More than 700 people were arrested on immigration violations and thousands more subjected to FBI interviews in an intense government effort to avert a terrorist attack aimed at disrupting the election.
As with past unrealized al Qaeda threats, law-enforcement officials said yesterday they don’t know for sure whether any of those arrests or interviews foiled an attack.
“It’s very hard to prove a negative,” said Michael Garcia, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official. “We did cases and operations for people we thought posed national security concerns. We didn’t arrest anyone who had a bomb.”
For example, ICE agents arrested a 23-year-old Pakistani man in late October who had entered the United States illegally through Mexico in 2000 and was working as a fuel-tanker truck driver with access to a major U.S. seaport. The man, who was not further identified, is charged with making false statements about how he entered the country, and remains under investigation for any links to terrorism.
He was one of the 237 persons arrested in October alone on immigration violations, for a total of more than 700 since the enforcement effort began last year, Mr. Garcia said. “It was a broad approach that led us to have a very disruptive effect, we believe,” he said.
Although the election season passed without an attack, officials say, al Qaeda remains a dangerous foe intent on striking the United States again. The day after the election, Attorney General John Ashcroft told his senior staff not to not let down their guard.
The Jan. 20 presidential inauguration heads the list of upcoming high-profile events that officials say could draw terrorist interest. Others include the Feb. 6 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., and the December holiday travel season, which last year saw several threats against trans-Atlantic flights.
There still is concern the Osama bin Laden videotape aired last week could be a signal for an attack. Despite asking for help from the public, the FBI still has not identified a man calling himself “Azzam the American,” whose lengthy videotape aired last month promised attacks that will make U.S. streets “run red with blood.”
The FBI interviewed about 10,000 Muslims and Arab-Americans in the months prior to Election Day in an effort to gain intelligence about people who might pose a threat and to build bridges to those communities.
Many of those interviews led officials to persons in the United States who might be linked to terrorism but had previously escaped government detection, said a senior Justice Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of national security concerns. The official did not provide any details.
Still, there were reports of heavy-handed tactics in some places. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) provided several examples, including a young Pakistani man who was held for five hours in Las Vegas after books on the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and Arabic grammar were found in his possession.
“This was viewed as an extension of the ongoing policies that have been targeting Muslim and Arab-American communities,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. “These communities view themselves as law-abiding and contributing to society in a very positive way.”