U.S. intelligence agencies are watching several groups of Middle Eastern men thought to be part of an infrastructure of as many as 5,000 al Qaeda terrorists and their supporters in the United States, The Washington Times has learned.
Small groups of about a half-dozen men in Seattle, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta are under surveillance by FBI and other intelligence agencies and are thought to be part of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, said intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In one case, five men of Middle Eastern origin rented rooms in Seattle and conducted activities that officials would not specify but called unusual.
“One [intelligence] estimate is that there are up to 5,000 people in the United States connected to al Qaeda,” one U.S. intelligence official said.
The 5,000 figure was reported in classified intelligence reports sent to government policy-makers within the past month and is an increase from earlier estimates.
Earlier this year, U.S. government officials put al Qaeda numbers in the United States at more than 100 active members with hundreds of sympathizers.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials detected signs of preparations for an attack against a cruise ship in Los Angeles in late May.
Two men were spotted at the Port of Los Angeles World Cruise Center in San Pedro, Calif., about 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
The men were spotted as they measured the length of the pier near the cruise center by walking off the distance and videotaping the center from the Vincent Thomas Bridge that crosses the main port channel, the officials said.
The men were spotted by a dock worker, who notified authorities. They left the area before being identified or questioned.
Officials said such surveillance activity is an integral part of terrorist planning, although they did not rule out that the men may have had another purpose in being there.
The intelligence and other information prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to issue a warning on June 7 that terrorists were targeting U.S. ports, bays, rivers and shores.
A second U.S. official said it is difficult to determine the exact number of al Qaeda in the United States because of the clandestine nature of the group, which carried out the September 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people here and in New York.
“It depends on how you define an al Qaeda member,” the official said. “There are hardened members and Muslims with sympathies to bin Laden.”
An FBI spokesman would not comment on the groups under surveillance and said the number of al Qaeda members and supporters in the United States has not been made public.
The FBI has started hundreds of investigations into al Qaeda activities in the United States. So far three persons who are linked to the international network have been arrested. They are:
Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 on immigration charges. He was later charged with being part of the September 11 plot.
Richard Reid, a British national and suspected al Qaeda member who in December tried to blow up an airliner on a Paris-to-Miami flight by igniting explosives in his shoe. He was arrested in Boston after the flight was diverted.
Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who took the name Abdullah al Mujahir, was arrested May 8 after traveling to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on a flight from Pakistan. He is suspected of working on a plot with al Qaeda terrorists to carry out an attack using a radiological bomb a conventional explosive enhanced with radioactive material.
FBI agents are continuing to investigate the case and are looking for contacts and supporters of the so-called “dirty bomb” plot in the Chicago area.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said some of the al Qaeda terrorists who were using Afghanistan as a base have fled to the United States, as well as to other countries.
“They clearly have moved some to the United States, some to Yemen, some to Saudi Arabia, a variety of states,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters and editors of The Times on June 27. He said most of the terrorists fled to Pakistan and Iran while others have moved to places “all over the world.”
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told The Washington Post last month that there are two types of al Qaeda members, those who have “sworn allegiance” to the group in a formal ceremony and others who work informally as part of the network.
For the September 11 plot, four or five people were key organizers of the attack while most of the 14 or 15 others were “mules” low-level workers with little knowledge of the operational planning.
“The number of people that are really key to this organization is probably much smaller than the number in the hundreds of people who have some loose affiliation,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who noted that the top leadership includes “dozens of key people, not in the hundreds.”
FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson said post-September 11 efforts by law enforcement and military action have weakened al Qaeda but that the group remains “a potent and highly capable terrorist network with cells around the world.”
“Al Qaeda is clearly wounded, but not dead; down but not out,” he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, stated earlier this year that there are at least 100 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, including “some who have been here for a considerable period of time.”
The terrorists have been trained and prepared to carry out attacks “when they were called upon to do so,” Mr. Graham said.
In addition to al Qaeda, about a dozen other international terrorist groups have members in the United States, Mr. Graham said.
The FBI also is investigating a chain of jewelry stores in several states that are suspected of funneling money to al Qaeda, a U.S. law-enforcement official said, confirming reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.
FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents have raided 75 jewelry stores and mall kiosks as part of the money-laundering probe.
About a dozen men, mainly Pakistani nationals, are in custody from the operation, which was carried out late last month.