July 12, 2002 at 6:18 PM EST - Updated July 12 at 3:41 AM
CLEVELAND (AP) - Four Middle Easterners living in Ohio are being sought in connection with a fraudulent visa operation.
The manhunt began last week after Ramsi Al-Shannaq, 27, a Jordanian in Baltimore, was charged with visa fraud and accused of paying a $13,000 bribe to an American consular official in Qatar, a Persian Gulf kingdom closely allied with the United States.
Investigators believe Al-Shannaq roomed last year with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour. Both were aboard American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Officials believe the terrorists might have used the visa-selling scheme because two others who bought visas in Qatar had connections with the hijackers, The Plain Dealer reported.
One of the men being sought in Ohio, Khaled Anton Saleh Hatter, was living in Cincinnati, where his family operates a small grocery near a public housing project. His lawyer said Friday that Hatter would surrender to federal authorities.
"He's not a terrorist. The government wants to find him to see what he knows about the visa fraud," attorney James R. Hartke said. "They're Christians. They're shopkeepers. They wanted to bring their families here for the American dream."
The visas in question are thought to be valid documents, but federal investigators believe they were fraudulently obtained and want to know how that happened, said Hartke and Fred Alverson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in southern Ohio.
Hatter's older brother, Ziad, was detained last week and is being held by immigration officials in Cleveland. The Hatters were turned down for visas by the U.S. Embassy in Jordan before obtaining under-the-table travel documents in Qatar two years ago, officials said.
So far, there is no evidence they had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. But a State Department spokesman said the investigators wanted to question them to learn if terrorists may have used the same scheme to enter the United States.
"Clearly, that's something that would be kept in mind with law enforcement agencies," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.
The Hatter brothers are from Jordan, their lawyer said. Both brothers could risk being deported because they have remained in the United States past the six-month time period authorized by their visas, Hartke said.
Officials would not disclose any information about the others sought in Ohio.
Of 71 Jordanians and Pakistanis suspected of paying bribes for visas, 31 were in custody Thursday, officials said.
An affidavit seeking an arrest warrant filed in U.S. District Court said Khaled Hatter arrived in the United States March 8, 2001, at an airport near Oroville, Wash., a small town of 1,500 residents in a remote area four miles from the Canadian border. He was supposed to leave the United States three days before the terrorist attacks.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)