Triangle man tied to unconfirmed 9/11 bomb threat

Posted September 9, 2011 3:33 a.m. EDT
Updated September 9, 2011 6:40 p.m. EDT

— A man accused of being part of a terrorist cell in the Triangle has been linked to what U.S. counter-terrorism officials have called a credible but unconfirmed al-Qaida threat to set off a car bomb on bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Jude Kenan Mohammad is among three al-Qaida leaders that investigators believe pose a particular threat because they have lived in the U.S.

"Here's your likely profile of someone with the wherewithal, the motivation (and) the contacts to carry out that sort of attack," said Frank Perry, a former FBI agent in Raleigh.

Mohammad, 22, dropped out of Fuquay-Varina High School in 2006 and left the U.S. two years later to visit Pakistan, his father's homeland.

A federal grand jury indicted him and seven other Triangle men in 2009 on charges that they conspired to carry out terrorist activities around the world. Two of the men have pleaded guilty, and the trial of four others is set for Sept. 19 in New Bern.

Federal authorities have never arrested Mohammad in the case, saying that they believe he has been in Pakistan since the indictment was issued.

"They were far along in their planning and he's not here, so perhaps he's done more planning since then," Perry said. "If he's a so-called leader, it could be a leader for a particular operation. It could be a leader of a particular cell."

The car bomb threat is the first word of an "active plot" timed to coincide with the somber commemoration of al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks a decade ago that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Counter-terrorism officials were investigating the threat throughout Thursday night and Friday morning, as police in New York and Washington said they would increase their already stepped-up staffing levels in light of the recent intelligence.

Law enforcement officials were pursuing three people who may be traveling to the U.S. or who have recently entered the country, based on the detailed information received by the U.S. intelligence community late Wednesday, officials said. The intelligence suggested that al-Qaida planned to car bomb one of the two cities that were hit 10 years ago.

Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that there was no confirmation that anyone had traveled into the U.S. for such a plot although the tip came from a credible source. "There's no certitude," he said.

"The thing we are all most worried about is what they call a 'lone ranger,' a lone actor, not some extremely complicated plan like it took to take down the World Trade towers," said Biden, who appeared on the trio of network morning TV shows Friday.

A U.S. official said the source of the terror tip indicated that al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was involved in planning the plot. But the official also said that many in the intelligence community question that and other aspects of the source's information.

The nation's terror alert level has not changed, but raising it was under consideration Thursday night.

Some New York residents said they were already on high alert.

"When I heard it this morning on the radio, it definitely made me a little bit nervous, but I think you kind of have to go on," resident Mark Clark said. "I trust that we've made some of the changes that we need to be safer in the meantime."

"Your best place is stay in the house during the day. Don't come out because you don't know what's going to happen," resident Quinseya Johnson said.

Others said they were confident that security measures were in place to protect the city from another terrorist attack.

"I don't think that you should be scaring the whole world," student David Klugman said. "Police will do what they have to do – take the proper security measures – and hopefully nothing will happen."

"Because of all the things in place now, I think the city is probably a lot safer now than it was before," resident Jim Coles said.

Officials described the threat to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

Security has been enhanced around the country in the weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary, a date officials have long known could draw an attack. Law enforcement officials have been particularly wary after information gleaned from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan indicated that al-Qaida had considered attacking the U.S. on this anniversary and other important American dates. Officials have also been concerned that terrorists would see the anniversary as an opportunity to retaliate against the U.S. for killing bin Laden in a military raid in May.

The FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a joint intelligence bulletin Thursday night to law enforcement around the country urging them to maintain increased security and be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

The threat came in a single piece of information and was so specific – and came at such a time of already heightened alert – that it could not be ignored, officials said.

"There is specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information," said Janice Fedarcyk, the head of the FBI's New York division. "As we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that police there were deploying additional resources around the city but that New Yorkers should go about their business as usual, and the city's observance of the attacks will go on as planned.

In Washington, law enforcement officials said they were working 12-hour days indefinitely, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier said unattended cars parked in unusual locations risked being towed.

Briefed on the threat information Thursday morning, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. counter-terrorism community to redouble its efforts, a White House official said.

As of late Thursday, there were no plans to change Obama's travel schedule on Sunday in light of the threat, the White House said. The president is scheduled to mark the 9/11 anniversary with stops at New York's ground zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. He also will deliver remarks Sunday night at a memorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Law enforcement officials are checking out all of the details included in the threat, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said.

"No need to panic," King said. "They have not been able to confirm it yet."

Intelligence officials had not seen any specific or credible threats regarding an attack around the anniversary before Wednesday.

Thursday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that there was "a lot of chatter" around the anniversary of the attacks but that there was no information about a specific threat. Napolitano had been briefed on early interpretations of the threat that morning as intelligence officials were still trying to determine the validity of the information. It later became clear that the threat was specific and credible and could not be dismissed, even though it has not been confirmed.