Small cell planned new wave of aircraft attacks, blasts

He peers out from the photo in the classified file through heavy-framed spectacles, an owlish face with a graying beard and a half-smile. Saifullah Paracha, a successful businessman and for years a New York travel agent, appears to be the oldest of the 172 prisoners still held at the Guantánamo Bay prison. His dossier is among the most chilling.

In the months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Paracha, 63, was one of a small circle of Al-Qaeda operatives who explored ways to follow up on the hijackings with new attacks, according to the classified Guantánamo files made available to The New York Times.

Working with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 planner who in early 2002 gave him $500,000 to $600,000 “for safekeeping”, Paracha offered his long experience in the shipping business for a scheme to move plastic explosives into the United States inside containers of women's and children's clothing, the files assert.

“Detainee desired to help al-Qaida ‘do something big against the U.S.,'” one of his co-conspirators, Ammar al-Baluchi, told Guantánamo interrogators, the files say.

Paracha discussed obtaining biological or nuclear weapons as well, although he was concerned that detectors at ports “would make it difficult to smuggle radioactive materials into the country”, the file says.

Paracha's assessment is among more than 700 classified documents that fill in new details of Al-Qaeda's efforts to make 9/11 just the first in a series of attacks to cripple the United States, intentions thwarted as the Central Intelligence Agency captured Mohammed and other leaders of the terrorist network.

The plots reportedly discussed by Mohammed and various operatives, none of them acted upon, included plans for a new wave of aircraft attacks on the West Coast, filling an apartment with leaked natural gas and detonating it, blowing up gas stations and even cutting the cables holding up the Brooklyn Bridge.

For the small circle of Al-Qaeda operatives described in the December 2008 assessment of Paracha, terrorism appears to have been a family affair. There was Mohammed, the terrorist network's top plotter, and his nephew, Baluchi, who was married to another militant, a U.S.-trained neuroscientist, Aafia Siddiqui. And there was Paracha and his son, Uzair.

The newly revealed assessments, obtained last year by the group WikiLeaks and provided by another source to The Times, have revived the dispute, nearly as old as the prison, over whether mistreatment of some prisoners there and the prison's operation outside the criminal justice system invalidate the government's findings.

Paracha, who the documents say attended the New York Institute of Technology in the early 1970s and worked as a travel agent in New York for 13 years, is one of the striking portraits to emerge from the files.

He was arrested in Bangkok in July 2003 after Uzair, who was already in FBI custody in New York, “acknowledged” that his father was a militant, the assessment says. Uzair Paracha was convicted in a 2005 trial on charges of material support for terrorism and is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison.

According to his Guantánamo assessment, Saifullah Paracha had “provided useful information concerning senior Al-Qaeda members” but “attempted to deceive and misinform intelligence and law enforcement personnel about his own activities”. As a result, the assessment draws heavily on statements by others, notably Mohammed, who was subjected to waterboarding and other brutal treatment during his interrogation by the CIA.

But Paracha's assessment suggests that he did not deny militant connections at the highest level.

“Detainee claimed he met UBL on a trip to Afghanistan in December 1999 or January 2000,” the documents say, referring to the government's spelling for Osama bin Laden.

It says he offered to let bin Laden use his broadcasting business in Pakistan to generate propaganda films for Al-Qaeda.

Later, bin Laden dispatched Mohammed to talk further about the idea, and Paracha explained “his vision of dedicating a program on his broadcasting network depicting UBL quoting Quranic verses”.

After 9/11, Paracha's discussions focused on new plots, the files say. A Casio digital diary he was carrying when he was arrested “contained references to military chemical warfare agents, and their effects on humans”, according to the classified assessment. The document says Paracha told interrogators he had worked with Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered to be the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme and a major proliferator of nuclear technology. — New York Times News Service

  • Paracha offered his experience in the shipping business to bring in plastic explosives
  • Paracha arrested after his son acknowledged that he is a militant