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Race on to Find 'Sleeper' Cells

U.S. authorities pore over information found during the capture of an Al Qaeda operative. Some attack plans might be in the final stages.

March 03, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. counter-terrorism authorities, exploiting a trove of information gleaned from computers and other gear captured with Al Qaeda chieftain Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, raced Sunday to identify individuals who they believe might be poised to launch attacks in the United States.

While interrogators worked urgently to pry information from the terrorist network's operations leader, FBI agents in the United States and CIA operatives overseas ran down leads pulled from computers, computer disks, paper documents, cellular telephones and other electronic paraphernalia seized in a raid near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

The joint Pakistani-U.S. raid before dawn Saturday at a home in Rawalpindi netted Mohammed, described by U.S. officials as one of the world's deadliest terrorists and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and two other suspected Al Qaeda members.

Late Sunday, U.S. officials said they were trying to ascertain whether one of the men, described as an Egyptian, is Saif Adel, Osama bin Laden's security chief.

"We don't know for sure," said one U.S. official. "The guy's not talking."

Authorities said the seized items may prove to be a breakthrough in the war on terrorism, in that they could contain the names of Al Qaeda members, details of past and present terrorist plots and the locations of "sleeper" cells in the United States and overseas.

Mohammed, they noted, is considered the most important Al Qaeda leader -- more important than Bin Laden -- in terms of reestablishing the terrorist network and overseeing plots to launch attacks. He has been linked to most of Al Qaeda's most devastating terrorist attacks on four continents, dating to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

But the good news about the trove of information was tempered by recent intelligence reports indicating that Mohammed had been coordinating and planning many attacks in the weeks before his arrest. Some of them appeared ready to be launched against targets in the United States, U.S. officials said.

"There were indications that he was involved in planning attacks [that were] not far away," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said authorities had identified "several in the United States and elsewhere," based on credible intelligence.

"He was an active fellow," the official said of Mohammed, who records show is a 37-year-old Kuwaiti born to Pakistani parents.

A U.S. intelligence memo dated Feb. 26 and reported Sunday by Newsweek's Web site warned that Mohammed was overseeing an effort to have Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States attack suspension bridges, gas stations and power plants in major cities, including New York.

That information came from at least one captured Al Qaeda soldier who knew Mohammed personally, and it was corroborated by other sources, the official said.

In some planned attacks, terrorists would ram tanker trucks into fuel pumps at gas stations, while other attackers would blow up suspension bridges or slash their cables, the official said.

"He indicated that Mohammed would go back to plots that he had previously worked on that had not yet come to fruition, and there was other information from other sources which pointed to the same kind of things that we were hearing from the detainees," the official said.

Asked if U.S. counter-terrorism authorities believed that the plotters were somewhere in the United States, the official said, "We don't know."

After authorities confirmed that the man detained in the guest house of a Pakistani religious leader was indeed Mohammed, they seized on the electronic gear and immediately began trying to extract information, officials said.

By Sunday, U.S. forensic experts had made limited progress in deciphering the jumble of data contained in the documents and computers.

They reported that the data appeared to include "operational detail, names ... including Al Qaeda operatives around the world, including here" in the United States, one federal law enforcement official said.

"It could be the mother lode of information that leads to the inner workings of Al Qaeda," the official said. "How they work, where they work, who they are, what their financial structure is."

But that official and others said they had a short window of opportunity -- a few days at most -- before potentially thousands of Al Qaeda operatives might bore deep underground, disappear or, worse, try to launch attacks out of fear that Mohammed's capture could lead to further arrests.

As a result, the official said: "We are moving quickly on this. We are trying to pinpoint. So the next 48 hours, the next week, we may find ourselves locking some of these guys up."

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