- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) — The FBI took down from its Web site images of the five suspects sought earlier for illegally entering the United States on Christmas Eve.

ABC News reported Monday in what it called an exclusive that a false tip had spurred the nationwide search for the five.

The agency still has a Dec. 29 press release on its site that says: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking the public's assistance in determining the whereabouts of the following individuals: Abid Noraiz Ali, born Aug. 15, 1977, Iftikhar Khozmai Ali, born Sept. 20, 1981, Mustafa Khan Owasi, born Dec. 11, 1969, Adil Pervez, born Dec. 27, 1983 and Akbar Jamal, born Nov. 1, 1974."

The agency also advises "anyone with any information pertaining to these individuals … to contact the nearest FBI office." It adds that photographs of these individuals can be found on the FBI's web site.

But when the link is clicked it leads to a set of pictures of 20 most wanted terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, instead of the five individuals being sought.

Previously, the link brought up the photographs of the five alleged suspects who, FBI said, had "entered the United States illegally on or about Dec. 24, 2002."

The ABC News report said that the FBI ordered the nationwide search for the suspects on a tip from an informant, Michael John Hamdani.

The agency has now concluded that "the information … was fabricated by the informant," the report said.

Hamdani, who was arrested in Canada in late October, told his interrogators that he had a list of 19 men who were seeking false passports to enter the United States.

U.S. and Canadian authorities now believe that he fabricated the story in an attempt to get himself off the hook on criminal charges he faced in the United States.

Based on Hamdani's claims, the FBI issued an alert that led to an all-out effort by law enforcement officials to avoid possible terrorist attacks on the New Year Eve and later.

The FBI posted pictures of five of the men on its Web site, prompting calls and sightings of the men from around the country. One of the men later turned up in Pakistan and said he had no idea how the FBI had obtained his photograph.

Hamdani told his interrogators that the five men had entered the United States from Canada using fake British passports that were obtained from a Pakistani smuggling ring.

One of the five, identified as Owasi by the informant, later came forward in Pakistan and told FBI agents that his real name was Mohammed Asghar and he had never visited Canada or the United States.

He said he once tried to buy a fake passport to seek a job in Dubai but failed and remained in Pakistan.

Hamdani's claims led to a nationwide alert, encouraging U.S. President George W. Bush to authorize an all-points bulletin to find them. "We need to know why they have been smuggled into the country and what they're doing in the country," Bush told reporters at the time.

Authorities in New York shut down the harbor to all ships except emergency vessels from New Year's Eve through New Year's Day and banned vehicles from roads alongside the harbor.

Investigators also raided six locations in Brooklyn and Queens on Dec. 30 as part of an ongoing investigation into the ring.

The informant, Hamdani, 44, was already facing fraud charges in Canada, after an October raid near Toronto uncovered hundreds of fake passports, immigration documents and counterfeit traveler's checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are outstanding fraud warrants for Hamdani from the FBI in New York and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Earlier Monday, a Canadian judge ordered Hamdani extradited to the United States. Hamdani agreed to return to New York, where he faces a charge of possessing false documents.

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