NEW YORK - The men suspected of exploding a bomb underneath the World Trade Center received tens of thousands of dollars from a bank account in Germany, giving credence to the theory that the act may have been the work of a sophisticated international terrorist organization, authorities said yesterday.
Officials still have not determined the precise amount of money transferred or the identity of the benefactors.
Furthermore, they think the total amounted to less than $100,000 - a small sum in comparison to the money a well-funded international-terrorist group could afford. And they acknowledged they had no proof the money was used in the bombing.
Nonetheless, as authorities followed the widening money trail, sources said they were more inclined to support the view publicly expressed by FBI Assistant Director James Fox, that the Feb. 26 bombing was "organized by a large, well-known terrorist group."
Although the money was wired from a bank in Germany, investigators said they suspect the funds originated elsewhere - possibly Iran or Iraq.
In Egypt, according to a source, followers of a radical Egyptian cleric whose New Jersey mosque has figured in the bombing case are known to be funded with Iranian money funneled through Sudan.
Three men have been arrested in connection with the investigation, all of them alleged by the FBI to be involved with a radical group that has protested last year's jailing of El-Sayed Nosair, who was charged in the 1990 murder of right-wing Jewish leader Meir Kahane. Although acquitted, he was convicted on related weapons charges.
The group also has ties to the Egyptian cleric in New Jersey, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who has been linked to acts of terrorism in Egypt. Abdel-Rahman has denied any role in the World Trade Center bombing.
The money was wired to several accounts at the National Westminister Bank branch in Jersey City, N.J., near the mosque where Omar's followers - including at least two of the men arrested - worshipped.
The two principal suspects, Mohammed Salameh and Nidal Ayyad, held a joint account at the Jersey City bank that received some of the money.
In addition, money from the same foreign source also was placed in the men's accounts.
Even though the suspects received tens of thousands of dollars, each individual deposit was less than $10,000, sources said.
Under federal law, U.S. banks handling transactions of $10,000 or more must report them to the Treasury Department. To skirt the requirement, large transfers often are broken into smaller amounts.
NO `BUNCH OF BUMBLERS'
One federal law-enforcement source said authorities "have never bought off on the theory that this was a bunch of bumblers."
Ayyad, who was arrested Wednesday, was a research engineer at the Allied Signal Corp. in Morristown, N.J. Authorities said Salameh telephoned Ayyad at least four times the day before the bombing, apparently seeking advice on how to mix the chemicals.
While officials know that Salameh and Ayyad withdrew most of the money prior to the bombing, they acknowledged that they as yet have no evidence to prove the money was used to buy bomb-making paraphernalia or rent the truck and the locker where the chemicals apparently were mixed.
The FBI's search for the origin of the money is only just beginning, sources cautioned.
"If it's a country with which we have a good relationship, we could get the information in a hurry," a top federal official said.
"If it's not, we will have to send over our agents to try to follow the trail, especially if it's a sophisticated cover or money-laundering scheme."