(Part of UPI's Special Package on Sept. 11)
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- The terror is still with us.
One year after the most deadly terrorist attacks in American history, with most of the nation seemingly awash in complacency, investigators and top government officials alike believe al Qaida "sleeper" cells are hiding in the United States, waiting for orders to unleash more shocking violence against the civilian population.
What's more, investigators fear, those new attacks could involve weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological or radioactive devices.
Attorney General John Ashcroft referred to such "sleeper" cells in congressional testimony earlier this year, but gave few details. White House Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge echoed Ashcroft's concerns in an Aug. 26 interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
Ridge said the threat from chemical and biological weapons remains large. America has become safer since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ridge told the BBC, "but he warned that al Qaida cells are still waiting to strike."
There were only 19 hijackers active on Sept. 11.
"It would be foolish to conclude -- given the fact that at least 19 had made their way months, if not years, before into this country to plan for and prepare for the attacks of 9-11 -- it would be very foolhardy to conclude that there were only 19" who infiltrated into the United States, Ridge said.
A senior Justice Department official, speaking on background, reinforced Ashcroft and Ridge's comments.
"When we say 'sleeper cells' we mean that there are terrorist operatives (in the United States) who are not active at the moment, they are dormant and awaiting future orders," the official said. The cells are a mixture of active terrorists and logistical personnel.
"We know from (the FBI's) investigations of how terrorists operate that they have people in place for months, sometimes years," the official added. "At least 10,000 people went through the al Qaida (training) camps (in Afghanistan) in the months previous to 9-11. It's a fairly staggering number."
A spokesman for Ridge's office agreed.
"The position of the United States government is that there may be more terrorists in this country," Homeland Security's Gordon Johndroe said from the White House. "That's our analysis."
The chilling threat evaluation was augmented Aug. 28 with the release of a United Nations draft report on al Qaida finances. The report said millions of dollars have continued to pour in to the group's coffers, despite global efforts to choke off funding, and the organization is once again equipped to launch major attacks of terror.
Almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI changed tactics to meet what it saw as the new threat: On Ashcroft's orders, the bureau went from investigating the attacks themselves -- the blame quickly fixed on Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, his Afghan-based terrorist organization -- to preventing future attacks.
In fact, the organization itself underwent a massive reorganization, like a warship trying to make a 180-degree turn in rough seas.
Before last Sept. 11, violent crimes such as kidnapping and serial killings were among the FBI's top priorities. Last June, in testimony before a House subcommittee, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that would no longer be the case.
The FBI's new priorities would be protecting the United States from future terrorist attack, foreign intelligence operations and cyber-attacks and high-technology crimes, in that order, Mueller said. Protecting civil rights would come next. White-collar crime and violent crime would still be priorities, but they were farther down the priority list.
Mueller asked for congressional permission -- the shape of the FBI and bureau activities are often micro-managed by Congress through the budget process -- to move 518 agents from their current duties into counter-terrorism. Most would be taken from anti-drug operations.
Before last Sept. 11, just under 2,200 of the FBI's 12,000 or so special agents were engaged in counter-terrorism operations. Now the figure has reached about 3,500, on its way to just over 3,700. In other words, almost one-third of the FBI's agent strength eventually will concentrate on preventing terror.
With the FBI reorganized, Ashcroft launched what he called a "zero tolerance" campaign modeled after former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's war on organized crime. Kennedy ordered federal agents to prosecute every crime they came across, even if it only involved "spitting on the sidewalk," in order to break up the mob.
Ashcroft told reporters his Justice Department would take the same approach to the problem of terrorism. Hundreds of illegal aliens were swept up in the FBI's investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Though only one suspect was directly charged in the Sept. 11 conspiracy -- Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Algerian descent now awaiting trial in Alexandria, Va. -- scores of others were suspected of having at least a peripheral role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since that role often could not be proven in a court of law, the FBI looked for other violations. Hundreds of illegal aliens were deported because of their status. Other illegal aliens, and even resident aliens and U.S. citizens, were charged with relatively minor crimes, such as participating in rings that manufactured illegal identification for aliens.
The Justice Department has released the names of the 131 suspects arrested on non-immigration charges. As of mid-August, 100 of those cases had been disposed of -- 85 by guilty pleas, nine by convictions and six with charges dismissed.
Of the 75 people still being detained on criminal charges, as opposed to simple immigration charges, 46 were in federal custody, one was in home detention, two were in state custody, 24 were in the custody of immigration officials -- even legal aliens convicted of a felony are deportable -- and two were in custody overseas.
In contrast to those numbers, the arrests by foreign governments of persons believed connected to al Qaida, though not necessarily to the Sept. 11 attacks, have been massive. By mid-summer, 2,400 suspects had been detained overseas by governments cooperating with the United States, including a Moroccan held in Germany and suspected of helping to plan the Sept. 11 attacks. That number also included around 100 al Qaida members arrested in Saudi Arabia.
The number of illegal aliens swept up in the United States is more problematic.
The Justice Department, while sometimes releasing numbers, has insisted on keeping immigration hearings, charges and the identities of those detained secret.
