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THE NATION

Al Qaeda Suspect May Have Created Surveillance Files

Man held in Britain is believed to have written reports that led to the heightened U.S. alert.

August 06, 2004|Greg Miller, Josh Meyer and Mubashir Zaidi | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — A key Al Qaeda suspect arrested in Britain is suspected of having written some of the surveillance reports that prompted govern- ment officials to raise the terrorist alert in the United States, counter-terrorism officials disclosed Thursday.

The suspect, known by the names Abu Eisa al Hindi and Abu Musa al Hindi, is believed to have carried out the surveillance of U.S. financial institutions before the Sept. 11 attacks, then written detailed assessments of the targets that were circulated to other Al Qaeda members, the officials said.

Those target assessments were among the materials recovered in a raid in Pakistan last month that led to the capture of an Al Qaeda computer expert. The files included detailed information on the vulnerabilities of major U.S. financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington. Among the targets were the Citigroup Center in New York and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in the nation's capital.

It was the detailed data on these files, "when married up with multiple streams of intelligence" suggesting that Al Qaeda was eager to strike in the United States before the November election, that prompted the U.S. government to raise the terrorism alert Sunday, a senior Bush administration official said.

Counter-terrorism officials declined to say how they had determined that Al Hindi may have created the surveillance reports, but indicated that the information might have come from one or more Al Qaeda detainees. Several key operatives have been captured recently in Pakistan and Britain.

The officials would not say whether the information came from Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, the suspected Al Qaeda computer expert arrested July 15 in Pakistan, who was said to be providing some information to interrogators.

The link between Al Hindi and the files found with Khan also indicate that information obtained in Pakistan played a role in the more recent raids in Britain, although British authorities have stressed that their investigation of a suspected Al Qaeda cell predated the Pakistan arrests.

The flurry of raids and arrests continued Thursday with the capture in Saudi Arabia of an Al Qaeda figure who was a leading propagandist for the terrorist network in that country, officials said.

The roll-up of cells and operatives across several continents in recent weeks has been a breakthrough, but officials continued to urge caution.

"These have been some encouraging developments in the last few days," a U.S. official said, "but there's still reason to be very concerned about Al Qaeda's interest in hitting us here."

Adding to the concern were unsubstantiated intelligence reports that members of Congress had been targets of Al Qaeda. And intelligence sources in Pakistan said that questioning of Khan had produced evidence that the network had gathered detailed personal information about top-level U.S. government officials.

The senior Bush administration official said authorities remained on edge because of the flood of intelligence pointing to an attack, possibly to coincide with the election.

"I can tell you right now, this last week and a half has been every bit as tense as Christmas, if not more so," the official said, referring to when officials grounded planes coming from Europe, fearing an attack was imminent.

"You sit up and think, whoa, this is very, very serious. Meetings till the wee hours, nonstop and among the very highest principals. And secure conference calls."

Al Hindi is known to have spent time in the United States before Sept. 11, and has long been associated with Al Qaeda and is wanted in this country.

The surveillance assessments he is alleged to have created included hundreds of diagrams, drawings and photographs. Some of the files were as long as 20 pages on a single target, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Al Hindi is cited in the recent report by the Sept. 11 commission under the name Issa al Britani, counter-terrorism officials said late Thursday. The report said Britani was sent by accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to the United States in early 2001 "to case potential economic and 'Jewish' targets in New York City." Mohammed was captured last year.

The FBI acknowledged Thursday that it had warned senior U.S. lawmakers about unsubstantiated intelligence suggesting that they or Congress as a whole might be the target of Al Qaeda attacks early this month.

FBI officials would not comment on whether any of that intelligence came from the recently captured Al Qaeda suspects.

But computer engineer Khan has told his FBI interrogators that the terrorist network has monitored top-level U.S. political officials so closely that it knows where they live and even knows the names of their neighbors, a Pakistani intelligence official said.

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