At Least 70,000 Terrorist Suspects on Watch List

Inquiry: U.S. believes an unknown number of operatives are already inside the country.

by John Meyer
The Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2002

 


WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials have identified at least 70,000 suspected terrorists around the world and say an unknown number of Al Qaeda-trained soldiers have been trying for at least five years to infiltrate the United States and launch "spectacular" attacks, according to two congressional reports issued last week and all but ignored in the flurry of headlines that accompanied hearings into intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The reports, based on recently declassified intelligence and law enforcement information, indicate that the State Department's watch list of dangerous individuals contains the names of 70,000 "members of foreign terrorist organizations, known hijackers, car bombers, assassins or hostage-takers."

U.S. officials stressed that the threshold for making the watch list is low. But, in the reports, they also said they fear that an unidentified number of suspected terrorists--on and off the list--may already be inside the United States because of serious, long-standing gaps in information-sharing by the CIA and the State Department.

The reports, which include other troubling insights into the war on global terrorism, were released during three days of congressional hearings into the missed warning signs of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They provide a window into the ongoing threat that authorities say Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations continue to pose to the United States and its interests abroad.

But the disclosures were overshadowed by the often-riveting testimony that focused on the myriad mistakes, miscommunications and bureaucratic entanglements between the FBI and CIA that occurred as the Sept. 11 hijackers planned and launched their attacks without disruption by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

In an interview, a U.S. intelligence official said the reports only made public what the CIA and FBI have known for years.

"It gives you some idea of the enormity of the challenge we face," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a lot more complicated than is generally acknowledged, for a variety of reasons."

"Al Qaeda continues to be a threat," said the official. "But they are not the only threat out there."

The intelligence official said Al Qaeda remains as dangerous an organization today as it was before Sept. 11. The official also said the terrorist threat spreads far beyond Al Qaeda to other militant Islamic groups, as well as such terrorist organizations as 17 November in Greece, Abu Sayyaf in Southeast Asia and FARC in Colombia.

A State Department official confirmed the numbers in the reports on Saturday but added that there are now about 80,000 suspected terrorists on the list, which has been growing by 2,000 names a month since last September. "It's a lot of names," said the official, "but it's based on 15 years of information."

The two reports were issued by Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint congressional inquiry, which spent months interviewing key law enforcement and intelligence officials and reviewing classified documents. They disclosed repeated attempts by Al Qaeda to recruit U.S. citizens in its jihad, or holy war, against the United States since at least 1997.

The report said the terror network, led by Osama bin Laden, has created front companies on U.S. soil for terrorist activities and has acted aggressively to establish "operative" cells within U.S. borders to launch bombings, hijackings and assassinations of government leaders, as well as attacks on landmarks, government buildings and tourist attractions.

The report cited one "closely held intelligence report for senior government officials" issued in August 2001 that concluded that "members of Al Qaeda, including some U.S. citizens, had resided or traveled in or traveled to the United States for years, and that the group apparently maintained a support structure here." Both reports focused mainly on the breakdowns in cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but they also cited the dangerous professionalism of Al Qaeda members, including a much-publicized plot to hijack a plane and crash it into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., in 1995.

The conspirators, according to a 1995 intelligence study included in the report, carefully studied security procedures in the Washington area before choosing their target and means of attack. "If terrorists operating in this country, the United States, are similarly methodical, they will identify serious vulnerabilities" in the nation's air travel and security systems, it said.

Similarly, a 2000 classified report by the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration concluded that international terrorist groups--Al Qaeda and others--were operating within the United States and engaged in fund-raising, recruiting new members, disseminating propaganda and planning attacks.

And a June 2001 warning found by the congressional investigators said U.S. intelligence officials believed Islamic extremists associated with Al Qaeda "are most likely to attempt spectacular attacks, resulting in numerous casualties."

The report also mentioned other terrorist plots involving U.S. citizens, including a plan by an American Al Qaeda member to fly a hang glider into the Egyptian presidential palace and then detonate explosives. It said the individual received hang glider training in the United States and then brought the hang glider back to Afghanistan.

In April 2000, the intelligence community obtained information regarding an alleged Bin Laden plot to hijack a commercial jetliner.

