Man who sold fake IDs to hijackers given probation

Wayne Parry and Wayne Parry

PATERSON, N.J. — A man who sold fake identification to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers was sentenced yesterday to five years’probation and fined $15,000 by a judge who said she wished the penalties could have been greater.

Mohammed El-Atriss, 46, admitted last month to running phony document mills in Paterson and Elizabeth that catered to illegal immigrants and brought in as much as $1,300 to $1,500 each day.

As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors dropped 13 other counts against the man once considered so dangerous they ordered a bail hearing closed to the public and court transcripts of the proceedings sealed.

In the end, neither American nor Egyptian authorities could find evidence linking him to terrorism.

El-Atriss was given credit for the 169 days he served in jail and another 11 in the custody of Egyptian authorities.

“I hope that all the American people and everyone does not label me a terrorist,” he said outside the courtroom. “I am not a terrorist. I have never dealt with terrorists.”

He admitted selling fake documents to Khalid Almihdhar, who was on the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon, and Abdulaziz Alomari, who was aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. But he emphasized he had no idea who they were or what they had in mind.

“Unfortunately, they turned out to be hijackers,” he said. “I regret what happened, but I don’t feel in any way that I am responsible for it.”

Superior Court Judge Marilyn Clark and prosecutor Steven Brizek both said the law needs to be changed to impose harsher penalties for selling fake identification. Both noted El-Atriss continued to sell the bogus documents for 10 months after realizing he had sold them to two of the hijackers.

“In the pre-9/11 world, Mr. El-Atriss should have known this was a serious crime,” Clark said. “In the post-9/11 world, he should have known it was potentially disastrous.”

“Mr. El-Atriss professes to love this country,” the judge added. “I can’t fathom how anyone who truly loves this country can make his living selling fake identification documents. Fraudulent identification documents can and will assist those people who wish to do harm to this country.”

The case initially was seen as a tantalizing window into the Sept. 11 plot. Last July, the Passaic County sheriff brought reporters along on a raid of El-Atriss’ office, but emerged red-faced and empty handed because El-Atriss was in Egypt, visiting relatives.

El-Atriss turned himself in to Egyptian authorities, who questioned him for 11 days before releasing him so he could return to the United States. El-Atriss holds dual American and Egyptian citizenship.

The evidence prosecutors cited in the November bail hearing remains sealed; federal authorities argued that releasing it would endanger national security. Six media organizations are suing to have it released, and Clark has scheduled a hearing for March 25 to consider their request.