The March 2004 terrorist summit in the lawless province of Waziristan, described to TIME by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last week and expounded on by U.S. officials, has become a subject of obsession for authorities in both countries. "The personalities involved, the operations, the fact that a major explosives expert came here and went back," Musharraf said, "all this was extremely significant."
Although some summit participants have been arrested, others are still at large and are considered very dangerous. At least two are believed to have done some of the surveillance of targets in New York City and elsewhere that authorities found out about last month. Some U.S. officials fear that the meeting may have been a pivotal planning session, much the way a 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur was for the 9/11 attacks. "This was a meeting of a bunch of cold-blooded killers who are very skilled at what they do and have an intense desire to inflict an awful lot of pain and suffering on America," says an official familiar with the summit. A senior counterterrorism official said analysts are scrutinizing the recent pattern of enemy activity against timelines of previous attacks. This, he said, has contributed to the worry that at least some members of a strike team are already in the U.S.
Musharraf told TIME that the discovery of the March meeting has exposed the "second string" leadership of al-Qaeda. Summiteer Mohammed Babar, 29, was arrested in Queens in April, shortly after returning from Pakistan. He has been charged with trying to buy materials to make bombs for use in attacks in Britain. Al-Hindi, who is in his mid-30s, is also in custody, in England, having been picked up two weeks ago. U.S. officials say he was in e-mail contact with Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, 29, the Pakistani techie whose computer contained much of the material about staging attacks with helicopters and limousinesas first reported in TIMEthat led to the decision by U.S. officials two weeks ago to raise the alert level at financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington. Al-Hindi had been sent to the U.S. to case economic and "Jewish" targets in New York City, the 9/11 commission stated in its report last month. He also passed along several contacts in the U.S. to senior al-Qaeda leaders in case they "needed help," the commission reported.
The terrorist who worries Washington most is el-Shukrijumah, 29, chiefly because he is still at large but also because he is practically homegrown. Born in Guyana and reared in Miramar, Fla., where his father, a Saudi-Yemeni cleric now deceased, preached hard-line Wahhabism at a small mosque, el-Shukrijumah took computer classes at Broward Community College in Florida. He holds Guyanese and Trinidadian passports, may also have Canadian and Saudi passports and can easily pass for Hispanic. "He speaks English and has the ability to fit in and look innocuous," says an FBI agent. "He could certainly come back here, and nobody would know it." U.S. authorities have put his name on domestic and international watch lists but fear he will travel to Mexico or Canada on phony documents and then sneak across the border into the U.S.
Since last May, when FBI director Robert Mueller held a televised news conference to plead for news of el-Shukrijumah, tips have poured in placing him everywhere from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. "He's kind of like Elvis," an intelligence official told TIME. "He seems to pop up all over the place." The last place he can credibly be traced to, however, is Waziristan. FBI agents call el-Shukrijumah the next Attaafter Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the 9/11 attacks. Investigators are trying to learn whether the versatile el-Shukrijumah helped case the buildings featured on recently retrieved computer discs and are hoping al-Hindi can shed more light on what happened at the summit. Exactly what was discussed isn't known yet, officials say.
An aide to President George W. Bush came close last week to boasting that authorities had busted up more than just a plot. "I believe that the string of arrests represents a strategic success against al-Qaeda as opposed to the wrapping up tactically of a single cell," said a senior White House official. But others found that view premature. "We know we've disrupted a plot, but we don't know that we've derailed it," said a senior counterterrorism hand. "And we certainly don't know that it's the only plot." With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington