WASHINGTON - The federal government brought terrorism charges against six men yesterday, accusing them of conspiring to help al-Qaida members who were plotting to attack the United States.
The charges are the first against people allegedly operating underground support groups, or "sleeper cells," on American soil to aid Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Federal investigators say they have detected a broad range of criminal activity involving credit cards and other document fraud that appears intended to aid or enrich terrorist groups and their sympathizers.
The indictments, issued by grand juries in Detroit and Seattle, are part of what authorities say will be a wave of charges that the government will bring in coming months to try to crush terrorist groups operating in the United States.
"We're trying to choke off our enemies," a senior Justice Department official said.
The indictments do not accuse the men of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, though the charges grew out of the investigation that followed.
In Detroit, a grand jury indicted five men on charges of providing material support to terrorist groups and committing document and identification fraud. Authorities said the group operated a sleeper cell for a terrorist group that worked with al-Qaida.
The group, which appears to have functioned for at least the past two years, scouted U.S. landmarks such as Disneyland in California and the MGM Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, as well as places abroad, such as a U.S. airbase in Turkey and the U.S. Embassy in Jordan, the indictment said.
Authorities said the men also tried to buy weapons in Detroit, surveyed the Detroit airport and spoke by telephone about trying to obtain licenses to transport hazardous chemicals.
"The defendants," the indictment said, "were involved in plans to obtain weaponry, to benefit operatives overseas, to recruit persons for violent activity, to arrange for the entry of recruits into the United States, where they would be trained for global jihad [holy war]."
A grand jury in Seattle indicted an American citizen, Earnest James Ujaama on similar but unrelated charges of providing material support to al-Qaida.
According to the indictment, Ujaama, who was born James Earnest Thompson and grew up in Seattle, tried to create a network of safe houses, computer services and recruits for al-Qaida members who had come to the United States to plot attacks.
The indictment says Ujaama, a Muslim activist, tried to establish a training camp at a compound in Bly, Ore., where he and other conspirators wanted to conduct firearms and military training.
In an October 1999 fax to an unnamed co-conspirator who is not named in the indictment, Ujaama compared the terrain of the Bly compound to Afghanistan, and noted that its hidden bunkers would be good for storing ammunition and weapons, authorities said.
Ujaama was charged with possessing and using weapons to further his goal of training, recruiting and aiding terrorists.
According to the indictment, Ujaama was apparently worried in May that the U.S. government had infiltrated the network. He called a man - who unbeknownst to him was cooperating with the government - to ask whether he thought another member was a government spy.
Ujaama's attorney, Dan Sears, said the charges against his client are false and seem to be based largely on the account of three unnamed co-conspirators, thus making it difficult for Ujaama to defend himself.
Ujaama's longtime community activism in fighting drugs and gangs has drawn acclaim in the past. In 1994, lawmakers in Washington state designated a James Ujaama Day.
Ujaama released a statement before the indictment that said in part: "The fact is that I am innocent of any wrongdoing. ... I believe that any charges forthcoming will allow me to show publicly what I have maintained all along - the government is conducting a witch hunt."
According to the indictments, the five others charged yesterday seem to have operated unnoticed for nearly as long - until the investigation began into the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Seattle grand jury charged Karin Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, Youssef Hmimssa, Farouk Ali-Haimoud and a man known only by his first name, Abdella Lnu, with providing materials and aid to terrorists.
Koubriti, Ali-Haimoud and Hannan were arrested Sept. 17, when federal agents raided their Detroit apartment in search of another man. Agents confiscated fake documents and charged them with document fraud in March. Yesterday's indictment replaces those charges.
Though Hmimssa was charged in the indictment, in his case it made no mention of any specific acts. It is not clear why.
The indictment says the group sold fraudulent immigration papers and driver's licenses and committed credit card fraud to pay for their activities, recruit new members and bring "brothers" from abroad into the country to commit violent acts.
Koubriti, 23, Hannan, 33, and Ali-Haimoud, 21, shared apartments in Detroit and Dearborn, Mich., and, according to prosecutors, took orders from Lnu, who was based in Chicago.
Koubriti and Hannan, both born in Morocco, entered the country through New York in the fall of 2000. Ali-Haimoud was born in Algeria and came to the United States in November 1999.
In the spring and summer of 2001, prosecutors say, the three men worked for a vendor at the Detroit airport with the intention of detecting holes in airport security.
The indictment says the three received instructions from Lnu in code and tried at one point to disguise their plans by using a mentally unstable man as a decoy to hold some of their documents and sign them with his name.