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Terror Cells Active in U.S.

Security: Ashcroft tells Congress that Al Qaeda has 'sleeper' units here. Seventy-three people are still in custody in the post-Sept. 11 probe, most on immigration charges.

July 12, 2002|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Al Qaeda terrorist organization maintains an aggressive network of underground "sleeper" cells in the United States and is trying to smuggle even more terrorists into the country by having them pose as ordinary visitors, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Thursday.

"Today the United States is at war with a terrorist network operating within our borders," Ashcroft testified before a congressional panel on homeland security. "Al Qaeda maintains a hidden but active presence in the United States waiting to strike again."

Ashcroft's comments came as Justice Department officials disclosed that most of about 1,200 people detained in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet have been deported on immigration violations, though some were released after being cleared of criminal involvement in the attacks. Seventy-three people remained in federal custody Thursday, none on charges related to terrorism. Most face immigration violations.

Even so, Ashcroft said in his testimony that the Justice Department has had many successes in rounding up suspects and thwarting attacks in the 10 months since terrorists hijacked commercial jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"But we are not under any illusions," Ashcroft said. "There remain sleeper terrorists and their supporters in the United States who have not yet been identified in a way that will allow us to take preemptive action against them."

Of particular concern, Ashcroft said, are indications that terrorists posing as tourists, businessmen and students are trying to penetrate U.S. borders, hiding among the more than 700,000 visitors who come each year from countries in which Al Qaeda has been active.

Ashcroft's remarks came during a lengthy hearing before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, which is trying to reassemble the nation's law enforcement, immigration and intelligence-gathering agencies into one cohesive apparatus to prevent terrorist attacks.

Ashcroft did not discuss how many Al Qaeda operatives or other terrorists may be hiding and plotting in the United States. An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that as many as 500 people are under investigation nationwide, with as many as 200 of them being monitored.

"Obviously, yes, there are ongoing investigations with regard to individuals or groups in the United States, but we can't get into the who, where, how and when," the FBI official said. "We don't want to indicate to the individuals who are in that capacity that they are under investigation and under surveillance."

Federal law enforcement officials discounted a widely circulated report Thursday that as many as 5,000 people in the United States are Al Qaeda sympathizers. But they said many large cities in particular are suspected of harboring terrorist cells, which use the local Muslim community as cover and as a place to recruit sympathizers.

"There is no focal point. Sure, they're looking at Seattle, sure they're looking at San Francisco, sure they're looking at Detroit," said one Justice Department official. "Pick a city, any major city," including Los Angeles, which was targeted when an Al Qaeda terrorist in 1999 plotted to detonate a bomb in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

"Our counter-terrorism folks are actively engaged in cities across the country. We are not limited to New York and Washington, D.C.; we are being vigilant everywhere," said the Justice Department official. "They're following every lead. We're talking about thousands of leads, and we're in a situation where we have to follow up on all of them."

The belief that sleeper cells still exist within the United States is based on those investigations, as well as on intelligence gathered from Al Qaeda detainees and other sources, according to a senior FBI official.

FBI agents are also trying to ferret out people who they believe are terrorist sympathizers and logistical advisors. They are doing so, in part, by tracking suspicious financial transactions, officials said.

For instance, the FBI has been working with banks and financial institutions to spot fraudulent Social Security numbers and other "red flags," officials said.

The FBI has recently discovered that three of the 19 hijackers used fake Social Security numbers to open bank accounts, the official said.

"They just put a [fake] number on there," the FBI official said. "That would have been a flag."

The banks could have detected the fraudulent numbers had they sought to verify them before authorizing the accounts, the FBI official said. That would have triggered what is known as a suspicious activity report. But "even if they had reported it, the likelihood that anyone would have done anything with it prior to Sept. 11 is minimal," the official said.

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