U.S. Customs agents have arrested a Jordanian-born man who was allegedly carrying $12 million in false cashier's checks, alarming counterterrorism officials who said the suspect may have been trained in al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said the name of Omar Shishani, 47, who was detained Wednesday as he arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Indonesia, appears on a watch list of people trained in Afghanistan by al Qaeda. Shishani's name turned up in documents captured in Afghanistan, sources said.
"It has really alarmed a lot of people that al Qaeda may be trying to get that much money into the United States for operational purposes," said one official. "We don't know what he was up to, but he was coming from Indonesia, he had $12 million in bogus checks . . . he was born in Jordan and his family is from Chechnya. There is a lot of smoke there to investigate."
Agents of the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force in Detroit executed a search warrant Thursday night at Shishani's home in Dearborn, Mich., where he lives with his wife.
Andrew Wise, Shishani's court-appointed federal defender, declined to comment. A U.S. magistrate judge granted Wise's request yesterday to postpone a detention hearing for Shishani until Wednesday to allow Wise time to review the charges against his client of knowingly making or possessing a forged security. Shishani remained in custody.
Shishani was carrying a U.S. passport and told authorities he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, officials said. Eric Straus, an assistant U.S. attorney on the Detroit anti-terrorism task force, said Shishani was born in Jordan and was of Chechen descent. Other sources said Shishani had served in the Jordanian army.
Public records show Shishani previously lived in San Francisco and Napa, Calif. At his arraignment yesterday, Shishani described himself as a salesman who had earned no commissions this year. He said his wife is a resident alien from Japan and works for Northwest Airlines.
U.S. intelligence officials said that possibly hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped from Afghanistan had gone to Indonesia and that nation has become a haven for the terrorist movement.
"The September 11 attacks only cost $500,000 in total," said one official, who acknowledged that authorities have no idea how the bogus checks were going to be used. "One shudders to think what they could do with $12 million."
Officials noted that counterfeit cashier's checks and other monetary instruments are used in a wide variety of criminal activities and scams unrelated to terrorism.
Clarence T. Laster, a special agent of the Secret Service who signed an affidavit presented at Shishani's arraignment, said that he had learned of checks similar to Shishani's being passed near Las Vegas.
"I was informed that several people had been arrested for attempting to pass similar checks there and it had been determined that the cashier's checks were counterfeit," Laster said.
A federal investigator said that, in addition to having Shishani's name on a watch list, U.S. officials may have been tipped that he was carrying the checks. U.S. Customs agents searched his bags and found nine cashier's checks — two for $5 million each, two for $500,000 each and five for $200,000 each. Six of the checks were posted for June and one for September of this year.
"The arrest of Omar Shishani and the seizure of $12 million in counterfeit cashier's checks by U.S. Customs officials in Detroit demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. border security systems and the improved interagency coordination since Sept. 11," the Customs Service said in a statement.
Knowledgeable officials said the checks were extremely well made and indicated they were issued by the Pomona, Calif., branch of West America Bank. Laster said in the affidavit that West America does not have a Pomona branch, which a bank official confirmed in an interview. In addition, the bank spokesman said, the checks bore the words "cashier's check" while the bank uses the words "official check" on its checks.
"They fool you when you look at them. They were very nicely done," said one official. "They put work and research into making them. It was first-rate work."
Financial investigators said criminals deposit bogus cashier's checks in a bank account, which could give the depositor immediate access to the money before the checks have formally cleared.
U.S. officials said that Shishani was initially stopped and asked if he was carrying any undeclared cash or monetary instruments. When he said no, he was taken to a secondary inspection area where he was asked again, responding that he had only the cash in his wallet. At that point, Shishani's bags were searched, the checks were found and Shishani was detained, officials said.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A34752-2002Jul19.htmlE-mail this article