Three suspected terrorists on Tuesday were indicted on charges that they targeted financial buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., in a four-year plot that prompted federal authorities to raise the terrorism threat assessment level in those areas last summer.
A four-count indictment unsealed Tuesday accuses Dhiran Barot, Nadeem Tarmohammed and Qaisar Shaffi, all British citizens, of scouting the New York Stock Exchange and Citicorp Building in New York, the Prudential Building in Newark, N.J., and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the District of Columbia.
The three men, already in custody in England, were charged with three conspiracy counts and providing material support to terrorists. They face a maximum sentence of life in prison if they are tried and convicted of the charges against them, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said at a news conference announcing the indictments.
Comey said the trio engaged in surveillance of the financial buildings as part of a plot that envisioned using "weapons of mass destruction" against them. He said the plot ran from August 2000 until August 2004, when the men were arrested in the United Kingdom on terrorism-related charges.
‘An enemy that is patient’
Comey said the case demonstrates that the United States is pitted against "an enemy that is patient and ... is bent on killing Americans in a very spectacular way."
U.S. officials allege that Barot is a senior al-Qaida figure — known variously as Abu Eisa al-Hindi, Abu Musa al-Hindi and Issa al-Britani — who was an instructor at a terrorism camp in Afghanistan and scouted the targets at the behest of fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. But Comey indicated that the investigation has not uncovered any evidence connecting the men to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks blamed on al-Qaida.
Prosecutors say the men conducted surveillance on the buildings between August 2000 and April 2001, including video surveillance in Manhattan around April 2001.
In August 2004, the government raised the risk of a terrorist attack to "high" for those specific financial institutions. The color-coded threat level for the rest of the nation remained at yellow, or elevated, the middle of a five-point scale.
Federal authorities, who acknowledged the threat was based mainly on years-old intelligence, said the decision to raise the threat level was based on an abundance of caution and because of the lengthy planning and plotting record of the terrorist network known as al-Qaida. The threat level was lowered to yellow for the buildings in November.
Suspects face charges in U.K. The men face related charges in England. Barot, 32, was charged there with possessing reconnaissance plans for the U.S. institutions and notebooks containing information on explosives, poisons, chemicals and related matters "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."
Tarmohammed, 26, was charged there, along with Barot, with possessing plans of the Prudential building. Shaffi, 25, also was charged in Britain with possessing an extract from the "Terrorist's Handbook" on the preparation of chemicals, explosive recipes and other information.
It was not clear when — or if — the men would be brought to trial on the U.S. charges.
The men are facing trial in Britain in January, and British officials say that will take precedence over any extradition bid.
British proceedings and any sentences would have to be completed before extradition to the United States could be possible, the Crown Prosecution Service said. The service also said that until then none of them would be available for interrogation by U.S. agents.
Officials, White House react
“They are indicted here, and whether or not they actually ever are extradited here I guess is a matter of discussion,” said New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “But I think it’s important, both substantively and symbolically important, that [if] you come here, you do this type of surveillance, we’re not going to forget.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as President Bush returned to Washington from his ranch in Texas, called the indictments “another significant step in the global war on terrorism.”
“We’re going to continue to go after and pursue those who seek to do us harm and those who seek to do harm to the civilized world,” McClellan said.