LONDON – British police charged eight terrorist suspects Tuesday with conspiring to commit murder and use radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals or explosives to cause "fear or injury" in a case involving an alleged top Al Qaeda (search) operative at the center of a U.S. terror alert this month.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said federal authorities were determining whether to press charges in the United States against the men, including the top Al Qaeda suspect accused of having surveillance plans of financial institutions in New York, Washington and New Jersey.
The charges for the first time officially linked the Aug. 3 arrests across Britain and a series of arrests last month in Pakistan to the Aug. 1 terrorism alerts surrounding the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Inc. headquarters, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank buildings in Washington, and the Prudential Financial Inc. building in Newark, N.J.
Ashcroft said the Department of Justice had been working closely with British authorities and that FBI agents and analysts would continue sharing information.
"In addition, prosecutors from the Justice Department's Counterterrorism Section and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan will explore every aspect of this case and evaluate whether additional charges, including potential charges in the United States, are appropriate," Ashcroft said in a statement issued from Washington.
A U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 32-year-old Dhiren Barot (search) was the key Al Qaeda suspect charged with possessing the surveillance plans. Barot has previously been identified as Abu Eisa al-Hindi or Abu Musa al-Hindi.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have said that they believe Barot, known by dozens of aliases including Issa al-Britani (search), was the author of documents, written in fluent English, describing surveillance at U.S. financial buildings during 2000 and 2001. The information was found on computers and in e-mails during the July raids in Pakistan.
Barot was described as a trusted senior Al Qaeda operative who was sent in early 2001 to do surveillance on possible economic and "Jewish" targets in New York on the orders of Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden, according to U.S. interrogations of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The British charges specify that Barot had the New York and Washington surveillance plans in his possession as early as Feb. 19, 2001, which would fit into that time frame. He was charged with possession of notebooks containing information on explosives, poisons, chemicals and related matters as well as the reconnaissance plans concerning the New York Stock Exchange, the International Monetary Fund, and the Citigroup building in New York.
Barot and suspect Nadeem Tarmohammed, 26, were both charged with possessing a reconnaissance plan of the Prudential Building in violation of the Terrorism Act (search) during that same period.
And another suspect, Qaisar Shaffi, 25, was charged with possessing an extract from the "Terrorist's Handbook" containing information on the preparation of chemicals, explosive recipes and other information "on the day or days" between Feb. 19, 2001 and his arrest.
Following the Aug. 1 terror alert involving those buildings and the World Bank in Washington, the U.S. government acknowledged it had no evidence of plans for imminent attacks.
Pakistani officials said this week that Barot, known as a veteran of the Islamic militant battle against Indian forces in Kashmir, also traveled this past March to a militant hide-out near the Pakistan-Afghan border and met with other terrorist suspects.
According to the overall British police charges, Barot; Tarmohammed; Shaffi; Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, 24; Abdul Aziz Jalil, 31; Omar Abdul Rehman, 20; Junade Feroze, 28; and Zia ul Haq, 25, were accused of conspiring "with other persons unknown" to commit murder between January 2000 and Aug. 4, 2004.
The eight also were charged with conspiring between the same dates to cause a public nuisance by using radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals and/or explosives to cause "disruption, fear or injury."
A ninth man, Matthew Philip Monks, 32, was charged with possession of a prohibited weapon.
The eight men were due to make a first court appearance Wednesday at Belmarsh high security prison in London.
Mudassar Arani, a lawyer representing seven of the men, said they had been psychologically abused through being held in solitary confinement and in some cases stopped from reading the Quran, and claimed one had been hit in the face by police when he was arrested.
The Aug. 3 arrests sparked fears of a plot to attack London's Heathrow Airport, but the airport was not mentioned in the charges against the men.
The British raids were linked to the July arrest in Pakistan of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a computer engineer and Al Qaeda suspect, U.S. and Pakistani officials have said.
Maps, photographs and other details of possible targets in the United States and Britain were found on computers belonging to Khan and to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian indicted for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, who also was arrested in Pakistan, according to the officials.