Shadows in Our Midst

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Can buying a snowblower, a barbecue and a couple of lawn mowers in Canada make you a suspected link to al-Qaeda? Michael John Hamdani, 44, became just that after a shopping spree late last October in Brampton, a city west of Toronto. The owners of a shop that he and a friend had patronized believed they had received bogus U.S. traveler's checks and alerted the police. A raid on the homes of Hamdani and his pal turned up an array of big-screen TVs and other luxury goods, $600,000 in forged American Express and Thomas Cook checks, a state-of-the-art counterfeiting operation complete with silk-screen equipment, ink stamps like those used by consular officials, and stacks of high-grade fake passports and other identity documents. Hamdani was tagged as the suspected mastermind. A Pakistani emigre, he had a rap sheet stretching as far as Brunei and was on the lam from a 1996 U.S. indictment for dealing in phony passports in New York.

In other words, he was a skilled underworld artisan — just the kind of guy al-Qaeda likes to work with. Fearing the worst, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police gave the case national security status, called the FBI and started grilling Hamdani. Around Christmastime, the Pakistani spilled a tantalizing tale. He said he had been paid thousands of dollars to cook up travel documents for 19 men who had traveled from Pakistan through London to Toronto in early December. He thought they had reached the U.S. on Christmas Eve.

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Hamdani never claimed his customers were terrorists, and there is no evidence he or they had any connection to al-Qaeda. But his story arrived in Washington as U.S. security officials were going on full holiday alert. Pakistani authorities came up with information about an alien-smuggling scheme that dovetailed with the forger's account. On Dec. 27, Islamabad gave the FBI photos and names or aliases of five men thought to be among the 19 smuggled aliens Hamdani had served. The U.S. quickly put out an unusually prominent all-points bulletin for the five. "We don't have any idea of what their intentions might be," President Bush told reporters on New Year's Eve, "but we are mindful that there are still some out there who would try to harm America and harm Americans, and so therefore we take every threat seriously, every piece of evidence seriously."

Just as the feds were wrestling with the forger's tale, an unsubstantiated but disturbingly specific report surfaced. According to an FBI intelligence source in the Middle East, terrorists were planning eight diversionary explosions in New York harbor on New Year's Eve, to be followed by one spectacular real attack, probably on the building that houses the U.S. Secret Service office in Manhattan. Tipped off by the FBI, the N.Y.P.D. called the U.S. Coast Guard, which closed the harbor to pleasure craft and scrambled a secretive 100-person Maritime Safety and Security Team from its base in Hampton Roads, Va. The group, code-named MSST 91102, patrolled the harbor with 38-ft. boats mounted with heavy machine guns. Tactical officers armed with automatic weapons were prepared to seize command of any suspicious vessel by cutting it off with a cruiser and leaping aboard or fast-roping down onto its deck from a helicopter. Nothing unexpected took place. But rumors of fugitives and the visibly increased security in Manhattan combined to give the last night of 2002 an underlying dread.

So what happened to the threat?

On New Year's Day, Mohammed Asghar, a jeweler in Lahore, Pakistan, told reporters that one of the five snapshots on the FBI website was his. "I don't know who misused my travel documents. I don't know how my picture reached the hands of the FBI," Asghar said. He admitted using forged documents two months ago in a failed attempt to travel to Britain, but he may be the victim of identity theft. And he is probably not the only one, according to FBI officials. Other names on the list of 19 are known to be of people in the U.S., Pakistan and elsewhere who have reported their passports stolen.

Canadian authorities are expected to extradite Hamdani to New York to face the 1996 indictment and tell his new story to federal prosecutors. Sources say he passed polygraph tests in Canada. But some veterans remain skeptical. FBI agents who investigated his fake-passport operation in New York concluded, as one G-man put it, "You wouldn't trust him as far as you could throw him." Still, another FBI official says, "we really couldn't afford not to take this seriously. There were so many unknowns." Nevertheless, he adds, for all the FBI knew, the men in question might have been "guys who want to be busboys."