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Three British nationals whose alleged surveillance of U.S. financial landmarks triggered an increase in the terrorist threat level last summer were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they were planning a catastrophic attack with "weapons of mass destruction," the Justice Department disclosed Tuesday.

The federal indictment, unsealed in New York, alleges that the three men, one of them a reputed top operative for the al-Qaida terrorist network, conducted secret surveillance of the New York Stock Exchange, the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund in Washington and other structures in 2000 and 2001 as part of a plot to destroy the buildings and kill Americans, Justice Department officials said.

The three are identified as Dhiren Barot, 33; Nadeem Tarmohamed, 26, and Qaisar Shaffi, 25. The three were arrested in a house outside London.

Without giving details, U.S. officials said the conspiracy continued until the men were arrested last August by British authorities after the suspects were linked to the alleged plot by computer files retrieved as part of a separate terrorism investigation in Pakistan. The men also face charges in London, where they remain in custody.

The computer files included detailed descriptions of the surveillance activities, whose chilling specifics prompted U.S. authorities to raise the terrorism threat level from "yellow" to "orange," or high, in the financial districts of New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia last Aug. 1.

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