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FBI Conducts Nationwide Search for Five Men of Arab Descent

Aired December 29, 2002 - 16:54   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta, where we continue to follow this breaking story for you as the FBI conducts a nationwide search for five men they describe "men of interest" who are of Arab descent who may have crossed a border into the U.S., allegedly entering the U.S. illegally. Our CNN's Jeanne Meserve is following this story from Washington with more information -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, since we last talked, I have talked to another source and gotten a few bits more of information. We had been told earlier that these names came up in ongoing investigations. I am told by a source that some of these sources -- some of these investigations were domestic, some were overseas, and that these names came up repeatedly. That is why they're interested in finding these five individuals.

They think they came into this country, the FBI does, on or around December 24. That would be Christmas Eve. It is a possibility that they came across from Canada, but they do not know that for certain, and they want to talk to these people, one, because they came in illegally. Two, because they want to find out why they are here, but my source also tells me that they are interested in finding out what these individuals know. They think that information in the possession of these five men may shed broader light on the situation facing the United States right now in terms of its security.

You've been seeing their pictures and names. These have been posted on the FBI Web site. The FBI asking for the public's assistance in this. In addition, an inlets message has been sent out to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, asking them to be on the lookout for this -- these five individuals, who are described as being Middle Eastern.

No country of origin given by the FBI. However, one terrorism expert with whom I've spoken says these names all do sound Pakistani to him. Nothing definitive on where they're from, however.

One individual says to me that they think this must be of significant concern. This is a well-placed individual in the terrorism field, who believes these people must be of significant concern for the FBI to have taken this step of putting this up on the Web site on a Sunday afternoon to enlist people's help in finding these individuals. As this person put it to me, why do they have 285 million people looking for these men -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And Jeanne, all we know too, in addition to the names that could be changing, you had mentioned earlier their birth dates. These individuals likely in their 20s and 30s. Is it believed that they are traveling together at this point or may have dispersed?

MESERVE: Fredricka, I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know whether they came in or they believe they came in as a group or whether they came over individually. If they believe they came over at one crossing, or potentially at a number of different points along the border. We simply do not have that information at this point. We'll try and find out.

WHITFIELD: All right. You mentioned that 18,000 local jurisdictions have been notified about this. In what way are they being asked to facilitate or help out in this search?

MESERVE: Well, I talked to one state official and asked what happens when you get one of these lookouts? He said it is distributed to people on the street so they have the information in hand in case they might see somebody who might be doing something suspicious. But he said the general rule, that's as far as it goes, unless they get some further information that's more specific. If, for instance, they found out that they were operating, I don't know, in the state of Oklahoma, as an example, maybe then local law enforcement there would go to its sources on the street and pump them for information to see if they know anything more about these five individuals.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeanne in Washington, don't go far. Want to hold you tight for a moment. Want to bring in security analyst Mike Brooks on the telephone with us to give us some insight that you might have, Mike, as to how important or how significant this kind of alert is from the FBI that they would alert the nation at this point about five possible folks who may have come into this country illegally.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: No, Fredricka. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people coming into the United States and the news of them coming into the United States across the Canadian border, it's very important, especially, as Jeanne pointed out, getting the word out to local law enforcement. Local law enforcement are the frontlines where the rubber meets the road. If they have pulled over a car for a simple traffic stop, you know, somewhere in Seattle or Washington, D.C. or Florida, they will be able to find out exactly who these people are.

It's unusual for the FBI to put this kind of information out. You know, right now, I think there is not too much specific information about how these people are involved, or if they are involved in any kind of a terrorist plot. There is nothing, there is no specific information. But we do know that these people did cross the border, coming into the United States illegally. And apparently, they are using false names.

So the information that's getting out to the law enforcement community through (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is extremely important, and it's highly unusual for them to put this out, as Jeanne said, on a Sunday afternoon. WHITFIELD: Well, Mike, I know you're on a telephone and you may not be in front of the monitor where you're able to see the photographs that have been released that we're able to put on our air, but not all of the photographs are of the best quality, so is there some concern that there may be a rush of judgment of people in the community across the country who may think they see someone who looks like a photograph and immediately react to that?

BROOKS: Well, you know, they do have photographs, and that's something that it's more than just names. So if they do have photographs, that means that they have at least looked into this and have said, determined that these people are of some interest to the United States in the terms of a possible link to some kind of terrorism. So if someone out there sees these people or someone that looks like them and they do contact law enforcement, and, you know, that is the reason to put that out there. They wouldn't put the pictures out if they didn't want people to contact law enforcement.

If people are out there and they do see someone that resembles these people, someone that they know, please contact law enforcement, because they could be of some interest to them. If they are the wrong people, I'm sure that they would greatly understand, especially in this time, and what we're going through right now here in the United States, and that they would be more than understanding if it was not the person that they did stop.

