NEW YORK — Suspected terrorists accused of plotting an unprecedented wave of attacks in Manhattan intended to use special diplomatic license plates to drive a car bomb into the basement parking garage of the United Nations, government sources said Friday.
The information emerged as federal agents examined whether Sudanese diplomats provided support to some of the eight alleged co-conspirators arrested in the abortive scheme a day earlier. Sudanese officials vehemently denied any involvement.
At the same time, investigators were sifting through documents seized from the apartment of blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman who entered the United States in 1991 with a visa obtained in Sudan. Several accused terrorists in the February bombing of the World Trade Center and in the latest plot are followers of the controversial Islamic sheik, whom the federal government is seeking to deport.
It was learned Friday that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has been under pressure from "some in law enforcement" to authorize the immediate arrest of Abdul Rahman, who has not been charged in either investigation. Those favoring the move argue that sufficient legal grounds exist to seize the sheik and that such a move would "send a signal" of further aggressive action against terrorism, a government source said.
However, the source said, Reno had determined that "so far, he should not be arrested" for what the source described as "sound law enforcement reasons." There was no elaboration, but the source said there is general agreement with Reno's decision within the Justice Department.
According to court papers, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, a 32-year-old former security guard and the alleged ringleader of the plot, told an FBI informant that "he has connections that will allow him to drive a car carrying a bomb into a parking lot in the United Nations building." A vehicle bearing diplomatic plates would have unlimited access to the U.N. complex.
The prospect of personnel with diplomatic immunity in a U.N. mission possibly aiding and abetting destruction of the international organization's 38-story glass-and-steel headquarters stunned statesmen and staff members in the landmark structure.
Chief U.N. spokesman Joe Sills refused comment on the alleged plot, whose targets were said to include U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an advocate of hard-line Israeli policies toward Arabs.
Sudanese officials vehemently denied any involvement in the plot to blow up not only the U.N. headquarters, but the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the towering federal building where the local FBI investigation is being directed.
"None of our diplomats has anything to do with this, and none was interrogated by the FBI," Sudan's U.N. mission said in a statement. The mission said it "rejects categorically any connection with this obnoxious terrorist conspiracy."
The mission has only six diplomats, five drivers and some office staff. Although the Sudanese would be immune from prosecution in the United States, Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Ahmed Suliman, said that he would revoke the passports of any members of his staff found to be involved in the plot and they would stand trial in Sudan. Suliman said that he has interrogated Sudanese personnel and determined that none were involved. But he said he would welcome any evidence that the FBI might have.
The eight suspected terrorists were arrested when police and federal agents raided what they described as a bomb-making factory in a Jamaica, Queens, garage. When they rolled up the door, prosecutors said, the agents found five men mixing explosive materials in 55-gallon yellow drums.
Forensic experts said that the explosives were of the same composition as those used in the Feb. 26 blast that crippled the trade center, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. At least two of the most recent suspects also have been linked by investigators to the trade center explosion.
Prosecutors said that Siddig Ali told the FBI informant that he and Clement Rodney Hampton-El, another of those arrested, took part in a test explosion of materials used to detonate the trade center bomb. Similarly, officials said, tests of sample explosives were conducted recently in remote areas of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
In Washington, President Clinton praised the investigation. He said that the American people should "feel an enormous sense of pride in the aggressive work" done by investigators.
Federal agents were widening their inquiry Friday, seeking additional figures in the alleged plot. A government source said that additional arrests are possible "in the next few days."
Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service also have entered the case, detaining several roommates of one of the suspects, Fares Khallafalla, who was arrested in the Jersey City home they shared.