WASHINGTON – The public focus during the current terror alert is on street closures and fortified buildings, with the country on guard.
But what ultimately may prove more significant is the trail of arrests in the last week, beginning in Pakistan and shifting to Britain, as the United States and its allies apparently close in on Al Qaeda (search) operatives who had their sights set on striking U.S. soil.
It is unclear — and perhaps unknown — whether the plot was abandoned years ago or remained active. This is a question with political implications because some critics accuse the Bush administration of raising terror warnings to burnish the president's image as commander in chief ahead of the November election.
Regardless, it seems clear that last week brought some of the biggest and most significant actions against Al Qaeda since the March 2003 capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), the terror network's former third-ranking member who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was on July 29, at the CIA director's regular late-afternoon meeting, that acting chief John McLaughlin (search) discussed some of the alarming information that had recently been received. That included extensive surveillance reports of five buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., he told senior agency operatives and analysts, FBI representatives and others from different intelligence agencies.
Those casing the buildings had recorded meticulous details — the type of planning details that counterterrorism experts say are often not discovered until after an attack — in hundreds of photos, drawings and written documents.
The surveillance dated from both before Sept. 11, 2001, and after — as far back as four years ago. It is not clear how recently some of it may have been updated.
The information had come to light after Pakistan in mid-July arrested a young computer expert, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, using information the CIA had shared with Pakistani intelligence, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Khan's arrest led authorities to a computer, discs and other information, also in Pakistan, that pulled the curtain back on extensive, methodical surveillance work.
It also led them to Britain. Much of the surveillance work had been done in 2000, U.S. officials say, by a militant they consider to be a senior Al Qaeda operative, known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi.
On Saturday, U.S. officials and government documents showed that al-Hindi was personally sent to the United States in early 2001 by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to perform the surveillance on economic targets in New York.
Still, many questions remain, among them:
—The role, if any, played by Babar Ahmad, a cousin of Khan's who was arrested last week in Britain. He is wanted in the United States for using U.S.-based Web sites to recruit fighters and raise support for Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ahmad had a document on battle group plans for Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, lawyers representing the United States said Friday at Ahmad's first court appearance in London.
—Whether al-Hindi or any other detainees are involved with a radical cleric in Britain, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was arrested by London police in May after an American extradition request. Al-Masri is accused of trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon while providing aid to both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His mosque has been linked to Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui and would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.
—Whether the plot was still active, set aside for possible future use or abandoned.
—Most important for Americans, are there other plotters still out there?
Democratic Senate intelligence aides put it this way: Intelligence agencies have had a few good weeks, but Al Qaeda cells are multiplying faster than authorities can keep up with them.
The Bush administration says this:
"We have, as we've said before, reason to believe that we are in a very serious threat environment," Deputy Attorney General James Comey said last week. "And we're working like crazy to try and make sure that threat does not come to fruition."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Katherine Pfleger Shrader covers intelligence and national security issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 08-07-04 1624EDT