but are not cooperating with investigators.
Authorities may have reason not to let the two go.
Though they have not disclosed any information that would connect the two to the hijackings, the FBI acknowledges receiving reports that suspected hijack ringleaders Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were seen last summer in Journal Square, the central Jersey City neighborhood where Khan and Azmath lived.
Azmath and Khan lived around the corner from a mosque attended by followers of the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman who were convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
A man who shared their apartment, Mohammad Aslam Pervez, was charged last month with lying to investigators about more than $100,000 in transfers into and out of his bank account.
The FBI is investigating the fact that the pair made money transfers to people in India. The newsstand workers sent a total of $64,200, in several installments from July to September 1999, according to Indian authorities and the FBI.
Family members say there's nothing unusual about the transfers.
"His only worry was to settle everybody in the family well in life," Azmath's wife, Tasleem, said in Hyderabad, India.
And in letters to relatives, Azmath and Khan proclaim their innocence.
"They are doing their duty by making their inquiries, and I am confident that after completing their inquiries, we will be released very soon," Azmath wrote to his wife.
Khan's sister, Syeda Fatima, defended the men..
The two men "praised America as a paradise where they were able to realize their dream of improving the economic condition of their families," she said in an interview in Hyderabad.
Khan and Azmath worked at the newsstand for five years, but lost their jobs when the business was sold in late August.
On Sept. 11, Azmath and Khan boarded a TWA airliner at Newark International Airport, bound for San Antonio. Friends had offered them jobs in Texas, Khan's brother, Mohammed Zahir Shah, said in Hyderabad.
When flights were grounded after the hijackings that morning, Khan and Azmath landed in St. Louis.
They paid cash for Amtrak tickets to San Antonio, and that alerted police, who thought they might be drug couriers. Their train stopped in Fort Worth on Sept. 12, and officers found Azmath and Khan asleep in separate cars.
Azmath told officers that he and Khan were going to visit a friend in San Antonio for at least a month. Khan told another officer they planned to stay a week.
After the men consented to a search, police found box cutters, clothing and hair dye, plus Muslim religious items. Khan's brother said the knives were tools the men had used to open boxes in the newsstand.
Investigators also noticed that the pair's bodies were shaved.
A day earlier, investigators searching the luggage of suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta had found what appeared to be instructions for the suicide hijackers. Excerpts released by the Justice Department included this instruction: "The previous night, shave the extra hair from the body [and] pray."
Hyderabad police charged the two men with fraud for having two passports each and having false information in their passports. They said Khan changed his name from Gul Mohammed Shah for one passport. Khan gave his age as 51 and Azmath as 47, when both are 32, Hyderabad police said.
Khan's sister, Syeda Fatima, said his first application for an American visa was rejected and he increased his age on a different passport to improve his chances. "Here there are so many people who obtain several passports," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report