Authorities have charged 20 people with fraudulently obtaining licenses to haul hazardous materials, including some who may have links to the terrorists who staged the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, Justice Department officials said Tuesday.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the arrests and other information that investigators developed show the nation must be on alert for future attacks. "Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today," he said.
Ashcroft's remarks and the disclosure of the new charges focused attention on the prospect of a new terrorist threat -- not in the skies, but on the roads.
The FBI and the Department of Transportation are warning the trucking industry to watch for suspicious activity in connection with hazardous chemicals, including radioactive waste and other substances that can be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
A hazardous-material license, or "endorsement" as it is known, allows a commercial driver who has passed a written test to haul large amounts of gasoline, diesel fuel, chemicals, explosives and other dangerous or flammable substances.
Authorities became concerned about the threat after discovering that a suspect in the Sept. 11 attack investigation, who was arrested near Chicago last week as a material witness, had obtained a commercial license from the State of Michigan last year allowing him to haul hazardous materials on 18-wheelers.
FBI field offices around the country Tuesday began searching hazardous-material licensing data from state motor vehicle records and matching it against a list of nearly 400 people who authorities believe may have information on the case. Agents were instructed to follow up on anyone who showed up on both lists.
Investigators are seeking to determine whether the hijackers or people associated with them may have hatched a scheme to hijack trucks hauling hazardous chemicals.
Monday, the FBI also asked mosquito-control personnel to take an immediate inventory of their trucks and other equipment and report any missing or stolen pieces.
In another development, a Virginia man whose name and phone number were found in a car registered to one of the 19 suspected hijackers was ordered held without bond today. A prosecutor described him as an essential witness, adding, "He may be more."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Curtis Sewell ordered Mohamed Abdi of Alexandria held following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
When Abdi was arrested, FBI agent Kevin W. Ashby testified, he had a newspaper article about Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was convicted of conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles airport as part of a millennium terror plot. Ressam testified at a separate trial earlier this year that he trained at terrorists camps in Afghanistan.
Abdi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, works as a $22,000-a-year security guard, said Joseph Bowman, his lawyer. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer said Abdi also has worked for an airline security company.
Federal officials have not imposed any bans or severe restrictions on hazardous-material haulers -- an industry that moves an estimated 3 billion tons of material each year and is considered vital to many areas of the U.S. economy.
But in recent days, the FBI has told local police to be on the lookout for suspicious activity involving hazardous-waste haulers; Food and Drug Administration officials have met with a major trucking association to brainstorm ideas for improved security; and the Department of Transportation has asked haulers to take extra precautions.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta asked haulers to keep hazardous shipments away from populated areas if possible.
In related developments:
The FBI is looking into whether suspected terrorist pilot Mohamed Atta sought a government business loan in South Florida to buy a crop-duster plane, according to a bank official.
Investigators last week contacted the Community Bank of Florida in Homestead to see if Atta had ever done business there, said Robert Epling, the bank president. He said the FBI told bank officials it believes Atta visited a federal farm agency that makes agricultural loans and that rented space in the bank's building. Atta apparently asked about borrowing money to start a crop-dusting business.
Investigators say they believe Atta steered a hijacked American Airlines flight from Boston into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Al-Badr Al-Hazmi, a radiologist whose name was similar to two of the 19 hijackers, returned to San Antonio, Texas, after nearly two weeks in custody in Washington as a material witness.
A law enforcement source, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said authorities questioned the doctor about whether his credit card may have been stolen by the hijackers or their associates.
The FBI is investigating whether some of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center practiced their approaches by renting small planes at New Jersey flight schools and flying along the Hudson River toward the twin towers, an FBI spokeswoman said.
Three men in San Diego who authorities believe knew some of the suspects in the attacks have been detained as material witnesses and could be sent to testify before a grand jury in New York, a law enforcement official said.