The 19 terrorists suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks spent about $500,000 preparing an operation that was planned and launched from overseas, beginning several years ago in Germany with support in Britain, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan, senior government officials have tentatively concluded.
U.S. investigators told the Washington Post they have determined that four hijackers were trained in camps in Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden -- whose al-Qaida network is believed responsible for the assaults on New York and Washington -- and have developed tentative links to the terrorist mastermind for most of the others. Their findings are based on preliminary conclusions reached by the Justice Department, the FBI and the CIA.
Government investigators are becoming increasingly convinced that one or two other hijackings were in the works, officials said, and are focusing on three men in U.S. custody who received flight training. One was detained while seeking flight simulator training in Minnesota before the hijackings, and two others were arrested on a train in Texas after departing a jet that was grounded after the attacks, sources said.
Government officials said other people in the United States may have provided minor assistance or had knowledge that a terrorist operation was under way. But the FBI has found little evidence so far that the teams of hijackers received much support here, sources said.
"There seems to be no U.S. mastermind," one official said.
The Justice Department has cast a global dragnet over the last two weeks in a hunt for accomplices. It is narrowing its criminal investigation to a number of individuals and is beginning to formulate criminal charges that could be filed against them, sources said. But a senior Justice official declined to predict when the first indictment might behanded down.
Some of the Middle Eastern men are in custody, including an Algerian pilot that British prosecutors identified Friday as the primary instructor for some of the hijackers. The FBI found his name on a document in a car left by the hijackers at Dulles Airport outside Washington, one U.S. official said.
Other suspected plotters remain at large and are the subject of an FBI-led manhunt, officials told the Associated Press. Several belong to various groups loosely associated with bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Among the groups are various cells of the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group that joined forces with bin Laden, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
"One should not focus on one individual, but focus one's attention on a series of networks across the world," FBI director Robert S. Mueller III said Friday.
One of those sought is a man in the United Arab Emirates who was mailed a package from Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the hijacking teams, one official said. The package contained money and documents and was mailed by Atta a few days before he hijacked a plane in Boston and flew it into the World Trade Center.
The information about the origins of the hijacking plot emerged as the Justice Department announced more than 480 people have been arrested or detained in the probe.
Evidence is growing that the plot was hatched, funded and assisted by several bin Laden sympathizers who gave instruction and support from Europe and the Middle East, officials told the Associated Press.
British authorities said Friday they had detained one such man. Lotfi Raissi, 27, an Algerian pilot, was "a lead instructor" of some of the hijackers who crashed an airliner into the Pentagon, prosecutors in London said.
Raissi made several trips to the United States this summer, and flew with one of the suspected hijackers on June 23 from Las Vegas to Arizona.
Records show Raissi lived in Arizona in the late 1990s. Former employees at the Sawyer Aviation flight school in Phoenix remember Raissi using a flight simulator as recently as 1999 to instruct others, including at least one other person identified as a terrorist by the FBI.
Richard Egan, Raissi's defense lawyer, said his client "adamantly denies any involvement in the recent appalling tragedies."
Much of the evidence about collaborators has emerged as the agencies have meticulously reconstructed the hijackers' travels in the United States and Europe during their final months, and traced tens of thousands of dollars in financial transfers, officials said.
A law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said as the plot becomes clearer from the evidence, U.S. authorities are learning the terrorists changed tactics from prior attacks.
The evidence indicates high-level planners avoided traveling to the United States, where they might raise suspicions, and instead funded and instructed the eventual hijackers from Europe and the Middle East, the official said.
In tracing the $500,000 flowing into U.S. bank accounts used by Atta and other members of the hijacking teams, the FBI has documented numerous large cash withdrawals and a long trail of hotels, rental cars and airplane trips that largely dispel any notion of an austere plot, a senior government official said. Previous reports have said the attacks cost no more than $200,000.
Some of the money used to prepare the attack has been linked to accounts in the Middle East, the source said, and investigators have documented instances of simultaneous withdrawals from the same account in different cities.
"This was not a low-budget operation," an official said. "There is quite a bit of money coming in, and they are spending quite a bit of money."
Investigators are now convinced that the details of the terror plot were hatched in Hamburg, Germany, where Atta and two other suspected hijackers, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrahi, are believed to have run a terrorist cell out of a second-floor student apartment.
The FBI is doubling its contingent of agents working on the investigation in Germany, in the belief that the trail will lead from there to the Middle East, one official said. The initial concept for the attacks likely came from Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, another official said.
In another development, the FBI is investigating whether three Middle Eastern men visited a truck driving school the afternoon of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and demanded rushed training for hauling hazardous materials. Albert Hanley III, the owner of CDL School Inc., said FBI agents visited his Lake Worth, Fla., school on Thursday and Friday after he reported the men.