War of the Worlds

Are terrorists in our midst?

The story so far:

Former radical members of a Seattle mosque may have ties to the Taliban and to a suspected Al Qaeda recruiter for Osama bin Laden. They may have been undertaking paramilitary operations in the heart of Seattle—possibly targeting reservoirs—and attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon. One of the militant Islamic group's former Seattle prayer leaders, Semi Osman, has been arrested following his grand jury indictment linked to terrorism. Another Seattle man with terrorism ties is also being held, according to his family.

Or not.

Despite the global headlines, Osman, 32, has not been charged with terrorism. He was arrested on an immigration violation in May and has pleaded not guilty (federal officials knew of his alleged violation as far back as 1993). Citing unnamed sources, the media has lodged most of the terror accusations, which federal officials refuse to confirm publicly. Conversely, some of the accused have gone on the record to deny the charges, including James Ujaama of Seattle, reportedly arrested in Denver Monday as a material witness (at press time Tuesday, the FBI wouldn't confirm the arrest). The alleged incidents happened almost two to five years ago, but neither the feds nor the media have explained exactly how they relate to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

So were there—are there—known terrorists in our midst? Is the city especially vulnerable to the next bomb or biological attack that U.S. officials flatly say is coming? What's a latte-jittery Seattleite to make of this?

"People do need to keep a perspective on whether or not Seattle is in fact a target of terrorism," says Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. "The perspective ought to be whether or not the threat is specific, what the level of credibility is, and who issued the information."

Since Sept. 11, the city has witnessed a U.S. Customs raid on a Somali money transfer office in the Rainier Valley reputedly linked to the Al Qaeda terror network; we've been told pictures of Pike Place Market and other landmarks were found on a bin Laden headquarters computer; Seattle FBI leader Charles Mandigo last month warned county officials that Seattle "has [received] and continues to receive a disproportionately high number of terrorism threats as compared to other parts of the country"; and we appear to have an increase of "swarthy" people poking around our military installations. A dangerous place, this Emerald City.

Again, maybe not.

Those scares have proved unworthy of our fears. The al Barakaat wire office raid produced no charges; the Seattle landmarks photos were just a few of many photos and thousands of documents the U.S. has seized in Afghanistan; Mandigo says none of those threats have been substantiated; and the most recent "terrorist" sighting, of two swarthy types on Whidbey Island, turned out to be a couple of Israeli moving men from Canada.

"There have been only two official threats issued by the federal government that were specific not only to Seattle but almost every major city across the country," says Kerlikowske. "We've gotten lots of pieces of information, but only two national warnings." As for reports suggesting Seattle has terrorist sympathizers, Kerlikowske says, "this is probably true in any major, diverse city where you have people sympathetic to a radical cause."

Still, Mandigo's June 26 closed-door statement to County Council members contrasted sharply with his February statement that "we have no specific knowledge of any plot or plan of terrorism in the state of Washington in the past, present, or future." What had changed? Again, the feds aren't talking, but the so-called mosque connection appears to have changed his thinking.

The catalyst was a claim apparently made in March by a prisoner at Camp X-ray in Cuba, where the U.S. is detaining suspected terrorists. The Los Angeles Times reported July 13 that Taliban fighter Feroz Abbassi had identified a "Seattle man" he'd once met at a meeting of radical Muslims at the London mosque led by bin Laden fanatic Abu Hamza al-Masri. An FBI alert forwarded here led to investigation of the Seattle man and snowballed into a probe of his acquaintances and their activities.

Two Seattle men last week identified themselves as being the presumed targets of the U.S. probe: Mustafa Ujaama, 34, and his brother James Ujaama, 36—the "Seattle man." They deny they've done anything wrong and claim they hadn't even talked to the feds until James was arrested this week. News reports, echoing the government's supposed claims, say James visited Abu Hamza's London mosque, helped set up an anti-American Web site, and delivered laptop computers to the Taliban. He and his brother say the trips, although political, were legitimate (James' elaborate and polished Web site, stopamerica.org, is unabashedly anti-U.S.-government, seeking to bring America's foreign policy makers to justice for "genocide" in Iraq and elsewhere). County Executive Ron Sims, according to spokesperson Elaine Kraft, doubts the accusations: "He knows them as community activists and does not think they are terrorists," she said last week.

