Pair held as material witnesses in terrorist attacks

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

NEWARK, N.J. -- They worked 12-hour days at the Newark Penn Station newsstand, selling newspapers to commuters headed to the World Trade Center and other Manhattan destinations.

They ate fast food for lunch, downed cold beers at quitting time and went home to a dingy apartment in Jersey City, where they cooked dinner on an ancient stove and watched action movies from the local video store.

Like many other immigrants they sent money home, to India.

Then, a day after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan ended up in Texas, having traveled nearly 1,600 miles in two days by airliner and train. Their luggage contained $5,600, an assortment of passports and box-cutting knives similar to those believed to have been the terrorist hijackers' weapon of choice.

When confronted by police looking for drug couriers, they appeared nervous. Azmath volunteered: ''I did not have anything to do with New York.''

Their story is one of the most intriguing and perplexing to come out of worldwide investigation of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

They remain in federal custody, held as material witnesses but not charged with any crime.

Law enforcement officials won't comment publicly about their case. But officials familiar with the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, have repeatedly placed Azmath and Khan among a handful of people who are under the most intense scrutiny but are not cooperating with investigators.

Authorities have not disclosed any information that would connect the two to the hijackings, although the FBI acknowledges receiving reports that suspected hijack ringleaders Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were seen last summer in the neighborhood where Khan and Azmath lived.

A man who shared their apartment, Mohammad Aslam Pervez, was charged last month with lying to investigators about more than $100,000 in transfers into and out of his bank account.

Yet people who know Khan and Azmath say they doubt the pair were involved in terrorism. They describe the men as quiet and hardworking, and say they never heard either utter a bad word about America.

In letters to relatives in India, Azmath and Khan proclaim their innocence.

''They are doing their duty by making their inquiries,'' Azmath wrote to his wife, Tasleem, in Hyderabad, India, ''and I am confident that after completing their inquiries, we will be released very soon.''

Khan and Azmath lived in the Journal Square neighborhood, where store signs and billboards often make their pitches in English and Arabic. They lived around the corner from a mosque attended by followers of the blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman who were convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Max Biardi, who owns a store in the neighborhood, knew Azmath for a year. Azmath regularly stopped for coffee and small talk and never had a bad word to say about America.

That was echoed by Khan's sister, Syeda Fatima. The two men ''praised America as a paradise where they were able to realize their dream of improving the economic condition of their families,'' she said in an interview in Hyderabad.

Khan and Azmath worked at the newsstand for five years but lost their jobs when the business was sold in late August.

On Sept. 11, Azmath and Khan boarded a TWA airliner at Newark International Airport, bound for San Antonio. Friends had offered them jobs in Texas, Khan's brother, Mohammed Zahir Shah, said in Hyderabad.

When flights were grounded after the hijackings that morning, Khan and Azmath landed in St. Louis.

They paid cash for Amtrak tickets to San Antonio, and that alerted police, who thought they might be drug couriers. Their train stopped in Fort Worth on Sept. 12, and officers found Azmath and Khan asleep in separate cars.

Azmath told officers that he and Khan were going to visit a friend in San Antonio for at least a month. Khan told another officer they planned to stay a week.

After the men consented to a search, police found box cutters, clothing and hair dye, plus Muslim religious items. Khan's brother said the knives were tools the men had used to open boxes in the newsstand.

Investigators also noticed that the pair's bodies were shaved.

A day earlier, investigators searching the luggage of suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta had found what appeared to be instructions for the suicide hijackers. Excerpts released by the Justice Department included this instruction: ''The previous night, shave the extra hair from the body (and) pray.''

Azmath's and Khan's clean-shaven bodies ''raised suspicions that they were planning another hijacking,'' according to a senior federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The FBI has also taken a keen interest in numerous money transfers the pair made to people in India. The newsstand workers sent a total of $64,200, in several installments from July to September 1999, according to Indian authorities and the FBI.

Family members say there's nothing unusual about the transfers. ''His only worry was to settle everybody in the family well in life,'' Azmath's wife, Tasleem, said in Hyderabad.

Hyderabad police charged the two men with fraud for having two passports each and having false information in their passports. They said Khan changed his name from Gul Mohammed Shah for one passport. Khan gave his age as 51 and Azmath as 47, when both are 32, Hyderabad police said.

Khan's sister, Syeda Fatima, said his first application for an American visa was rejected and he increased his age on a different passport to improve his chances. ''Here are there are so many people who obtain several passports,'' she said.

Associated Press reporters Pat Milton in New York and Omer Farooq in Hyderabad, India, contributed to this story.

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