Authorities arrested 10 Middle Eastern men in three different states Wednesday on charges of fraudulently obtaining licenses to transport hazardous materials. The arrests were made in connection with the terrorist attacks probe.
The arrests in Missouri, Michigan and Washington state followed FBI warnings that terrorists may strike next using chemical or biological weapons. Authorities said as many as 20 people who had the bogus permits, some of whom may have connections to the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, have been charged but may not be linked to the attacks.
FBI affidavits for the 10 arrested said a total of 18 people from seven states had falsely obtained licenses in Pennsylvania to haul hazardous materials between July 1999 and February 2000.
It's too early to tell whether any of those arrested Wednesday are connected to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden.
Those arrested got the licenses from the state of Pennsylvania, where a driver's license examiner in Pittsburgh provided permits to people who didn't take required tests, had suspended licenses or were otherwise not eligible, according to court records.
In court papers, the FBI said a Middle Eastern man named Abdul Mohamman, known as "Ben," acted as a middleman in the scheme, bringing in as many as 30 drivers who fraudulently obtained commercial licenses to carry hazardous materials.
The FBI quoted the examiner, identified in the affidavit only as CW-1, as saying that he was introduced to "Ben" about six years ago.
The examiner told the FBI he "issued HAZMAT endorsements to these individuals at Ben's instruction without conducting the required test."
"Ben paid between $50 and $100 per individual by placing the money in 'brand-new' bills under CW-1's desk calendar," said the FBI affidavit.
Also Wednesday, the Washington Times is reporting that Usama Bin Laden and his terrorist group, Al Qaeda, attempted to acquire weapons of mass destruction from Russian mafia sources and are believed to have a secret nuclear weapons laboratory inside Afghanistan.
Authorities were also concerned about the testimony of a convicted terrorist collaborator who told a courtroom two months ago that he trained for a chemical attack at a camp inside Afghanistan where poison was unleashed to kill dogs.
"In regard to targets in general ... we were speaking about America," Ahmed Ressam testified in July. Ressam said terrorist trainers discussed dispensing poison through the air intake vents of buildings to ensure the maximum amount of casualties.
Ressam testified in the trial of a man accused of conspiring with him to bomb the Los Angeles airport as part of a millennium terror plot. He was convicted and became a cooperating witness in hopes of receiving a shorter sentence.
Those at the camp with him in 1998 learned how to place cyanide near a building's air intake to kill as many people as they could without endangering themselves, he testified.
Ressam told authorities that the camp taught him how to mix poisons with oily substances and smear them on doorknobs so those who touched them would be killed by toxins coursing through their blood.
He said America, as the "enemy of Islam," was the likely target of such attacks.
The concern about licenses to haul chemicals first surfaced last week when authorities arrested Nabil Al-Marabh, 34, a former Boston cab driver taken into custody in Chicago last week. Al-Marabh holds a commercial driver's license and is certified to transport hazardous materials, records show.
The arrests came as the government increased its pressure Wednesday on a former airline food worker whose name and phone number were found in a car registered to one of the terrorist hijackers, persuading a federal court to detain him without bail.
Prosecutors described Mohamed Abdi of Virginia as an essential witness and said "he may be more." Abdi's lawyer insisted he knew nothing about the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another man, charged with helping a hijacker get a photo identification card, was also denied bail by a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Va., as prosecutors sought to keep possible suspects jailed until it could be determined whether they were tied to the attacks.
Abdi's name and phone number were on a Washington road map found in a car registered to Nawaq Alhamzi, identified by the FBI as one of the hijackers who commandeered an American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Abdi was arrested on forgery charges unrelated to the attacks.
FBI agent Kevin W. Ashby testified that when Abdi was arrested he had a piece of newspaper containing an article about Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was convicted of conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles airport as part of a millennium terror plot.
Ressam testified at a separate trial earlier this year that he spent six months training at terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
Investigators said the name "Mohumed" and a phone number registered to Abdi, a security guard and naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, were written on a map found inside the car parked at Dulles International Airport, where American Airlines Flight 77 took off.
A cashier's check made out to a flight school in Phoenix, drawings of a cockpit of a 757 and a box-cutter knife were also found in the car.
Ashby said Abdi "could offer no explanation" how his name and phone number turned up on the map in the terrorist's car. When Ashby pressed for an explanation, Abdi said he donated his car to the Salvation Army in 1999 and that perhaps he had left the map behind in the car. However, Abdi didn't have that phone number in 1999, Ashby testified.
He said that Abdi worked for an airline catering company at Reagan Washington National Airport in the early to mid-1990s.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer, who described Abdi as an essential witness and possibly more, argued that he should be held without bond. "The pressure on him to abscond will be incredible," he said.
Abdi was one of two men ordered held without bond Wednesday in Alexandria. After a separate hearing, U.S. Magistrate Welton Curtis Sewell granted the government's request to detain Herbert Villalobos, who was arrested Monday in Arlington, Va.
Villalobos was charged with helping one of the suspected hijackers, Abdulaziz Alomari, obtain a fraudulent Virginia ID card. His lawyer argued that the charge did not warrant holding him without bond, but Sewell disagreed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.