- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

SAN DIEGO California is host to several terrorist cells, say state officials who are trying to ferret out "sleeper" agents from the Mexican border to the San Francisco Bay.
That effort now centers on San Diego County, where three of the Sept. 11 airline hijackers lived after February 2000.
Police anti-terrorism units here warned the FBI as early as 1995 of active cells operating in the area. San Diego County at that time had "within its borders, all the significant Middle East terrorist groups" said their report, leaked to the Sacramento Bee last week.
It also said they "may be planning some kind of local operation" and that planners of the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center "had direct ties to San Diego County."
The city has been the focus of more recent arrests for terror than any other part of the West. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers are known to have been based for months in San Diego. Four Arab immigrants who lived in suburbs of San Diego are under arrest as material witnesses.
A new state-local-federal anti-terror task force is now reported to be seeking a man who rented apartments in San Diego's Clairemont district for at least two hijackers.
Within the past two weeks, the task force has detained 26 Middle Eastern men trying to cross into San Diego from Mexico. "They were in Mexico illegally," said Mr. Baca. "These [people] didn't have any identification to establish why they were there at an entry point."
With clear skies for student pilots, the world's busiest border crossing just to the south in San Ysidro, scores of English-language schools and one of the largest Arab populations in the United States, San Diego was an ideal flight-training site for the hijackers.
"We know some of them sought airline training in San Diego, and we know there are plenty of places in the city where terrorists can run for cover and meld into neighborhoods," says Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, head of the new California terrorist tracking network.
The three San Diego-based hijackers identified by the FBI as Hani Hanjoor, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Al-Midhar are believed to have crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
They found it easy to fit into San Diego's large Islamic community. They joined flying clubs, lived in apartment complexes and played at soccer fields, primarily with other Arab immigrants, attracting no attention. When the purported leader of the coordinated hijackings, Mohamed Atta, visited them in San Diego last summer, he also drew no attention.
"Terrorists don't look particularly sinister, so in a multicultural society, they can fit right in," said Dipak Gupta, professor of urban studies at San Diego State University.
Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, mentioned "the proximity to the border if you've got to skedaddle."
Making San Diego even more convenient for would-be terrorists is the huge forgery industry that has operated here for decades, providing false documents to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants yearly.
"This is the heaviest-traveled border in the world," said one Immigration and Naturalization Service official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The flow of aliens we have here is so great that the scrutiny is less than it would be in many other places. And with the document mills we have here, they'd have an easy time getting driver's licenses, green cards, Social Security cards whatever they might want."
Cross-border fluidity may be one factor making it difficult for officials to find Omar Ahmed Al-Bayoumi, who was apparently linked to the hijackers financially and rented apartments for at least two.
While persons crossing the Mexican border into the United States at San Ysidro often are questioned, there is virtually no interference with anyone headed south into Mexico.
Police say Mr. Al-Bayoumi lived in various apartments near the San Diego-based hijackers and attended the same mosque they did. He lived four years in an apartment within blocks of the one he rented for the hijackers. Managers then evicted him because too many people were living in his unit.
Mr. Baca and other anti-terror officials say they believe other potential terror cells exist in California.
Gov. Gray Davis announced last week that evidence had been found of a terrorist cell based in San Jose, near the heart of Silicon Valley. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, warns that active terrorist cells are operating in the San Francisco area.

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