WASHINGTON – An Al Qaeda (search) terror suspect detained in England was sent to the United States in early 2001 by the principal architect of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings to perform surveillance on economic targets in New York, according to U.S. officials and government interviews with other captured terror suspects.
They said the suspect claimed he has associates in America, possibly in California.
Abu Eisa al-Hindi (search) was arrested in a roundup last week in Britain along with 11 others.
The disclosure that al-Hindi also was known as Issa al-Britani provides tantalizing details that further link al-Hindi to recent Bush administration warnings about possible terror attacks against U.S. financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J.
It also has spurred a furious investigation in New York and elsewhere to trace al-Hindi's travels in the United States and to try to identify his associates during the American period.
"They're looking pretty hard to find anyone in the United States who might be part of this network, but they haven't found anyone so far who's still here," Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterror chief, said Saturday.
The FBI believes al-Hindi may have had two collaborators helping perform the reconnaissance, said a high-ranking law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.
U.S. counterterror officials have said previously that they believe al-Hindi, known by dozens of aliases, was the author of documents describing surveillance at U.S. financial buildings during 2000 and 2001. The documents, written in fluent English, were found among a trove of papers, computer files, sketches and photographs recovered during mid-July raids in Pakistan.
The FBI and city detectives on a federal terrorism task force are looking for witnesses with information about al-Hindi's time in New York, the law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
Police efforts include trying to identify people in surveillance photographs. The official described those people as New Yorkers unintentionally captured in the photographs who may remember information about people conducting the surveillance.
"One of the things to do is try to identify the individual," the official said. Detectives are seeking, the official said, "any possible link between the reconnaissance material, whether it's photographic or written, that might link to somebody, whether involved or not. It's an intense effort.
Under interrogation by U.S. investigators, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (search), the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has described al-Hindi as a trusted senior Al Qaeda operative.
The government commission that investigated the 2001 attacks included in its final report accounts of Mohammed's interviews after his arrest in Pakistan in 2003. Throughout the report, al-Hindi is referred to as al-Britani but U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed they are the same person.
Mohammed told interrogators he sent al-Hindi in early 2001 to do surveillance on possible economic and "Jewish" targets in New York. The mission was ordered by Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Mohammed said.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that al-Hindi is not believed to have traveled to the United States since that mission, which ended before the hijacking attacks.
Mohammed also revealed that he sent al-Hindi in late 1999 or early 2000 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to meet with Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali. Hambali is accused of collaborating closely with Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia as operations chief of the Jemmah Islamiyah terror organization and of perpetrating deadly attacks in Indonesia. He, too, is in U.S. custody.
Hambali told interrogators that al-Hindi gave him two addresses where al-Hindi said his allies could be contacted, one in South Africa and another "possibly in California," according to the commission's account of Hambali's interviews in September 2003. Hambali said he had not given the addresses to anyone else.
Al-Hindi's arrest in Britain came just weeks after the arrests in Pakistan of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was indicted for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and a Pakistani computer expert, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. Khan was arrested July 13 in Lahore, followed by Ghailani's arrest on July 25. Both men speak fluent English.
Both Ghailani and Khan are cooperating with investigators, a Pakistani official said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Khan agreed to send e-mails after his capture to Al Qaeda members as part of a sting operation, and some of the recipients responded by e-mail, the official said.
British police this week said they also arrested Babar Ahmad, Khan's cousin, who was indicted in the United States on charges he tried to raise money for "acts of terrorism in Chechnya (Russia) and Afghanistan" from 1998 through 2003. Ahmad also possessed a document on battle group plans for U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, U.S. government lawyers said at Ahmad's court appearance in London.