New York City investigators are attempting to retrace the steps of an al Qaeda suspect who was arrested in England last week and is believed to have been sent by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to case financial targets in New York in early 2001, according to several law enforcement officials.
As the ripples from a recent spate of arrests and computer discoveries became apparent yesterday, law enforcement officials and documents disclosed that Eisa Hindi is believed to have been dispatched to New York with two other al Qaeda members whose mission was to take photographs and document security around symbolic financial buildings.
By retracing their steps and interviewing people identified in the surveillance photos, such as security guards on the job at the time, investigators hope to discover someone who may have been in contact with Hindi and might know more about his contacts in the United States, one law enforcement official said.
Several counterterrorism officials said yesterday that Hindi is not believed to have been in the United States since early 2001. They also disputed news reports that Hindi had come to Washington to surveil buildings.
Counterterrorism officials said Hindi was an alias for Issa al-Britani, who is a subject of the recently completed report on the 2001 terrorist attacks. Under interrogation, Khalid Sheik Mohammed described al-Britani as a trusted al Qaeda operative whom he sent to conduct surveillance of possible economic and Jewish targets in New York. Mohammed told interrogators that the casing mission was ordered by Osama bin Laden.
Mohammed, who has been in CIA custody in a secret location since his capture in Pakistan last year, also told interrogators he sent al-Britani in late 1999 or early 2000 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to meet with Riduan Isamuddin, the top al Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia who is better known as Hambali. Hambali is also being held by the CIA.
The 9/11 commission report said al-Britani offered Hambali addresses of individuals in California and South Africa who al-Britani said could help Hambali.
Meanwhile, a New Jersey man is under investigation for having helped a British computer specialist, also arrested in London this week, allegedly solicit funds for a terrorist group by creating and operating an exact replica of the British man's Web site.
Mazen Mokhtar, an Egyptian-born imam and political activist, operated a Web site identified in an affidavit unsealed Friday by the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut. The Web site solicited funds for the Taliban and Chechen mujaheddin, according to the affidavit. It is an exact replica of Web sites operated by Babar Ahmad, who was arrested in England on a U.S. extradition warrant this week.
The affidavit said the New Jersey home of the mirror Web site operator, identified on a Web site as Mokhtar, was searched in the recent past and that copies of Azzam Publications sites, operated by Ahmad, were found on Mokhtar's computer's hard drive and files.
Officials at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, which is leading the investigation, declined yesterday to comment on Mokhtar or the New Jersey investigation.
Ahmad possessed three-year-old classified routes of a U.S. naval battle group and is believed to be part of a branch of al Qaeda linked to Khalid Sheik Mohammed that authorities on three continents have been working to capture in recent weeks. He allegedly operated two U.S.-based Web sites, one in Connecticut and one in Nevada.
Ahmad, a British subject of Pakistani descent, faces four charges of involvement with terrorism. His attorney, appearing in a British court Friday, denied Ahmad was involved in terrorism.
According to the affidavit, Ahmad "worked in concert" with the New Jersey-based operator of www.minna.com, who is identified on the site as Mokhtar. Mokhtar is described in news reports as a U.S. citizen in his mid-thirties and an outspoken advocate of Palestinian causes. There was no answer at a phone listed at Mokhtar's home Friday or Saturday.
News accounts of rallies where Mokhtar has spoken have also described him as an imam, or spiritual leader, at the Masjid al-Huda mosque in New Brunswick, N.J. He was scheduled to speak later this month in Pennsylvania at a summer camp run by Young Muslims, at a seminar titled "A Few Good Men."
Ahmad is also the cousin of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was arrested last month in Pakistan. Khan's computers carried detailed surveillance of five financial buildings in New York, Newark and Washington and prompted the Department of Homeland Security to elevate the threat alert level to orange.
Staff writer Sari Horowitz and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.