MARGARET WARNER: Now, the new terror cases. The three British nationals indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan were charged with: Conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support and resources to terrorists, and conspiring to damage and destroy buildings, in New York City, Newark, and Washington, D.C.
We get more on the story from David Johnston of the New York Times. Welcome back, David. We all remember last August during the campaign when the terror alert level was raised on these buildings, but there were really no details at the time. What does this indictment now tell us about the scope of the plot, alleged plot?
DAVID JOHNSTON: What we see here are three men who have been charged with traveling to the United States at various dates and times, primarily in 2000 and 2001. And they're accused of having traveled to these various financial center sites in New York and Newark and Washington, D.C. to scout and surveil the sites in preparation for a possible attack, few details though about precisely what they did and whether this surveillance turned into actual operational work in preparation for an attack.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, though the indictment mentions weapons of mass destruction, I gather from the press conference today, the U.S. is not alleging that they planned to use chemical, biological or nuclear; is that right?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No, these men were arrested in Britain last August at about the time the terror alert was raised. And at least one of them had had a so-called terrorist notebook that had information about chemicals, explosives. There is some thinking that the prosecutors are reaching back to those kinds of materials that were found when these men were arrested in Britain to establish the count about possible use of weapons of mass destruction.
MARGARET WARNER: So how did the authorities get wise to this ongoing plot?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there's one intriguing clue in the final report of the commission that examined the 9/11 attack. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks is said to have told interrogators that one of the three men was sent to the United States by him.
That Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sent a man identified as Adirin Barat in the indictment also known as Esa Ablatani in the 9/11 report, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sent him to the United States for purposes of reconnaissance missions at these financial targets.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what else is known about these three men?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there is really a great deal known about Britani or Barat and less about the other two who are believed to be subordinate to him. But Britani at one point was an instructor in an Osama bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan and where they were teaching explosives and paramilitary work. Then he is known to have traveled widely, has been living in Britain and is thought to be an al-Qaida follower.
MARGARET WARNER: Now if you look at the time they said this surveillance was going on, 2000, 2001, that's about the time of pre-9/11 planning. Are U.S. authorities alleging a connection between the two?
DAVID JOHNSTON: There is no indication at this point that there was any overlap between the 9/11 plot and these events. And in fact, there is some evidence that in their planning, that al-Qaida tried to keep some of these planning efforts separate so that a person who was involved in the 9/11 attacks would not know of other planning efforts going on for other targets.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you've mentioned a couple of times of al-Qaida connections. And yet at the press conference today, when asked, the deputy attorney general said, "Well we're not alleging al-Qaida involvement." Now what was that about?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Unclear. There was very little information at the news conference about what was going on here. In fact, there was considerably more information in the 9/11 Commission report about at least Barat, than about the other men. And I should add, not so clear from the news conference about why this indictment was brought today. There is some sense that authorities had this evidence, decided to go ahead simply as a matter of kind of reaching critical mass.
MARGARET WARNER: And he did say that the plot, even though the surveillance ended in '01 and I guess, the three guys left the U.S. that it was still "alive and kicking" in 2004. Do they give any evidence of that that the plot was still alive last August when they raised the terror alert?
DAVID JOHNSTON: There is no evidence in the indictment. However, last year when the same issue arose of the sort of datedness of these activities, there was some indication then that some of the plans had been updated to some degree.
That is to say, there was some indication that some of the information found in laptop computers had been downloaded or examined or pulled up and refreshed. And there is the underlying thought about al-Qaida that once a target is selected, that it's not easily given up on; or that they are willing to take a very long time to plan an attack. So the datedness of this has never really bothered officials who are involved in terrorism.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. David Johnston, thank you so much.