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Officials: New information points to bin Laden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials investigating the series of attacks Tuesday in New York and Washington are setting their sights on Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi fugitive who has been blamed for past terrorist attacks against American targets.

"There are good indications that persons linked to Osama bin Laden may be responsible for these attacks," an intelligence official told CNN.

Intelligence sources said they based their assessment on new information they had gathered Tuesday afternoon, hours after airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They did not rule out the possibility that other groups may have been involved.

Terrorism experts, after reviewing the magnitude of the attacks, said few groups in the world would have the resources to carry out such a highly coordinated sequence of destruction. One of those organizations, they said, would be the al Qaeda group headed by bin Laden, who also is the suspected mastermind of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

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U.S. officials said they had received no credible claim of responsibility in the aftermath of Tuesday's events but said their "working assumption" laid responsibility for the attacks on "overseas terrorism."

In a briefing to members of Congress, sources told CNN, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the hijackers were working in groups of three to five members, armed with knives.

'Any shred' of evidence sought

Investigators were checking out possible leads in New Jersey and Florida early Wednesday.

Authorities took three people into custody late Tuesday in New Jersey after stopping a van on a highway near the George Washington Bridge, New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said late Tuesday. No details were immediately available.

And in south Florida, information gleaned from the hijacked planes' passenger lists have led to search warrants that the FBI is in the process of or will soon be executing, a law enforcement source told CNN.

"We're looking at South Florida ties to some of the people we're looking at," the source said.

Senior FBI officials said they suspect the four jets involved in the chilling sequence of crashes had been hijacked. Two of the jets plunged into the World Trade Center's twin towers, leading to their collapse a short while later. Another struck a wall at the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.

FBI personnel were dispatched to airports and crash sites immediately afterward to try to determine responsibility for the disaster. U.S. intelligence officials said they would be contacting all their sources and going through intelligence intercepts in an intense search for evidence.

Investigators will be combing passenger lists, airport videotapes and cockpit voice recorders to piece together the events leading up to the attacks. They also will review lists of suspected terrorists known to be able to fly commercial aircraft, sources said.

"We are looking for any shred of information that could help," one official said

Officials say they had no intelligence beforehand that a massive terrorist plot was under way, though at least one lawmaker says intelligence analysts suspected lesser attacks had been planned during the summer.

'Lies, lies, lies'

Several Palestinian groups have already denied responsibility for the attacks, as well as bin Laden's Al Quaida group. And officials in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be living, said he had was unlikely to have played a role in the attack.

"We in Afghanistan do not allow Osama bin Laden to use Afghan territory to launch any attack on any government around the world," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakeel Ahmed Mutawakkel said.

Amateur video captures the second plane moments before it slammed into the WTC
Amateur video captures the second plane moments before it slammed into the WTC.  

He said the Afghan government had taken away bin Laden's communication devices, "and he has not been in touch with anyone outside Afghanistan."

One U.S. intelligence official received the Taliban statement with a sneer. "Lies, lies, lies," the official said.

Mutawakkel said the Taliban will conduct its own investigation.

"We will determine what really happened. We denounce this terrorist attack, whoever is behind it," he said.

Some members of Congress also blamed bin Laden.

"This looks like the signature of Osama bin Laden," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who had been briefed by high-level government officials on the attacks. "We're going to find out who did this and we're going after the bastards."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, agreed."I have no doubt in my mind it's Osama bin Laden," he told CNN. "It's very much in keeping with the threats he has made."

A number of attempted attacks, or plans for attacks, have been "thwarted" this summer, said Kerry. CIA Director George Tenet briefed him on the failed efforts a few weeks ago, he said.

-- CNN's National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.

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