The Seattle Times was first to get wind of the mosque probe last month, which had been hinted at in other news stories (in his June closed-door statement, Mandigo also said, "We do have individuals who have been in contact with known terrorists"). The Times broke the story July 12, after reporting on Osman's immigration and alleged terror ties back in May. Citing unnamed sources, the story linked what the paper called the Seattle "cell" with bin Laden, the Taliban, and an Oregon property allegedly used as a training camp. (CNN, also citing government sources, subsequently reported: "No one is saying that these men are part of a sleeper cell for Al Qaeda. They are merely saying that there's enough information out there to raise concerns. And that's pretty much it in a nutshell. . . .")

The Post-Intelligencer and other papers followed up, with the P-I knocking down some of the scary implications and getting the first full interview and denial from Mustafa Ujaama. The L.A. Times stepped in with details from the FBI alert that said the Oregon Al Qaeda training actually took place (the camp was "planned and conducted," said the FBI document). In contrast, CNN reported: "There is no evidence to suggest right now that it was ever used as a terrorist training camp." Mosque members said they wanted to use the ranch to raise animals for religiously pure meats. Others conceded the former Seattle mosque had a small cache of arms but stated those were used to ward off drug dealers.

Some of the claims attributed to federal officials were difficult to swallow: more than a dozen African American and Middle Eastern men trying to set up a terror camp outside Bly, a small farming town in southern Oregon—without being noticed? (The Washington Post last week quoted a Seattle Muslim as saying, "If a Muslim shoots a gun down there [Oregon], they call him a terrorist. If anyone else does, they call him a hunter.") Time frames were missing from many stories; several reported, for example, that the "Seattle man" delivered computers to the Taliban "prior to Sept. 11," without noting it was almost two years prior.

Also missing was the information that Osman had been walking around for nine years as an alien lawbreaker. A federal court document says that in March 1993, a Maryland man, Patrick Sesay, "executed a sworn statement [to U.S. authorities] in which he admitted his arrangement of fraudulent marriages, including the one between Osman and [his first wife] Britt." Osman's recent indictment was for making a false immigration application related to that "sham" marriage. After almost a decade, he was suddenly a wanted man.

Osman was arrested May 17 during an INS interview while the feds raided his Tacoma apartment, and also charged with a weapons violation after one of three guns that turned up in a search reportedly had the serial number removed. Also allegedly found was anti-American literature, military instruction manuals, and "camping gear." Agents impounded his computer and car as well. A part-time mechanic and vocational school student on his third marriage, Osman reported in his application for a court-appointed attorney that he earned $8 an hour, had received $600 in state welfare, and was making $140 a week from the Navy reserve.

The only verifiable indicator of the government's terrorism claims is a May 31 court search warrant application that says Osman was being investigated for "material support for terrorists or foreign terrorist organizations." Osman's attorney, Robert Leen, was quoted in the P-I confirming a grand jury probe of people "associated with the mosque." The next day the L.A. Times reported that Leen "said he knew nothing of a grand jury inquiry." Last week, Leen wasn't around. "He's not here," said a receptionist, "and he has no comment."

Meanwhile, the suspected mosque is long closed, and its members scattered. The Bly ranch is occupied by a neighborly couple (the recent invasion of reporters was the town's biggest shocker since May 1945, near the end of World War II, when five Bly children and a woman were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb). Osman has an evidentiary hearing scheduled for this Friday. He is expected to get his full day in court in October.

Nothing to do now but wait. "I can only repeat what I keep saying," says Chief Kerlikowske. "Make sure any perceived threat is credible and direct. We've had a number of reports after Sept. 11 of people seeing white powder, and responded to lots of similar concerns. We're going to continue to do that. But I would hope rational thinking will play an important part of this." Stay alert, stay alive; read responsibly.


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