- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

The FBI yesterday said it had no information to link three Texas men to any known terrorist group after their arrest Friday in Michigan on state terrorism-related charges after they were found in possession of 1,000 untraceable cellular phones.

Tuscola County, Mich., authorities had suggested the men, all Palestinian-Americans, had been targeting the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, a vital transportation route that connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, and charged them with collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and with surveillance of a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes.

Prosecutor Mark E. Reene had described the “targeted issue in this case” as the Mackinac Bridge. Caro, Mich., Police Chief Ben Page, whose officers arrested the men after they purchased 80 prepaid wireless “TracFones” with cash at Wal-Mart, said the phones could have been used as detonators. Police were called when Wal-Mart employees became suspicious of the purchase.

Yesterday, Mr. Reene said his office and Caro police met Sunday with officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. attorney’s office, and that all the agencies were working together on the investigation. He did not elaborate.

William Kowalski, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit field office, said authorities think concern about the bridge was connected to images of the Mackinac Bridge found on a digital camera belonging to the men. Mr. Kowalski said there was nothing illegal about buying cellular phones in bulk, but that profits from that kind of activity can be suspicious.

In a press release, the FBI said there was no imminent threat to the bridge and the bureau had no information tying the men to any known terrorist groups or to the plot to bomb trans-Atlantic jetliners that was foiled last week.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard increased patrols near the Mackinac Bridge “to deter, detect and allow for a more timely response to any possible threats made to the bridge.”

Louai Abdelhamied Othman, 23, of Mesquite, Texas, along with his brother Adham Abdelhamid Othman, 22, of Dallas, and their cousin Maruan Awad Muhareb, 19, also of Mesquite, were arraigned Saturday in Caro, about 80 miles north of Detroit. No pleas were entered and bond was set at $750,000 each. The men were being held in the Tuscola County Jail. A pretrial hearing has been set for Friday.

Police found about 1,000 cellular phones in the men’s rented minivan, most of which were prepaid TracFones, which terrorists often use because they are not traceable. Chief Page said the cellular phone packages had been cut open and the batteries removed — “which doesn’t make much sense.”

Two Dearborn, Mich., men were arrested last week with a carload of prepaid cellular phones in Ohio.

When authorities in Britain disrupted what they called a plot to bomb more than 10 airplanes in flight, they said cellular phones and liquid explosives can be used to cause explosions. In 2004, cellular phones were used to detonate bombs that terrorists planted in backpacks aboard trains in Madrid, killing 191.

Louai Abdelhamied Othman said during his arraignment that their arrest was not the first time they had been questioned, adding that “we’ve been checked by the FBI before. They even gave us their card and everything.”

His wife, Lina Odeh, 20, told the Associated Press that the men were buying the phones to sell them in Dallas for a profit of about $5 each. She said the case was based on the fact that the men are of Middle Eastern descent and because of the pictures in her husband’s camera.

“He just takes pictures of everything you see. It’s not every day you see a bridge here in Mesquite,” she said.

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