Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A four-count indictment unsealed in New York federal court yesterday charges three British men with plotting attacks with weapons of mass destruction on financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and the District.

Dhiren Barot, Nadeem Tarmohamed and Qaisar Shaffi are accused of collecting video footage of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in the District, the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp Building in New York, and the Prudential Building in Newark, N.J.

The three, who are charged with planning attacks with “improvised explosive devices and bombs,” are among eight Britons who were arrested and indicted on similar charges in August in Britain.

U.S. authorities say the charges stem from the same intelligence that prompted the government to raise the terror threat level to “high” for the named financial institutions last summer.

Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey yesterday said the United States intends to extradite the men to the United States for trial as soon as their court proceedings are completed in Britain.

In the United States, they will face a maximum of life in prison for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction charges, and 35 years each for charges of conspiring to damage and destroy buildings and providing material support to terrorists.

The indictment does not specifically accuse the men of involvement in the al Qaeda terrorist network. But it maintains that Barot, who also goes by the names Esa al-Britani, Abu Esa al-Britani and Esa al-Hindi, was the leader of a “jihad training camp” in Afghanistan during the late-1990s.

The indictment only gives details of the men’s surveillance activities between August 2000 through early April 2001, although Mr. Comey said their “conspiracy was alive and kicking up until August 2004” when they were arrested in Britain.

It was not clear whether the three are tied to a series of high-level al Qaeda arrests, including one of the network’s suspected technology experts, that were made around the same time in Pakistan last year.

According to one Pakistani news account last summer, the arrest in July of several terror suspects in Lahore, Pakistan, yielded more than 500 photographs of the corporate sector in New York, and led to the arrest of Abu Esa al-Britani — aka Barot — and others.

Barot, 32, was the apparent leader of the conspiracy described in yesterday’s indictment, which outlines how he, Tarmohamed, 26, and Shaffi, 25, made multiple trips in and out of the United States between August 2000 and April 2001.

During the summer of 2000, it says, Barot “applied to college in New York in order to conceal the true purpose of his subsequent trips to the United States.” While he was accepted, he “never enrolled or attended any classes,” the indictment says.

Mr. Comey stressed that “the conspiracy laid out in the indictment was designed to kill as many Americans as possible, and the alleged surveillance of these buildings makes these allegations all the more serious.”

When the terror threat index was raised around the buildings last summer, authorities said the move was based on intelligence dating back several years. Critics at the time accused the Bush administration of attempting to use the index as a political tool in the lead up November’s election.

Mr. Comey dismissed such criticism yesterday, saying investigators and prosecutors had the safety of Americans and not politics in mind when the threat index was raised for the specific U.S. financial institutions.

He declined, however, to comment on why it has taken the United States nearly eight months to bring charges against the men after their arrest in Britain last summer.

“There were good reasons, I can’t say beyond that,” he said.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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