– Knight Ridder Newspapers

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The reported sighting of the suspected al-Qaida operative in the Internet cafe was hard to verify. It was also hard to dismiss.

A witness said she saw Adnan El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, in the cafe in this Central American capital in May. A photo of Shukrijumah, whose name was linked to the recent terror alert in New York, also was identified by the cafe owner, who said the suspect and two companions spoke little Spanish.

This week, the FBI and U.S. consular officials along the Mexico border put out an alert asking people to be on the lookout for Shukrijumah trying to enter U.S. territory.

The possible sighting, which Honduran and U.S. authorities investigated, is one of several alerts and potential threats in recent months that have added to jitters about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. or its interests from beyond its porous southern border.

Last week, the FBI investigated and ultimately discounted a report that another Al-Qaida suspect tried to open a bank account in Tijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego. U.S. officials are questioning a suspected Pakistani who carried a South African passport and a plane ticket to New York when she crossed illegally from Mexico into Texas.

Farther south, El Salvadoran officials tried to calm citizens this month after a group naming itself after Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta posted messages on a Web site threatening attacks in that country if it renews its small contingent of troops fighting with U.S. forces in Iraq.

While officials emphasize they have not uncovered any confirmed threats in the region, many have raised their state of alert in recent months as worries in the U.S. ripple southward to those in charge of protecting Gulf of Mexico oil facilities, shipping ports and tourist destinations popular with Americans.

“We’re taking a lot of precautions,” said Oscar Alvarez, the Honduran security minister, adding that his analysts took the Internet cafe report seriously. “We’re putting a lot of security in the ports.”

Officials and analysts point to many strategic sites that could be targets for anti-U.S. terrorists in the region. Not least among them is the Panama Canal, where the U.S. and seven other nations from the region participated in joint anti-terrorism maneuvers last week.

Last spring, analysts with the private U.S.-Mexico Binational Council identified the Cantarel oil field in Mexico’s Campeche Sound as another possible target because it produces more than 50 percent of Mexico’s oil. The U.S. imports 15 percent of its oil from Mexico.

But the primary concern is the established trafficking networks that funnel drugs and illegal immigrants up the Central American isthmus and through the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and whether those routes could be used by terrorist organizations.

U.S. officials in the region have tried to strike a balance between sounding reassuring and advising caution. In Mexico’s case, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza and others have praised the government of President Vicente Fox for its cooperation since Sept. 11, although concerns linger about police corruption and efficiency.

Worries about the difficulty of patrolling the border have risen along with fears in the U.S. about a terrorist strike before the presidential election in November. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada will be immediately deported.

“There is a concern that as we tighten the security of our ports of entry through biometric checks, there will be more effort made by terrorists through our vast land borders,” said Asa Hutchinson, the department’s undersecretary, in making the announcement.

A U.S. official said the authorities in Mexico have had to deal with an “overwhelming” number of leads and reports about potential terrorist threats, though so far none has led to a publicly known danger.

“Are we more concerned than we were six months ago about Mexico? Yeah,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But again, it’s not because of any specific intelligence. It’s just across the board. Where are the gaps (in security)? Where are the loopholes?

“Every lead now, you have to treat it as the real thing,” he said. “You’ve got to follow up and track it down, and so far it’s worked well.”

Mexico has taken a number of security steps with an eye toward the terrorist threat. Last year, it devised a mobilization plan under which it can deploy 18,000 security personnel to the border and other sites of U.S. interest. It has participated in joint anti-terrorist training exercises, such as a simulated hijacking of a chemical tanker truck at the Texas border last month.

“Mexico is being very pragmatic about this,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon official and now a security analyst in Mexico City. “If an enemy of the U.S. gets through that border, just the thought of the impact is so horrendous.”

U.S. officials also praise Honduras for the security steps it has taken. They include improved efforts to disrupt money laundering, a new border police force, a new version of passports that previously were easy to counterfeit and stepped-up security at the largest cargo port in the Caribbean, Puerto Cortez.

The possible terrorist sighting rang alarm bells in the government.

Shukrijumah, 28, is a Saudi-born former U.S. resident whom the FBI suspects may be plotting attacks against the United States. Some officials suspect he may have done some of the surveillance of New York financial institutions that led to this month’s alert there.

U.S. officials also say they think he is one of the al-Qaida operatives in touch with Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member in U.S. custody for allegedly plotting to blow up buildings in U.S. cities with a radioactive “dirty bomb” or natural-gas explosions.

Shukrijumah was thought to be living or traveling in Latin America and was seen in Panama in 2001. He previously lived with his Muslim cleric father in Miramar, Fla., and also has family in Guyana. U.S. officials say he may be carrying passports from Guyana, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Canada.

Alvarez, the Honduran minister, said the owner of the Internet cafe described the men he saw as sloppily dressed and speaking English and French. The cafe records indicate the men placed calls to France and Canada.

The minister said the sighting corresponded with other unverified reports that some foreigners were recruiting Hondurans to carry out terrorist attacks.

“We are following this tip and we believe it is credible,” said Alvarez, who leads the government’s campaign to control violent street gangs known as maras.

U.S. officials in Honduras say they found the sighting of Shukrijumah “unlikely.” They noted that it came at a time when his image only recently was posted on the FBI’s Internet list with a reward of $5 million and that other such sightings of him were reported.

Still, they said, they have not been able to rule it out.

“There are these established smuggling networks; they are a threat to the U.S., and we are taking it seriously,” one U.S. official said. “People in the U.S. have to realize that our anti-terror effort is not just limited to the Middle East.”

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-19-04 0619EDT

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