John Ashcroft was in familiar form, part Sgt. Joe Friday, part Prophet of Doom. Standing by giant mug shots of seven terrorist suspects, the U.S. attorney general warned, "Be on the lookout... for each of these seven individuals. They all pose a clear and present danger to America. They all should be considered armed and dangerous." America, it seemed, faced a frightening summer. As exhibit A, Ashcroft cited a statement from an "Al Qaeda spokesman" that plans for an attack "to hit the United States hard" were "90 percent complete."

But things are not always as they seem in the wilderness of mirrors known as the war on terror. The facts are a little less stark, the motives for airing them more mixed than Ashcroft's grim warnings would suggest. Once again it appears that politics and national security are bedfellows in post-9/11 America. That is not to say that Bush administration officials are crying wolf. It's just that they know less--and want more--than the attorney general appeared to be saying.

The "90 percent" warning from an "Al Qaeda spokesman" so dramatically cited by Ashcroft was actually an e-mail to a London-based Arabic newspaper from an organization called the Brigade of Abu Hafs Al Masri. The e-mail first publicly surfaced two months ago, after the Madrid train bombings. Intelligence analysts have been skeptical about the so-called brigade, which may be loosely linked to Al Qaeda, or just some creepy terror wanna-bes who throw around expressions like "the Wind of Black Death." Over the past year, the brigade has claimed credit for the bombings of two synagogues and the British consulate in Istanbul. But it also boasted that it caused the New York City blackout, which was the result of mechanical breakdown and computer malfunction.

And the seven suspects ominously displayed by Ashcroft? They are disparate and somewhat shadowy individuals who have some ties to America but are probably scattered around the world. Most of them have been on the well-publicized FBI most-wanted lists for months, if not years. (With one intriguing exception: Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who is apparently a second "American Taliban," like John Walker Lindh a California Lost Boy who wound up in Afghanistan allegedly working for Al Qaeda.)

The U.S. government appears somewhat divided over the immediacy of the threat. The FBI's sober-sided chief, Robert Mueller, stood beside Ashcroft at the press conference last week, but notably missing was Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. According to knowledgeable officials, Ridge--the man charged with officially warning America of terror threats--was surprised by Ashcroft's dire tone. Just a few hours before Ashcroft's news conference, Ridge appeared on five television networks telling Americans to relax and enjoy the holiday. Ridge, who has been planning all along to give Americans regular updates on the terror threat during the course of the summer, said that he had seen no specific intelligence report of a coming attack and was not raising the official threat level from Yellow (elevated) to Orange (high).

What to believe? The November elections are not far away. The White House, NEWSWEEK has learned, played a role in the decision to go public with the warning. According to a White House official, President Bush signed off on the press conference after meeting with Mueller, Ridge and Ashcroft, the former senator who has a taste for splashy publicity. With the president's poll numbers dropping, the Bush administration is surely eager to divert media and public attention from Iraq to the terrorist threat. Instead of the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the White House would prefer that voters see the faces of terrorists who aim to kill them.

But just because the administration may have been playing politics to shift attention from its own failings does not mean the terror warnings are unwarranted. As a senior administration official explained to NEWSWEEK, "Look, sometimes the right thing to do also happens to be the politically expedient thing to do." In the past, the FBI has tended to be secretive about terror suspects. But in recent months the thinking has shifted. Press conferences and wanted posters can help deter terrorists, the analysts believe. "We have intelligence giving us a great deal of confidence that these kinds of [public] activities disrupt the terrorists," said one Ashcroft aide, who added, a bit defensively, "It's not a PR strategy. It's a counterterrorism strategy."

FBI and CIA intelligence analysts are convinced that Al Qaeda or its offshoots are determined to strike in America before the November elections. The lesson of the Madrid bombings, unfortunately, was that terror works: less than a week later, the Spanish people voted out their pro-U.S. government. "Chatter" intercepted by U.S. intelligence suggests that the terrorists will try to hit symbolic or politically important targets, like the Democratic and Republican political conventions in Boston and New York this summer or June's G8 economic summit in Sea Island, Ga.

Such predictions may be based on obvious logic as much as code-cracking or brilliant analysis. Still, the intelligence community seems to be building up its counterterror capacity, albeit from a shaky foundation. Before 9/11, intelligence analysis at the FBI verged on the nonexistent. Old bureau hands joke about the case of an office secretary who, tired of typing and filing, was promoted to become a full-fledged intelligence analyst, apparently without any training or other qualifications. These days, Mueller has recruited scores of analysts (some from the bureau's old nemesis, the CIA), who crank out scores of reports.

The intel community's new aggressiveness was on display last week when British authorities announced the arrest of Abu Hamza, a hook-handed jihadi imam who used to lead prayers at a major mosque in north London. American authorities have been after the British for years to pick up Hamza, who has been a magnet for potential Islamic terrorists, including convicted British shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national now awaiting trial in Virginia on charges of being a 9/11 co-conspirator. The British government recently moved to strip Hamza of his citizenship, easing the way for his extradition to stand trial in New York for plotting a terrorist kidnapping in Yemen.

The FBI is also pushing its agents out into the street all over America to interview Muslims. Carrying BOLO ("be on the lookout") notices for the seven suspects, the gumshoes are trying to recruit informants and to find the missing terror suspects whose faces flashed up behind Ashcroft's glowering visage.

