- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

U.S. intelligence officials and the FBI plan to question al Qaeda and Taliban members held at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay in an effort to establish any possible link between Islamic terrorists and the serial sniper who has killed nine persons in the Washington area.
Although authorities believe it is unlikely that the unidentified shooter is an international terrorist, that possibility has not been ruled out. The interrogations, according to federal law enforcement officials, are part of an effort to cover all bases in the probe.
"There is nothing to be lost in asking questions," said one law enforcement official, although he noted that an extensive review of U.S. intelligence data beginning shortly after the first shooting on Oct. 2 in Montgomery County had turned up no known terrorist connection.
About 600 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are being detained at Guantanamo Bay. The interrogations, first reported by the New York Post, will involve an undetermined number of prisoners. But authorities said that those questioned are expected to talk to others about the sniper shootings and that those conversations also will be monitored.
U.S. intelligence agents have said that several international terrorist groups, including the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, have trained their members as snipers and intended to use them to target Americans.
Self-professed September 11 organizer Ramzi Binalshibh told U.S. authorities after his arrest last month that al Qaeda had decentralized its leadership structure, making it more dangerous, and that terrorist cells now have more autonomy to conduct attacks around the world.
U.S. intelligence agencies have estimated that as many as 5,000 al Qaeda members may be operating inside the United States.
Before September 11, Binalshibh was involved in planning terrorist operations and helping with the logistics of terrorist attacks, including funding operations, U.S. officials said. He also reportedly was involved in recruiting Islamic radicals to join al Qaeda.
Earlier this month, six suspected terrorists were charged in Portland, Ore., including a former U.S. Army reservist, with conspiring to join al Qaeda and the Taliban to wage war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The arrests stemmed from an incident that occurred two weeks after the September 11 attacks when a Skamania County, Wash., sheriff's deputy saw five of the men taking target practice in Middle Eastern garb. Armed with a shotgun, Chinese assault rifle and semiautomatic pistols, they were spotted by Deputy Mark Mercer in a private quarry in Washougal, Wash., near Portland.
A few weeks later, Deputy Mercer noticed that one of the men, Ali Khaled Steitiye, had been arrested on weapons-related charges. He called the FBI, and an extensive investigation began after federal authorities tied Steitiye to terrorist group Hamas and learned that he had received paramilitary training with pro-Palestinian militants in Lebanon.
One of the men, Jeffrey Leon Battle, joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 2000 and received training in weapons and tactics before he took an administrative discharge.
Earlier this week, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said that investigators in the sniper case were hesitant to rule out the possibility that foreign or domestic terrorists were involved.
A key Justice Department official also said that while the potential involvement of known terrorists in the sniper shootings had not been dismissed, investigators believe that the random targets and lack of any apparent political, social or religious motive made it unlikely.
"Nobody has ruled out the possibility that the shooter belongs to some international terrorist organization," the official said. "But it does appear, for now, that this person is acting on his own, choosing his victims at random and for no apparent reason.
"There are no clearly defined targets. He's left no calling card or made any demands or claims. The only common denominator appears to be that he wants to kill people," he said. "A terrorist would be expected to seek a bigger impact, spraying bullets into a crowd to kill more than one person at a time."
The sniper's shooting spree began with the killing of a 55-year-old man in Wheaton. His victims have ranged in age from 13 to 72, and there is no evidence that any of them knew each other. The only link is the type of bullet the sniper used: high-velocity .223-caliber rounds, fired from a distance.
A task force of state and local police, augmented by agents, analysts, profilers, ballistic experts and computer specialists from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Secret Service, are sifting through sparse forensic evidence and following up on thousands of telephone tips.


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