FBI tracks hundreds suspected of links to al-Qaida, terrorism

Most under surveillance are young Muslim men

October 06, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The FBI is trying to make an open book of the lives of hundreds of mostly young, mostly Muslim men in the United States in the belief that terrorists trained by al-Qaida remain in this country, awaiting instructions to attack.

Senior law enforcement officials say the surveillance campaign involves every major FBI office in the country and includes 24-hour monitoring of the suspects' telephone calls, e-mail messages and Internet use, as well as scrutiny of their credit-card charges, their travel and their visits to neighborhood gathering places, including mosques.

The campaign, which has also involved attempts to recruit suspects' friends and family members as government informants, has raised alarm from civil liberties groups and some Arab-American and Muslim leaders. The suspects are believed to have ties to al-Qaida or other groups affiliated with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Law enforcement officials say the surveillance program has provided vital evidence in a string of arrests and indictments made throughout the country since late summer - in western New York, in Detroit, in Seattle and, on Friday, in Portland, Ore.

The FBI has acknowledged that it has no evidence of any imminent terrorist threat posed by dormant cells connected to al-Qaida. Still, law enforcement officials say they are convinced that at least several dozen people under FBI surveillance in the United States - with different degrees of terrorist training, and with varying degrees of loyalty to al-Qaida - would take part in a terrorist attack if ordered, and that these suspects represent a clear threat.

"If you look at the number of people who went through the al-Qaida training camps, and there are literally thousands who did, it stands to reason that a certain percentage of them are in this country," said John E. Bell Jr., who retired this summer as the special agent in charge of the FBI's field office in Detroit. Much of the bureau's surveillance campaign is centered in Detroit, the region that is home to the nation's largest population of people of Arab descent.

Identifying trainees

Within the Bush administration, there has been a fractious, mostly unpublicized debate over how many al-Qaida agents are in the United States, and the resources the FBI and other law enforcement agencies should devote to the effort to ferret them out.

American counter-terrorism officials have estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 young Muslims from around the world trained in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, with information gathered from abandoned al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and from captured terrorists, the officials have tried to compile the names of everyone who attended the camps. So far, the officials say, they have been able to identify and track down no more than several hundred people.

Some law enforcement officials say that when they have detected al-Qaida loyalists in the United States, they have tended to be hapless malcontents and not disciplined terrorists.

"They are hangers-on and wannabe terrorists for the most part," said one official. Referring to the leader of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, "Mohammed Atta wouldn't have asked most of these guys to take out his trash."

`Instances of abuse'

Some Arab-American and Muslim groups have complained that the intense FBI surveillance campaign, which they insist has been evident for months, has unfairly left the perception that all young men of Arab descent or the Muslim faith have some connection to terrorism.

"Young Arab men, in particular, are being treated as suspicious, possibly dangerous," said Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "I think there have been some really egregious instances of abuse."

The FBI's surveillance campaign has depended heavily on wiretaps obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to conduct electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists at a far lower standard of evidence than in normal criminal cases.

The bureau's dependence on the act in the search for terrorist cells helps explain why the Justice Department has so aggressively defended its request to expand its authority under the 1978 surveillance law. The act has been the subject of a recent legal battle involving the secret court in Washington that reviews the bureau's surveillance requests.

"The terrorists don't know it, but we're listening in all the time," said a senior law enforcement official, pointing out that there had been extensive electronic surveillance of the six men charged near Buffalo, including reviews of e-mail messages that had passed back and forth between some of the men as they traveled in the Middle East in recent months.

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