WHITFIELD: All right, Mike, hold tight for a moment. I want to bring Jeanne back into the equation here -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: I just wanted to underline that it is possible that they came over the border from Canada. They are not absolutely sure that's how they came across or if they came across. Of course, that border of tremendous concern. It stretches from coast to coast. There are certain designated border crossings, but there are great stretches of land in between. The United States has gone to considerable steps and expense to try and beef up along those borders, not only with people but also with technology. They've installed ground sensors and surveillance cameras to try and catch people who are coming across, but it is not a fail/safe system.

So just wanted to underline that it is possible they came across that way, not definitive that they came that way or that they come at all. Also just to mention, that they have done this before, they have put names and pictures up on the FBI Web site. They have asked law enforcement and the public's help in getting individuals, but it is unusual that they're doing it on a Sunday afternoon, and underlining it quite sharply to the media, letting us know that those names and faces are there.

WHITFIELD: And Jeanne, when -- would you mind just kind of recapping the information that you have as to why we're at this point where the FBI has issued this nationwide search for these five individuals.

MESERVE: The FBI said that the names of these individuals came up in ongoing investigations. Sources tell me that some of -- there were multiple investigations in which these names turned up -- some of them domestic investigations, some of them investigations being conducted overseas. We don't know any more specifics about where the names came from than that.

We also do not know whether law enforcement thinks they may be up to something imminent. We do know they at least want to talk to them and find out what they're doing in this country, and my source tells me also that they want to talk to these individuals about what they know, because they think they could give them broader information than they already have. They are -- they apparently have lost track of these individuals, and so they're asking everyone across the nation, especially law enforcement, but also average citizens to please be on the lookout for these five.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeanne, hold on a moment. Let me bring Mike back into this, Mike Brooks on the phone with us, our security analyst for CNN. Now, Mike, ordinarily when you a list of names of interest that the FBI and other security agencies have, they oftentimes will distribute those to various border crossings so that everybody is on board. In a case like this, if these names were already sort of red-flagged names on a list, how would you suspect that these individuals may be able to enter? Jeanne also mentioned the point that they may be using different names.

BROOKS: Well, that's the whole point. If they were using different names and they came across the border with the phony passports, phony documents, there's a possibility they could get into the United States. When you look back right before the millennium when Ressam came across here, came across the border in Port Angeles (ph), Washington, you know, trying to perform acts of terrorism for the millennium. So we know that the borders coming from Canada sometimes aren't the best, you know, aren't the most secure.

Our people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service try to do a good job on those borders, but also we have to call upon folks in Canada to help with people who are coming into Canada from other countries, you know, try to -- they're the first point of contact that people coming in through Canada have.

So I think we need to make sure that the folks in Canada and the authorities in Canada are doing the proper job also, because they come in through Canada and down through the United States.

So I think the United States needs to take another look and make sure that the folks in Canada and the authorities in Canada are firming up their borders, also, with people coming into the United States. They're going to be the first line of defense on people coming through into North America through Canada and then through the United States.

WHITFIELD: And once again, Mike, if we can just caution and underscore that we still are uncertain as to whether Canada ended up being a border crossing of these five people who are now on this sort of wanted list, at least for questioning of the FBI. We're really not certain exactly how they've entered, but it's a possibility -- at least that's one of the entry points that has been tossed around at this point.

And Mike, it seems like the timing couldn't have been worse, of course, with many people still traveling over the holidays and trying to make their way around, and now the nation's airports are going to be carrying out beefed up security measures starting new year's day.

BROOKS: Exactly. And there are a number of other measures going in the airports in the United States with the Transportation Security Administration are doing a much better job of making sure that our fliers are more secure than they were before. But right now, I think it's probably one of the safest times in civil aviation to fly here in the United States and abroad. The Transportation Security Administration, with the new security checkpoints and the new measures that are taken at the security checkpoints, are doing a fantastic job of making sure that our flying public here in the United States are secure to fly over the holidays.

WHITFIELD: Mike, do you have any concerns at this point that this sort of very vague notice, even though there are photographs and there are some names being associated with those photographs, that perhaps this kind of notice might alarm an awful lot of people?

BROOKS: Well, I think right now we have been, Fredricka, in kind of a total disclosure mode, if you will, here in the United States. Whenever the Transportation Security Administration, the homeland security, FBI, whenever they get information as of late of any incidents at all that can happen here in the United States, they've been putting them out to the public in kind of a full disclosure mode.

I think the people here in the United States have kind of taken this in stride and they're kind of looking at it from the effect of, well, you know, if they didn't want us to have the information, they wouldn't give it to us. If they're giving it to us, it's got to be important, so we have to take it in stride and we have to take it as important.

So I think the people here in the U.S. are kind of taking it that way. And especially over the holidays, and with, you know, the problems we're having in Iraq and with the problems we're having now with North Korea, people are very attuned to what's going on in the world with terrorism right now. And they would rather know it than rather -- than have it be a surprise. So I think the people here in the U.S. are very attuned to what's going on, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, CNN's security analyst Mike Brooks, as well as CNN's Jeanne Meserve from Washington, thank you very much. We're going to let you all continue to work your sources to get more information on this story.



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