Al-Qaeda allies are believed to be scouting U.S. targets, and the terror organization is using non-Arab recruits to avoid detection, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say. The FBI has counterterrorism investigations in virtually all 56 of its field offices but has not broken up a known surveillance cell, either because agents are tailing suspects who have not committed crimes or because they have descriptions but not identities.
It is unclear how many al-Qaeda scouts are in the USA. “The FBI has their eye on or has opened several hundred investigations of people sympathetic to or supportive of” al-Qaeda, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said. “If we knew somebody was here as an operative – and we knew who they were or where they were – they wouldn’t be on the street.”
Information about active cells came from Ridge and three intelligence and law enforcement officials. The three officials wouldn’t speak for attribution because the information they provided is classified. One of the three, a senior U.S. intelligence official, responded to criticism that the Bush administration raised the terrorism threat level based on information about surveillance al-Qaeda did years ago. The official said the cells:
• Have been in the USA off and on since the early 1990s, and some are still here.
• Are focused primarily on states on the coasts, though not exclusively. They include New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, Michigan and California.
• Operate under deep cover, sometimes hiding their Muslim faith by posing as Christians.
• Are isolated from each other and from al-Qaeda members who would carry out attacks.
Counterterrorism officials have learned about suspected surveillance by terrorist sympathizers by intercepting communications, interrogating captives and exploiting seized documents and computers.
When a source provides a name, the FBI can keep tabs on the suspect, but suspects can’t be arrested if they don’t break any laws. In other cases, the intelligence describes surveillance operations without naming al-Qaeda’s scouts.
To avoid the intense scrutiny on travelers from certain Middle Eastern countries, al-Qaeda is believed to be using operatives from Chechnya, Bosnia and, when possible, Western Europe. Not all are Arab, and not all are men. All are thought to be Muslim, but a few have pretended to convert to Christianity to deepen their cover, the senior intelligence official said.
“There was a legitimate concern right after 9/11 that the face of international terrorism was basically from the Middle East. We know differently,” Ridge said. “We don’t have the luxury of kidding ourselves that there is an ethnic or racial or country profile.”
Concern about al-Qaeda plans intensified with the arrest in Pakistan last month of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a suspected al-Qaeda member. Pakistani authorities seized his computer and several hundred disks containing reports of surveillance – most of it conducted before 9/11 – of financial sites in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. The data led U.S. authorities to raise the terror alerts in those cities.
U.S. investigators are pursuing six e-mails sent from Khan’s computer to locations in the USA, according to an FBI official with knowledge of the investigation surrounding the latest terror alert.