British charge 8 in terror scheme

Men had surveillance data on U.S. financial centers

No assertion of a specific plot

Conspiracy to use gases, chemicals, radioactive material

August 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - British police charged eight men yesterday with conspiracy to murder and violations of the Terrorism Act after finding that they possessed surveillance information on the financial centers in Washington, New York and New Jersey that were the focus of the terror alert this month in the United States.

The eight men were arrested Aug. 3 and have been held at a high-security police facility in West London. Under the two-week deadline set by the Terrorism Act, police had until yesterday to bring charges against the men or release them.

The men also were charged with conspiring to use "radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals and explosives" to cause fear, panic and disruption against unspecified targets.

One of the men was charged with possessing a "terrorist's handbook" on explosives. They will make a court appearance today at Belmarsh Prison in Southeast London.

A statement by Scotland Yard made no assertion that police had interrupted an active or specific plot against any of the financial center targets in the United States, or that the suspects had access to explosives, toxic gases or radioactive materials. A police official said no such material had been seized.

But the fact that two of the suspects, arrested two days after the terror alert was announced in Washington, were found in possession of surveillance information on the same five U.S. financial centers that had been the object of that alert alarmed American and British officials, who are still pressing the investigation.

The two British suspects who were found to possess surveillance information on U.S. targets were charged under a section of the Terrorism Act of 2000 that prohibits possession of data "useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."

Al-Qaida links

Among the eight men was an alleged ranking al-Qaida operative who earlier had been identified by an alias, Issa al-Hindi, by U.S. law enforcement officials. British officials said yesterday that one of the men they were charging, Dhiren Barot, 32, was also known as Issa al-Hindi and was believed to be a senior al-Qaida representative in Britain.

Barot is also believed to have conducted surveillance activities in the United States in 2000 and early 2001 under the alias Issa al-Britani, or Issa the Briton, according to the report of the Sept. 11 commission. That surveillance, of targets other than the World Trade Center, was ordered by Osama bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the commission report.

The terror alert in the United States was elevated on Aug. 1 after Pakistani authorities made a series of arrests of al-Qaida militants. Among them was a 25- year-old computer technician, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, in whose possession police found a large and detailed computerized archive of surveillance information on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, the Citigroup tower and New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan, and the Prudential Building in New Jersey.

Police officials said that while there was an obvious connection between the Pakistan surveillance data on the U.S. financial centers and information seized in Britain, they declined to elaborate on how the pieces of an alleged terrorist puzzle on three continents fits together.

A senior European counterterrorism official did acknowledge that Khan's computerized files had helped British authorities identify some of the suspects charged yesterday.

`A live cell'

"The British were very concerned," the official said. "They have apprehended what they feel is a live cell. But it remains unclear what if any actions had been taken by the alleged cell in preparation for any specific terrorist act.

The Scotland Yard statement specifies, however, that two of the British suspects acquired their surveillance data on the American financial centers on Feb. 19, 2001, which is in the period during which Barot was said to have been dispatched to the United States to conduct surveillance for senior al-Qaida plotters.

This coincidence at least raises the question of whether Barot was an active surveillance operative seeking to improve and refine al-Qaida's reconnaissance of targets that might be attacked in the United States in the future, one Western official said.

Police have not said whether they believe that Barot or other members of the alleged group of conspirators have traveled to the United States since 2001 in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy.

In Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a statement praising the arrests.

"We commend the United Kingdom's action today in bringing criminal charges against individuals who may have connections to potential terrorist activities in the United States," he said.

The eight men were identified as Barot; Omar Abdul Rehman, 20; Zia Ul Haq, 25; Abdul Aziz Jalil, 31; Nadeem Tarmohammed, 26; Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, 24; Quaisar Shaffi, 25; and Junade Feroze, 28.

A ninth man, Matthew Philip Monks, 32, was charged with firearms possession.

The eight men charged in the terrorist conspiracy were among 13 who had been seized in daylight raids in London and Lancashire in northwestern England in which police pulled suspects out of homes, surrounded their cars and chased one man into a barber shop.

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