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Quiet Investigation Centers on Al Qaeda Aide in New York

A Pakistani American raised in Queens is telling authorities about plotting with top network members, court documents show.

September 03, 2004|Josh Meyer, Greg Krikorian and William C. Rempel | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — As President Bush touted his record in the war on terror Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, another front in the terrorism fight was playing out nearby in the federal holding cell of a Pakistani American named Mohammed Junaid Babar.

Babar, who grew up in Queens, is a cooperating witness in an unfolding investigation of what authorities say may be a New York-based "sleeper cell" involved in Al Qaeda efforts to launch attacks in the U.S., perhaps as the Nov. 2 election approaches.

The investigation remains nearly invisible to the public, and federal authorities and defense lawyers have refused to discuss it.

But unsealed court documents show that Babar, 29, has admitted meeting with senior Al Qaeda members in remote South Waziristan in Pakistan this year as part of a scheme to smuggle money, night-vision goggles and other equipment to the terrorist network.

On June 3, he secretly pleaded guilty to charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization and agreed to cooperate in ongoing investigations.

"I understood that the money and supplies that I had given to Al Qaeda was supposed to be used in Afghanistan against U.S. or international forces," Babar told the court.

Authorities believe three of the men Babar met with were involved in plotting attacks in London and perhaps the United States, using surveillance gathered during visits to New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., in 2000 and 2001.

Babar's case is by no means isolated. Court documents and interviews show that U.S. authorities are conducting at least a dozen significant investigations throughout the nation into suspected support cells or operational cells of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and affiliate organizations.

These investigations -- and dozens of preliminary probes -- show the extent to which Al Qaeda maintains an active support network in the United States that is linked to its leaders on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, its global network of cells and potentially to ongoing plots here and overseas, according to senior U.S. counterterrorism officials.

During his acceptance speech Thursday night, President Bush said his administration's aggressive counterterrorism efforts had been successful in the three years since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Critics, however, say that at least some of the investigative activity unfairly targets innocent Muslims, and that all of the secret detentions, arrests and prosecutions have failed to uncover any proven terrorists in the United States.

Indeed, the Justice Department has had a mixed record in prosecuting alleged terrorism cell members in the United States; just this week, its first big terrorism conviction was thrown out of court by a federal judge in Detroit.

Such problems have raised questions about how successful the government has been in tracking terrorists, while skeptics ask if the terror threat is being hyped to bolster support for the Bush administration's hard-line approach.

Several U.S. counter-terrorism officials acknowledged that they had no hard evidence that Al Qaeda operatives were living in the U.S. and readying a terrorist attack. But the officials, who have tracked Al Qaeda in the United States and overseas, said they operated every day under the assumption that the terrorist network had not just sympathizers but one or more teams of attackers ready and waiting in the country.

One U.S. official, whose specialty is tracking Al Qaeda, said, "The difference between now and 9/11 is they are now in a rabbit hole. But are they still here? You bet."

Some of the investigations have been underway for months or even years. In others, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are pursuing recent leads generated through electronic intercepts and the capture and interrogation of suspected terrorists overseas and a review of their computers, cellphones and paper documents.

Several of the investigations involve alleged terrorism cells in New York and northern New Jersey, where suspected Al Qaeda operatives have been under intermittent surveillance since the early 1990s.

One focuses on local supporters of prominent Yemeni cleric Mohammed al Hasan al-Moayad and an aide, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed, who authorities contend have used a Brooklyn-based mosque, ice cream parlor and other businesses to funnel $20 million to Al Qaeda overseas, court documents show.

New York area authorities also continue to investigate whether local sympathizers helped another prominent cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called blind sheik, communicate with leaders of an Egyptian-based terrorist organization while Abdel Rahman was imprisoned in Colorado. One U.S. postal employee is being prosecuted in that case.

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