An ambitious terrorist plot to attack a host of American interests overseas was foiled by the capture of a key Osama bin Laden operative, sources tell ABCNEWS.
MORE INVESTIGATIVE NEWS: • Six Arrested in Spain • Insight Into the Network • New Arrests in Possible Truck Terror Plot • Suspects Held Without Bail • Poison from the Air?
Intelligence sources in Europe and the United States say the intended targets included the American embassy in Paris, the U.S. consulate in Marseilles, France, buildings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium and the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France.
The outlines of the plan were known to French and American authorities before Sept. 11, but the attacks were not scheduled to take place until much later this year. Authorities had reportedly been watching the suspected terrorist cells for several weeks but moved in quickly after the attacks on New York and suburban Washington.
Sources say the terrorist ring was made up of roughly 50 individuals. Thirty have reportedly been taken into custody in France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, and 20 are still being sought in a Europe-wide manhunt.
According to intelligence sources, a bin Laden operative was captured this summer in Dubai with a forged French passport. As he was being interrogated by Dubai authorities, Djamel Beghal, an Algerian national, revealed the list of targets and identities of other members of the terrorist ring.
Check back for continuous updates on the hunt for terrorists from ABCNEWS' worldwide investigative team.
Six Arrested in Spain
Six Algerians suspected of having links to bin Laden were arrested in Spain, the Spanish government announced today.
The six are connected to two detained members of a group planning suicide attacks against U.S. interests in Europe, said Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy. Those two, Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian, and Jerome Courtailler, a Frenchman, were arrested Sept. 13 in Belgium and the Netherlands respectively.
Rajoy did not say if there was any evidence the six took part in planning the Sept. 11 suicide attacks in New York and suburban Washington.
Ten other people were also detained by Spanish authorities on suspicion of collaborating with the six Algerians. The six belonged to a bin Laden-backed dissident faction of the Armed Islamic Group, Algeria's hardline insurgency movement, Rajoy said.
Insight Into the Network
The arrests in Spain, made in tandem with colleagues in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Britain and Belgium, were testament to the collaboration between European Union and United States authorities in tracking down terrorists with ties to bin Laden.
In a nationwide sweep, the Algerians were picked up in Spain's northern province of Navarra, southern provinces of of Almeria and Huelva, and eastern province of Valencia.
"They didn't live in this village. They were just passing through, asking where to find a mechanic to mend their car, and then the police came and took them away," said a witness to the arrest in the village of La Mojonera, in Valencia.
They were traveling with forged passports and sophisticated computer equipment for producing such documents, as well as airline tickets for trips to Algeria and France, authorities said.
One of the cell's main tasks in Spain was to obtain optical, electronic, computer and communications equipment and send it to colleagues in Algeria, Rajoy said.
The six also produced false documents to help other members of the group to travel undetected and produced bogus credit cards to finance their activities, Spanish authorities said.
Spanish officials say Mohamed Atta, believed to have piloted one of the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, was in Spain in July and may have met then with other Islamic extremists.
New Arrests in Possible Truck Terror Plot
Meanwhile, in the United States, nine individuals were arrested today on charges of fraudulently obtaining licenses to transport hazardous materials. The arrests come as the FBI is increasingly concerned there may be terrorists in the United States planning to attack Americans, using large tanker trucks hauling lethal payloads.
"Our investigation has uncovered several individuals — including individuals who may have links to the hijackers — who fraudulently have obtained or attempted to obtain hazardous material transportation licenses," Attorney General John Ashcroft told lawmakers.
Three individuals — Mustafa Al-Aboody, Haider Al-Tamimi and Ali Al-Azawi, aka Al-Gazawi — were arrested in Seattle; one man, Wather Al-Atabi, was arrested in Kansas City, Mo.; and four people were taken into custody in Detroit. The location of the ninth arrest was not immediately known.
All nine are linked to a Department of Motor Vehicle agent in Pittsburgh who has admitted providing up to 30 fraudulent commercial driver's licenses to people of Middle Eastern descent between July 8, 1999 and Feb. 4, 2000 in exchange for $50-$100 bribes. Court documents released today showed investigators had confirmed that 20 male individuals obtained licenses and 18 had obtained hazmat endorsements.
The string of arrests comes a week after the FBI arrested Nabil Al-Marabh, who also had obtained a hazmat license. Al-Marabh has been linked to Osama bin Laden's failed plot to kill American tourists in Jordan during the millennium celebration and investigators believe he has ties to at least two of the hijackers from the Sept. 11 attacks. He was taken into custody in Burbank, Ill., just outside Chicago.
Two of three men arrested at Al-Marabh's apartment in Detroit last week — Karim Koubriti and Ahmed Hannan — had also attended a truck-driving school. Koubriti obtained a hazmat license.
