Suspected terrorists accused of plotting an unprecedented wave of attacks in Manhattan intended to use special diplomatic license plates to drive a car bomb into the basement parking garage of the United Nations, government sources said Friday.
The information emerged as federal agents examined whether Sudanese diplomats provided support to some of the eight alleged co-conspirators arrested in the abortive scheme a day earlier. Sudanese officials vehemently denied any involvement.
At the same time, investigators were sifting through documents seized from the apartment of blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman who entered the United States in 1991 with a visa obtained in Sudan. Several accused terrorists in the February bombing of the World Trade Center and in the latest plot are followers of the controversial Islamic sheik, whom the federal government is seeking to deport.
It was learned Friday that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has been under pressure from "some in law enforcement" to authorize the immediate arrest of Abdul Rahman, who has not been charged in either investigation. Those favoring the move argue that sufficient legal grounds exist to seize the sheik and that such a move would "send a signal" of further aggressive action against terrorism, a government source said.
However, the source said, Reno had determined that "so far, he should not be arrested" for what the source described as "sound law enforcement reasons." There was no elaboration, but the source said there is general agreement with Reno's decision within the Justice Department.
According to court papers, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, a 32-year-old former security guard and the alleged ringleader of the plot, told an FBI informant that "he has connections that will allow him to drive a car carrying a bomb into a parking lot in the United Nations building." A vehicle bearing diplomatic plates would have unlimited access to the U.N. complex.
The prospect of personnel with diplomatic immunity in a U.N. mission possibly aiding and abetting destruction of the international organization's 38-story glass-and-steel headquarters stunned statesmen and staff members in the landmark structure.
Chief U.N. spokesman Joe Sills refused comment on the alleged plot, whose targets were said to include U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an advocate of hard-line Israeli policies toward Arabs.
Sudanese officials vehemently denied any involvement in the plot to blow up not only the U.N. headquarters, but the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the towering federal building where the local FBI investigation is being directed.
"None of our diplomats has anything to do with this, and none was interrogated by the FBI," Sudan's U.N. mission said in a statement. The mission said it "rejects categorically any connection with this obnoxious terrorist conspiracy."
The mission has only six diplomats, five drivers and some office staff. Although the Sudanese would be immune from prosecution in the United States, Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Ahmed Suliman, said that he would revoke the passports of any members of his staff found to be involved in the plot and they would stand trial in Sudan. Suliman said that he has interrogated Sudanese personnel and determined that none were involved. But he said he would welcome any evidence that the FBI might have.
The eight suspected terrorists were arrested when police and federal agents raided what they described as a bomb-making factory in a Jamaica, Queens, garage. When they rolled up the door, prosecutors said, the agents found five men mixing explosive materials in 55-gallon yellow drums.
Forensic experts said that the explosives were of the same composition as those used in the Feb. 26 blast that crippled the trade center, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. At least two of the most recent suspects also have been linked by investigators to the trade center explosion.
Prosecutors said that Siddig Ali told the FBI informant that he and Clement Rodney Hampton-El, another of those arrested, took part in a test explosion of materials used to detonate the trade center bomb. Similarly, officials said, tests of sample explosives were conducted recently in remote areas of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
In Washington, President Clinton praised the investigation. He said that the American people should "feel an enormous sense of pride in the aggressive work" done by investigators.
Federal agents were widening their inquiry Friday, seeking additional figures in the alleged plot. A government source said that additional arrests are possible "in the next few days."
Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service also have entered the case, detaining several roommates of one of the suspects, Fares Khallafalla, who was arrested in the Jersey City home they shared.
Moataz Adam, 27, a neighbor, said that he watched as the roommates were shepherded away by agents asking questions about their immigration status. The Washington Post reported that the men were being held as illegal immigrants on $75,000 bond.
Five of the eight suspects are Sudanese nationals. Government sources said Siddig Ali entered the United States as an immigrant and obtained permanent resident status. The other four entered on temporary visas and received permanent resident status through marriage.
Court records show that the government case against the accused men will rely on extensive electronic and video surveillance made possible by the cooperation of a confidential informant. But defense attorneys blasted the Justice Department for claiming that it had foiled a deadly plot.
