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FBI Now Says Informant Was Not Credible

Agency calls off hunt for five men after alert about possible terrorist plot. Tipster is being extradited to U.S. to face counterfeiting charges.

January 08, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The FBI called off a nationwide manhunt that had triggered fears of a possible New Year's terrorist plot, after concluding that an informant was not credible, authorities said Tuesday.

In a Dec. 29 alert, the bureau announced on its Web site that it was seeking information about five men who it suspected had entered the United States illegally on Christmas Eve. Officials said at the time that they had "no specific information" linking the men to any potential terrorist activities, and cautioned that the names and ages of the men -- whose photos were published on the site -- could be fictitious.

Nonetheless, the timing of the announcement prompted some law enforcement officials in the country to boost security efforts around the year-end holiday.

The report of the possible illegal border crossing came three years after U.S. authorities captured a terrorist who planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during the year 2000 celebration.

Accused Smuggler

The FBI suspended the search this week because of doubts about the veracity of its tipster, Michael John Hamdani, an accused immigrant smuggler incarcerated in Canada, a law enforcement official said.

The official added that Hamdani was being extradited to face federal counterfeiting charges in Brooklyn federal court that were initially filed in 1996, and was expected to arrive in the United States as early as today.

"In the course of this investigation, certain individuals who are under investigation were determined to have provided false information in an attempt to assist their own situations," the FBI said in a news release, without identifying the individuals by name.

The bureau added: "With the aid of information subsequently provided by the public, investigators were able to determine that five individuals identified did not pose an imminent threat to public safety. As a result, there is no longer need for public assistance in locating these individuals."

The manhunt had been coordinated with the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Transportation Security Administration, among other agencies. Besides numerous phone calls from citizens offering up information, a jeweler in Pakistan came forward, announcing that his was one of the photos on the FBI site, though under a different name.

A Justice Department official, who requested anonymity, said the initial alert was put out "only as an abundance of caution," and noted that officials had couched it in cautionary terms. "The idea that this was the FBI's fault or that there was a screw-up is absurd."

Indeed, in what the official characterized as a related development, authorities said they had cracked an international immigrant-smuggling ring with the filing of federal charges in New York against Choudry G. Muhammad and Mohammad Rana.

The complaint alleges that from at least 1997, the defendants smuggled and assisted in the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Pakistan, among other places, to the United States in exchange for fees of approximately $15,000 to $30,000 per immigrant. According to the complaint, one defendant acknowledged being involved in 40 cases of smuggling immigrants into the United States via Canada in trucks.

Immigrant smuggling and document forgery are of special interest to U.S. officials, who consider the crimes to be central to the ability of terrorists to move unencumbered around the world. Another federal official said additional arrests in connection with the smuggling ring had been made in London and Canada.

"The look into these five [men] was part of a larger investigation, and while the follow-up found there were no ties to terrorist activity ... the investigation did help agencies here and in London make arrests," the official said. "We knew independent of this case that this alien smuggling ring does exist. And we know it is a security vulnerability to the U.S."

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Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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