By John Solomon
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration stepped up the worldwide pressure on 22 suspected terrorists – including some who have been at large for years – with a new most-wanted list and rewards.
President Bush was unveiling the list during a visit Wednesday to the FBI headquarters that has been at the epicenter of the massive investigation into the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings that killed thousands in New York and Washington. The White House was also working with the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” to put together a special broadcast on the list, officials said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft created a “9/11 Task Force” within the Justice Department that will handle terrorism case prosecutions and focus on preventing further attacks.
The task force will be comprised of prosecutors from U.S. attorneys offices in New York and northern Virginia and from the department’s terrorism and violent crimes unit. The aim is to centralize information on terrorism and formulate indictments for cases, said Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden. The task force was first reported in The New York Times.
The most wanted list included Osama bin Laden, his two top deputies and several members of his al-Qaida network implicated in earlier bombings overseas against U.S. interests.
Listed just below bin Laden’s name among those indicted for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were two Egyptians, Ayman al-Zawahri and Mohamed Atef, who long have been identified as bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants.
Officials have said evidence gathered since Sept. 11 has connected both men to the suicide hijacking plot.
The international police agency Interpol also issued an arrest warrant for al-Zawahri since the hijackings that alleges he “masterminded several terrorist operations in Egypt” and is “accused of criminal complicity and management for the purpose of committing premeditated murders.”
Al-Zawahri, a doctor by training, is the former head of the Egyptian al-Jihad terrorist group that merged in 1998 with bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. Al-Jihad had been linked to terrorist activities dating to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the early 1980s.
Atef, a former police official, has been identified by U.S. authorities as a key military strategist and training director for bin Laden.
Others who made the most-wanted list were several people identified last week by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a speech laying out evidence against bin Laden’s network. They include:
_Ahmed Khfaklan Ghailani and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, whom Blair said were two al-Qaida operatives that bought a truck used in the U.S. embassy bombings in August 1998.
_Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil, another al-Qaida operative whom Blair said was implicated in the embassy bombings.
_Saif al Adel, whom Blair identified as a senior member of al-Qaida believed to have provided training to tribes in Somalia, where U.S. troops were attacked and killed in 1993.
_Ibrahim al-Yacoub and Abdel Karim al-Nasser, named as suspects in the federal grand jury indictment issued in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Others named on the list include suspects in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a foiled 1995 plot to bomb airliners in the Far East.
The most wanted terrorist list – modeled after the FBI’s Top 10 list – is designed to step up pressure on terrorism suspects worldwide who have evaded arrest, officials said.
It was to be accompanied by Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing that his agency’s reward program will offer large reward money for assistance that leads to the terrorists’ arrest, officials said. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller were also expected to join Bush in the announcement.
As the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks continued to progress across the globe, law enforcement officials said they were beginning to narrow their focus on possible collaborators to a much smaller group among the estimated 600 people, mostly Middle Easterners, who have been arrested or detained. An additional group of about 200 people continue to be sought for questioning.
Meanwhile, federal law enforcement authorities were awaiting the results of laboratory tests to learn whether the strain of anthrax that killed a tabloid newspaper editor in Florida was manmade or natural.
Authorities said Tuesday they thought the bacteria were manmade. But they later said test results had not been completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The officials said investigators so far have found no evidence linking the Florida incident to terrorism, but they suspect it might have involved criminal activity.
Tests in Florida have not found any other workers at the tabloid newspaper building who were infected, or additional spores of the bacteria except those found on the computer keyboard of the victim who died last week, officials said.
Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun newspaper, died from an anthrax spore he inhaled, and high-tech tests were being performed to help determine the origin of the bacteria. He died Friday, the first such death in the United States since 1976.
Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, said officials could not say whether someone genetically manufactured the bacteria or they occurred naturally because tests weren’t completed.
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