"The source, who was a walk-in to the FBI's Newark office, claimed that he had been to a training camp in Pakistan, where he learned hijacking techniques and received arms training," Hill wrote. "He also stated that he was supposed to meet five to six other individuals in the United States who would also participate in the plot. Although the individual passed an FBI polygraph, the FBI was never able to verify any aspect of his story or identify his contacts in the United States."

Much of last week's congressional testimony focused on how the CIA failed to share with the FBI vital information about two of the hijackers before the Sept. 11 attacks that could have prevented them from entering the United States. That lack of information sharing has been widely reported.

But the hearings also disclosed another far less-publicized counterterrorism problem. According to congressional investigators, the CIA repeatedly failed to share important information with the State Department that could have been entered into its Tipoff watch list and used to keep terrorists out of the country.

When given the proper information, Tipoff has had significant success in thwarting terrorists from entering the United States by flagging their applications at U.S. consular offices overseas and at INS and Customs points of entry at U.S. borders, according to testimony by Christopher A. Kojm, a top official in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

From its inception in 1987 to September 2002, Tipoff has enabled the State Department to deny entry to nearly 800 suspected hijackers, hostage holders, assassins, bombers and other terrorists, or allowed U.S. law enforcement to nab them while entering the United States, Kojm said.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Tipoff was linked to INS and Customs computers, allowing U.S. authorities to deny entry to, or arrest, about 290 suspected terrorists from 82 countries at 84 U.S. ports of entry, Kojm testified.

But while the State Department and other immigration agencies rely on that database to screen those traveling to the United States, investigators found that the CIA did not pass along names of suspected terrorists--even after Congress expressed concerns about the situation in 1996.

Most notable was the CIA's failure to alert the State Department about two suspects who turned out to be hijackers. CIA officials knew that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi attended an important Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in 2000. About a year later, the CIA linked the two to suspected orchestrators of the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000.

Yet the CIA didn't alert the State Department to add al-Mihdhar and Alhazmi to the watch list until Aug. 23, 2001.

By then, it was too late--they were already in the United States.

The report contrasted that failure with the case of another suspected terrorist who was added promptly to the watch list and was stopped before he could enter the United States. The different outcomes, one report said, "dramatically illustrate that the prompt, routine and accurate flow of names of suspected terrorists [to the watch list] is an important part of the U.S. government's efforts to keep terrorists out of the United States."

In the case of the two hijackers, the report said, "the system broke down" because they were not added to the watch list, depriving the FBI, State Department, INS and other domestic agencies of the opportunity to either question them or follow them once they got in the United States.

Added Kojm: "Tipoff was originally designed to help prevent precisely what occurred on Sept. 11."

Another apparent intelligence failure was disclosed by the staff reports: an associate of the two hijackers, Tawfiq Attash Khallad, wasn't added to the State Department watch list until Aug. 23, 2001, even though he was known to be a top Al Qaeda operative.

Khallad had been identified at least several months earlier as being the suspected organizer of the Cole bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. In July 2001, a CIA officer described him as being "a major league killer, who orchestrated the Cole attack and possibly the Africa bombings," which killed 224 people at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Khallad remains at large.

Those weren't the only problems with the Tipoff system identified by congressional investigators. The CIA, for instance, failed to submit at least 1,500 intelligence reports in their files to the State Department until a month after Sept. 11.

And after Sept. 11, the number of suspected terrorist names forwarded to the State Department by the CIA jumped nearly five-fold. From Sept. 12, 2001, until the end of that year, 4,252 suspected terrorists were added to the State Department list.

The CIA explained that it had no formal system in place for forwarding the names to the State Department. Also, much of the information used by the CIA to compile the suspects' names comes in the form of "information" cables--such as the one that first linked al-Mihdhar to the Al Qaeda cell--that are rarely read.

"Several [CIA] employees told us that they typically did not have time to even read information cables," the staff investigators found. Such failures were especially ''puzzling," they added, because they occurred when the FBI and CIA were deluged with indications of imminent Al Qaeda attacks.

Many of those problems have been corrected since Sept. 11, and the CIA is now sharing far more information, officials said.

But State Department officials said staffers entering the Tipoff data into computers are overwhelmed. And the CIA agents charged with forwarding the names are swamped too.

"The comment I hear most often from working-level people on both sides--the CIA and FBI--involved directly in this Bin Laden business is, with a panic-stricken look in their eyes, saying that 'We're going to miss stuff; we're missing stuff,' " said a CIA agent who testified anonymously last week. "We can't keep up."

 

� Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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