FBI hunts American citizens trained overseas for terror
Feds launch dragnet to stop 'October surprise' attack
Posted: September 29, 2008
1:00 am Eastern
© 2008 WorldNetDaily
As Pakistani investigators hunt the terrorists behind the massive Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, FBI agents in the U.S. have begun aggressively hunting for Americans who have recently returned from trips to Pakistan where they may have trained at al-Qaida camps, WND has learned.
A coast-to-coast dragnet has been launched partly in response to leads developed in the arrest of one of al-Qaida's "fixers" in the U.S., say FBI officials. They report the bureau is in a race against time to identify Pakistan-trained sleeper cells and disrupt a possible pre-election "October surprise."
For the first time since 9/11, counterterrorism field agents have been authorized to spy on young Muslim men and women – including American citizens – who have traveled to Pakistan without any specific evidence of wrongdoing.
Controversial new investigative guidelines approved by the Justice Department allow agents to monitor suspects and conduct undercover interviews even before opening formal investigations.
FBI headquarters has ordered its field offices to aggressively pursue anonymous tips and report back any suspicious activities in their Muslim communities. The intelligence will be immediately analyzed and shared in a threat matrix to avoid a repeat of the so-called "Phoenix memo" intelligence failure, officials say.
In the weeks prior to 9/11, an alert agent in the FBI's Phoenix office noted that several radical Middle Eastern men were taking flying lessons. He drafted a memo and sent it to headquarters, which promptly buried it, missing an opportunity to act before the disastrous hijackings of 9/11.
The FBI's new rules and current sense of urgency follow the recent interrogation of al-Qaida operative Aafia Siddiqui, an M.I.T.-educated scientist who fled to Pakistan after 9/11. She was arrested this summer in Afghanistan and brought back to the U.S. after sustaining injuries from a gun battle.
According to a federal indictment, Siddiqui was found with handwritten notes that referred to a "mass casualty attack" and listed various locations in the U.S. including Wall Street, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Plum Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, certain notes referred to the construction of "dirty bombs," chemical and biological weapons and other explosives.
Siddiqui's notes also discussed "mortality rates associated with certain of these weapons and explosives," the indictment says. Other notes referred to various ways to attack "enemies," including destroying reconnaissance drones, using underwater bombs and using gliders.
A computer thumb drive in Siddiqui's possession contained electronic correspondence that referred to specific "cells" and "attacks" by certain "cells," the indictment says. Other documents referred to "enemies," including the U.S., and discussed recruitment and training.
Officials say subsequent interrogations have revealed that possibly hundreds of American Muslims, many of them of Pakistani descent, have traveled to Pakistan in recent years to train at al-Qaida and Taliban madrassas and terror camps and have returned to the U.S. to carry out suicide attacks.
The revelation has shocked the politically sensitive FBI into abandoning its long-held policy of coordinating investigations in the Muslim community with Muslim-rights groups. Officials say it's more important than ever to track down Muslims who have traveled to Pakistan, and gather and disseminate intelligence quickly to disrupt possible terror plots before they can develop to an operational stage.
"There's some worry we may be in another Phoenix moment," one official said, "but this time we're determined to leave no stone unturned."
The formation of al-Qaida training camps inside Pakistan has been a major concern among U.S. security agencies since at least 2004, when Washington issued a rare intelligence directive to border agents to check young Pakistani male travelers –including Americans – for physical signs of military training.
As WND first reported, they were asked to look for "rope burns," "unusual bruises," "scars" and other possible injuries suffered from obstacle courses, firearms or explosives.
"Many of the individuals trained in the Pakistani camps are destined to commit illegal activities in the United States," warned the two-page DHS advisory that launched the special action.
According to another internal DHS document obtained by WND, the department more recently directed customs officers to escort passengers identified by "one-day lookouts" to secondary inspection, where they are subjected to a battery of questions to determine if they have visited terror camps in Pakistan.
American citizens of Pakistani descent also are under increased scrutiny. Over the past few years, U.S. authorities have arrested or investigated several Pakistani-American men who have trained at the camps during trips to Pakistan. One camp used photos of President Bush for target practice.
"The camps are a big concern," said a DHS official, who requested anonymity. "We are questioning U.S. citizens, as well as Pakistani nationals, as they come back to the states if the computer says they might have terrorist ties."
FBI Director Robert Mueller earlier this month cited the threat posed by the Pakistani terror-training camps while briefing Congress about the bureau's expanded investigative powers, which officially go into effect Oct. 1.
"We know that in western Pakistan now that there are camps in which individuals are being trained. The U.K. knows that very well because individuals who were involved in the 2005 attacks and later attacks had traveled to Pakistan for training in the camps and then come back," Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee. "I believe the American public would want us to do what is necessary to try to identify persons who had traveled to Pakistan, whatever their heritage, whatever their background, whatever their ethnicity, to determine who has gone to Pakistan to obtain that training and may be coming back to the United States to undertake an attack."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., complained the new investigative rules would give FBI agents license to racially profile citizens.
FBI officials noted that the Marriott blast, which killed both U.S. Defense and State Department officials, signaled new techniques by al-Qaida-trained suicide terrorists. The dump-truck bomb they used was so massive, leaving a crater 30 feet deep and 60 feet wide, that it managed to severely damage the building even from beyond the concrete barriers protecting the perimeter of the building.
Also, investigators said that the hotel – a high-profile target that was used by Western diplomats as well as the CIA – had been targeted at least twice previously for attack, just as the U.S. embassy in Yemen had been hit in minor operations before this month's full-scale attack.
The repeat attacks indicate the terrorists are testing security, experts say. It also indicates they will keep coming back to the same target until they are successful in destroying it.
In the U.S., the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993 and then again in 2001. A target the hijackers intended to strike but failed to hit on 9/11 was the U.S. Capitol. Terror analysts believe the Pentagon remains an al-Qaida target as well, since it was only partially damaged in the 9/11 operation.