By John Solomon, Associated Press, 12/30/99
WASHINGTON - The FBI questioned people in several states today about possible links to a suspected terrorist, and some were arrested or detained on immigration charges, law enforcement officials said.
With the New Year's holiday fast approaching, law enforcement officials questioned and detained dozens of people in major cities from New York to San Francisco as they sought new information about Ahmed Ressam, arrested in Washington state. Some individuals were arrested on immigration charges.
In the most extensive U.S. link yet to Ressam, authorities arrested Abdel Ghani in New York and said he planned to travel with Ressam to Chicago and other places to raise money for an unidentified terrorist organization.
Ghani, 31, was charged with concealing his support for Ressam's efforts to violate federal explosives laws and with conspiring with others to traffic in and use fraudulent credit and bank cards.
FBI agent Bradley S. Morrison said in an affidavit in the criminal complaint that Ghani had traveled to Seattle under an assumed name to meet Ressam, but returned to New York after Ressam's Dec. 14 arrest.
The indictment said authorities learned from a confidential source that Ressam had been tasked by the unnamed group "to take the explosive-laden vehicle to a parking lot and walk away from it'' and that someone else was to retrieve the vehicle.
Ghani told an associate he was angry that Ressam brought explosives to the United States, and also mentioned "that the situation was boiling in Algeria and that the United States and the CIA are running everything over there.'' Algeria has been locked in a bloody civil war.
Despite the details of the arrest, Lewis Schiliro, head of the FBI in New York, acted to reassure New Yorkers as the new year approached.
"There are no specific and credible threats to any part of New York City or elsewhere and no explosives or explosive devices were found in connection with the investigation of Abdel Ghani,'' he said.
Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., on explosives smuggling charges. Even after the interviews, officials stressed they hadn't turned up information suggesting a terrorist attack was imminent on any U.S. city.
"We did interview people in our area with regard to information they may have about persons involved in terrorist activities,'' FBI spokeswoman Marjorie Poche said in Dallas. "We don't have any specific information on anything directed here.''
The nationwide questioning occurred as prosecutors in Vermont for the first time drew a connection between Ressam and a Canadian woman detained after trying to cross a remote border in Vermont.
The prosecutors said the two were linked to an Algerian militant organization. The argument persuaded a federal magistrate to continue to hold the woman, Lucia Garofalo, without bail.
Law enforcement officials said some of those being questioned in the United States were of Algerian descent. Most of the interviews were uneventful, although agents in Boston ended up in a chase after one Algerian man fled.
Federal agents arrested a total of five men in Boston, most of them Algerian, after they were questioned. One was charged with illegal entry, another with possession a false green card while three others were detained on civil charges related to their immigration status.
In New York City, authorities detained an Algerian man on immigration charges. He was identified as Najmeddine Houaichi.
Officials in several cities said their questioning was aimed at turning up new leads.
"It is just people we believe may have information that may help us in our investigations,'' said Ramiro Escudero, an FBI spokesman in Los Angeles. "It does not mean they are involved in any terrorist activities.''
Earlier Thursday, FBI Director Louis Freeh met with top Canadian and intelligence officials to ensure continued coordination on law enforcement and intelligence matters.
"While no specific development prompted today's meeting, these continuing high level discussions reflect the importance both countries place on seamless law enforcement and intelligence efforts relating to Y2K and terrorism issues,'' the FBI said in a statement.
Islamic leaders, meanwhile, urged the public not to overreact to the arrests.
"The main concern from our standpoint is the mass hysteria resulting from the arrests,'' Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said in Los Angeles at a forum to discuss the situation. "At the same time, we're not shirking our responsibility and we're taking a strong stand against terrorism. We're not supporting any group that might engage in terrorist actions to achieve its goals.''
In court documents, prosecutors said Ms. Garofalo and Ressam were both linked to the Armed Islamic Group, which is known by its French initials, GIA.
The GIA is an extremist faction held responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks in Algeria's nearly eight-year civil war. It has also been blamed for bombings in France in 1995 and 1996 and an airplane hijacking in 1994.
Ressam faces charges of trying to smuggle explosives and timing devices into Washington from Canada on Dec. 14.
Authorities originally believed Ressam was carrying common nitroglycerine when he was arrested. The liquid turned out to be RDX, or cyclotrimethylene trinitramine, which is used by military forces around the world for demolition.