FBI tracking al Qaeda suspects in U.S.

Friday, July 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(WASHINGTON) - Groups of suspected al Qaeda operatives are being closely watched by the FBI in some of America's biggest cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit, government sources told CNN Thursday.

The sources would say only that the number of suspected operatives was fewer than 100. They would not discuss further details.

It is the most specific information from authorities yet about the possible terrorist threat inside the United States.

It came amid government scrutiny of the latest purported communication from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda in which a man claiming to be a spokesman says the group plans to wage a large-scale war "of ambushes, assassinations and operations" targeting "the most unexpected places for the enemy."

The message, which surfaced on an Islamic Web site earlier this week, is being reviewed by the U.S. government to see if it is authentic.

Officials have underscored that even if the tape is authenticated, it changes nothing in the U.S. prosecution of the war on terrorism.

Officials said they believe the recording was made by Abu-Leith al-Libi, a relatively low-level al Qaeda commander who led some troops during the fighting in the Shah-e-kot Valley in March. They said they believe he made the recording to boost morale among the remaining troops.

"We ask God to bless our new operations, guide our shooting, straighten our opinions and consolidate our steadfastness," he says in the message. CNN obtained an unofficial translation of the tape in Washington.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying before a House committee Thursday, did not specifically mention the tracking operation, but said:

"There remain sleeper terrorists and their supporters in the United States who have not yet been identified in a way that will allow us to take pre-emptive action against them."

The revelation of the operation followed sweeps of shopping malls around the country at the end of June when federal agents questioned more than 60 people in a search for possible sources for terrorism funding.

The joint investigation by the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service apparently targeted Pakistanis operating or working at jewelry kiosks in malls.

Among the things investigators were looking for was whether money was being sent back to Pakistan to fund terror operations, officials said at the time.

The sweep took place in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas and other cities, including at least one in Connecticut, authorities told CNN.

No evidence was found to support the allegation and no criminal charges were filed, they said, although the INS placed some of the people in custody for immigration violations.