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Al Qaeda linked to plot to use student visas

Papers found in an Iraq militants' hide-out refer to a plan to get terrorists into the U.S., though none did.

January 23, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda's Iraq-based faction considered trying to use student visas to get a dozen or more operatives into the United States to launch an attack, a ploy that was successful for one of the hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. counter-terrorism officials confirmed Monday.

The plot appeared to be little more than an informal list of Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives and initial plans found during a search of a militants' hide-out in Iraq shortly before Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June, said one official.

But it was deemed serious enough to alert the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which mobilized agents in the United States to look for possible terrorists and for signs of attempted infiltration, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss classified details of the case.

"Almost anything from Al Qaeda in Iraq is taken very seriously.

"Even though they don't normally operate beyond the region, the fact that they were thinking about that, and considering this method to enter the country, is serious in and of itself," said the U.S. official.

In the end, U.S. authorities concluded that none of the operatives had entered the United States, that one of its leaders was already dead and that the effort never got off the drawing board, the official said.

The plot was confirmed by a second U.S. counter-terrorism official, who described the seized document as showing the scheme to be a group of men "discussing ideas, not an actual operation that was in progress."

Details of the nascent plot were first reported Monday by ABC News.

It also was cited by Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, during his testimony two weeks ago at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on threats to the United States.

Maples did not provide any details, saying only that documents seized by coalition forces "revealed [Al Qaeda in Iraq] was planning terrorist operations in the U.S."

The FBI issued a statement late Monday, saying it "has been aware of the information cited by the DIA.... Based on this information, we have no indication of a specific threat at this time."

The U.S. counter-terrorism officials said that Al Qaeda operatives appeared to have begun discussing the plot sometime after Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri, sent Zarqawi a letter encouraging him to launch attacks far beyond the borders of Iraq.

One of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, was allowed into the country on a student visa from Saudi Arabia after being turned down for a tourist visa, Janice L. Kephart, the former immigration counsel to the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the attacks, said Monday.

U.S. authorities now require that schools keep much closer tabs on visiting students.

Also on Monday, a Washington-based terrorism analysis group released a videotape in which Zawahiri purportedly ridiculed President Bush for his recently announced plan to send more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq to counter the increasing bloodshed and sectarian violence.

In the 14-minute videotape released by the SITE Institute and later broadcast on Islamist websites, Zawahiri challenged Bush to send "the entire army," vowing that insurgents could defeat the equivalent of 10 armies.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Zawahiri is hiding out in Pakistan or just over the border in Afghanistan, but is separated from Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In his latest tape, which included English subtitles, Zawahiri described Bush's Jan. 10 address in which he outlined his new proposal for Iraq as "ravings."

He also said U.S. and allied forces have not deprived Al Qaeda of a haven in Afghanistan, and he reiterated an earlier offer to Americans to reject Bush administration policies if they wanted to avoid being attacked by Al Qaeda and militant Islamists.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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