NYT – Aug. 22 — American law enforcement officials are monitoring the activities of at least six groups in the United States they suspect are linked to Al Qaeda, senior government officials in the United States and Europe said this week.
Most of the individuals whose movements and communications are being closely tracked are believed to be sympathizers of Osama bin Laden who may be engaged in low-level support activities for the Qaeda terror network, like raising money, relaying messages and recruiting new members, American and European officials said. The officials insisted that no evidence had emerged that any of the suspects were preparing an attack or posed any imminent threat.
American officials have limited their actions so far to intensive surveillance of the suspects, who they say are spread across 40 states, in order to gather more information about their plans and organization, the officials said. The decision to continue the surveillance, rather than to detain some suspects, reflects a strategic shift by United States government investigators. They said they had concluded that at this stage it was more valuable to try to learn more about the groups’ activities and possible plans through extended observation.
“By taking a group down too early, you may be losing a lot of opportunity for great intelligence,” said a senior government official in the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Who are their associates? Who else is out there that we don’t know of that these individuals may contact?”
United States officials may be exercising new restraint in terror investigations in response to growing criticism of the Justice Department in the Congress and from civil liberties groups for casting the net of suspicion too wide. More than 1,200 people were detained in the year after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the roundups produced few if any law enforcement coups against terrorism. A handful of the people under surveillance in the United States appear to be more militant members of the terror network who may have sought to scout locations for possible future attacks. However, the officials say they lack sufficient evidence to arrest these suspects on terror charges at this time.
“If we are aware that any group or individual could pose a threat, an appropriate and immediate law enforcement action will take place,” a senior government official said.
The assessment of a widening presence of Qaeda sympathizers on American soil has alarmed intelligence and counterterrorism officials here in Europe and in the United States.
“Every month, we continue to identify new people aligned with Al Qaeda in the United States,” a senior American government official said. “It’s an ongoing process but it is disconcerting that every month, almost every week, we find additional people here who are sympathetic to Al Qaeda and its goals.”
Terrorism experts said that prolonged observation and eavesdropping should prove to be a useful strategy for American investigators.
“This is a much better approach,” said Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert, author and professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “The F.B.I. doesn’t look as good. They are not arresting some and saying look who we got, look what we disrupted. But it’s much more effective. They can carefully monitor what these suspects are doing. As soon as you arrest someone, you lose a very important source of information.”
Concern has heightened among American and European officials about the possible expansion of Al Qaeda into the United States as American interests have become targets of terror attacks in Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
In Europe, intelligence and law enforcement officials are taking a similar approach to that of the Americans. European intelligence officials have said there is evidence that the network of Qaeda supporters still has a significant presence in Europe.
American officials said they had been assisted in detecting the Qaeda followers by the nearly two-year-old USA Patriot Act, and changes in May 2002 to the attorney general guidelines, which permit the monitoring of mosques and Internet chat rooms and other aggressive investigative techniques.
The officials said that some people with apparent connections to the Qaeda network have settled easily into American society by obtaining jobs or enrolling in universities, and even marrying and starting families.
Before Sept. 11, the government had to have specific evidence that a group or individual was planning a terrorist attack to open a criminal inquiry. The attorney general’s guidelines have lowered that threshold to a “reasonable suspicion” that individuals or groups are involved in planning for a terrorist strike. Officials explained that the lower threshold had allowed the government to monitor far more people for possible terrorist ties than in the past.
In particular, they said, the detection efforts have been bolstered by the execution of “sneak and peek” search warrants, a practice that permits the government to conduct secret searches for evidence and notify the suspects afterward of the search. A judge must still approve the execution of the secret search warrants.
In recent months, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has faced an intensifying debate about the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act. This week he went on a tour across the United States, giving speeches to defend the administration’s counterterrorism efforts and the effectiveness of the new provisions in the act.
At a Senate hearing in Washington in late June, Larry A. Mefford, the F.B.I.’s executive assistant director for counterterrorism/counterintelligence, said that the bureau had active inquiries of “suspected Al Qaeda members and their affiliates” in 40 states. He said then that “finding and rooting out Al Qaeda members and their associates and sympathizers once they have entered the U.S. is our most serious intelligence and law enforcement challenge.”
Mr. Mefford went on to say: “This is particularly challenging given that the identity of U.S.-based Al Qaeda sleeper cells are probably the closest-held secrets in their networks. In addition to focusing on identifying individuals directly involved in launching terrorist attacks, we’re also very concerned about those individuals assisting Al Qaeda, providing support activities such as assisting and fund-raising, recruiting, training or other logistical responsibilities.”
Since Sept. 11, American counterterrorism officials have disrupted “terrorist activities in 35 instances within the United States,” Mr. Mefford told senators at the hearing. His remarks drew little attention at the time.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, prosecutors have arrested members of three “sleeper cells” in the United States — in Lackawanna, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and Detroit. In the Lackawanna case, six men of Yemeni descent have pleaded guilty to supporting Al Qaeda and attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Those men were under surveillance for months before the government arrested them on Sept. 12, 2002. Critics have said that the government accused them of being members of a “sleeper cell” with scant evidence that they intended to carry out an attack.
In the Detroit and Portland cases, the suspects were accused of providing “material support” to the terror network. But some legal experts have questioned these cases, saying the government had little evidence that any of the suspects were preparing a terrorist attack.
Several senior American government officials acknowledged that despite the new powers they had gained through the Patriot Act, they were concerned that a significant number of bin Laden sympathizers might have escaped detection.
“It’s what we don’t know that worries me,” a senior official said. “It’s what we don’t know that keeps me awake at night.”