The informant was identified by the New York Times as Emad Salem. The newspaper said he is a 43-year-old former Egyptian military officer and a member of the inner circle of Abdul Rahman.
"I am utterly convinced that this so-called informant was an agent provocateur and that none of these deeds would have been done except for the urging and actions of the government's own agent," said William Kunstler, an attorney for Siddig Ali.
Siddig Ali's alleged role in the plot has brought additional attention to Abdul Rahman. Until recently, Siddig Ali served as the cleric's translator. He also was active, like some of the six suspects previously arrested in the World Trade Center bombing, in the defense of El Sayyid A. Nosair, who was accused of slaying Rabbi Meir Kahane, the militant founder of the Jewish Defense League, in 1990.
Nosair was convicted on gun charges in the case but not of murdering the rabbi.
Another of the trade center defendants who raised funds for Nosair also served as Abdul Rahman's driver. A defendant being held on charges of obstructing the trade center investigation was a member of Nosair's legal defense team.
Times staff writers Robert L. Jackson, John J. Goldman and Rick Serrano contributed to this story.
The Scheme to Rock Manhattan
A look at the alleged plot and the suspects in the New York bombing case.
EVENTS LEADING UP TO ARRESTS
May 7, 1993: Alleged ringleader Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali meets with a confidential informant to discuss plans to explode a homemade car bomb inside the United Nations building.
May 18: Siddig Ali tells the confidential informant the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building may be another target for a bombing.
May 19: Siddig Ali meets with the confidential informant and gives him $300 to rent a safehouse in Queens to be used as a bomb factory.
May 27-28: Siddig Ali meets with Abdou Zaid, Fares Khallafalla and the confidential informant in the safehouse, where they test a timing device for detonating a bomb.
May 30: Clement Rodney Hampton-El meets with Siddig Ali and the confidential informant in Brooklyn and discusses bombing a building in New York.
June 4: Siddig Ali and the confidential informant meet Mohammad Saleh in Yonkers.
June 19-27: Siddig Ali, Zaid, Khallafalla, Tarig Elhassan and Victor Alvarez meet at the safehouse to mix explosives. During this time, Siddig and the confidential informant travel to Connecticut to test the explosives.
June 22: Alvarez and the confidential informant travel to New Jersey to attempt the bombing operations.
June 24: FBI agents arrest five Sudanese nationals and three others of unknown origin, including Siddig Ali, on charges of conspiring to commit terrorist acts. Held without bail are Siddig, Hampton-El, Zaid, Khallafalla, Elhassan, Alvarez and Saleh.
Siddig Ibrahim Siddib Ali, 32, of Jersey City, N.J., alleged ringleader. Entered United States from Sudan seven years ago. Until recently a translator for blind Islamic cleric Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman. Said to have a degree in economics in Sudan. Led fund-raising efforts for legal fees of World Trade Center bombing suspects and for El Sayyid A. Nosair, who was convicted of crimes related to slaying of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Clement Rodney Hampton-El, 55, of Brooklyn, a U.S.-born hospital lab technician and longtime resident of Flatbush neighborhood. Also known by his Muslim name, Rasheed, or Abdul Rashid Abdullah.
Abdou Zaid, 33, of Jersey City, N.J., identified in federal complaint as Amir "No Last Name" and elsewhere as Amir Abdelghani. His brother said he and Abdou emigrated from Sudan 10 years ago and that Abdou was a cabdriver.
Tarig Elhassan, 38, of Manhattan, a Sudanese who entered the United States in 1986. Drove cab. Driver's license has been suspended 12 times, according to state Motor Vehicle Division. Separated from American wife and three children.
Victor Alvarez, 32, of Jersey City, identified in federal complaint as Mohammad "last name unknown." Native of Puerto Rico and worshiper at Abdul Rahman's mosque. Supermarket stock clerk who reportedly quit three or four weeks ago.
Mohammad Saleh, 40, also known as Mohammad Ali, of Yonkers, N.Y., owner of the Ebru Gulf Service Station in Yonkers. Accused of supplying diesel fuel for the bombs. Palestinian from Jordan; has a wife, three children.
Fadil Abdelghani, 31, address unknown, had lived in Brooklyn until January and had driven cab. Neighbors said he shared his home with about half a dozen other Sudanese who traveled often to New Jersey.