People linked to al-Qaida, other terror groups, thought to be hiding in the United States, FBI chief says

Saturday, November 17th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Investigators are hunting associates of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and other terrorist cells probably in the United States, FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

He said terrorists have established a presence in the United States but didn't specify where they are.

``There are persons in the United States who have association with, affiliation with, support of certain terrorist groups,'' Mueller said Friday. ``We're doing everything we can to identify exactly the extent of that activity.''

He said Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network isn't the only terror group with a beachhead in America.

``I wouldn't rule out any of the known terrorist organizations,'' Mueller said, referring to the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Saudi Hezbollah group.

In the search for information about terrorist operatives in the United States, authorities have arrested or detained more than 1,100 people. They also want to question more than 5,000 foreign men in the United States who have passports from the Middle East and countries outside the region where terrorists are known to operate.

Civil rights groups have criticized the FBI for casting such a wide net, saying many innocent people could be caught up in the terrorist investigation simply because they are of Arab or Muslim descent. Mueller said the Justice Department has established guidelines for interviewing foreigners who are not considered suspects.

Speaking with reporters, Mueller divulged few other new details about the progress of a massive investigation into the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings and the anthrax cases that have killed four people and sickened dozens.

On the anthrax investigation, Mueller said investigators are still retracing the steps of Kathy Nguyen, the New York woman who died of inhalation anthrax, and are looking at people who knew her and sent mail to her.

It's still not clear how Nguyen, a hospital worker who lived in the Bronx, was exposed.

``The investigators are trying to dissect her life to determine at what point in her day-to-day activities she could have been exposed to anthrax,'' Mueller said. He said authorities have not discovered a letter that could be the source of her infection.

After Mueller's briefing, the FBI said investigators have found a second anthrax-tainted letter addressed to a senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The contaminated letter was postmarked from Trenton, N.J., as was the one sent to Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and contains similar handwriting, investigators said.

Four people have died from inhaled anthrax, all thought to have victims of mail tainted with the germ. Until Friday, only one letter carrying the germ inside the envelope had been found in Washington.

In his briefing, Mueller said another hijacker may have been recruited to take the place of a Yemeni man who was supposed to have helped hijack a plane but was prevented from entering the country.

Mueller said Ramsi Binalshibh, the Yemeni, is believed to have been assigned to the hijacking team that commandeered United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania after a revolt by passengers.

``Once Binalshibh was prevented from coming into the country, they may well have turned to other person or persons to fill that role,'' said Mueller.

Binalshibh is the subject of an international manhunt.

Mueller said security plans for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City have been strengthened but would not discuss specific measures.

``In some instances where has been enhancements to ensure that the Winter Olympics go off without a glitch,'' said Mueller.

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