WASHINGTON — U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials said Thursday they have launched a massive, worldwide effort to foil planned terrorist attacks in the United States and Britain this fall, and have apprehended an al-Qaida operative with knowledge of the plans.
The operative, Abu Eisa al Hindi, was arrested Tuesday by British authorities, who acted on a tip from U.S. intelligence. Al Hindi's name came to light in computer files seized last month in Pakistan showing the terror network conducted surveillance on financial centers in the United States, a U.S. official said.
Authorities say they are trying to determine whether al Hindi, who has not been charged, and others detained in Pakistan have accomplices in the United States.
Beyond the arrests in Britain and Pakistan, police have apprehended dozens of suspected terrorists. Following the bombings in Spain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia authorities have reacted with a more aggressive roundup of al-Qaida surrogates and have shown more willingness to share intelligence across borders.
"The information we've seen over the last couple months would focus even the most tired of people," said Deputy Attorney General James Comey. "This is a very serious time and people are working very hard to respond to it."
Comey spoke at a Justice Department news conference, where officials announced the arrest of two men associated with a mosque in Albany, N.Y., on charges of money laundering.
The arrests of Yassin Muhiddin Aref, 34, and Muhammad Mosharref Hossain, 49, - which officials said were unrelated to the heightened terror alert announced Sunday - stem from an FBI sting operation, the officials said. An FBI informant posed as an arms salesman involved in a purported plot to sell shoulder-filed missiles and assassinate Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations.
Comey acknowledged that the operation was "not the case of the century" and suggested it was intended largely as psychological warfare against al-Qaida and its affiliates.
"Anyone engaging in terrorist planning would be very wise to consider whether their accomplice is not really one of our guys," he said.
President Bush, facing the voters in three months, and his aides are striving to demonstrate that they are prevailing in the war on terrorism, and the White House earlier this week launched an offensive to justify its heightened terror alert.
Critics have questioned the timing of the alert and recent terrorist-related actions in Pakistan, Britain and elsewhere.
At the same time, the alert and arrests also appear to show the breadth of the continued threat from al-Qaida and related Islamic terrorist groups nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Al Hindi was detained Tuesday by British authorities along with 12 other men, one of whom has since been released.
Al Hindi is "an operational man. Not at the bottom of the heap, but not the mastermind either," said a U.S. official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, and declined to provide other details, because of the ongoing intelligence and law enforcement investigations.
British news media reported that al Hindi was connected with a plot to attack London's Heathrow airport, Europe's busiest.
A British Embassy spokesman in Washington and U.S. officials declined to confirm the reports.
But the U.S. official said al Hindi was "involved and knowledgeable" about terrorists' surveillance of potential terrorist targets.
The surveillance of five buildings - in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Washington - came to light after the July 13 arrest in Pakistan of a computer engineer, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was working with al-Qaida.
An intensive investigation is underway "to identify whether there's people here (in the United States) currently" who were involved in the surveillance, as well as when and how it was conducted, said a law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
But this official and others cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the announcement of a spate of terrorism-related arrests worldwide in recent days. It is "just a convergence of issues," he said. "There are a lot of things that came into place ... around this particular week."
Still, the arrest of Khan and another top al-Qaida operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, in Pakistan, and the recovery of the computer files, appear to have opened up a trove of leads for investigators.
In the Albany case, which is unrelated to the others, Aref and Hossain were leaders of Masjid As-Salam mosque.
The law enforcement official said there is evidence, expected to come out in court papers, that the two men were connected with Ansar al Islam, a violent Islamist group that operated in semiautonomous regions of northern Iraq before the March 2003 U.S. invasion.
According to court documents, at secretly videotaped meetings starting last November, the FBI informant showed Hossain a missile that he said he smuggled into the United States. He later told Hossain that the missile could be used to attack the Pakistani ambassador as retaliation for Pakistan's support of the U.S.-led war on terror.
The informant also said he was working for the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group and that he supplied terrorists with ammunition from China.
The documents say that Hossain agreed to launder about $50,000 through several businesses he owns in Albany. In the end, Hossain received some $40,000 cash and gave the informant about $25,000.
"This is not a case where the defendants were discovered plotting terrorist violence," Comey said. "The terrorist plot in this case is one that the government's agent ... represented to be under way. It was not real."