WASHINGTON – John Walker Lindh and other Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners told U.S. interrogators the Sept. 11 hijackings were supposed to be the first of three increasingly severe attacks against Americans. Their claims have not been corroborated, government officials said.
Lindh will be sentenced Friday, likely to 20 years in prison, for supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony. He heard some of the claims while serving in a 20-man Taliban infantry unit of Arabic speakers in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with his account.
Authorities have gathered similar information from prisoners of various levels of the terrorist network. But the officials said the United States hasn't found specific plans for two additional large-scale attacks and they suspect the claims could involve disinformation or folklore that circulated among low-level terrorists and Taliban soldiers after Sept. 11.
"We have not been able to corroborate the claims among the thousands of pages of documents and other evidence we have gathered the last year," one senior law enforcement official said. "We believe some of these prisoners may have been trained to give misinformation or simply were passing on rumors."
One law enforcement official said some Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners said the second and third wave attacks could involve biological, chemical or radiological weapons to increase casualties and were designed to paralyze Americans with fear and cripple the economy.
Details of Lindh's extensive interrogation, part of his plea agreement, remain secret. However, Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who worked with defense lawyers and interviewed Lindh, said the Californian told him he picked up battlefield rumors about two waves of post-Sept. 11 attacks.
Reading from his interview notes, Gunaratna said Lindh told him: "The original attack plan was in three phases, totaling 20 separate attacks. the first phase was ... two attacks on the World Trade Center, an attack on the Pentagon and a third attack on the White House."
The notes also reflected that Lindh said: "The second phase of attacks was going to be using biological agents and also attacks on natural gas and nuclear infrastructure.
"The second phase was going to make the U.S. forget about the first phase. The third phase was to finish the U.S. and was to take place within the next six months [after Sept. 11]."
Gunaratna said that while Lindh used the word "biological," he believes from other sources that the weapon could be a radiological device, a so-called dirty bomb.
Gunaratna spoke with Lindh in his jail cell for eight hours on July 25-26 as a defense consultant, and submitted a report to a federal judge that concluded Lindh never swore loyalty to Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Still, Gunaratna said, Lindh would be a valuable U.S. intelligence asset because he understood what makes Islamic fundamentalists join conflicts around the world.
Lindh also said he heard that 50 people were going on 20 suicide missions, but added he received the information on the front lines in October -- not prior to Sept. 11 when at a training camp, as his original indictment indicated.
Officials have had indications that additional attacks may have been planned immediately after Sept. 11.
For instance, shortly after the jetliner crashed into the Pentagon, German intelligence intercepted a phone call from the United States suggesting other terror teams were on the ground and ready to strike, U.S. and foreign intelligence officials say.
Officials said prisoners from the war on terrorism, including some kept at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have given similar accounts about two more attacks that were supposed to follow Sept. 11.
The details of the prisoners' account vary widely, officials said, but most agree that the subsequent attacks were supposed to be more severe than the Sept. 11 attacks that leveled the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, crashed a plane in Pennsylvania and killed more than 3,000.
Lindh, 21, pleaded guilty July 15. He was captured last December with other Taliban in Afghanistan, the last stop on his journey from a teenage convert to Islam in San Francisco's suburbs to a foot soldier for the vanquished Afghan regime.