News

Terrorist suspicions on Whidbey

The Island County Sheriff’s Office and federal investigators are looking into reports that a Middle Eastern-looking man purchased plot maps of areas surrounding the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on the day before the terrorist attacks.

Sheriff Mike Hawley held a press conference Wednesday after a Washington Times article reported that an internal Navy advisory listed 11 incidents around the country of suspicious activity surrounding Navy bases.

Three of the incidents from the article occurred on Whidbey Island, but Hawley said two of those turned out to be false alarms. Hawley said he called the press conference because the Washington Times article had misleading information and he wanted “to set the record straight.”

Yet Hawley said there are three “suspicious” incidents on the island that he does have concern about.

On Sept. 10, a “Middle Eastern man” went to the planing department at the Oak Harbor City Hall and requested plot maps of areas in North Whidbey, much of which surrounds the Navy base. Since the maps he requested were for unincorporated areas outside the city, the planning officer sent him to the county assessor’s office in Coupeville.

While the people in the planning department “didn’t think anything of it on Sept. 10,” Hawley said the events of Sept. 11 made the incident take on a more sinister appearance.

In the investigation, Hawley said it turned out that an Arab-looking man did make similar requests for maps at the county assessor’s office, but he didn’t turn out to be the same person who had been at the Oak Harbor office. The employee at the assessor’s office who served the man described him as seeming “calm but out of place,” Hawley said.

Two other county employees reported seeing the man around the county campus in Coupeville Sept. 10, but they had slightly difference recollections of him.

The man is described as having fairly dark skin, black hair, brown eyes, in his late 20s to mid-30s. He spoke with an accent. Investigators are looking for any information on him.

In a separate incident, Hawley said a Camano Island woman reported that a suspicious Middle Eastern was taking photos of the Puget Sound, in the direction of the Navy Seaplane base on Whidbey Island, from Camano Sept. 13. She reported talking to the man, who had an “expensive camera” and gave her a business card.

A investigator tracked the man down after she reported the incident Sept. 17. The man turned out to be Mir Latif Ahmad, a native of Afghanistan and a convicted sex offender living in King County. According to Hawley, Ahmad had been convicted of three counts of child molestation in Cowlitz County in 1991.

Hawley said Ahmad should have been deported back to Afghanistan after being released from imprisonment, but that didn’t happen because of an apparent lack of communications between “government bureaucracies.”. The Sheriff’s Office referred the information to the FBI and Ahmad was subsequently detained by the INS.

Hawley said he didn’t have any other information about what, if anything, Ahmad was up to on Camano Island.

“It’s very suspicious,” he said. “The fact that he is an Afghani, the fact that he is taking photos of the naval base, the fact that he has no visible means of support, all those things factor into our suspicion.”

A third incident Hawley said he was troubled about was an e-mail sent to the Island County Web site Sept. 20 that asked about the county’s solid waste program. The e-mail was referred to federal authorities, who were able to trace it to Islamabad, Pakistan.

Hawley said the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service have taken over investigating these cases. He said the Sheriff’s Office is a “first responder” in possible terrorism-related cases and any follow-up investigation will be done by federal authorities. He stressed that, while some of the acts are suspicious, no laws have been broken.

The sheriff also discussed a couple of the incidents cited in the Washington Times article that turned out to be false alarms.

In one case, there was a report the “three Arab males” checked into an Oak Harbor motel. The drove a rented car, but the name on the rental agreement did not match the name given by the driver to the motel.

Hawley said his investigators found that six Middle Eastern males were working on a roofing job for a local contractor. The names on the car agreement did not match the motel registration because the motel employee was confused by the names and recorded several first names as last names.

In another case, Hawley said three Arabic men were acting in a suspicious manner in North Whidbey and possibly surveying the naval base. The men were seen on a beach with fishing gear that isn’t appropriate for the area and type of fishing done on the island. A park ranger had ordered the same men, who were videotaping the Deception Pass bridge area, out of the Cranberry Lake area because it was after dark.

Hawley said it turned out that the men were the same roofers and they were just doing touristy things. He said many tourists make the same mistake of bring the wrong kind of fishing gear — bringing light sport fishing instead of the heavier saltwater fishing equipment.

According to Hawley, someone from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service apparently leaked the Navy advisory, which includes weeks-old information, to the Washington Times this week.

Lt. Cmdr. Dawn Cutler, a navy spokesperson at the Pentagon, said the advisory to Navy bases is still in effect. She said NCIS is cataloging and investigating reports of suspicious activities surrounding bases.

Beyond that, Cutler said she could not report on the specifics of any investigations.

You can reach features editor Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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