Terrorism Probe Points to Reach Of Web Networks

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

In April 2005, police swarmed the U.S. Capitol to confront an erratic Australian man, carrying two suitcases, who they feared was a suicide bomber. After blowing up one of the bags, officers realized he was harmless.

The police never noticed the two nervous young men on a nearby sidewalk filming the Capitol during the standoff. But they might have been the real threat, according to newly released documents.

The men, ultraconservative Muslims from Georgia, were making surveillance videos that could help extremists plan "some kind of terrorist attack," as one man later acknowledged, according to court documents disclosed last week. One of their videos was sent to a notorious al-Qaeda publicist in London, authorities said.

New details about the videos -- featuring such sites as the World Bank headquarters, the Pentagon, fuel tanks and the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria -- emerged in pretrial hearings in Atlanta. The pair are charged with providing support to foreign terrorists and could be sentenced to 60 years in prison if convicted. They have pleaded not guilty.

The two men were detained in 2006, before they reached "the point that they posed an imminent threat to the United States," according to a statement by U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias in Atlanta. But the case underlines the continued appeal of Washington as a terrorist target.

Analysts said it also provides a glimpse of the growing threat posed by radical networks that have sprung up as a result of the Internet. One of the men, Syed Haris Ahmed, told authorities that they got to know extremists through Web forums and chat rooms, and they uploaded their D.C. surveillance video to "Jihadi people" online.

For a terrorist organization, "it doesn't matter anymore where your location is, and how many visa requirements" a country has, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which researches Muslim extremists and their online activity. "Being on the virtual network, [terrorists] have people virtually all over the world."

Ahmed, 23, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan a decade ago with his parents, was an engineering student at Georgia Tech at the time of the Washington trip. He met his co-defendant, Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, 21, at a mosque near the school. Sadequee was born in Fairfax to Bangladeshi immigrants, but the family left Virginia when he was a toddler.

The heart of the government's case became clear last week: 12 hours of FBI interviews with Ahmed. During the questioning, agents informed Ahmed that they had e-mails, videos and other materials linking him to suspicious activity, according to transcripts released in court. The Pakistani-American college student acknowledged that he and his friend had been in contact with foreign extremists and had discussed attacking targets in the D.C. area and elsewhere, transcripts of the interviews revealed.

Ahmed's attorney, Jack Martin, has asked a federal judge to throw out the lengthy statements his client made to the FBI shortly before his arrest, or drop the charges. Martin argued that FBI agents promised the student that he would not get into trouble if he cooperated. The FBI says Ahmed's statements were voluntary. Martin did not return a call for comment.

Ahmed told the FBI agents that his actions amounted to foolish mistakes that did not harm anyone. He dismissed the videos as being of poor quality.

"There is nothing to be worried about," he said, according to the transcripts. "We are just stupid, childish . . . We went and took a video, but in reality it means nothing."

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