Terrorist Sleeper Cells : An Al Qaeda sleeper cell was poised to launch a post-September 11 attack on a major Washington target but would-be terrorists went underground or fled
A U.S.-based cell of the Al Qaeda terror network nearly launched an attack on a major target in Washington, D.C. after September 11, Newsweek has learned. Intelligence sources say a Qaeda "sleeper cell" in the U.S. was poised to launch the attack -- perhaps against the Capitol Building. The sources believe that the FBI, in its sweep against visa violators and other illegals of Mideast backgrounds, picked up members of a "support cell" tasked with providing logistics help to the people actually carrying out the mission. Intelligence sources say the would-be terrorists then went underground or fled the country. Investigators have not yet been able to identify the plotters from among the hundreds of people caught in the FBI dragnet; they're not even sure they are still in custody, according to a Newsweek Special Report in the December 17 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, December 10), written by Senior Writer Jeffrey Bartholet and reported by Newsweek Correspondents in Afghanistan, Washington and the Middle East.
The war in Afghanistan has produced a hodgepodge of disturbing intelligence that investigators are still trying to sift and analyze. Perhaps the most alarming evidence gathered so far concerns Al Qaeda efforts to develop biological weapons. According to intelligence sources, U.S. operatives in Afghanistan have collected information that one or more Russian scientists were working inside Afghanistan with Al Qaeda operatives. One well-placed source tells Newsweek that evidence from the scene indicates that the renegade Russians were helping Al Qaeda to develop anthrax, and that spores of the deadly disease may actually have been stockpiled by the terrorist group. While intelligence sources say they believe any such stockpiles were destroyed in U.S. bombing raids, it is not known how much, if any, of the anthrax ever made it out of Afghanistan.
And the infamous Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's closest lieutenant and considered the brains behind Al Qaeda, may have been directly involved in the biological program. Al-Zawahiri, may have been hit by U.S. bombs last week, according to unconfirmed British intelligence reports. Northern Alliance soldiers raided his house in Kabul on November 13 and a senior American intelligence official tells Newsweek that it resembled the lair of a mad scientist. Soldiers found grenades, blasting caps, electronic components and "various solid and liquid substances," including white crystals and extremely fine, silvery powders in jars and plastic bags, and mysterious liquids in shampoo bottles labeled "special medicine." American intelligence later collected samples from Northern Alliance colleagues and conducted chemical and biological tests. One of the samples turned up a "positive indicator" for Bacillus Anthracis, or anthrax. All of the samples are being retested, the source tells Newsweek.
The Kabul house of a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, contained sheaves of disturbing documents. These include the results of a massive Internet search on anthrax vaccines, and a report entitled: "Bacteria: What You Need to Know." According to intelligence sources, investigators also found a New York Times article on Plum Island, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal disease center. The Plum Island center does research to help guard the United States "against catastrophic economic losses caused by foreign animal disease agents accidentally or deliberately introduced into the U.S.," its Web site explains.
Newsweek also reports that Bin Laden plied his Taliban hosts with money, gifts and other favors. "He was always handing out $50,000 to this commander, or $10,000 to that commander," says Mullah Alhaj Khaksar, a senior Taliban defector. "And cars -- Afghans love cars. He would get 20 or 30 cars and bring them in from Kandahar as a present just before an offensive. Western intelligence agencies estimate that bin Laden funneled as much as $100 million a year to the Taliban -- twice Afghanistan's official annual budget.
Some key terrorist fugitives appear to have had a hand in both the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the September 11 attacks. Investigators are particularly interested in a meeting that took place in Malaysia on January 5, 2000. The list of attendees included Tawfiq bin Atash (a.k.a. Khallad) and Fahad al-Quso, both of whom helped plan the Cole attack. Also present were Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, two of the September 11 hijackers, and Ramzi Binalshibh (a.k.a. Ramzi Omar), who may have been the phantom "20th hijacker" who couldn't get the U.S. prior to Sept. 11 because of visa problems. Newsweek has learned that when Almihdhar and Alhazmi left Malaysia, they flew directly to Los Angeles, where they quickly enrolled in a San Diego flight school. That leads investigators to believe that at least some of the planning for September 11 took place at the Malaysia meeting.
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