WASHINGTON – New names and photographs will soon be released in connection with the group of mysterious Middle Eastern or South Asian men suspected of illegally crossing into the United States from Canada, Fox News has learned.
Federal authorities are working under the assumption that the number of men totals 19 instead of five, and that the forgery ring that supplied their false papers is based in Britain.
Officials cautioned they have no specific evidence the men are involved in a terrorist plot, but said the men may have connections to a fake ID and smuggling ring that involves some people with terrorist connections.
Also on Thursday, Canadian officials told reporters that they are detaining a suspected smuggler named Michael John Hamdani. The officials say he was arrested in October and charged with possession of fake passports and travelers checks.
Reports have said that this suspect is the person who tipped officials off about the five men.
Canadian authorities initially tipped off the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that a group of men with Arabic names who had applied for political asylum early in December had gone missing just before Christmas.
The case of the mystery men took a comic turn Wednesday when a Pakistani jeweler announced that one of the five photographs released Sunday by the FBI was of him.
An Associated Press photograph of Mohammed Asghar taken at his shop in Lahore was a near-perfect match for one included on an FBI list released Sunday under the name Mustafa Khan Owasi, down to the prominent mole on Asghar's left cheek under his eye.
Asghar said he has never been to America, but that he did use false documents to try to reach Britain two months ago. He was stopped in the United Arab Emirates and returned to Pakistan.
The photo he used in that attempt, which is identical to the one released by the FBI, may have been used by the forgers of his documents to create false papers for someone else, Asghar suggested.
"I just want to be cleared of this complicated situation," he said Thursday. "I have no plans to lodge any formal complaint, but I want to state my case for the record."
President Bush said Thursday that officials were trying to check out Asghar's story.
"Kind of curious to know why he needs a false passport," Bush told reporters during a tour of his Crawford, Texas ranch Thursday. "We like things above board here in America."
Law-enforcement sources told Fox News that the Asghar case was not surprising, explaining that the FBI had always cautioned that the sought-after men might be bearing others' pictures.
FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell said the names and photos of additional suspects may be released in the next day or so. She said the bureau was not able to confirm that Asghar was the man in the picture, but that the FBI planned to interview him in Pakistan.
Asghar, 30, said he welcomed this.
"Anybody who wants to ask me any questions, I am willing to cooperate," he said.
In addition to Mustafa Khan Owasi, those named on Sunday were Abid Noraiz Ali, Iftikhar Khozmai Ali, Mustafa Khan Owasi, Adil Pervez and Akbar Jamal. Each has a purported birth date between 1969 and 1983.
"We don't have any idea of what their intentions might be, but we are mindful that there are still some out there who would try to harm America and harm Americans and so therefore we take every threat seriously, every piece of evidence seriously," President Bush said Tuesday in explaining why he has ordered the search.
Much of the search so far has focused on New York City, home to a large New Year's Eve celebration that went off without incident.
But the broader investigation into fake IDs has spanned several countries, including Canada, Pakistan and Britain, the officials said.
Because intelligence indicated several men were trying to use fake passports to get into the United States before New Year's Day — a holiday of symbolic significance to Islamic terrorists — U.S. officials were making aggressive efforts to track them down and make sure they posed no threat, the officials said.
Several of the men have names or passports from countries with large terrorist presences, further heightening concern, the officials said.
The additional names expected to be made public Wednesday have come from the same Canadian intelligence sources that identified the five men whose identities were released over the weekend, the officials said.
The expanding search came as federal authorities received unsubstantiated information that terrorists could launch a maritime attack on New York City, a threat taken seriously because of the large crowds that gather in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the new agency, said the government reacted similarly to the way it did July 4, when security was increased mainly because of the crowds rather than information from specific threats.
Johndroe said the information on the new threat was "unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and of suspect credibility."
There are no plans to raise the nation's threat level above yellow, the middle of a five-tiered color-coded rating system, Johndroe said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told a news conference Tuesday it is believed the five crossed the border into New York state with false documents. She said the Homeland Security Department needs to establish an office dedicated to improving security along the nation's northern border.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge The Associated Press contributed to this report.