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Terror Supporters Among Us

The largest criminal investigation in American history has exposed the rough outlines of at least a half-dozen centers of terrorist support on U.S. soil operating underground before the Sept. 11 suicide attacks, officials say.

Law enforcement officials say they believe suspected supporters of terrorism have stolen credit cards and used wire transfers to finance their activities, created false visas and identity documents, and moved frequently with like-minded Middle Easterners.

Investigators believe they have arrested a small handful of terrorist supporters among the more than 1,000 people, most of Middle Eastern descent, they have detained since Sept. 11, and they are searching for more.

"There are people in the United States who have association with, affiliation with, support of certain terrorist groups," FBI director Robert Mueller said Friday. "We're doing everything we can to identify exactly the extent of that activity."

The pockets of terrorist support exist in Boston, New Jersey, suburban Washington, Texas, southern California, and the Upper Midwest, particularly Detroit, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

"We don't call each of them cells. We call them terrorist presences. They're almost like cliques. Clear in their hatred for America, and loosely working together," one law enforcement official said.

Officials said the suspected terrorists appear to be aligned with several groups, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the Palestinian Hamas movement. They cautioned they are a small number among a large Muslim population.

The evidence is not clean and organized enough to suggest each suspect belongs to a specific cell, another law enforcement official said. But it draws the most comprehensive picture to date of terrorist threats on U.S. soil.

The emerging snapshot is the product of a massive joint investigation by the FBI, immigration officials, Customs Service and other federal agencies. They have developed evidence through phone intercepts, surveillance, search warrants, meticulous reconstructions of money transfers and interrogations.

Thousands of agents have re-examined nearly every piece of evidence gathered in terrorism investigations and intelligence operations of the past decade. They have used the investigation of the hijackers to create an extensive dossier on suspected sympathizers.

Hundreds have been detained or arrested, and others are being monitored in hopes they will provide leads to additional collaborators, officials said. But most of those in custody are not believed to be terrorists and are being held on technical violations in hopes they know something or someone of interest to the FBI, officials said.

The suspected activities span the gamut from fund-raising in Texas and recruiting among Arab college students in California to planning in Boston and Detroit of attacks overseas, the officials said.

Several locations also had money wire outlets beonging to the Barakaat network that U.S. officials raided this month and accused of laundering money for al-Qaida. The company denies those allegations.

The evidence shows suspected sympathizers are remarkably migratory, just like the 19 hijackers who crisscrossed the country from San Diego to Maine before their attacks.

A recent federal court filing details the extensive travels of two Middle Eastern men being held for possessing a cache of fake IDs that could have been used to assist terrorists.

The men entered the United States in New York in the fall of 2000, spent time in the same Washington suburbs where five of the hijackers got false Virginia identifications, moved to Ohio, where officials recently raided a money exchange suspected of assisting the al-Qaida network, and then proceeded to Detroit, where they were arrested.

"Their clothing was kept in duffel bags, suitcases and garbage bags, there was essentially no furniture to speak of, nor any beds in the apartment," prosecutors said in a court filing asking they be held without bail.

Even before Sept. 11, the source of terrorist money began emerging during a trial last summer of an Algerian convicted of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport in December 1999.

The Algerian's collaborators testified they supported themselves through stolen credit cards, some taken from patrons of a Boston health club. They also plotted to buy a gas station so they could steal credit card numbers as people paid for gas.

Since the terror attacks, authorities have arrested at least one person, Chicago cab driver Youssef Hmimssa, accused of using a hidden device to steal credit card numbers from customers. He also has been indicted for fraud and false documents but has not been charged with a terrorist related crime.

The re-evaluation of pre-Sept. 11 evidence has yielded several important clues. A review of Customs Service intelligence gathered last summer led authorities to Nabil al-Marabh, a former Boston cab driver identified as an al-Qaida operative and one of the key people in detention.

Officials said Customs had evidence in its files of financial transactions between al-Marabh and Raed Hijazi, a suspect in the failed plot to kill Americans and Israelis at hotels in Jordan during the millennium celebrations.

In a court filing in Toronto, Canadian authorities said al-Marabh is "connected to the bin Laden network." He has not been charged with a terrorism-related crime.

The manhunt for al-Marabh, which ended with his arrest in Chicago, led authorities to an apartment in Detroit where they stumbled upon three men with airport ID badges, a wide array of false identification documents and a day planner with Arabic notations that suggested attacks being planned overseas.

Officials say the day planner contained notations in Arabic that they believe were plans for attacks on the Alia airport in Jordan and a plot to kill ex-Defense Secretary William Cohen during a visit o Turkey.

With its easy access to Canada via the Windsor bridge, Detroit has emerged as a possible coordination point for Algerian extremists who are known to have a presence north of the border.

A recent report by Michigan police detailed suspected terrorism activity.

