Officials suspect al-Qaida links to latest terrorism threat

Wednesday, February 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft wants Americans to remain on ``the highest state of alert'' in the search for 17 men believed to have planned an attack against the United States or U.S. interests in Yemen.

The FBI said Tuesday it based a public warning of a possible attack on information from interviews by U.S. officials with detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan.

The warning issued Monday night listed names of possible terrorists possibly planning an attack ``on or around'' Tuesday, but did not specify any possible targets.

Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday the warning was based on ``documentary evidence'' recovered during military operations in Afghanistan and from recent interviews with detainees.

The warning identified the possible ringleader as Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, a Yemeni citizen born in 1979 in Saudi Arabia. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Rabeei is believed to have links to al-Qaida but is not believed to have been involved in the attack against the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000.

Ashcroft, in San Antonio for a speech, described al-Rabeei and the 16 others in the warning as ``individuals who may be associated with Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network.'' He did not elaborate.

The FBI published photos of al-Rabeei and 12 of the others on its Web site, The FBI asked police ``to stop and detain'' any of those in the alert and said they should be considered extremely dangerous.

Officials acknowledged they did not know whether al-Rabeei was in the United States and could not be sure even that he was alive. A hurried review of immigration records showed no indication he had ever been in the United States, a Justice Department official said.

Internationally, allies were trying to determine where al-Rabeei and his associates had traveled recently, but those efforts were being hampered by the numerous aliases the men might be using. The FBI listed at least 14 for al-Rabeei alone, including ``Furqan The Chechen.''

``I want to encourage all law enforcement officials, and, frankly, all Americans everywhere to be on the highest state of alert in regard to these individuals,'' Ashcroft said. ``I encourage individuals to report anything that they consider to be suspicious.''

``We're being careful _ with the Winter Olympics in the United States _ that things be as safe as possible,'' Justice spokeswoman Susan Dryden said. ``We'd rather err on the side of caution.''

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge noted the alert in a speech Tuesday to college presidents, saying, ``If we can interdict those who would do us harm and bring havoc and war and destruction and death to this country before they cross our borders ... that's the best homeland security.''

``We had credible information, we had a specific name,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. ``It's exactly this type of action that helps disrupt or prevent terrorist attacks, which is why the FBI does it _ and properly so.''