Latest US Terror Warning Raises Questions

Two of the seven suspected terrorists linked by the Bush administration to an impending “hard” attack on the United States are probably not even in North America, said officials Wednesday.

After naming the seven suspects – including two Canadians – at a prime-time news conference, top U.S. officials including FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General John Ashcroft said none of them is likely to be in the United States.

Hours later Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said the two Canadian men have not been in this country for “a while.”

Wednesday’s announcement was met with skepticism, partly because it was based on information that had been made public long ago and also because it did not prompt a change in the U.S. national terror alert, which is now yellow or “elevated,” mid-level on the scale.

The warning also came as President George W. Bush’s popularity is being battered as bad news streams out of occupied Iraq, led by shocking pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing inmates in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Bush is running for re-election in November.

Nightly newscasts Wednesday led with photos of the seven suspected terrorists and footage of possible targets in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Upcoming events, including a June meeting of leaders from the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries and the leadership conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties later this summer are said to be potential targets of the seven suspected members of al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

One media outlet that approached the story carefully was the New York Times, whose editors on Wednesday printed an extraordinary article admitting they had been misled by sources who confirmed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the main justification used by Bush to order an attack on the regime of President Saddam Hussein just over one year ago.

“In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” Times editors wrote. “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.”

On Thursday, the Times reported that other administration officials did not share Ashcroft’s views on the risk of an attack on the United States.

“But some intelligence officials, terrorism experts – and to some extent even Mr. Ashcroft’s own FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III – offered a more tempered assessment, saying, ‘For the next few weeks we have reason to believe there is a heightened threat to U.S. interests around the world,'” reported the Times.

Added the paper, “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said just a day before Mr. Ashcroft’s announcement that they had no new intelligence pointing to the threat of an attack.”

But one terrorism expert says it is “more plausible” that U.S. officials genuinely fear the chances of an attack are growing than the possibility that they are trying to manipulate public opinion in an election year.

“Under such circumstances and given the ‘burning’ that these agencies have taken in the last six months in particular, with the investigations of the 9/11 commission, it’s not a question of cynical manipulation during an election (but) of trying to be prudent without being alarmist,” said Peter Sederberg, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

“I think that the other fear that may underlie this, which you’d never get anyone in the administration to admit – although all of its critics have been saying this for months – is the increasing belief that what is happening in Iraq is making an attack more, not less likely,” added the author of Terrorist Myths: Illusion, Rhetoric, and Reality in an interview.

The two Canadians that U.S. officials named Wednesday are Amer El-Maati and Al Rauf bin Al Habib bin Yousef Al-Jiddi.

According to Mueller, El-Maati, “an al-Qaeda member and a licenced pilot, is believed to have discussed hijacking a plane in Canada and flying it into a building in the United States.”

U.S. officials say that in November 2001, after the overthrow of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, a letter dated from the 1990s was found in an abandoned al-Qaeda safe house in the country’s capital, Kabul. It was addressed to a Toronto resident, Amer El-Maati (also spelled Amro Abouelmaati) informing him that he had received Canadian citizenship.

The FBI in November 2002 posted El-Maati’s name and picture on its website, describing him as wanted “in connection with possible terrorist threats in the United States.” Also that year, the Associated Press quoted a U.S. official as saying the man had been undergoing flight training.

El-Maati, who has been reported as being of Egyptian-Syrian and Yemeni origin, and also a Kuwaiti national, is the brother of Ahmad El-Maati, a Toronto truck driver who was recently freed after two years in Egyptian and Syrian jails.

Ahmad El-Maati was stopped at the Canada-U.S. border shortly before the 9/11 attacks and was found to have a detailed map of government buildings and nuclear research facilities in Canada’s capital Ottawa – a map he says did not belong to him.

He later traveled to Syria, where he was detained as a suspected terrorist. During his detention there, where he was tortured, Ahmad El-Maati says he falsely named Maher Arar – the Syrian-born Canadian who was arrested by U.S. officials as he returned to Canada after a holiday in 2002 and was then deported to Syria – as a terror associate.

On Wednesday, Rocco Galati, a Toronto lawyer who represents Ahmad El-Maati, said his client’s brother has been on an FBI watch list since 2001. “This is old news,” he told the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper.

Aly Hindy, a Toronto Muslim cleric who knows the El-Maati family, called the new terror warning “laughable.” Amer El-Maati’s family and acquaintances in Canada have not heard from him for five or six years and some even believe he is dead, Mr. Hindy told the newspaper.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Mueller said Mr. Al-Jiddi (aka Abderraouf Jdey) was “selected to get flight training” by al-Qaeda.

U.S. officials say he appeared in a videotape, proclaiming he was ready for martyrdom, that was found in 2001 in a house in Kabul that once belonged to Mohammed Atef, a key lieutenant of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Al-Jiddi was born in Tunisia and reportedly became a Canadian citizen in 1995. The man, who is said to turn 39 this month, also goes by the name Farouq Al-Tunisi, according to the FBI.

His last known address was an apartment building in Montreal, but he is thought to have left Canada for good in November 2001, just a few months after obtaining a new passport.

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan would only tell reporters the two men are “known to Canadian intelligence and enforcement agencies.”

Just because the men’s whereabouts are unknown does not mean they no longer pose a danger, according to Sederberg. “These people in the past have come and gone. I wouldn’t take any immense satisfaction and relief from the fact that we don’t think these people are in the country.”

“That’s, again, precisely what (officials) were criticized for not doing prior to 9/11 – they had identified these people and then they kind of lost track of them,” he added.

Read more by Marty Logan