The case of the five vanishing suspects
By PETER CHENEY AND VICTOR MALAREK
Saturday, January 4, 2003 – Page A1
Like the posthumous Elvis Presley, Canada's five mysterious terror suspects seem to have popped up everywhere.
They were at Akswesasne, being smuggled into the United States by natives. They were at Toronto's Pearson Airport, where they slipped into Canada by claiming refugee status. One was seen on a bus entering the Lincoln Tunnel. Another was spotted on a West Coast ferry.
By the middle of this week, they had starred in hundreds of newspaper and television reports and had been on the lips of everyone from U.S. President George W. Bush to Senator Hilary Clinton, who announced at a press conference that they had entered the United States through Canada.
But yesterday, the FBI admitted that the most important ingredient in the story -- that is, the proof -- is nowhere to be found: "There is no border-crossing information that would say they're here," FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said. "And to say they came in from Canada is pure speculation."
Mr. Cogswell's comments are the latest wrinkle in an odd, highly hyped saga that began on Dec. 29, when the FBI announced that it was launching a national manhunt for the five men. Although details were sketchy, the five were believed to have come to Canada from the Middle East before entering the United States on some unstated mission.
Arriving just three days before New Year's, which provided an obvious peg for terrorism-related stories -- and right in the middle of the holiday "silly season" -- the tale of the five mystery men quickly assumed tremendous energy.
"Frankly, we were surprised at all the coverage," said Sgt. Paul Marsh, a spokesman with the RCMP. "It was amazing, really."
What Mr. Marsh had expected to be a relatively minor item soon became a lead story. By Dec. 30, it was the top item on the CNN newscast, with anchor Paula Zahn introducing it as "the big FBI story."
The press rushed to fill the obvious gaps in the story, such as how the five were supposed to have entered the United States. The New York Daily News, for example, reported that they had been smuggled across the border at Akwesasne, southwest of Montreal. Grand Chief Raymond Mitchell angrily pointed out that there was no evidence to support the story. Other news reports offered different accounts: Some, for example, said the five were spirited across at road checkpoints.
A shortage of official information, coupled with pressure to produce scoops on the developing story, resulted in heavy cross-pollination among the media.
By this week, the story had taken on something of a surreal quality. On Wednesday, a Pakistani jeweller whose picture is among the five released by the FBI emerged at his shop in Lahore to say he has never visited the United States. An Associated Press photograph of Mohammed Asghar taken at his shop was a near-perfect match for the one included on the FBI list under the name Mustafa Khan Owasi.
Mr. Asghar, 30, said he was surprised to open a local newspaper and see his picture with another man's name beneath it. "I am a Pakistani and am living in my country, but American authorities have released my picture among those who are being traced by the FBI for entering America," he said. "I have no links with any terrorist organization."