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CNN BREAKING NEWS

FBI Asks Public's Assistance in Locating Five Men

Aired December 29, 2002 - 17:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We're continuing to follow a breaking story for you. A nationwide search now for five people that the FBI says are of Arab descent and that they may have crossed the border illegally somehow into the U.S. around Christmas Eve or thereabouts. And here are some photographs that are posted on fbi.gov, as the FBI is asking for the public's assistance.
The FBI has already notified some 18,000 state and local jurisdictions, asking for their help and encouragement, as the public is being asked to examine these photographs and see if they happen to see any of these individuals.

Of course, very little information, of course, is coming in from government officials as to what these men may be suspected of outside of possibly entering the U.S. illegally.

On the telephone with us now to help us kind of get through some of this information or try to understand some of the information that's trickling in from the FBI is terrorism expert Jim Walsh.

Jim, obviously this is a pretty serious search if the FBI is going to solicit the public's help, even though very little information is being shared right now.

JIM WALSH, TERRORISM EXPERT: Fredricka, I think that's right. The FBI has issued something like four of these seeking information alerts over the course of the past year, searching for roughly about a dozen people. When you go to the FBI Web site, this is very prominently displayed. It's front and center with the photographs, and there's an attendant press release. And sometimes they'll issue this information, seeking information bulletins without a press release, so when you look at how prominent it is and the day that it's being released on, it makes me think that they're quite serious about trying to find these people.

WHITFIELD: Do you think that information as vague as it may be, like this is helpful, or does it end up sort of instigating a lot of confusion?

WALSH: Well, I think you're certainly right to point out that there's not much content to this press release that they've issued. If you look at past FBI press releases, you'll see that there's usually much more information about the source of the information it's from, detainees at Guantanamo, it's from a particular investigation. There's really not much here to go on, but for the public, there are the photographs and there are the names and the dates of birth, which the press release indicates may be fictitious. But in terms of what the public has to go by, there's actually a lot of content here.

Anyone can look at that photograph and anyone can keep their eye open for that name. But the fact that they have photographs and they are seeking the public's help tells me again that they're concerned enough that they feel they have to go public as soon as possible.

This is different, I think, than in the past. And my guess is the fact that they fear that they've entered illegally is something that has really caught their attention, and you don't get the same sort of "with abundance of caution" sort of phrases that you get in a lot of these press releases. So again, adding that all together, I think they really want these guys.

WHITFIELD: And Jim, let me just go over some of the names and the ages of the folks in those photographs. And they are -- and bear with me as I try to pronounce these names -- Abid Noraiz Ali, 25 years old, Iftikhar Khozmai Ali, 21, Mustafa Khan Owasi, 23, Adil Pervez, 19, Akbar Jamal, 28.

And again, Jim, our correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, also made it very clear that these names, the FBI isn't so certain these names are being used if these individuals are in the U.S. However, the photographs are somewhat helpful. Except that I raise the point that a number of the photographs are a little grainy, a little difficult to see. Does it concern you that there maybe sort of a rush to judgment of people who are traveling around, as they're visiting family, as they head to the airports, et cetera, that they may overreact every time they think they see someone who they think looks like these photographs.

WALSH: Fredricka, that's a fantastic point to make. I think as the press release makes clear, the FBI does not have information that these gentlemen are involved in any terrorist action or have committed any terrorist act. They simply want to talk to them. In some of the other seeking information alerts they've put out, they've put out these alerts and also indicated that the people they were looking for were armed and dangerous. They're not saying that about these five individuals.

And I think that this certainly does run the risk that people will be misidentified or anyone who looks a little different is going to be -- might be called upon to explain their behavior.

WHITFIELD: And Jim, aren't people going to naturally assume it does have something to do with terrorism if there is already this posted information that these individuals may -- their names or their identities came up as a result of ongoing investigations domestically and overseas. Doesn't that also kind of say, you know, something towards terrorism in this heightened state of alert that we're in?

WALSH: Yes, it does, and when you go to the FBI Web site, it actually has it linked with the other information about terrorism. So the FBI is making an explicit link that these gentlemen may, that they want to talk to them about terrorist-related subjects. But just because they want to question them doesn't mean that they, one, are actually involved with these people, or, two, they may know people but may not have committed any crime themselves.

So at this point, they're not calling them suspects, they are simply saying that they want to meet with the expectation that they might be able to provide them with worthwhile information.

WHITFIELD: Important points to be made. Thanks very much, Jim Walsh, for joining us on the telephone to help us kind of sort through the information that's just sort of coming in to us.

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