The FBI is monitoring individuals in the United States who are aligned with Middle Eastern terrorist organizations and “have the capability to take action” against domestic targets, the bureau’s top counterterrorism official said Thursday.
But FBI Director William S. Sessions, contending that “the bureau feels it is very much in control of the counterterrorism program,” indicated that the risk of domestic terrorism appears relatively low and said Americans should “go about our business as usual.”
The FBI’s surveillance of terrorist supporters was described to the U.S. Conference of Mayors by Assistant FBI Director William M. Baker, whose comments provided the most specific account yet of the bureau’s efforts to head off a possible wave of Iraq-related terrorism.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose military forces in Iraq and occupied Kuwait are under massive aerial attack by a multinational force headed by the United States, has threatened a worldwide wave of terrorism directed at participants in the 28-nation coalition.
Baker said a number of international terrorist groups “have infrastructures in the United States,” and cited the Abu Nidal organization as “the one that we would rate as having the highest potential” for initiating action.
Bush Administration sources said that about 50 Abu Nidal supporters in the United States currently are under FBI surveillance. Nearly all are U.S. citizens or foreign nationals who entered the United States long before Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the sources said.
The Abu Nidal organization has been held responsible for attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports that killed 16 persons and for more than 25 assassinations, hijackings and other incidents of violence.
Baker did not divulge in detail the FBI’s monitoring techniques. But a source familiar with the agency’s efforts said they include extensive electronic surveillance, physical surveillance, contacts with informants, and other techniques the source would not discuss.
Baker said the FBI also is concerned about possible domestic activity by persons aligned with Hezbollah, a group of Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorists considered responsible for the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
He said the group’s animosity to the U.S.-led coalition in the gulf could “transcend” Iran’s apparent neutrality in the conflict with Iraq.
In addition, Baker said two other terrorist groups, the Palestinian Liberation Front and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, have extended their organizations within the United States.
“It’s these type of terrorists and their structures that the FBI has a mandate to monitor, and we are doing that,” he said.
Despite the agency’s concern, Baker characterized the possibility of Iraqi-related terrorist activity within the United States as a “low-level” risk. Nevertheless, he said, “these organizations have the capability of having contact from abroad and could carry out activity in our country.”
Administration sources estimated that 100 Iraqi agents, trained to conduct bombings and hijackings, were dispatched last month to locations in Europe, Asia and Africa to serve as the “deadly core” of terrorism directed at participants in the U.S.-led coalition.
Since the Aug. 2 invasion, U.S. counterterrorism officials have received “credible” reports of terrorist activity but little information about specific targets, an Administration source said. “Now the information is getting increasingly specific,” he said.
An estimated 20 to 24 terrorist incidents have taken place outside the United States since the Gulf War began on Jan. 16, Administration sources said. About half of them were in Latin America.
Most of the incidents, however, are thought to be the work of local groups sympathetic to Iraq instead of being directed by the estimated 100 agents dispatched last month.
“While some violent acts and incidents have occurred already, many of these appear uncoordinated and of local origin,” said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.
An Administration source said that Mormon churches in Latin America are being targeted for possible terrorism and are under surveillance by groups sympathetic with the Iraqis. The potential targets include at least three churches in Chile, one in Venezuela and one in Rio de Janeiro, the source said.
The Mormon churches are vulnerable because the terrorist groups believe that they work closely with the Central Intelligence Agency and because their faith is considered American-bred, according to the source.
This source agreed with other government officials who have suggested that the destruction of Iraq’s communications capability during the allied bombing campaign has interfered with Hussein’s ability to deliver on his promise to engage in worldwide terrorism.
The source noted that Iraq’s chief diplomat in Washington has communicated with Baghdad primarily by Cable News Network rather by any direct communication link since the bombing began.
“They (State Department officials) bring him in to complain, but he has no way to communicate directly because his lines are so weak,” the source said. “So he goes on CNN and hopes they (Iraqi officials) tune in.”