"It is important to note that the Detroit/Dearborn area is a major financial support center for many Middle Eastern terrorist groups," it said.

"Southeast Michigan is known as a lucrative recruiting area and potential support base for IT (International Terrorism) groups. It is also conceivable that 'sleeper cells' may be located in this area of the state," it said.

Other Midwest ties:

  • Money transfers from outlets in Ohio and Michigan were linked to al-Qaida.
  • Several Middle Eastern men in Michigan and elsewhere tried or obtained commercial licenses recently to drive trucks with hazardous chemicals.
  • Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-Algerian, was detained in Minnesota after raising suspicions while seeking flight training. With little linking him to the hijackers, authorities are now investigating whether he was training to fly crop-dusters for biochemical attacks. Information on chemicals, crop-dusters and wind patterns were found on his computer, Mueller said.

    Officials said investigators also suspect a cell of al-Qaida support in the Boston area. Before moving to Detroit, al-Marabh worked as a cab driver for years in Boston along with Hijazi.

    Jordanian officials say Hijazi has confessed that he planned terrorist attacks and received bomb-making training in Afghan guerrilla camps run by bin Laden. He is charged with plotting a millennium celebration attack on a Jordanian hotel. Officials say they have evidence the plotting for some of the foiled millennium attacks took place in Boston.

    Authorities also recently raided a Barakaat money exchange office in the same Dorchester neighborhood of Boston where al-Marabh lived, and filed criminal charges against two men.

    Authorities have alleged Barakaat transferred money from Somalis in the United States to their families oversees, but skimmed money off the top to direct toward al-Qaida. The company denies the charge.

    In New Jersey, authorities have detained more than two dozen men in an area where at least six hijackers lived.

    New Jersey has been on the counterterrorism radar since the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind sheik who preached in Jersey City, was convicted of plotting that bombing.

    Since Sept. 11, law enforcement officials are suspicious about two New Jersey men in custody.

    Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan, both from India, were arrested aboard a train in Fort Worth, Texas, after flying out of the Newark, N.J., airport the morning of the hijackings. Authorities said the two were carrying box cutters, had $5,600 in cash and hair dye, and had shaved their bodies of hair as was recommended by hijacking ringleader Mohamed Atta.

    The me's Pakistani roommate, Mohammad Pervez, has been charged with lying about more than $100,000 in transactions in his bank account. None of the three men has been charged with a terrorism-related crime.

    The FBI also has focused on the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., since learning several hijackers spent months there.

    Agents arrested a security guard in Virginia named Mohammed Abdi on forgery charges after finding his name and phone number in a car left behind by one of the hijackers at Dulles International Airport.

    Agents raided two financial businesses in northern Virginia believed to be part of the Barakaat network, and charged several people helping the hijackers obtain false Virginia IDs.

    In Laurel, Md., where some hijackers spent time in gyms and hotels, a federal prosecutor recently interviewed Moataz Al-Hallak, a Muslim leader who was a witness in a prior terrorism case.

    Al-Hallak moved last year to Maryland from Texas. He testified before a New York federal grand jury investigating Wadih el Hage, a one-time bin Laden personal secretary who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the U.S. embassy bombings in 1998.

    Prosecutors initially accused Al-Hallak of being a liaison for the bin Laden network but never charged him. His lawyer says he cooperated fully and knew nothing about the hijackers or their plot. "There is not a shred of evidence connecting him to anything anywhere," attorney Stanley Cohen said.

    In Texas, authorities have been examining Muslim fund-raising, student recruitment and Web communications for ties to terrorist groups such as the Palestinian-based Hamas.

    U.S. officials have frozen two bank accounts belonging to a Richardson, Texas, Internet company with several Muslim groups as clients.

    The company was raided by federal agents a week before Sept. 11. Its bank accounts were frozen because it received a $250,000 investment from the wife of a top political leader of Hamas.

    Authorities also detained Ghassan Dahduli, a Palestinian from Richardson, Texas, who ran an Islamic education organization. His name was found in the address book of a bin Laden aide convicted in an earlier terrorist attack, authorities allege.

    FBI officials also have been examining an area in southern California near San Diego where they have evidence dating to the early 1990s of fund-raising efforts for suspected terrorists and extremist newsletters linked to an Algerian terrorist group. A few hijackers also stayed among college students in San Diego.

    A Jordanian college student, Osama Awadallah, 21, is charged with lying about his association with two hijackers. His name and number were found in the car of one of the hijackers. The FBI says it also found pictures of bin Laden and a videotape purchased from a Web site linked to al-Qaida.

    Two other young men in San Diego, both Yemenis, have been detained while U.S. authorities seek to extradite another man who left San Diego for Britaishortly before the attacks.

    Authorities also have traced investments from a Saudi businessman accused of aiding bin Laden to a diamond company in San Diego.

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