Abu Eisa al Hindi was one of 12 terror suspects arrested by British police earlier this week. An English speaker, al Hindi is described by U.S. officials as the chief of operations for al Qaeda in Great Britain and perhaps the U.S. as well.
But officials say capturing al Hindi does not mean the threat of an al Qaeda attack here in the U.S. has been eliminated, although there is no question a major part of Osama bin Laden's network is unraveling, reports Martin.
The first break came on July 13 with the arrest in Pakistan of Abu Talha, who served as a communications hub relaying messages from al Qaeda leaders in hiding to operatives in the field. It took two weeks to crack the codes Talha had used to protect the files in his computer but once they were deciphered they provided a treasure trove of intelligence, including the surveillance reports which triggered the alert in U.S. financial districts.
In the past weeks, Pakistani officials say they have arrested 20 suspected members of al Qaeda — one of them a man wanted for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. Leads from Talha's computer led to the arrest of the 12 suspects in England, most importantly al Hindi who is believed not only to have conducted the original surveillance of financial institutions in America but also to have reviewed the reports within the last year.
There's still no evidence al Qaeda had assembled the explosives needed for an attack but U.S. intelligence has other reasons to believe an attack is coming. For one thing, captured al Qaeda members say it is.
For another, there has recently been an ominous drop off in the volume of al Qaeda communications — the same kind of drop off that occurred in the weeks before Sept. 11.
Talha has also provided evidence of phone calls between al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and someone in the United States — also within the past year.
Under questioning, Talha has said that based on what he knows al Qaeda could still be planning an attack on American financial institutions.
Besides the obvious concerns about the safety of the buildings that were targeted for surveillance, this evidence also points toward the presence of al Qaeda operatives inside the United States.
Officials said it was because information about the financial institutions was also corroborated by a third person as "another new stream of intelligence" that the White House supported a decision to issue a terror warning on Sunday.
The information arrived days before the public alert, as officials were reviewing reams of recently obtained documents and photographs that showed surveillance of five buildings in New York City, New Jersey and Washington carried out years earlier by al Qaeda.
"Old information isn't irrelevant information — particularly with this kind of enemy," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn.
The corroborating information from the third person did not specify targets in the United States or say when an attack might be planned, the official said. But it so closely tracked the other intelligence that U.S. financial buildings had already been under surveillance by al Qaeda that it contributed to the decision to issue the public warnings.
"Coupled with general threat reporting, coupled with other pieces of information, then all of the sudden you say to yourself, 'This is a time when we have to talk to America about the threat.' And that's exactly what we did," Ridge said.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the surveillance information last week was married with "very recent and current activity" from al Qaeda indicating the group's interest in attacking this year. This information, which includes debriefings and other means of gathering information, is causing the administration serious concern, the official said.
"A bunch of things came together at the same time," Frances Townsend, the White House Homeland Security adviser, said in an interview Wednesday with National Public Radio. She said the corroborating information came from "a very sensitive ongoing investigation in another part of the world."
Ridge and other senior administration officials spent parts of Wednesday defending the warnings, which came on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and drew attention from the presidential campaign of nominee John Kerry.
"I categorically state that the none of the terror threats are politically motivated," Ridge said.
The FBI is monitoring al Qaeda operatives and others associated with Islamic terror groups inside the United States, although these people have not been directly linked to the threat against financial buildings, the Justice Department official said. These people include financiers for Ansar al-Islam, a group linked to al Qaeda, the official said.
Two men were arrested early Thursday in Albany, N.Y. and are being held on a criminal complaint for materially supporting terrorism, reports Martin. The two men allegedly sought help from a confidential informant and were. They allegedly have links to the Ansar al Islam Iraqi terror group. There was no apparent connection between the arrests and the current U.S. alert.
Meanwhile, intelligence officials said Thursday that Pakistan gave British authorities images of London's Heathrow Airport and other sites that were found on the computers of the two arrested al Qaeda fugitives.
It was not clear, however, if the information helped lead to theon Tuesday in Britain.
And British officials are discounting claims of a plot against Heathrow, report CBS News' Charlie D'Agata.
"We've always adopted the policy as a government in Britain that if there is a specific threat or a specific target then we would tell people," senior cabinet member Peter Hain said.