U.S. Customs agents have arrested a Jordanian-born man who was allegedly carrying $12 million in false cashier's checks, alarming counterterrorism officials who said the suspect may have been trained in al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan, The Washington Post reports in its Saturday editions.
U.S. officials said the name of Omar Shishani, 47, who was detained Wednesday as he arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Indonesia, appears on a watch list of people trained in Afghanistan by al Qaeda. Shishani's name turned up in documents captured in Afghanistan, sources told the newspaper.
"It has really alarmed a lot of people that al Qaeda may be trying to get that much money into the United States for operational purposes," the Post quotes one official as saying. "We don't know what he was up to, but he was coming from Indonesia, he had $12 million in bogus checks . . . he was born in Jordan and his family is from Chechnya. There is a lot of smoke there to investigate."
Agents of the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force in Detroit executed a search warrant Thursday night at Shishani's home in Dearborn, Mich., where he lives with his wife, the Post says.
Andrew Wise, Shishani's court-appointed federal defender, declined to comment to the Post.
A U.S. magistrate judge granted Wise's request yesterday to postpone a detention hearing for Shishani until Wednesday to allow Wise time to review the charges against his client of knowingly making or possessing a forged security. Shishani remained in custody.
Shishani was carrying a U.S. passport and told authorities he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, officials said to the Post. Eric Straus, an assistant U.S. attorney on the Detroit anti-terrorism task force, said Shishani was born in Jordan and was of Chechen descent. Other Post sources said Shishani had served in the Jordanian army.
The arrest was first reported in The Detroit Free Press.
Dawn Clenney, special agent for the FBI's Detroit office, on Saturday confirmed the arrest, but would not say whether the suspect may have trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
"We are attempting to learn if there are any terrorist links regarding those cashier's checks," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Public records show Shishani previously lived in San Francisco and Napa, Calif. At his arraignment, Shishani described himself as a salesman who had earned no commissions this year. He said his wife is a resident alien from Japan and works for Northwest Airlines.
U.S. intelligence officials have said that possibly hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped from Afghanistan had gone to Indonesia and that nation has become a haven for the terrorist movement.
"The September 11 attacks only cost $500,000 in total," one official, who acknowledged that authorities have no idea how the bogus checks were going to be used. "One shudders to think what they could do with $12 million."
Shishani's brother, Adam, said he was convinced his brother was innocent, The New York Times reports.
"I know my brother," Adam Shishani said. "They made all kinds of fake stories about him being connected to Al Qaeda. He's just a victim."
Officials noted that counterfeit cashier's checks and other monetary instruments are used in a wide variety of criminal activities and scams unrelated to terrorism.
Clarence T. Laster, a special agent of the Secret Service who signed an affidavit presented at Shishani's arraignment, said that he had learned of checks similar to Shishani's being passed near Las Vegas.
"I was informed that several people had been arrested for attempting to pass similar checks there and it had been determined that the cashier's checks were counterfeit," Laster told the Post.
Knowledgeable officials said to the Post that the checks were extremely well made and indicated they were issued by the Pomona, Calif., branch of West America Bank.
Laster said in the affidavit that West America does not have a Pomona branch, which a bank official confirmed in an interview. In addition, the bank spokesman said, the checks bore the words "cashier's check" while the bank uses the words "official check" on its checks.
"They fool you when you look at them. They were very nicely done," said one official. "They put work and research into making them. It was first-rate work."
Financial investigators said criminals deposit bogus cashier's checks in a bank account, which could give the depositor immediate access to the money before the checks have formally cleared.
U.S. officials told the Post that Shishani was initially stopped and asked if he was carrying any undeclared cash or monetary instruments. When he said no, he was taken to a secondary inspection area where he was asked again, responding that he had only the cash in his wallet. At that point, Shishani's bags were searched, the checks were found and Shishani was detained, officials expalined to the newspaper.