For the time being, the bureau does not even know if they are in the United States. The scariest-sounding is Adnan El Shukrijumah, a Saudi also known as "Jafar the Pilot." The slight, asthmatic 28-year-old son of an Islamic cleric, Shukrijumah grew up in the United States and speaks fluent English. He received flight training and was regarded as a favorite of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's operations chief who is now in an undisclosed American prison. Some officials feared that Jafar the Pilot had the potential to become another Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.

Frantically trying to find Shukrijumah after 9/11, the FBI developed a chilling timeline from credit-card and bank receipts showing that the suspected Qaeda operative had been traveling across the United States visiting landmarks (he also made a trip to the Panama Canal), presumably casing them as targets. Shukrijumah vanished by late 2002 and has apparently shed his identity. His father had been an interpreter for Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted in 1996 of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. (Shukrijumah's father had received regular stipends from the Saudi Embassy in Washington; embarrassed Saudi officials told the FBI that the money was part of a larger program to finance the spread of Islam in the United States.)

The most immediately threatening suspect may actually be the one woman--Aafia Siddiqui. The 32-year-old Pakistani native and mother of three small children is a microbiologist trained at MIT. As late as the summer of 2002, she was still living in Boston. She has since vanished. The American intelligence community has been eager to find her ever since Mohammed was captured in March 2003 and identified Siddiqui as a "facilitator" for future attacks. Al Qaeda was actively planning to attack the American energy infrastructure--and scare as many people as possible--by blowing up gas stations and underground fuel-storage tanks in the Baltimore-Washington area. FBI agents found evidence that Siddiqui had rented a post-office box to help another Qaeda operative involved in the plot. More chilling, in 2002 a Fleet Bank card assigned to Siddiqui and her doctor husband was used to purchase night-vision goggles, body armor and other high-tech military equipment sold at stores in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina.

After he was captured at a Pakistani safe house and taken into CIA custody, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed--"KSM" to his interrogators--revealed that tightened security post-9/11 had forced Al Qaeda to rethink its strategy for penetrating the United States. No longer could young Saudi men with tourist visas fly into Miami or Newark and just disappear. Al Qaeda needed operatives who had American passports. The terrorists began trying to recruit native-born Americans, looking for those living abroad who had converted to Islam or black Muslims inside the United States.

One such American, KSM told his interrogators, was a young convert and alleged Qaeda translator by the given name of Adam Yahiye Gadahn. KSM wanted Gadahn, who had taken the name Abu Suhayb Al-Amriki, to join a plot to blow up fuel stations outside Baltimore, according to a May 2003 classified FBI document obtained by NEWSWEEK. The American, whose Muslim wife was expecting a child, was not eager to participate in "martyrdom" (suicide) operations, reported KSM, but he was willing to help out. KSM said he had last seen Suhayb in Karachi in October 2002.

Last week everyone, including his parents in California, was wondering where he'd gone. "I hope it's a mistake... He's always been very peaceful," said his father, Philip Gadahn, as he was standing outside his goat ranch in the scrubby hills 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Gadahn says he has not seen his son, now 25, for five years, and last spoke to him--by phone--shortly after 9/11. Young Gadahn's life has been one of those strange trips that only an odd melding of '60s and '70s counterculture and the modern Internet culture could produce.

Gadahn grew up "off the grid," according to his aunt Nancy Pearlman--no computer, no TV. "I moved out of the city and changed my life, so I changed my name," said Philip Gadahn, whose own father was a prominent Orange County urologist. Philip's son Adam was home-schooled, but he rejected the hippie life as a teenager. "I became obsessed with demonic heavy-metal music," Adam Gadahn explained in a 1995 essay about his conversion to Islam (the essay remains on many Islamic Web sites). "I eschewed personal cleanliness and let my room reach an unbelievable state of disarray." Alienated from his parents by 16, he moved into the Orange County home of his doctor grandfather and began cruising the Web, "looking for something else to hold on to." He found Islam and was soon working as a security guard at an Islamic center. He was fired for sleeping on the job, and was also arrested for punching a middle-aged mosque official. After pleading guilty, he fell in with some Pakistani men and moved to Pakistan in 1998.

He got a job publishing an English- language propaganda magazine for the Taliban. (Sample headline: THE U.N.: WORLD BODY OR AMERICAN PAWN?) Gadahn appears to have acquired his wife by blunt local methods. According to her father, Haji Abdul Ghaffur (interviewed by NEWSWEEK in January 2002), some Taliban men with AK-47s showed up at his house in Kabul and essentially requisitioned his daughter. She was not displeased. "He was a good man; he wasn't cruel to anyone," she told NEWSWEEK. According to Qari Saheb, a former driver for Taliban leader Mullah Omar who was also interviewed in January 2002 by NEWSWEEK, Gadahn befriended another American--John Walker Lindh, later known by the media as the "American Taliban" after his capture in the Afghan war. Gadahn had offered to help Lindh find a Muslim wife--his own wife's sister. Lindh was interested, but told Gadahn that he would marry only when he returned from the front lines. He wound up in an American prison.

It's not clear what happened to Gadahn. An Afghan fighter named Hamdullah told NEWSWEEK that he had run into the American before Kandahar fell in the winter of 2001. Hamdullah thought that Gadahn had been "in the air force." Just what air force was not clear. The kind of air force that flies into buildings?

With Babak Dehghanpisheh and Scott Johnson In Pakistan, Andrew Murr in Los Angeles, Mark Hosenball and Tamara Lipper in Washington and Emily Flynn and Avi Karshmer in London

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