Agents Step Up Efforts Against New Extremists
New York arrests spur questions about who is supporting terrorist plots in the US
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — THE Friday prayers had barely ended when news crews descended on the El Salam Mosque: The radical Muslim cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman had just been spotted there.
The Egyptian sheikh was smuggled out, but he and the mosque are likely to be in the public eye for some time.
Last Thursday, eight Muslim extremists - including Sheikh Rahman's translator and other members of the mosque - were arrested and charged with attempting to blow up the United Nations, the Federal Building, which houses the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the two tunnels linking New York and New Jersey. According to the FBI, the arrests were made as the alleged terrorists were mixing "the witches' brew" of fertilizer and diesel oil.
Authorities accuse another radical Muslim group of using a slightly more potent mixture in a bombing attack on the World Trade Center in February.
Court documents indicated the suspects arrested Thursday wanted to strike before the start of the World Trade Center bombing trials in September. However, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation says it was surprising that the group was not intimidated by the government's fast work in cracking the World Trade Center bombing. "It not only goaded them to act, but they wanted to carry out a more audacious series of attacks," he says.
According to the documents, the group also had acquired an arsenal of weapons. When the FBI broke into their Brooklyn "safe house" while they were making the bombs, agents confiscated a van load of weapons including crossbows and Japanese swords. To get access to the Federal Building, suspects told an FBI confidential informant, the group planned to kill the security guards.
In fact, some experts wonder if the new prosecutions will only aggravate other terrorists. "I don't think that's any reason not to go against them with the full force of the law because if we capitulate to it, it never ends either," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
It is still unclear if the group is part of some state-sponsored terrorism, or is the independent act of a group of followers of a cleric who preaches violence. Mr. Hoffman believes the group may have some indirect ties with a foreign entity such as Iran. "If it is Iran, is it the Iranian government or a rival clerical faction?" asks Hoffman.
Investigators will certainly be looking closely at links between the alleged terrorists and some diplomats. According to the court documents, one of the alleged terrorists, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, indicated he would have no trouble getting the bomb into the UN garage which is closed to the public. News reports have indicated federal officials are investigating some Sudanese diplomats. UN officials had no comment.
Sudan, a militantly Islamic country which supported Iraq in the Gulf war, is the nation from which Sheikh Rahman illegally entered the United States. The sheikh is now appealing deportation.
Five of the alleged terrorists are Sudanese nationals, carrying Sudanese passports, who had obtained residency in the US. Several had been involved in the war in Afghanistan. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Sudanese received their residency by marrying US citizens.
Public officials are putting increased pressure on law enforcement authorities to arrest Sheikh Rahman. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, both New York Democrats, and New York City Controller Liz Holtzman called for the sheikh's arrest and incarceration.
"He may not be pulling the trigger, but he is the motivating force," says Mr. Nadler. The sheikh has denied any involvement with violence.
Earlier efforts by Ms. Holtzman to get the sheikh incarcerated were unsuccessful. In April, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Keeney, wrote that because of the sheikh's poor health and requirements for medical attention, "his confinement would impose a significant burden upon government resources." On Friday, Holtzman, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, replied that it seemed difficult to believe that the US could not find sufficient revenues in a $1.5 trillion budget to provide for the she ikh's medical needs. In addition, officials still do not believe there is enough evidence to warrant arresting him at this time.
Finding him may become more challenging for the news media, though. The mosque has lost its lease and will have to move this week.