It was not known whether the men arrested today also had ties to the hijackers.
The Department of Transportation has alerted the trucking industry to "be aware that numerous terrorist threats have been reported since Sept. 11, including unconfirmed reporting regarding potential use of chemical, biological, and/or radiological/nuclear [weapons of mass destruction]."
And the National Tank Truck Carriers association is urging its members to double-check the background and qualifications of any drivers who have received their hazmat endorsement in the last two years.
Federal authorities have also issued warnings to the petrochemical and nuclear power industries.
Suspects Held Without Bail
A Virginia security guard with suspected links to the hijackers who piloted a jet into the Pentagon was held without bail today as investigators tried to determine whether he was involved in the attacks.
Mohamed Abdi wore a Burns Security uniform as U.S. Magistrate Curtis Sewell denied him bail at a hearing today in Alexandria, Va.
Though Abdi was formally held for allegedly forging his landlord's checks, he was under the guard of four U.S. marshals and denied bail because a federal prosecutor and FBI agent portrayed him as a potentially critical witness in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"He's a material witnesses to the most heinous crime ever perpetrated against America," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer told the judge. Were Abdi to be released on bond for the check-forging charges, Spencer said, the government would immediately charge him as a material witness in the attacks.
FBI agent Kevin Ashby testified that Abdi's phone number was found written on a road map in a car registered to one of the suspected hijackers. Agents also found four diagrams of a Boeing 757 jet cockpit, maps of New York and Washington, a check made out to an Arizona flight school and a box-cutter, like those believed used to subdue passengers and crew on the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11.
The car, which was registered to suspected hijacker Nawaq Al-Hazmi, was found parked at Dulles International Airport the day after the attacks. Al-Hazmi was believed to be one of the men who seized control of American Airlines Flight 77, a 757 airplane, after it took off from Dulles. The plane's crash into the Pentagon is believed to have killed 189 people: 124 on the ground and 64 on the flight. Two other flights were piloted into the World Trade Center towers in New York. The fourth crashed in a field outside Pittsburgh.
Asbhy also claimed to have found Adbi carrying a newspaper clipping about Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999.
Adbi's lawyer, Joseph Bowman, insisted his client, a naturalized Somali, did not know any of the hijackers, but could not explain why they apparently had his phone number. Though Bowman argued Abdi was not a flight risk, the judge ruled, "I am unable to disregard the connections and evidence of possible involvement to the incidences of Sept. 11."
A second man was held without bail today in connection with the attacks. Judge Sewell granted the government's request to continue holding Herbert Villalobos, who is charged with helping five of the suspected hijackers fraudulently obtain Virginia driver's licenses. Though his defense attorney argued Villalobos was not involved in the hijackings, the judge ruled that "the defendant certainly unlawfully engaged in acts that contributed" to the attacks.
Abdi and Villalobos are two of more than 300 individuals arrested and detained by the federal government, often on charges unrelated to the hijackings.
ABCNEWS has learned investigators have recovered from at least one crash site and other locations tied to the hijackers, writings portraying their hatred for America and the glory of martyrdom. One law enforcement source tells ABCNEWS that given that level of hatred, authorities can afford to take no chances.
Poison From the Air?
Federal authorities are also concerned that terrorists may have been planning to deliver a chemical or biological strike from the air using crop-dusters.
Mohamed Atta — the man believed to have piloted one of four hijacked passenger airliners into the North Tower of the World Trade Center — made repeated visits to a crop-dusting airfield in Florida, according to a witness.
Willie Lee, the chief pilot and general manager of South Florida Crop Care in Belle Glade, identified Atta to the FBI, telling agents the man now suspected of being a ringleader among the hijackers came to the airfield as recently as the Saturday before the Sept. 11 attacks, asking questions about crop-dusters, including how big a load of chemicals they could carry.
Atta was "very persistent about wanting to know how much the airplane will haul, how fast it will go, what kind of range it has," Lee told ABCNEWS.
Lee said Atta and as many as 12 or 15 other men appearing to be of Middle Eastern descent visited the airfield in groups of two or three on several weekends prior to the attacks, often taking pictures of the aircraft, which can carry some 500 gallons of solution.
Law enforcement officials have said information about crop-dusting had been downloaded off the Internet by associates of the hijackers and ABCNEWS has confirmed a manual for a crop-duster was found among the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been detained since August and is now under arrest as a material witness.
"The FBI assesses the use of this type of aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction as potential threats to Americans," Ashcroft told a congressional committee on Monday.
The Federal Aviation Administration lifted a two-day nationwide ban on crop-dusting flights Tuesday morning.