WASHINGTON — FBI and CIA officials were advised in August that as many as 200 terrorists were slipping into this country and planning "a major assault on the United States," a high-ranking law enforcement official said Wednesday.
The advisory was passed on by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. It cautioned that it had picked up indications of a "large-scale target" in the United States and that Americans would be "very vulnerable," the official said.
It is not known whether U.S. authorities thought the warning to be credible, or whether it contained enough details to allow counter-terrorism teams to come up with a response. But the official said the advisory linked the information "back to Afghanistan and [exiled Saudi militant] Osama bin Laden."
"There was a connection there," he said.
Separately, federal authorities are gathering evidence that suggests that a small network of individuals helped fund and protect some of the 19 suicide attackers by providing cash, documents and possibly even safe houses.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday September 21, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Attack warning--An article Thursday reported that in August, Israeli intelligence warned U.S. officials that terrorists were preparing a large-scale attack in this country. The article cited as its source a high-ranking law enforcement official. The Times has since learned that the official's account was based on a British newspaper report, not on independent information. See article on page A17.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has said that authorities suspect that more airplanes were going to be hijacked and that other co-conspirators, possibly handlers and associates of the suicide attackers, remain at large.
Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said Wednesday that "we believe there are associates of the hijackers that have connections to the terrorist network that are present in the United States."
Other law enforcement authorities said such logistical support is typical within many terrorist cells.
Some participants help others slip unnoticed from city to city, and country to country, by providing them with fake or fraudulent passports, cash gained through bank and credit-card fraud, and havens in their homes or in apartments rented under aliases, the authorities said.
Officials continue to scrutinize the backgrounds of several individuals now in detention. They include Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, who was in a Minnesota jail on an Immigration and Naturalization Service violation on the morning that the World Trade Center towers were destroyed. He is now being questioned in connection with the attacks.
Moussaoui's parents were born in Morocco, and he is a French citizen, born in the southern town of St. Jean de Luz in May 1968, according to an official at the French Embassy in London. It was reported earlier that he was a French Algerian.
According to news reports, Moussaoui earned vocational degrees in automotive mechanics. On his university application, he expressed particular interest in learning business English so he could travel and "work in an international business."
French officials confirmed that Moussaoui was on a special immigration watch list because of his suspected ties to Islamic terrorists and because he had made several trips to Afghanistan.
Moussaoui spent at least three years in Britain in the late 1990s, according to French officials. He came to the French Embassy in London in September 2000 and had his French passport extended. At the time, he described himself as unemployed and said he had lived at several addresses in the suburbs of London.
By this year, however, he was able to afford to travel to the United States and begin flying lessons. He was arrested Aug. 17 after the staff at a flight school grew concerned about his offer of thousands of dollars in cash for instruction in how to fly jumbo jets and his lack of interest in learning to take off or land jets.
Authorities also continue to question two men removed from a train in Fort Worth on the day of the attacks. They had a large sum of money with them--$20,000 in cash--as well as box cutters similar to those allegedly used by the hijackers on at least one of the commandeered planes, one source said.
The men had boarded a flight in Newark, N.J., that was bound for San Antonio on the morning of the attacks. But the flight was diverted to St. Louis after the World Trade Center was hit, and the two men then took an Amtrak train to Texas.
The train was stopped in Fort Worth on a routine check for drugs, and the men were detained because of the materials and cash they were carrying. The train's final destination was San Antonio.
Also Wednesday, owners of fitness clubs in Florida and Maryland said several of the suspected hijackers had worked out in their gyms.
"They may have been told to go get as strong as they could get in case of body conflict or a fight," said Jim Woolard, who owns eight World Gyms in Florida's Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Ziad Jarrahi, a suspected hijacker on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, made no secret of his aim: to learn how to fight.
On May 6, he signed up for a two-month membership, later extended to four, at the U.S. 1 Fitness Center in Dania Beach, north of Miami.
"He told me that he was from Germany, that he was visiting," said Roxanne Caputo, who is in charge of sales. "He would come in every day, sometimes twice."