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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Officials Indict Shoe-Bomb Suspect

Courts: Government accuses Richard C. Reid of being trained as an Al Qaeda terrorist. He faces life in prison.

January 17, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Escalating their courtroom offensive against suspected terrorists, authorities brought nine criminal counts Wednesday against alleged shoe bomber Richard C. Reid, alleging that he was an Al Qaeda-trained operative who plotted to blow a Miami-bound flight out of the sky last month.

Reid was overwhelmed by passengers and flight attendants aboard American Airlines Flight 63 after he was seen trying to light a wire in his shoe. He faces life in prison if he is convicted of attempted murder, use of a weapon of mass destruction, explosives charges or other offenses.

Reid, a 28-year-old British drifter, has been held since his arrest on charges of interfering with the flight crew of the Paris-to-Miami flight Dec. 22. But he now faces a far more serious litany of allegations after Wednesday's grand jury indictment in Boston, where the flight was diverted.

The indictment marks the first time that prosecutors have used a new measure growing out of last year's "Patriot Act" anti-terrorism legislation, levying stiffer penalties for attacks on mass transportation vehicles.

The charges against Reid also reflect a shift in federal anti-terrorist strategy from terrorism prevention to a new phase of criminal prosecutions.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal officials said their top priority would be to stop future assaults at all costs, even if it meant holding off on gathering evidence for criminal prosecutions. Investigators probed intelligence leads, rounded up hundreds of possible suspects and held them on non-terrorism charges and put new security measures in place to head off the prospect of another round of attacks.

Authorities are still very wary of future attacks, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Wednesday. But more recently, with the investigation into Al Qaeda moving largely overseas, U.S. authorities have shifted their focus to criminal prosecutions and have brought charges against suspected "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui, American Taliban John Walker Lindh and now Reid.

But some defense lawyers say authorities may be moving too aggressively.

Tamar R. Birckhead, an assistant federal public defender in Boston representing Reid, expressed dismay that word of the defendant's pending indictment had been leaked to the news media. She urged authorities to conduct their prosecution "with fairness and evenhandedness" and respect Reid's presumption of innocence.

The defense attorney also noted that the indictment against Reid does not allege that he was acting on behalf of Al Qaeda or any other terrorism organization in the bombing attempt. "We are aware of no basis for such an allegation," Birckhead said.

Indeed, Ashcroft refused to say Wednesday whether he believed Reid was acting alone or at the behest of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. The indictment alleges that "at various times . . . Reid received training from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," but authorities refused to provide any details about the extent of that training.

Ashcroft also said authorities were investigating whether Reid may have been a roving scout for another round of overseas attacks by Al Qaeda.

The Wall Street Journal, in a report Wednesday, said that internal Al Qaeda memos referred to an operative code-named "brother Abdul Ra'uff," whose travels to Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Turkey and Pakistan last summer bore a striking similarity to Reid's movements during the same time.

Both men acquired new British passports at the British consulate in Amsterdam, bought plane tickets to Israel on the day of their departure and were questioned at length by suspicious Israeli authorities.

In the computer files, which were password-encoded, men identified by the Journal as top Al Qaeda operatives said Abdul Ra'uff debriefed them on potentially good targets within Israel and Egypt to smuggle in explosives and kill hundreds of people.

The memos were obtained by the Journal after one of its reporters purchased two computer hard drives from an Afghanistan computer merchant, who obtained them from a looter. The computers apparently were used by top Al Qaeda officials, but did not identify Abdul Ra'uff or mention Reid, the Journal reported, saying it passed the information along to authorities.

Ashcroft commended the Wall Street Journal for acting "responsibly" by turning the information over to authorities to aid in the terrorism probe.

Ashcroft also praised the passengers and crew of Flight 63 for thwarting the alleged plot. FBI officials said they found a highly volatile mix of sophisticated explosives in Reid's shoe that could have blown a hole in the plane.

"But for the vigilance of the flight crew and the courage of the passengers on Flight 63, Richard Reid may have succeeded in what today's indictment charges was his ultimate goal--the destruction of Flight 63 and the 197 people on board," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft noted that some people mocked the nationwide alerts the government issued this fall, urging people to watch for suspicious activities. "Certainly if we'd have put out an alert saying, 'Watch out for people with exploding shoes,' we would have been laughed out of town. But I think people [on Reid's flight] were alert," and that thwarted the plot, Ashcroft said.

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