July 18, 2002
0230 IST

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FBI wants to question Pak air force officer

Amir Mir in Lahore

The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to question a Pakistan Air Force officer to ascertain whether he was linked with Mohammed Atta, leader of the Al Qaeda ring that bombed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

The FBI is set to seek permission from the government of General Pervez Musharraf to question Squadron Leader Atif Ahmed bin Mansoor, highly placed diplomatic sources said.

Atif and Atta lived and studied together at a little-known engineering institute in Germany called Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg and were given awards of DM 1500 each by the university's president, Dr Hauke Trinks, for outstanding performance in the winter semester 1997/98 examinations. The two had ranked among the four best students in the international master's course.

According to the FBI's investigations, Atta, 33, and two other Arab students from the university flew three of the four hijacked planes used in the September 11 attacks.

Atta had trained as an engineer in Egypt before moving to the technical university where he had once applied for a room to hold meetings of his Islamic Studies Group.

His co-applicant was Atif Ahmed bin Mansoor.

Born on May 2, 1969, at Hyderabad, Sind, Atif's name was blacked out on copies of the application that later surfaced. Thus his name never came forward in the September 11 investigations, the FBI said.

When he was studying in Germany, Atif was on leave from the PAF. Though he was a flight lieutenant with the air force, it was the science and technology ministry, which sponsored his studies.

Atif had almost completed his course and was preparing his thesis when he had to return to Pakistan owing to the death of his younger brother, Lieutenant Zarrar Ahmed bin Mansoor. Zarrar and 15 other officers of the Pakistan Navy died on August 10, 1999, when an Indian Air Force MiG-21 shot down their Breguet Atlantique surveillance aircraft.

Zarrar had joined the navy after matriculation in 1988 and only a year before his death had switched to aviation. Soon after Zarrar's burial at the Ghazi Road graveyard in Lahore, Atif was detained and stopped from returning to Germany.

Approached for comments, his father Mansoor Ahmed said: "Atif was detained because he had not sought permission from the authorities before returning home to attend his younger brother's funeral. He, however, was set free after a relative, a brigadier in the army, intervened and prevailed upon the higher-ups. Atif was posted at the Chaklala air base in Rawalpindi, but was soon transferred to Lahore, courtesy efforts by the then deputy chief of air staff, Air Marshal Aliuddin."

Back in Germany, the FBI's investigations show, Atta was frequently seen in the company of his first cousin Marwan Al-Shehhi, who had arrived, 'almost as a replacement', for Atif. They used to meet their other companions at the Attawhid bookshop close to the Al-Quds mosque where they would offer prayers.

About three years later, on September 11, 2001, Atta, Shehhi and their other Arab companions hijacked four planes from different airports in America and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre buildings. Atta and his team hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767, bound for Los Angeles and crashed it into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Marwan Al-Shehhi and his team boarded United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, and flew it into the south tower.

The FBI's investigations have established that Atta was among the central figures responsible for conceptualising and executing the attacks. "An Egyptian national, Atta was the one to whom Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, prime suspect in the Daniel Pearl murder case, had sent to Germany a draft for $100,000 in the summer of 2000 employing a pseudonym," the bureau said.

The investigators believe that the former Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, was also involved in the transaction. Atta reportedly returned $15,600 through the havala route just before the attacks.

A well-placed diplomatic source said that having acquired all possible information about Atif's association with Atta, the FBI will request permission from the Pakistani government to question the PAF officer.

"There is a possibility of Atif being innocent and having had nothing to do with Mohammed Atta's terror plans," the source said. "But given that almost everybody around Atta had later turned up in the September 11 terror plot, there is an equally strong possibility of Atif not being that innocent."

Sqdn Ldr Atif, however, had no idea about the FBI investigation. Contacted on his mobile phone, the soft-spoken officer denied having had anything to do with Atta or his terrorist network. "I am a responsible officer of the Pakistan Air Force," Atif said, "and won't be able to speak further on such a sensitive issue. You will have to come through my organisation."

A PAF spokesman said: "The gentleman in question is a responsible officer and has nothing to do with whatever the FBI is trying to investigate. Not that each and every university fellow of the terrorist should be suspected of involvement in the September 11 attacks. We simply refuse to accept the FBI thesis."

Amir Mir is editor of the Weekly Independent, Lahore.

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