British detain top operative in terror plot

Suspected al-Qaida agent accused of leading spying on U.S. financial buildings

Arrested in Britain Tuesday

Believed to have written reports that spurred alert

August 06, 2004|By Greg Miller, Josh Meyer and Mubashir Zaidi | Greg Miller, Josh Meyer and Mubashir Zaidi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A key al-Qaida suspect arrested Tuesday in Britain directed the surveillance of financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington during 2000 and 2001 and prepared the detailed reports that prompted government officials to raise the terrorism alert in the United States, counterterrorism officials said yesterday.

The suspect, known by the names Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi, was described as by far the most important al-Qaida figure detained as part of a U.S.-led effort to unravel the tangle of clues uncovered with last month's discovery in Pakistan of computer files containing the surveillance reports.

The target assessments were among the materials recovered in a raid in Pakistan that led to the capture of an al-Qaida computer expert. The files included detailed information on the vulnerabilities of major U.S. financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

It was the chillingly detailed data in these files, "when married up with multiple streams of intelligence" suggesting that al-Qaida 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 U.S. official said.

An intensive search now under way in the United States, Britain and Pakistan for people connected to the surveillance reports has pointed to al-Hindi as the likely leader of an al-Qaida cell in Britain that may have been involved in planning for a possible attack, the U.S. officials said. At least 20 people have been detained in Pakistan in the past month, and Britain is holding 12 men from raids on Tuesday.

Yesterday British police also announced the arrest of another man, wanted in the United States for allegedly helping finance terrorist activity. Police said they had arrested a British man, Babar Ahmad, 30, wanted on terrorism charges in a warrant issued by a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, and that anti-terror officials were searching three "residential premises" and one business in southwest London on behalf of U.S. authorities.

U.S. officials said last night that they thought Ahmad may be a relative of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, the 25-year-old Pakistani computer engineer arrested July 15 who is at the center of the inquiry. Khan, who is now in Pakistani custody, had led Pakistani investigators and the CIA to the computers on which the surveillance reports were found, and has told Pakistani interrogators that he relayed messages to al-Qaida figures outside the country.

The flurry of raids and arrests continued yesterday with the capture in Saudi Arabia of a wanted al-Qaida 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.

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

One senior Bush administration official said that authorities remained on edge due to the flood of intelligence pointing to an attack, possibly to coincide with the coming election. FBI officials would not comment on whether any of that intelligence came from the recently captured al-Qaida operatives.

But one of them, 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, according to a Pakistani intelligence official.

"He surprised the American interrogators by telling them the names and addresses of some American high officials, including the names of the people living in their neighborhood," said the intelligence official. "The Americans could not check whether it's true or if he was boasting. But they believe he knows a lot."

Officials at the CIA, Homeland Security and the White House had no comment on any potential surveillance or planned attack on lawmakers. But they said they were closely monitoring -- and in some cases participating in -- the interrogations of Khan, several other suspected al-Qaida operatives captured in Pakistan, 13 militants arrested in Britain and the suspect detained Thursday in Saudi Arabia.

Much of the focus remained on Khan, who authorities believe may be a key link between al-Qaida cells in Pakistan, Britain and the United States. But Khan, 26, also has remained somewhat of a mystery, according to authorities here and in Pakistan.

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