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A question of identity

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them. Henry Schuster is on leave. The next column will be in July.

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The U.S. military said it believed this man was Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

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(CNN) -- The man who might be the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The 20th hijacker. Two men called Mohammad Khan.

Here are three stories with a common thread: the difficulty of making judgments when it comes to tracking terror.

Each begs the question of just how we can know a person's true identity.

The case of Abu Ayyub al-Masri is a good place to start. No sooner had Abu Musab al-Zarqawi been killed than the U.S. military was saying that al-Masri was his replacement as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Given that the military said it had recovered a "treasure trove" of documents in sweeps after al-Zarqawi's death, it seemed a reasonable statement.

But then the confusion began. The statement from al Qaeda in Iraq announcing al-Zarqawi's death was signed by a different person, who mentioned yet another name as the insurgents' new leader.

Although al-Masri was supposedly an Egyptian, we couldn't find any former Egyptian jihadi who could identify him.

And then a statement appeared signed by "Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajer," saying he was al-Zarqawi's successor and pledging to drive the Americans from Iraq.

One expert told me that Abu Ayyub al-Masri was al-Muhajer and that his real name was Yousef al-Durairi, an Egyptian who headed to Afghanistan and jihad in 1980. Another expert appeared on the Arabic-language channel Al Arabia to say that al-Muhajer was an alias for someone who might be Libyan.

If you are completely befuddled by now, don't feel bad. It still isn't clear whether even everyone in the U.S. government believes that any one person, particularly this person, is in charge of al Qaeda.

Even National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was quoted as questioning the premise, notwithstanding the military's comments from Baghdad.

That was just the beginning of identity confusion this week.

The 20th hijacker

You would think that after nearly five years we would know everything about the September 11, 2001, terror plot. But one of its enduring mysteries is the identity of the so-called 20th hijacker.

There were five hijackers aboard each of three of the planes that took off that morning. But on United Flight 93, which went down down in a Pennsylvania field short of its supposed target, there were only four.

Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected of being one of the 9/11 planners, said he intended to be part of the plot but couldn't get a visa. He made that claim in 2002 to Yosri Fouda of al Jazeera, several months before Binalshibh was arrested in Pakistan.

Another man being held at Guantanamo Bay, Mohammad al-Qahtani, was thought by some in the U.S. government to be the purported missing hijacker aboard Flight 93. Plot ringleader Mohammad Atta was there to meet him in the summer of 2001, when he flew to the United States, but al-Qahtani was turned back because of visa issues.

The 9/11 Commission report names 10 candidates for the position of 20th hijacker, including al-Qahtani.

But now we have the name of yet another person: Fawaz al-Nashmi, also known as Turki bin Fhaid al Mutairi.

A couple of weeks ago an Islamist Web site carried a message purporting to be from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, saying that al-Nashmi was bin Laden's choice to be the 20th hijacker.

Then came a video of al-Nashmi participating in an al Qaeda terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 2004. He never mentioned in the video that he had a 9/11 role.

Saudi national security consultant Nawaf Obaid said the Saudi government was told in 2003 by captured al Qaeda members that al-Nashmi was first on the list of possible 20th hijackers; chosen because he was a young, impressionable Saudi and that was whom bin Laden wanted. But like others who followed, he had passport issues.

Obaid said that information was turned over to the United States.

But a U.S. counterterrorism official, noting the 9/11 Commission report, asked my CNN colleague David Ensor: "Why should we believe this is the one?"

Short of asking bin Laden, we may never know. Al-Nashmi was killed in a shootout with Saudi authorities in the summer of 2004.

Which Mohammad Khan?

Another question of identity was raised in the "The One Percent Doctrine," a new book by Ron Suskind.

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London bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan made this video before leading the July 2005 attacks.

He wrote that back in 2003 an FBI agent named Dan Coleman was asked by the CIA to look over the file of a man named Mohammad Khan, a British citizen who was planning a trip to the United States.

Coleman was known inside the FBI as "The Professor" because of his reputation as being its foremost expert on al Qaeda. In fact, he was the first agent assigned to investigate al Qaeda. (Full story)

The CIA, Coleman told me, wanted Khan let into the country even though he was making threats about burning down American Jewish targets. Coleman and his partner on New York's Joint Terrorism Task Force reviewed the file, which contained phone and e-mail intercepts. They rejected the CIA's request because the FBI didn't have enough resources to tail Khan and they were worried he could end up committing a crime.

Instead, he was placed on a no-fly list, Coleman said.

Suskind's book identifies Mohammad Khan as Mohammed Sidique Khan, the London subway bomber from last summer.

If indeed Mohammed Sidique Khan was known to intelligence agencies at the beginning of 2003, that would be front page news, especially in the United Kingdom because it would question the statement from Britain's MI5 security service that it became aware of Khan the following year.

It seemed as if this was another missed opportunity.

But the next day sources were telling The Guardian newspaper that Coleman's Mohammad Khan was Mohammad Ajmal Khan from Coventry, not Mohammed Sidique Khan.

Ajmal Khan, according to the newspaper, was jailed for nine years after he admitted directing a terrorist organization, providing weapons and funds to Lashkar-i-Toiba, a group fighting Indian control in Kashmir. He also had reportedly "visited the U.S. and talked about blowing up synagogues" and had his communications intercepted by the National Security Agency.

I checked back with Coleman, who said he told Suskind he investigated a Mohammad Khan and that it was Suskind who identified the man as Mohammed Sidique Khan.

"There are lots of Mohammad Khans in this world," Coleman said. "We investigated one who was threatening to blow up U..S targets and kept him out of the United States (in 2003)."

The FBI now says Suskind got the wrong Mohammad Khan.

Suskind says he got the story right. We can never check with Mohammed Sidique Khan -- the London ringleader blew himself up, killing six others, at Edgware Road tube station.

As so often is the case, the more we learn tracking terror the more questions are raised.

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