WASHINGTON -- The FBI's counterterrorism unit has launched a broad investigation of US-based theft rings after discovering that some of the vehicles used in deadly car bombings in Iraq, including attacks that killed US troops and Iraqi civilians, were probably stolen in the United States, according to senior government officials.
Inspector John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI for counterterrorism, told the Globe that the investigation hasn't yielded any evidence that the vehicles were stolen specifically for car bombings. But there is evidence, he said, that the cars were smuggled from the United States as part of a widespread criminal network that includes terrorists and insurgents.
Cracking the car theft rings and tracing the cars could help identify the leaders of insurgent forces in Iraq and shut down at least one of the means they use to attack the US-led coalition and the Iraqi government, the officials said.
The inquiry began after coalition troops raided a bomb-making factory in Fallujah last November and found a sport utility vehicle registered in Texas that was being prepared for a bombing mission.
Investigators said they are comparing several other cases where vehicles evidently stolen in the United States wound up in Syria or other Middle East countries and ultimately into the hands of Iraqi insurgent groups -- including Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.
Citing the sensitive nature of the ongoing inquiry, investigators wouldn't say how many specific cases they have found, and FBI spokesman Edwin Cogswell in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Lewis said the origins of the vehicles in question were unearthed by tracing the vehicle identification numbers, or VINs -- a standard production marker stamped on during manufacture -- as well as through other forensic tools such as auto parts. Some of the automobiles can be easily identified, specialists said, while others have had their VINs ground down or have been fitted with fake ones.
Investigators believe the cars were stolen by local car thieves in US cities, then smuggled to waiting ships at ports in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Houston, among other cities. From there they are shipped to black-market dealers all over the world, including in places like Syria where foreign militants fighting in Iraq are thought to be transiting from countries across the region and where they gain critical logistical support.
''It is getting a tremendous amount of attention in the US government," said Steven Emerson, who runs the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a Washington research firm that consults for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. ''We have gotten more calls on this than anything else in the last three or four weeks. [Auto theft] is an unregulated market. Some of the proceeds are going to terrorists."
Citing recent discussions with government investigators, Emerson said Al Qaeda terrorists suspected in suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia in recent years also apparently used cars stolen in the United States.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 1 million cars were stolen from US streets in 2003, the most recent statistics available. Government officials think the vehicles insurgents use were stolen from locations as varied as Virginia, Maryland, Texas, and Florida. Arizona reported more than 56,000 vehicles stolen last year, the largest per-capita number of thefts in the country.
Terrorism specialists think Iraqi insurgents prefer American stolen cars because they tend to be larger, blend in more easily with the convoys of US government and private contractors, and are harder to identify as stolen.
The new disclosures are part of a pattern, according to government officials. US law enforcement and intelligence agencies are increasingly finding links between violent Islamic extremists groups and vast criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, and car theft.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has cut off some of the terrorists' access to money, including freezing bank accounts of suspect groups and individuals and pressuring Middle Eastern governments to terminate aid. But terrorist operatives have found other means to raise cash, acquire weapons, or gain other logistical help. Facing greater scrutiny, terrorist groups are increasingly using illegal, highly lucrative business arrangements to support their operations, according to the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Investigators say the criminal activities that terrorists use to raise money run the gamut from creating and selling fake documents to insurance fraud. Taliban and Al Qaeda followers are thought to be heavily involved in the expanding heroin trade in Afghanistan, and a US-based cigarette smuggling ring was linked to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon
James G. Conway, Jr., legal attache at the US Embassy in Mexico City, told the Globe that ''where you find terrorists you often find some kind of criminal activity."
Car theft, a criminal enterprise that costs US citizens more than $8 billion a year, now seems to have become a new enterprise for some terrorist groups, according to the law enforcement officials and private specialists.
''The car bomb is the top weapon in the world for carrying out terrorist attacks," said Lieutenant Greg Terp, commander of the Miami-Dade Police Department's Auto Theft Task Force. ''These car thieves don't necessarily know that they are financing terrorism, but they might."
Tracing the path of these vehicles from the streets of America to the local ''chop shop" -- where criminal wholesalers process stolen vehicles -- and then on to the black market half a world away could help thwart a terrorist network that has wrought some of the worst violence against US troops and thousands of Iraqi civilians.
''They want to follow it through the whole process so they can identify as many people in the process as they can," Terp said. ''As you go back to the chop shop guy, he may not know the end user is some terrorist, but who are his contacts?"
Charlie Savage of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.