Hosenball: A Mistake in New Terrorism Book?

Author Ron Suskind appears to have hit the mark with his reporting in a newly published book about an abortive 2003 Al Qaeda plot to attack the New York City subway system with homemade cyanide bombs. But British and U.S. government officials, as well as two British national newspapers, are raising questions about another claim in Suskind's book. In it, the author said that U.K. authorities may have fumbled intelligence from U.S. investigators about a British suspect who subsequently led a team of suicide bombers who attacked London's public transport system last July 7.

In "The One Percent Doctrine," published this week by Simon and Schuster, and in subsequent media interviews, Suskind alleged that future London subway bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, a U.K. citizen, was discovered in 2002 by U.S. authorities to have been in contact with extremists in America about a plot to blow up synagogues on the East Coast. Suskind alleges that Khan made at least two trips to the U.S. to finalize attack plans and says U.S. investigators in 2003 insisted that the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center inform British intelligence about Khan's alleged activities. Suskind claims that as a result of the intelligence they gathered on Khan, U.S. authorities put Khan on a "no fly" list two years before the London attacks.

Suskind's claims provoked a political uproar in London because they conflict with official stories U.K. authorities have told about their investigations into the July 7, 2005 London bombings. Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of M.I.5, Britain's counterintelligence agency (also known as the Security Service), told a parliamentary inquiry that her agency had no reason to regard Khan as a serious terrorist threat in the years and months before the subway bombings occurred.

And according to several U.S. and U.K. law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials who spoke to NEWSWEEK anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, Suskind's information about Khan visiting the United States, and about the CIA being pressed to warn the U.K. about him, is mistaken. The officials said that Suskind and his sources, who include a retired FBI agent who was one of the U.S. government's top Al Qaeda gumshoes, apparently confused the London bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan with another U.K.-based terror suspect named Mohammed Ajmal Khan. Suskind told NEWSWEEK Wednesday that he stands by his reporting as do his sources, who he rechecked with after questions were raised about the allegations in his book.

Suskind's book and its inflammatory allegations about Mohammed Siddique Khan were heavily promoted early this week by The Times of London , the daily newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. But over the last two days, two of The Times' competitors, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph , have published stories questioning Suskind's claims and reporting assertions by British intelligence sources that Suskind had in fact confused the stories of two suspects named Khan.

Earlier this year, the British government published two official reports on the background to last summer's London bombings which identified Mohammed Siddique Khan, a former teaching assistant from the northern English city of Leeds, as presumed ringleader of the July 7 attacks. These reports contained what appeared to be fairly comprehensive accounts of the activities and movements of Khan and the three other July 7 London suicide bombers. In dissecting Khan's background, the reports said that he traveled in 2003 and 2004 to Pakistan, that he may also have made earlier trips to that region, and that he also traveled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj in early 2003 and to Turkey in 2001 for his honeymoon. But the reports make no mention of any visits by Khan to the United States and an official familiar with British investigations into the London attacks told NEWSWEEK that no evidence had turned up indicating Khan had ever visited the U.S.

By contrast, there is evidence that the other suspect named Khan, Mohammed Ajmal Khan, definitely visited the U.S. and was the subject of a major international investigation coordinated between American and British security and intelligence agencies. According to a press release issued earlier this month by the U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., evidence presented at a recent criminal trial there established that Mohammed Ajmal Khan—the one not involved in the London transport bombings—had worked with a U.S.-based suspect named Ali Asad Chandia to supply terror-related equipment to the Kashmiri terror group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to the press release, Mohammed Ajmal Khan pleaded guilty in the British courts last March to charges that alleged that he had acted as a purchasing agent for the terror group. According to the document, Scotland Yard shared evidence collected by U.K. authorities with U.S. officials prosecuting Chandia, and several British investigators even testified at Chandia's trial. The trial ended two weeks ago with Chandia being convicted by a jury on three out of four federal terror-related charges.

Marvin Miller, a lawyer for Chandia, said that evidence introduced at his client's trial established that the suspect Mohammed Ajmal Khan had visited the United States at least once—and perhaps twice. He said litigation also produced documentation indicating that the suspects had been subjected to electronic eavesdropping under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (Suskind reports that the Khan his sources knew about was subject to monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency.)

Official spokesmen for the FBI, CIA, National Counter-Terrorism Center and U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria all declined to comment on the Suskind allegations or the U.K. reports alleging that Suskind had confused two suspects with similar names. However, several U.S. counterterrorism sources familiar with the book's claims said that investigations since the book's publication earlier this week have turned up no information to substantiate Suskind's suggestions that the London bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan had visited the United States in the years before the bombing or that U.S. agencies had any reason, before July 7, 2005, to list him as a major terrorism suspect.

According to some U.S. counterterrorism officials, in 2004 or 2005, U.K. authorities did turn over to U.S. agencies a database of information regarding around 2,000 individuals who had been identified as contacts of a small group of men considered to be serious terror suspects. The men in this small group subsequently were arrested in the U.K. and are now on trial for an alleged bombing conspiracy. In this database, the U.S. officials said, sketchy information was recorded indicating that Mohammed Siddique Khan and another July 7 bombing suspect had come briefly to the attention of U.K. authorities investigating the suspected U.K.-based terror cell.

A parliamentary report on the London bombings published earlier this year confirmed that U.K. authorities had indeed collected information, through the 2004 investigation, which identified Mohammed Siddique Khan and a second July 7 bomber as a contact of other terror suspects. The report said that U.K. authorities made fitful attempts to conduct more detailed investigations of Siddique Khan and the other suspects but that ultimately they were not thoroughly investigated before the July 7 bombings because U.K. agencies didn't have enough manpower. British and American officials insist that although they did have some vague traces on Siddique Khan a year or two before the subway bombings, they had no reason before the day of the bombings to consider him a major terror threat.

U.S. authorities say that they are continuing to look into Suskind's claims about Khan—not so much because they believe information will turn up to validate the book's assertions but rather because it is possible that one or more additional suspects named Mohammed Khan could have added to the confusion about the suspects' identity. According to two U.S. counterterror officials, government databases contain information about numerous persons named Mohammed Khan, and it could ultimately turn out that U.S. and U.K. authorities had extensive dealings with each other over more Mohammed Khans than just the convicted Mohammed Ajmal Khan.

However, U.S. and U.K. officials insist that they do not expect any evidence to turn up that will ultimately validate Suskind's claims that the United States had flagged Mohammed Siddique Khan as a big-time terror plotter two years before the London attacks. Suskind tells NEWSWEEK he was aware of the controversy his book had generated but that he was not backing away from the Mohammed Siddique Khan story in his book. He said that he checked with his U.S. sources—some of them from very high levels of the intelligence community—and they told him they knew the difference between Mohammed Siddique Khan, the London bomber, and Mohammed Ajmal Khan, the Kashmiri separatist. He said his sources still maintain that the London bomber was the focus of major U.S. intelligence attention as described in his book and added, "At this point I am convinced that the reporting [in the book] is correct."