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Arrests may have disrupted cells

©Associated Press,
published October 15, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Federal law enforcement officials said Sunday that their aggressive campaign of arrests in recent weeks had broken up several active al-Qaida cells in the United States.

Of the nearly 700 people arrested in the United States as part of the terrorism investigation, at least 10 were part of cells linked to al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terror network, the New York Times reported, citing senior law enforcement officials. The officials said they were still investigating whether any of the 10 had played a supporting role -- either wittingly or unwittingly -- in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The officials told the newspaper that they did not know whether the arrests had thwarted any specific plans for terrorist attacks.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a television appearance Sunday morning, said law enforcement officials were convinced that al-Qaida members remain at large in the United States and are actively planning additional attacks.

Law enforcement officials declined to identify any of the cells' members who were in custody or where these organizations were based, the newspaper reported. But one official said that most members of the disrupted cells had ties to al-Qaida that were known to counterterrorism officials before the attacks.

Investigators are still trying to determine if others already in custody also have ties to al-Qaida, the officials said.

"I think it's fair to say that some of the individuals that we have in custody, that we've detained and arrested, we believe have knowledge of one kind that would be relevant to our investigation, or could have been in some way associated with, by way of helping or assisting or participating," Ashcroft said on the CBS TV program Face the Nation.

The attorney general made his remarks on an otherwise quiet Sunday, a day when the FBI had placed the public and law enforcement agencies on the highest possible alert for additional terrorist attacks here and against American interests around the world.

Ashcroft also acknowledged Sunday that law enforcement officials are convinced that al-Qaida members connected to the Sept. 11 attacks remain in the United States.

"I believe that it's very unlikely that all of those individuals that were associated with or involved with the terrorism events of Sept. 11 and other terrorism events that may have been prepositioned and preplanned have been apprehended," Ashcroft said on the NBC program Meet the Press.

"We are doing everything possible to disrupt, interrupt, prevent, to destabilize any additional activity. We are looking for individuals and aggressively pursuing them."

Ashcroft said he could not be sure of the effect of the arrests.

"We can't say with any certainty that we've stopped incidents," he said. "We simply think that there were risks that required us to notify people to adjust their behavior, and we haven't had an incident."

He added: "There's a sense in which the ones you prevent and delay, disrupt or avoid, are the ones you don't hear about."

A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the government strategy of arresting people with suspected ties to terrorist activity has been a success. The authorities are searching for 190 people listed on a watch list distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide. Ashcroft and other law officials said Sunday that they think some of the people on the watch list have ties to the 19 suicide hijackers.

A senior law enforcement official refused Sunday night to say how many active cells the authorities believe may still be operating inside the United States.

In recent weeks, Ashcroft and the authorities have repeatedly warned the nation's 18,000 law enforcement organizations and the public about the possibility of additional terrorist attacks.

Ashcroft said that federal law enforcement authorities had processed 573 threats, but he declined to discuss specific targets.

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