U.S. struggles to grasp scope of threat - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

U.S. struggles to grasp scope of threat

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Posted: Wednesday, August 4, 2004 7:37 am | Updated: 4:59 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

August 4, 2004

WASHINGTON - The government is no closer to understanding some important details about possible terror plots against American financial institutions, intelligence and law enforcement officials acknowledge.

Investigators are poring over the trove of documents and photographs that led to this week's urgent warnings from the Homeland Security Department. But intelligence agencies have been unable to reach a consensus on whether the unusually detailed documents recovered in Pakistan reflect a defunct terror plot or one that might have been successfully interrupted.

"We have very little information - target information, but not the full breadth of the plot or possible plot," one law enforcement official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because parts of the investigation are classified.

Some of the information seized about the surveillance of five financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., was as much as four years old. But the Bush administration maintains it was essential to alert the public as soon as it was found because al-Qaida planning sometimes precedes actual attacks by as much as five years.

"These are serious folks," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday. "They're patient folks."

Counterterrorism experts believe planning for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks began in 1996. They also believe a terror suspect photographed American government buildings in Nairobi, Kenya, and drew sketches of potential targets for Osama bin Laden in 1993 - long before al-Qaida detonated a truck bomb in August 1998 near the U.S. Embassy there, killing 257.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials said some computer images of the surveillance by al-Qaida in the United States had been changed as recently as January, although one official explained that investigators can't determine whether something was added or how else the image might have been modified.

Many of the paper documents recovered were not dated, so analysts worked backward trying to match particular descriptions of security at these financial buildings with a particular moment in time, to determine when the observations were made.

"There is physical descriptive data that might let them date some of this," the law enforcement official said.

The FBI is monitoring suspected Al Qaeda operatives and members of two allied terror groups in the New York City area, the top-ranking FBI official in New York said Tuesday.

Pasquale D'Amuro, head New York office and a veteran terrorism investigator, said the individuals under scrutiny include people linked to al-Qaida as well as Ansar al Islam and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the New York Daily News reported.

He said the monitoring began long before last weekend's heightened alert was announced. While officials have said in the past that they were watching a handful of al-Qaida suspects in the country, they have not said they were in the New York metropolitan area.

The Bush administration denied any suggestion that raising the terror alert in New York and Washington so quickly after the Democratic convention was politically motivated. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Ridge said.

Jesse Jackson chastised Democrats for looking askance at the timing of the latest terror alert.

"Even skeptics must take a terrorist warning seriously," Jackson said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "The fact that the information is three to four years old and comes just after the Democratic convention compounds skepticism, but we must take it seriously."

The warnings prompted authorities to raise the terror alert level in those cities to a high level. Police closed streets, erected barricades and dispatched heavily armed officers to patrol potential targets.

Federal investigators are working on the assumption that the plot is continuing, said a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Two counterterrorism officials, also speaking anonymously, said information and evidence uncovered suggests that terrorists were recently using the information from the surveillance activities.

The intelligence behind the warnings - including detailed surveillance photos, sketches and written documents - came from sources that included a seized laptop and discs as well as interviews after the mid-July arrest of a young Pakistani computer engineer, Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan.

Shortly after Khan's arrest, police in Pakistan arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of Tanzania, one of those indicted in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in eastern Africa. Ghailani, also known as "Fupi," was cooperating with authorities and corroborated material found in the surveillance documents, according to one senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ghailani was accused of buying the oxygen and acetylene tanks used to build the truck bomb in the attack at the American embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Authorities believe he also reserved the room at the Hilltop Hotel in Nairobi that al-Qaida operatives used for meetings in the days before the nearly simultaneous attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, before Ghailani fled to Karachi, Pakistan.

The information recovered in Khan's arrest also included references to the Nasdaq and American Stock Exchange buildings in New York and the Bank of America building in San Francisco, said one counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Two other facilities in New York and undisclosed buildings in Washington and New Jersey also were mentioned, the official said.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, Brian Roehrkasse, said information about these other buildings was limited or was so generic that it did not suggest the same level of surveillance as the five buildings named in Sunday's alert.

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