FBI agents fanned out in seven states Thursday in search of links to a suspected Algerian terrorist, arresting a New York man who allegedly plotted to help expand the group’s militant base because he wanted to “punish America.”
As authorities stepped up their efforts to head off a possible millennial terrorist attack, at least six other suspects in Boston and New York were also detained. And dozens more were questioned in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country to determine what they might know about suspected terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested Dec. 14 near Seattle with massive amounts of sophisticated explosives allegedly hidden in his rental car.
In Vermont on Thursday, federal prosecutors also established the first link between Ressam and a Canadian woman, 35-year-old Lucia Garofalo, who was arrested Dec. 19 at a border stop 2,400 miles from Seattle after she allegedly tried to sneak an Algerian national into the United States.
Numerous personal and financial connections from Vermont to Seattle provide “a direct link” between Garofalo and Ressam, 32. He “is charged with committing crimes which appear to be precursors to acts of terrorism in the United States,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
Ressam has now proved the nexus in what authorities suspect may have been a sophisticated, bicoastal terrorist plot by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA) or by people associated with it. The organization has never been known to plot a major attack on U.S. soil. Authorities suspect that accomplices also affiliated with the group have yet to be apprehended.
Meanwhile, authorities in New York said that Abdel Ghani, 31, the Algerian national arrested in Brooklyn, also has clear links to Ressam. Ghani, using an alias, allegedly traveled to Seattle earlier this month and was planning to meet with Ressam and then travel to Chicago and other cities to raise funds for their terrorist organization.
After Ressam’s arrest, Ghani returned to New York and destroyed his plane ticket and a bank statement that would have revealed his trip to Seattle, authorities said.
In talks with an associate--who was actually a confidential government informant--Ghani denied any knowledge of the explosives in Ressam’s car. But he reportedly told the informant that “Allah will shake up this world, that a new generation will punish America and that Islam’s renaissance will rise from Algeria.”
Ghani was charged specifically with concealing his support of Ressam’s efforts to violate federal explosives laws and with conspiring with others to traffic in and use fraudulent credit and bank cards.
“The evidence gathered during this investigation has established . . . that Ghani has knowledge of a terrorist network of Algerian nationals of which Ressam and others known to Ghani are members,” court papers charged.
Ressam and his cohorts often used sophisticated methods to avoid detection, authorities in New York said. In Seattle, for instance, Ressam allegedly planned to walk away from the explosives-laden rental car and leave the keys in the vehicle for someone else to pick up.
“Ghani has also explained that each person involved would only know the tasks of two others involved so that in the event of an arrest no one could expose more than two other confederates,” an FBI affidavit charged.
But a major slip-up helped authorities track down Ghani in Brooklyn. While he used an alias at a Seattle motel, he gave the clerk his real address.
Nationwide, FBI agents on Thursday interviewed about 40 people to determine what they might know about possible terrorist plans, officials said. Investigators used telephone logs from a suspect in the case to track down people who might have information in states that included California, New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, one source said.
“We’re interviewing people across the country, dozens of people,” said Jim Davis, an FBI spokesman. “They all have some connection to Ressam. It may be a very distant connection but it’s a connection and that’s what’s driving our interviews.”
Davis added that “we still don’t have any information about specific threats or specific targets, so I wouldn’t want to see people get overly concerned about this. . . . But we’re going to lock up all the people who were involved with Ressam.”
In Los Angeles, FBI special agent Ramiro Escudero said that agents interviewed a handful of people Thursday who might have knowledge of terrorist activities. While he refused to detail the nature of the interviews, Escudero added that no direct links to Ressam were established.
“It’s part of the whole heightened effort to be vigilant and prevent any terrorist act. We’re trying to be pro-active,” Escudero said.
Thursday’s developments, linking Ressam to the suspected terrorist arrests in Vermont and laying out other possible contacts around the country, fueled concerns among some terrorism experts that Algeria’s GIA may be mounting a bold, sophisticated assault on U.S. citizens.
The GIA is loosely affiliated with infamous international terrorist Osama bin Laden and some terrorism experts speculate that, with international pressure mounting against Bin Laden, he may be encouraging Algerian terrorists to strike on his behalf.
Bin Laden “might be directly or indirectly influencing fellow travelers to finally get involved in attacks against Americans,” suggested Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer who has written extensively on terrorism and testified before Congress on the subject. “If that’s true, it’s certainly a new development, because the GIA has not targeted anything in America to any extent. . . . Unfortunately, this could be a prologue of what’s to come.”
James Kallstrom, former head of the FBI’s New York field office, said that, while the GIA links should prompt serious concerns about national security, the public “should also feel good about the solid, old-fashioned police work we’re seeing” in recent weeks.
“You can never guarantee that nothing’s going to happen,” he said in an interview, “but the good news is that we’re seeing a very effective law enforcement network that can very rapidly reach out and have a good understanding of what these relationships are.”
Evidence of police cooperation came in Washington with a meeting Thursday between FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and three Canadian law-enforcement officials. The terrorist-related arrests on the border were a main topic of conversation, one official said.
In Ottawa, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officials refused to say what leads they had turned up in Ressam’s Montreal apartment and where that might have led U.S. investigators.
“We are continuing a very active, ongoing investigation with a commitment to sharing information across the border,” said RCMP spokesman Mike Gaudet.
But in Vermont, U.S. prosecutors laid out in a court filing what they believe is a strong connection linking Ressam to Garofalo, the Canadian woman who allegedly tried to smuggle an Algerian national across the border.
Prosecutors said that Garofalo--who traveled extensively around the world, while claiming to live off welfare with $8 in her checking account--received money and assistance from a man who turned out to be Ressam’s former roommate in Canada. The roommate is believed to be a document forger for the GIA.
Authorities said that Ressam is also a member of the same GIA cell as Garofalo’s husband, who was deported from Canada several years ago. These and other “sinister” connections are too numerous to disregard as coincidence, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said in their court filing that “substantial areas of [Garofalo’s] life are sponsored by terrorists or those affiliated with terrorism” and they predicted that more evidence linking her to Ressam will emerge.
Arguing that Garofalo would be likely to flee the country if released from custody, prosecutors persuaded a federal magistrate in Vermont on Thursday not to set bail. Another hearing on the evidence against her is set for next Thursday.
While police and FBI officials around the country stressed that they had received no credible information about specific attacks, Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said that recent events have suggested there is a “heightened risk that individuals may be planning attacks during this holiday season.”
“Law enforcement authorities are working around the clock to pursue all information and leads we receive,” she said.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley in New York contributed to this story.