Three British citizens with suspected al Qaeda ties were scouting the New York Stock Exchange, just blocks from the Twin Towers, five months before the 2001 attacks, a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday alleges. Other financial institutions in New York and nearby Newark, N.J., also were under surveillance, as were two Washington buildings just across the Potomac River from the Pentagon.
CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports that the bad news is, the U.S. didn't discover the plot until last year.
Last August's Homeland Security Department discovery sent the New York financial district to orange alert, and sent shivers through the already-tense city. A captured terrorist's computer revealed detailed surveillance notes of the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp Building in New York along with the Prudential Building in Newark and the International Monetary Fund in Washington — all prime financial targets vital to the U.S. economy.
It is unclear how advanced the allegedly years-long plot was at the time of the discovery — or even if it was still being planned. But security was boosted immediately in reaction.
A four-count indictment returned by a New York City grand jury alleges the men, already in British custody, visited and conducted surveillance of the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods between August 2000 and April 2001.
The alleged plot was foiled when Pakistani investigators seized a computer with information from the surveillance. British authorities were alerted and arrested eight men, including the three suspects, on terrorism-related charges last August, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey said.
The indictment "sends a message about our resolve to terrorists," Comey said at a Justice Department news conference.
The grand jury returned the indictment on March 23 but it was not unsealed until Tuesday. Named in it are Dhiran Barot, 33, Nadeem Tarmohammed, 26, and Qaisar Shaffi, 26. They could receive life sentences if convicted of the most serious charge, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States. The indictment lists those weapons as improvised explosive devices and bombs.