British authorities charged eight alleged al Qaeda operatives yesterday with conspiracy to commit murder and other counts in connection with a reported plot to attack the International Monetary Fund building in Washington and other sites in New York and Newark.
One of those charged was Dhiren Barot -- known publicly until yesterday as Eisa Hindi -- who is suspected of conducting surveillance of U.S. financial buildings that was detailed in computer files seized recently in Pakistan. The discovery of the computer documents led the U.S. government on Aug. 1 to raise the terrorism alert to orange, or "high risk," for the financial sectors in Washington, New York and Newark.
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U.S. officials said they are considering filing criminal charges of their own against Barot and his seven alleged al Qaeda colleagues. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in a statement yesterday that federal prosecutors "will explore every aspect of this case and evaluate whether additional charges, including potential charges in the United States, are appropriate."
Barot, 32, who was reared in a Hindu home and who converted to Islam, has used other aliases, including Issa al Britani. The commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks referred to him by that name in its final report, released last month. It said that an al Qaeda leader in custody told interrogators that in early 2001, Osama bin Laden had sent "Britani" to the United States "to case potential economic and 'Jewish' targets in New York City" for possible attack.
The eight men charged yesterday -- all of them British citizens, according to police in London -- were among 13 detained on suspicion of terrorist activity by British authorities in raids on Aug. 3.
Under British law, terrorism suspects can be detained for two weeks without being charged. British authorities had until 3 p.m. London time to file the charges, and the criminal counts were formally filed at 2:55 p.m.
The eight suspects, who have been held in a central London police station, are scheduled to appear before a district judge at the high-security Belmarsh prison southeast of London this morning.
Mudassar Arani, the lawyer for seven of the men, could not be reached yesterday. But she recently told reporters that the solitary confinement of her clients during two weeks of interrogation amounted to psychological abuse.
Besides Barot, the names of most of the seven other men charged had not been disclosed publicly until yesterday.
He and Mohammed Naveed Bhatti, 24; Abdul Aziz Jalil, 31; Omar Abdul Rehman, 20; Junade Feroze, 28; Zia Ul Haq, 25; Qaisar Shaffi, 25; and Nadeem Tarmohammed, 26, were charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by using "radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals and/or explosives to cause disruption." The charges said those crimes were committed between January 2000 and this month.
Barot and Tarmohammed were charged with possessing a "reconnaissance plan" for the Prudential Financial headquarters in Newark that contained information "likely to be useful" to terrorists, between Feb. 19, 2001, and this month.
Barot was charged with possessing reconnaissance plans for the New York Stock Exchange, the Citigroup Center in Manhattan and Washington's IMF building at 19th and G streets NW -- plus two notebooks with information on explosives, poisons and chemicals -- during the same 2001 to 2004 time period. Shaffi was charged with having an extract of a terrorist guidebook containing information on the preparation of chemicals and explosives recipes between the same dates. The charges did not shed light on why the specific dates -- between Feb. 19, 2001, and this month -- were cited.
Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said Britain might find it difficult to prosecute this case, shrouded as it is in secret intelligence, because European nations in particular have had trouble mounting criminal cases that rely on information gathered by intelligence agencies. One example, he said, was a German court's decision to void the conviction of student Mounir Motassadeq for involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks because U.S. officials refused to turn over classified data mentioning him.
"Proving these cases in a court of law without revealing too many intelligence secrets is even harder in Europe than it is in the U.S.," he said, because of many European nations' legal standards.
Pakistani officials said that in any trial of the British defendants, key prosecution testimony could come from Pakistani computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was arrested in Pakistan in July and whose computer files yielded the surveillance documents.
Pakistani officials said that British intelligence officials have spoken extensively with Khan since the Aug. 3 detentions in Britain. Senior Pakistani intelligence officials declined to comment on whether Khan has cooperated with U.S. and Pakistani intelligence, though some hinted that he has.
"He'll not be extradited to any country," said a Pakistani intelligence official who dealt with Khan's case. "The decision to testify or not against Hindi [Barot] in Britain will be his own." Added one Pakistani intelligence official: "He is the key witness against Hindi and other folks arrested in Britain."
Senior Pakistani intelligence officials said Barot met Khan during a meeting in Pakistan last March. U.S. intelligence officials said they are not certain Barot and Khan met then in Pakistan, though they were both in the country about the same time.
Khan reported from Karachi, Pakistan. Special correspondent Glenda Cooper in London and staff writer Walter Pincus and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.