Three British nationals who are being held on terrorism charges in the United Kingdom have been indicted in the United States on related allegations that they planned to blow up financial buildings in Washington, New York and New Jersey, according to court documents unsealed yesterday.
The four-count indictment, handed up last month in federal court in Manhattan, alleges that Dhiran Barot, Nadeem Tarmohamed and Qaisar Shaffi took part in months of methodical reconnaissance of financial targets between August 2000 and April 2001, including video surveillance in Manhattan. The alleged plot led to a controversial terrorism alert last summer for financial sectors in the three jurisdictions, amid fears that al Qaeda might be planning an attack tied to the November elections.
The Justice Department said it would seek to extradite the three defendants after they are tried in Britain, where they and five others are charged with possessing reconnaissance plans and other information useful in conducting a terrorist attack. Authorities have also linked the group to a plan targeting London's Heathrow Airport.
The men could face life imprisonment if convicted of the U.S. charges, which include conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists, officials said.
The indictment provides new details about the suspected activities of Barot -- also known as Esa al-Britani and Issa al-Hindi -- and his associates, who are considered by many U.S. officials and terrorism experts to be among the most dangerous suspects arrested since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But the eight-page document leaves many questions unanswered, including whether the plot was still viable last year or whether it had been largely abandoned after the Sept. 11 attacks. The new charges also make no mention of al Qaeda, the terrorist network repeatedly identified as responsible for the surveillance.
At a Washington news conference announcing the charges, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey defended last summer's alert and said the indictment "sends a message about our resolve to terrorists."
"We will continue to use all tools at our disposal to protect our nation from the acts of terrorists and to prosecute those who plot to harm us, whether those individuals are found in the United States or overseas," Comey said. He added later: "Terrorists looking to harm Americans will work for a very long period of time conducting sophisticated surveillance, and they are very, very patient. . . . These kinds of operations take years to plan, as demonstrated by the scope of this conspiracy."
Barot has been widely described as a senior al Qaeda operative and is identified in the indictment as having been "a lead instructor at a jihad training camp in Afghanistan" in 1998. An al Qaeda leader in U.S. custody has also told interrogators that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sent Barot to the United States to "case potential economic and 'Jewish' targets in New York City," according to the final report of the Sept. 11 commission.
During trips to the United States in 2000 and 2001, Barot and the two others are alleged to have scouted the Citigroup Center and the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, the Prudential Financial building in Newark, and the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the District. The reconnaissance included "video surveillance" in Manhattan in or around April 2001, the indictment says.
The indictment also alleges, without providing details, that the terrorist conspiracy continued until August 2004, when the three defendants were among a series of suspects arrested in raids by British authorities.
"This conspiracy was alive and kicking up till August of 2004," Comey said. "That date is in there for a reason."
The trail that led to the U.S. alert and the British arrests began with the seizure of al Qaeda computers in Pakistan, which contained more than 500 photographs related to the financial buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, intelligence officials said. Although the photos were at least three years old -- and some were merely lifted from the Internet -- U.S. officials said the files also included chilling details, including the location of security desks and cameras in the buildings, traffic and pedestrian patterns surrounding them, and which kinds of explosives would do the most damage to the structures.
Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert, said the British group appears to be particularly dangerous.
"Reconnaissance is a continuing activity on the part of these guys," Jenkins said. "But the fact that they were apparently planning attacks in the U.K. makes them an active operating cell."
Officials said the three men are expected to stand trial in Britain in January. Barot, 32, is charged there with possessing reconnaissance plans as well as notebooks with information on poisons, explosives and other topics useful to a person planning an act of terrorism. Tarmohamed, 26, was charged with having plans related to the Prudential building, while Shaffi, 25, is alleged to have had a portion of a terrorist's handbook containing explosive recipes.