The FBI thinks a Yemeni citizen who is the focus of a worldwide manhunt was supposed to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11 but he failed to get into the United States, FBI Director Robert Mueller told federal prosecutors in a briefing Wednesday.
The suspected ringleader of the 19 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, tried unsuccessfully to get Ramzi Omar, also known as Ramsi Binalshibh, into the United States three times, Mueller said.
"We believe he was the 20th hijacker," Mueller said. The FBI director noted that all the hijacking teams had five members except United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field while on a flight path to Washington.
Mueller's assertion about Omar marks a change from earlier suggestions by the U.S. government that a man arrested in Minnesota, Zacarias Moussaoui, may have been the 20th hijacker.
Justice and FBI officials declined to comment on Mueller's remarks.
A month ago, Vice President Dick Cheney said Moussaoui, who was taken in custody the month before the hijackings, may have been intended as part of the terrorist crew that commandeered Flight 93.
Mueller told prosecutors Wednesday there was no information on the computer seized from Moussaoui that links him to the Sept. 11 attacks. That prompted officials to consider other suspects as the 20th hijacker, officials said.
At a security conference in Germany on Wednesday, FBI official Michael Rolince said that "as an investigator I'm convinced there were supposed to be five people on this plane. Whoever that fifth person was is probably still alive."
"Clearly we are looking into the pool of people who crossed paths with the hijackers" to find the 20th hijacker, said Rolince, FBI section leader for international terrorism.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said information recently obtained from bin Laden operatives now in custody has helped provide a clearer picture of the hijacking plot and plans for follow-up attacks.
German authorities have issued international arrest warrants for three suspected accomplices of the hijackers: Binalshibh; Said Bahaji, a German national; and Zakariya Essabar of Morocco. All three left Hamburg shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has said the three had extensive connections to Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the suspected pilots of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and Ziad Jarrah, suspected of flying the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
In the closed-door meeting with prosecutors, Mueller offered details about Moussaoui, saying that when the FBI searched his computer, it contained information about "dispersal of chemicals" as well as about crop-duster planes.
The discovery led to the Bush administration temporarily grounding crop-dusters as a precaution against a possible biochemical terrorist attack.
Mueller also said the news media incorrectly have reported Moussaoui's interest in learning to handle airplanes at a time when he was taking flight training.
Mueller said Moussaoui wanted to learn how to take off and land, but not fly.
"Newspapers have it the other way," Mueller noted.
Moussaoui was detained Aug. 17 on immigration charges after officials at a flight school where he sought training grew suspicious and called authorities. He is being held as a material witness in the probe of the terrorist attacks.
Mueller also gave a personal account of Sept. 11, saying he was in the FBI operations center as people tracked the mile-by-mile flight path of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 as it headed for Washington. It eventually crashed into the Pentagon.
In other developments:
The Treasury Department reported that since Sept. 11, the United States has blocked $27-million in assets of Afghanistan's Taliban and al-Qaida. Other countries together have frozen $29-million. In all, 120 countries have orders in effect blocking al-Qaida and Taliban money.
A Saudi man was indicted in Missouri on bank fraud and money-laundering charges. Adel Badri, 26, of Warrensburg, Mo., came to the attention of investigators after officials at a military academy where he was taking courses contacted the FBI alleging he had an unusual background.