The FBI warned today of possible mail bombs being sent from Germany to addresses in the United States even as federal officials urged Americans to stay calm but vigilant about possible terrorist threats.
Meanwhile, authorities are searching for links between suspicious individuals, including an Algerian arraigned in Seattle on Wednesday, and alleged terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden.
An FBI statement issued before dawn today warned that it had received "unsubstantiated information that individuals may be planning to send bombs in small parcels to addresses in the United States" from Frankfurt, Germany.
The FBI warning has prompted the Postal Inspection Service to begin screening all incoming parcels and first-class mail from Frankfurt, Germany, Inspection Service spokesman Dan Mihalko said. Inspectors are using X-ray machines to check the mail at U.S. airports where it arrives, he said.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the public is being promptly alerted to this information," the FBI statement said. "The public should be cautious with parcels originating from or bearing Frankfurt, Germany, postal markings or stamps when the sender is unknown or unfamiliar to the recipient. Questionable packages should not be handled, and local authorities should be notified."
The statement gave no further details nor any indication of which "individuals" were involved in the potential threat.
On Wednesday, Ahmed Ressam, accused of transporting materials for a powerful bomb across the U.S.-Canada border, entered a not guilty plea as federal prosecutors issued a general warning to potential accomplices.
"If there is anybody out there that is an associate or has any plots or plans, now would be an excellent time to disassociate himself and come to the authorities," Katrina Pflaumer, the U.S. attorney in Seattle, said after 32-year-old Ressam's appearance in U.S. district court.
A federal grand jury earlier in the day returned a five-count indictment sufficient to hold Ressam on charges of illegally smuggling nitroglycerin across the border on a ferry between Victoria, British Columbia, and the small Washington State town of Port Angeles.
Ressam was also indicted on charges he made false statements to U.S. customs officers; transported explosives; committed a felony while carrying explosives; and possessed unregistered firearms -- the apparent timing devices found in Ressam's car.
But federal prosecutors would not discuss a widening investigation into Ressam's purported ties with Islamic militants in Canada and refused to say whether the indictment would be used as leverage to persuade Ressam to name others who may have been involved in a plot to bomb targets in the United States.
"Recent events that have been reported in the newspaper give us concern that there may be other people out there involved in other similar enterprises," Pflaumer said. "I think we all need to be reflective and concerned as we reach the end of the century and the millennium. "
In Washington, D.C., President Clinton urged citizens to "be careful" as the year's end approaches.
"As citizens I would say that they ought to go about their business and enjoy themselves and make the most of it," Clinton said. "But I would ask them to be aware of the circumstances and, if they see something suspicious, to report it immediately."
Clinton also sought to assure Americans that the government was doing "everything we possibly can; we're taking extraordinary measures" to ensure their safety in light of Ressam's arrest.
During his hearing Wednesday, Ressam listened quietly to the proceedings, which were translated into Arabic. He occasionally nodded his head, indicating that he understood the charges against him. U.S. Magistrate John L. Weinberg ordered Ressam held without bail.
"He's holding up. He's scared. He's in a foreign country under difficult circumstances," said chief federal public defender Tom Hillier, who communicates with his client through a French interpreter.
Authorities are attempting to locate possible associates of Ressam -- including one who purchased a second ferry ticket. The ticket stub was found in Ressam's possession when he was detained by U.S. Customs Service officers at the Port Angeles terminal following a search of his car.
A prime target of the search is a man who stayed with Ressam for several weeks at a Vancouver motel before Ressam's departure for Victoria and the United States. Because Ressam had flight reservations to depart for London a day after his arrival in Washington state, authorities suspect that he may have intended to deliver his explosive cargo to someone already in this country.
Senior U.S. officials have said they are focusing on potential ties to bin Laden, a Saudi Islamic militant who has organized and funded Islamic militant groups throughout the Middle East -- including insurgents in Algeria who have sought to overthrow the government there and establish an Islamic state.
Bin Laden is believed to have directed last year's bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In Montreal, where Ressam lived for the past several years, authorities have said they also are looking at potential ties between Ressam and the Armed Islamic Group -- the most militant of the Islamic factions in Algeria -- responsible for some of the most brutal massacres in a civil war that has claimed 100,000 lives since 1992.
A communique in September from the secretive leader of that group, Antar Zouabri, warned of pending attacks against targets in the United States and elsewhere and insisted that the Afghanistan-based bin Laden would not be directing these attacks.
Toronto's Globe and Mail reported today that a Canadian Security and Intelligence Service agent said Ressam has been linked to bin Laden.
The intelligence service agent told the paper Ressam was trained to make bombs at bin Laden's base in Afghanistan. "This man is a professional. We know he had ties to bin Laden," the agent told the Globe.
Investigators in Montreal are exploring Ressam's purported friendship with Karim Said Atmani, who was sought in France on charges stemming from a 1995 bombing in the Paris subway that killed four people and injured 86. The attack was attributed to the Armed Islamic Group.
Ressam himself sought refugee status in Canada in 1995 based on assertions that he had been falsely arrested as an Islamic terrorist, imprisoned for 15 months and tortured in Algeria, "even though I have no connections to Islamic movements," according to Canadian press reports.
Ressam never showed up for his refugee status hearing, and an arrest warrant issued for him in 1998 cited criminal charges of theft and breaking and entering in Montreal. By that time, Ressam apparently had obtained a Canadian passport by using a false birth certificate with the name Benni Antoine Noris.
After the hearing, both prosecutors and defense lawyers denied reports that they have launched discussions of a plea agreement aimed at winning Ressam's cooperation in naming other potential suspects.
Officials throughout the government took Clinton's cue on warnings.
"Panic is not in our vocabulary," said State Department deputy spokesman James B. Foley even as he again cautioned Americans abroad to be vigilant and avoid crowds and said, "We have information that leads us to conclude that terrorists may be planning attacks around the world."
Pressed on whether this meant Americans should call off Christmas, New Year's and millennial celebrations, Foley said the warnings were "a cautionary light, not a red light."
Michael Sheehan, coordinator of the State Department's office on counterterrorism, said the government was balancing two competing requirements.
"One is to share information we have regarding threats in a prudent manner, and the other is not to be overly alarmist so as to unnecessarily frighten the American people, especially those who are traveling abroad," Sheehan said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said today that a woman arrested along with an Algerian national at the Vermont-Canadian border has ties to a member of an Algerian terrorist group.
The disclosure came as prosecutors argued successfully in federal court to keep Lucia Garofalo and Bouabide Chamchi in jail. Both were arrested Sunday at a remote border crossing in northeastern Vermont.
Prosecutors said in court documents that they have linked Garofalo's cell phone and the car she was driving to a member of the Algerian Islamic League, whose leader is said to be connected to "organizations sponsoring a number of terrorist acts in Europe and Algeria," according to court documents.
Prosecutors said that information came from American intelligence sources, which they did not further identify.
The prosecutors said that Garofalo's cell phone account was opened by Brahim Mahdi, a member of the Algerian Islamic League. The car she was driving when stopped at the border Sunday night was also registered in his name, they said.