Ashcroft thinks planning was done overseas

French, Germans, Interpol target people linked to bin Laden

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 26, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon were probably plotted overseas, where the masterminds could more easily avoid U.S. detection, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday.

The 19 suicide hijackers thought to be responsible for the attacks Sept. 11 lived, worked and in some cases learned to fly commercial airliners in the United States. But authorities think "much of the planning was done overseas," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, pressed lawmakers to pass laws providing broader surveillance tools for federal law enforcement agencies.

He made his remarks as the investigation of the attacks appeared to be intensifying outside the United States.

In Washington, President Bush visited FBI headquarters, where he tried to rally agents tracking tens of thousands of leads in the nation's largest criminal investigation ever.

"Stay at it," Bush said. "The nation's counting on you."

U.S. investigators are working closely with foreign police agencies, which have been active in recent days. French authorities said yesterday that three people reportedly linked to Osama bin Laden had been placed under suspicion of terrorism. The three were part of a group of seven people charged last week in a suspected plot to attack U.S. interests in France.

The international police agency Interpol, which represents 178 countries, issued an arrest warrant yesterday for an Egyptian-born surgeon reported to be bin Laden's deputy. The warrant for Ayman al-Zawahri, 51, was issued at the request of Egyptian police. Interpol said al-Zawahri has emerged as a key figure in bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

Investigators are also focusing on Germany, where authorities are seeking two men they say helped to plot the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mohamed Atta, thought to be the leader of the hijacking ring, lived in Hamburg, Germany, while studying engineering in the late 1990s.

German police issued arrest warrants last week for Ramzi Binalshibh, 29, of Yemen and Said Bahaji, 26, a Moroccan living in Germany. Prosecutors said both are being sought on charges of murder and forming terrorist organizations.

In the United States, the investigation proceeded on two fronts. FBI agents trying to piece together who was responsible for the attacks have detained more than 350 people and are seeking 392 more for questioning. They also are pursuing reports that additional terrorist attacks in the United States might have been planned.

Ashcroft told the Senate panel yesterday that FBI agents have learned that several people with possible links to the suspected hijackers fraudulently obtained, or tried to obtain, permits to transport hazardous materials.

A senior Justice Department official said about 20 people have been charged with using false documents to obtain hazardous-materials licenses. Two men arrested last week in Detroit and charged with having false identification and immigration papers are thought to have attended a truck-driving school in Detroit. One of the men obtained a hazardous-materials license. The other failed the school's driving test.

"The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts," Ashcroft told the Judiciary Committee.

As their House counterparts did Monday, the senators signaled a willingness to provide federal law enforcement agencies with broader powers to conduct electronic surveillance and to seize the assets of suspected terrorists. But lawmakers from both parties have said they are mindful of potential civil liberties challenges and have suggested that Congress not rush to act.

During his visit to the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington yesterday afternoon, Bush defended the administration's request for greater powers for police investigating possible terrorist networks.

"Now that we're at war, we ought to give the FBI the tools to track down terrorists," Bush said. The president also said the measures before Congress have been carefully reviewed by government lawyers and would stand up to constitutional challenges.

As it lobbies Congress, the administration has a powerful ally in Solicitor General Theodore Olson, whose wife, Barbara, was killed when the American Airlines plane she was on crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Olson joined Ashcroft at the committee hearings in the House and the Senate. Yesterday morning, he appeared on NBC's "Today" show and on CBS' "Early Show."

It is unusual for high-ranking Justice Department officials to weigh in on such matters. But Olson, who would defend the government's position before the Supreme Court if the new laws faced challenges, said during the interview on "Today" that his was partly a personal mission.

"I'm out here this morning because I think all of us who were close to Barbara feel that we must participate in whatever way we can to conquer this threat to all of our citizens and to fight back against it," Olson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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