September 11 hijacker questioned in January 2001
Sources: CIA was interested in his travels in Afghanistan
(CNN) -- One of the September 11 hijackers was stopped and questioned in the United Arab Emirates in January 2001 at the request of the CIA, nearly nine months before the attacks, sources in the government of the UAE, and other Middle Eastern and European sources told CNN.
The CIA suspected Ziad Jarrah had been in Afghanistan and wanted him questioned because of "his suspected involvement in terrorist activities," UAE sources said.
The FBI believes Jarrah, a Lebanese national, was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania shortly after 10 a.m. on September 11. U.S. officials believe the plane's target was the White House.
A CIA spokesman vigorously denied that the CIA knew anything about Jarrah before September 11 or had anything do with his questioning in Dubai.
"That is flatly untrue," the spokesman said.
U.S. and UAE officials say Jarrah was stopped at the airport in Dubai on January 30, 2001, after the CIA notified UAE officials that he would be arriving from Pakistan on his way back to Europe. UAE sources say the CIA wanted to know where he had been in Afghanistan and how long he had been there.
A senior UAE source said U.S. officials were informed of the results of the interrogation while Jarrah was still at the airport.
Both U.S. and UAE officials acknowledge the relationship between the two country's intelligence services is extremely close. But the CIA says that the first time it learned that Jarrah had been stopped was in a cable from CIA officers in the UAE after September 11.
Told of the CIA's denial, UAE government officials repeated to CNN that Jarrah was questioned at the request of the United States. Senior UAE sources said they had no reason to question him for their own purposes because he was in transit.
Accounts fit pattern, intelligence sources say
Jarrah was questioned after he had already spent six months in the United States learning to fly. He had a valid U.S. multiple-entry visa in his passport, a fragment of which was found at the Flight 93 crash site. Investigators have confirmed that Jarrah had spent at least three weeks in January 2001 at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
He was released because U.S. officials were satisfied, according to sources. The CIA spokesman repeated the agency's denial that there was any such contact.
After his release, Jarrah boarded a KLM flight in the early hours of January 31 and flew to Europe. Between then and September, Jarrah traveled to the United States, Lebanon and Germany before returning to the United States. There is no sign that he ever again drew the interest of any intelligence agency.
UAE and European intelligence sources told CNN that the questioning of Jarrah fits a pattern of a CIA operation begun in 1999 to track suspected al Qaeda operatives who were traveling through the United Arab Emirates. These sources told CNN that UAE officials were often told in advance by U.S. officials which persons were coming through the country and whom they wanted questioned.
One source provided CNN a drawing of the Dubai airport and described how people wanted for questioning were intercepted, most often at a transit desk. U.S. officials declined to comment on whether the CIA operated this way at the Dubai airport.
Flight 93, the last of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11, crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Shortly before the crash, several passengers and crew members launched an assault on the hijackers after learning via cell phone conversations about the fate of the other three hijacked planes. U.S. officials, citing information from captured al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, have said they believe the plane's intended target was the White House.
On September 9, two days before the hijackings, a Maryland state trooper cited Jarrah for speeding on Interstate 95 in Cecil County, near the Delaware state line. Registration showed that the red 2001 Mitsubishi Galant that Jarrah drove that night was owned by Garden State Car Rental at Newark International Airport in New Jersey. After the September 11 hijackings, the car was found at the airport with the speeding citation was still in the glove box.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has said local law enforcement officials should have been told by the FBI that Jarrah was on a CIA watch list. The FBI disputes his criticism, which came during O'Malley's testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last fall.
A month after the hijackings, U.S. authorities also discovered a letter written by Jarrah to his girlfriend in Germany and postmarked September 10. In the letter -- which was mistakenly addressed and returned to the United States, where authorities found it -- Jarrah told his girlfriend he had done his duty.
"I have done what I had to do," he wrote. "You should be very proud. It is an honor, and you will see the result, and everyone will be happy."
-- CNN's Mike Boettcher, Dana Bash, and Elise Labott contributed to this report.
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