The September 11th hijackers easily moved into the United States and around it. Flying lessons? No problem, even if they showed little aptitude or enthusiasm and inquired about airport security.
That cannot happen again, says the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has now released photos of seven possible al-Qaida operatives and has asked the public for help in finding them. Cassandra Chandler, Assistant Director of the FBI, says these suspects are a special group: "These are the seven individuals we have felt from the alerts we have recently issued who are more likely to have the skills, the ability, the English-speaking ability, the backgrounds and support structure to wage an attack or to provide support in some way or another or at least have information about possible terrorist attacks in the United States."
Two of the suspects are under indictment for participating in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that took 224 lives, including 12 Americans. They are Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of the Comoros Republic who is considered the al-Qaida leader in East Africa; and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of Tanzania.
Adnan Gulshair El Shukrijumah has a profile quite similar to that of the September 11th hijackers. He, too, is a Saudi as well as a pilot who lived in South Florida. The FBI believes he helped plan the 2001 attacks and says he was in Canada last year looking for nuclear material for a so-called dirty bomb. But his family insists he left Miami for Morocco before September 11th and has no ties to any terrorist organization.
The other suspects are Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University; Amer el-Maati, a Kuwaiti; Abderraouf Jdey, a Tunisian; and Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a 25-year old American convert to Islam who is said to have attended al-Qaida training camps but has no known link to any terrorist activity.
Assistant Director Chandler says the FBI is focusing on individuals who can lead to still others and ultimately to sleeper cells that may be planning terrorist acts in the United States.
The seven suspects could be anywhere in the world, says Ms. Chandler. So the FBI alert has gone abroad: "Since the announcement, the FBI has received an overwhelming response from the general public as well as from the media. It has been quite beneficial. We have been following up on a number of leads not only in this country but around the world. The public support has just been exceptional."
Key to that support, says Cassandra Chandler, is Muslim cooperation. She cites in particular the Muslim Public Affairs Council, headquartered in Los Angeles with offices in other U.S. cities. We are embarked on a grassroots campaign against terrorism, says Sarah Eltantawi, director of communications for the council. That means getting a message out to every mosque in the United States:
"How mosques can take precautions and can take steps to make sure that any suspicious behavior or activity is absolutely rooted out of any mosque. We have very specific guidelines about how mosque leadership should vet meetings, for example, that take place in mosques, how people who give sermons should emphasize that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and is not an Islamic means of dealing with any issue."
There is always the danger of implicating a whole religion, say Muslims who report an increase in discrimination and hate crimes against them since September 11th. Ms. Eltantawi says her organization is an answer to that: "We made a special appeal to the media to please report this accurately because we believe there is a canard out there that Muslims have not helped enough with counter-terrorism, and we know that is not the case. We feel that there are some talk show hosts and radio hosts and such who are saying that without proof, as a way of being splashy."
The Muslim Public Affairs Council will continue to work closely with the FBI and other law enforcement both to counter terrorism and to uphold the good name of Islam in America.