3 Britons indicted in foiled attacks

Terror plot on financial targets spurred security alert in August

One suspect is linked to al-Qaida

U.S. alleges men sought to use `weapons of mass destruction'

April 13, 2005|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Three British nationals whose alleged surveillance of U.S. financial landmarks triggered an increase in the terrorist threat level last summer were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they were planning a catastrophic attack with "weapons of mass destruction," the Justice Department disclosed yesterday.

The federal indictment, unsealed in New York, alleges that the three men, including a reputed top al-Qaida operative, conducted secret surveillance of the New York Stock Exchange, the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund in Washington and other structures in 2000 and 2001 as part of a plot to destroy the buildings and kill Americans, Justice Department officials said.

Without providing details, U.S. officials said the conspiracy continued until the men were arrested in August by British authorities after the suspects were linked to the planned attacks by computer files retrieved as part of a separate terrorism investigation in Pakistan. The men also face charges in London, where they remain in custody.

The computer files included detailed descriptions of the surveillance activities, whose chilling specifics prompted U.S. authorities to raise the terrorism threat level from "yellow" to "orange", or high, in the financial districts of New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia last Aug. 1.

Though the indictment says the men plotted to use weapons of mass destruction, it identifies the weapons only as improvised explosive devices. The phrasing is normally used to refer to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"We have not alleged that," Deputy Attorney General James Comey said at a news conference. "But ... a weapon of mass destruction in our world goes beyond that and includes improved explosive devices."

The decision to elevate the threat level was controversial because it was based largely on information that was more than three years old. Coming in the middle of a presidential election year, it fueled criticism that the Bush administration was manipulating the terrorism-threat index for political gain. The alert level was lowered after the election.

At a news conference yesterday, Comey defended the alert and said the plot, which extended over six years, represented a real and immediate threat.

"This conspiracy was alive and kicking up until August of 2004. That date is in there for a reason," Comey said, alluding to the indictment.

The case "highlights the nature of the enemy we face," he added. "That is an enemy that is patient, that is spread through the world and is bent on killing Americans in a spectacular way."

The indictment suggests that the conspiracy was active even as the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were plotting their attacks on New York and Washington. The indictment does not make any connection between the two. Comey pointed out that the indictment makes no "express" allegation that the defendants are connected with al-Qaida.

But an alias used by one of the defendants - Dhiren Barot - is identified in the final report of the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks as being a senior al-Qaida leader who was dispatched by Osama bin Laden to conduct a scouting operation against targets in the United States.

Barot, according to the federal indictment, used the aliases Esa al-Britain, Abu Esa al-Britani, Esa al-Hindi, and Issa al-Hindi.

His alleged co-conspirators are two other British citizens, identified as Nadeem Tarmohamed, 26, and Qaisar Shaffi, 25. The three were arrested in a raid on a house in a London suburb in August.

The federal indictment, which Comey said was handed up March 23, describes a plot that began in 1998 when Barot served as a lead instructor in a training camp in Afghanistan where recruits were taught to use weapons and received other paramilitary training.

According to the indictment, in June 2000, Barot applied to and was admitted to a college in New York as cover for reconnaissance missions that occurred between Aug. 17, 2000, and April 8, 2001.

According to the indictment, the men visited and conducted surveillance on buildings, including the headquarters of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, the headquarters of Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., and the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Centre in New York.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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