That policy has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. In a suit filed by the ACLU, a U.S. district judge has ordered the Justice Department to release the names and of all those detained in the wake of the Sept. 11 investigation, and the names of their lawyers. The department has appealed, however, and the judge has stayed her order until the appeal process is completed.
In her ruling, the judge said that there were 751 people detained because of immigration violations in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. As of June 13, only 74 were still in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
An unknown number of people, probably less than a dozen, were being held on material witness warrants in the Sept. 11 investigation.
In Cincinnati, a federal appeals court has ruled -- in a challenge brought by news media organizations -- that immigration hearings cannot be routinely held in secret. The department has said it would appeal that ruling as well.
One of the high points of the investigation so far is the release, by the State Department and the FBI, of a "Most Wanted Terrorists" list consisting of 22 Middle Eastern men indicted in the United States on terror charges. Bin Laden leads the list, but it also includes other al Qaida operatives who are wanted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in which more than 200 people were killed, including 12 Americans.
In March, Ashcroft announced that the department would seek the death penalty for Moussaoui, the only person charged directly in the Sept. 11 conspiracy.
Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota on immigration charges in August 2001, and was in custody when the attacks were carried out. He was taking lessons in a flight school when he aroused FBI suspicions. Agents didn't follow up with a search of his possessions because of problems getting warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
Also by March, the Justice Department interviewed 5,000 recent immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, asking for their cooperation in investigating the terror attacks and in preventing future attacks. Thousands more have been interviewed since then.
Critics of the interviews charge that they intimidate immigrants who are singled out because of their ethnic background.
John Walker Lindh, an American 20-year-old captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan last year, was indicted in February in Alexandria, Va., on terrorism charges. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges later in order to escape the death penalty.
"Shoe bomber" Richard Reid was indicted in Boston in January. Reid, a British national, was overcome by fellow passengers and a flight attendant when he allegedly tried to light explosives in his shoes while on a December flight from Paris to Miami.
The Justice Department has alleged that Reid also has connections to al Qaida.
Meanwhile, a U.S. citizen named Jose Padilla was arrested in May as he re-entered the United States at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Government prosecutors say Padilla received training at al Qaida camps in Afghanistan, and was plotting with the remaining leaders of the terrorist organization to set off a radioactive "dirty" bomb -- a conventional explosive device wrapped in radioactive material -- in an unspecified American city.
Investigators said the alleged conspiracy never really got beyond the planning stage.
Padilla, who now calls himself Abdullah Al Muhajir, has been classified an "enemy combatant," and was being held without access to a lawyer in a Navy brig in South Carolina.
Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Saudi who was captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban, was being held at a Navy brig in Norfolk, Va. Brought to the United States after it was discovered he was born in Louisiana while his parents worked in this country, he also has been classified as an "enemy combatant" and denied access to the courts, though like the Brooklyn-born Padilla he is a U.S. citizen.
The Justice Department has been fighting efforts in two federal courts by lawyers who would like to represent the men.
There was a burst of investigative activity in late August.
Five men were indicted in Detroit on charges of supporting terrorism. But the men were linked to the Salafiyyah, a Sunni fundamentalist organization, not to al Qaida. The indictment described the group as "a 'sleeper' operation combat group" as well as a support group.
In Seattle, Earnest James Ujaama was indicted on charges of supporting al Qaida, recruiting fighters and providing safe houses in Washington state and Oregon. However, he was not directly linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Early on Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers armed mainly with box-cutters attempted to take over four flights in the United States. They took control of the airliners by threatening members of the flight crew outside the cockpits. According to accounts given over cell phones in the doomed plane, when a locked door denied them access to at least one cockpit, they began slitting the throats of flight attendants until the horrified pilot and co-pilot surrendered.
Only one or two of the four or five hijackers aboard each flight -- there are 19 in all, 15 of them Saudi nationals -- had pilot's training. The pilot-trained hijackers were the only ones who knew what the ultimate fate of everyone on board would be, an amused bin Laden would say later on a videotape captured in Afghanistan. The other terrorists believed they were participating in a normal hijacking.
One of the flights out of Boston was deliberately crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The gaping hole and flames were shown on live television across the United States and across the world.
A second hijacked flight out of Boston was crashed into the south tower of the center on live TV. Both towers became engulfed in flames. New York City sealed off its airports, bridges and tunnels.
A third airliner, hijacked on a flight out of Dulles Airport near Washington, was crashed into the Pentagon. Though the Pentagon is in the Virginia suburbs, the column of smoke was visible across the nation's capital, even on Capitol Hill. U.S. warplanes flew over the city as commercial airliners made U-turns in the sky, heading back to their airports on government orders.
In New York City, the south tower of the World Trade Center was the first to collapse. The north tower collapsed about an hour later.
A fourth hijacked airliner, on a flight out of Newark, N.J., crashed in a rural area in western Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers, alerted by cell phone calls of the fate of the other three airliners, stormed the hijackers. Investigators would later say the White House was the target probable of this hijacked airliner.
Though initial estimates put the toll much higher, final estimates of those killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks hover around 3,000.
(This article is part of UPI's Special Package on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks).