Prepaid Cell Phone Purchases Have Authorities on Heightened Alert

The weekend arrest of three men of Palestinian descent is just the most recent in a string of possible terror-related activity revolving around the questionable purchases of untraceable prepaid cell phones.

Arrests in Ohio, West Virginia and Texas -- and the most recent in Michigan -- have Homeland Security, the FBI and local law enforcement on heightened alert.

Though buying disposable prepaid cell phones is not illegal, federal authorities have been working closely with local law enforcement to monitor this new trend in potential terror-related activity.

"The application of prepaid phones for nefarious reasons is really widespread," Roger Entner, VP of Wireless Telecoms for Ovum, told ABC News in January.  "Now in Europe it's impossible to get a prepaid phone without ID."  (The Madrid bombings in 2004 precipitated this law when cell phones using their electrical pulse detonated backpack bombs that killed 191 people.)

In an era of heightened awareness and security, this chain of arrests in the Midwest involving men of Middle Eastern descent is being closely examined.

Grafton, W.Va.: Two weeks ago a 24-year old Arabic man, Hashem Sayed, was arrested with nearly 200 cell phones, according to local police. Sayed is currently being investigated for suspected terrorism-related activity and is allegedly connected to two other men arrested in Marietta, Ohio.

Marietta, Ohio: Last week, two Michigan men of Lebanese descent were charged with money laundering and aiding of terrorism.  The suspects, 20-year old Osma Sabhi Abulhassan and 20-year old Ali Houssaiky are residents of Dearborn, Mich., which is over 300 miles away. 

Abulhassan and Houssaiky were pulled over after purchasing 12 disposable cell phones from a local Radio Shack with $11,000 cash found in the glove box. Also found were Mapquest directions for 75 to 100 other Wal-Marts, Radio Shacks and other retailers in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Further, authorities found a "device to demagnetize" cell phones off of retailer's shelves to assist in buying larger quantities and a step-by-step instruction booklet on how to access airline manifests -- one in particular was Royal Jordanian Airlines. 

"We have a number of red flags that have popped up, and we are continuing our investigation," explained Sheriff Larry Mincks of Marietta, Ohio after recent surveillance and arrests of men of Middle Eastern descent. "The two people we have in custody indicated to us that they have been to our area four times and have purchased between 600 and 1000 [prepaid cellular] phones." 

Continuing on nearly a seven-week investigation, Sheriff Mincks believes the duo caught in Marietta was one of six separate "teams," making purchases in the area, which is why investigators believe that these purchases all across the Midwest are more than just coincidence.

Caro, Mich.:  On Friday, local police were alerted to three men of Palestinian descent who bought 80 cell phones from a local Wal-Mart.  Brothers Adham Othman, 21, Louai Othman, 23, and their cousin Maruan Muhareb (all pictured above) were reported by Wal-Mart employees and were detained with over 1000 disposable cell phones along with receipts from Wisconsin. 

Charged over the weekend with providing material support for terrorist acts and terrorism surveillance of a vulnerable target, the three men were also found with suspicious pictures and video of the famous five-mile long Mackinac Bridge that connects Michigan mainland to its upper peninsula, reported by the Detroit Free Press Monday morning. The three men are Dallas, Texas residents.

Sheriff Mincks expressed the potentially worst case scenario used for these specific types of phones. "We all know cell phones have been used for the IEDs," making reference to Improvised Explosive Devices and roadside bombs commonly used in Iraq against Coalition Forces. Further, these prepaid phones "are good for people who like to keep their identity secret."

In all three of these potentially terror-related cases, the men maintained their innocence and were only buying the phones to be sold at marked up prices.  In the Marietta case, Abulhassan and Houssaiky admitted to authorities that they planned on selling the phones overseas, which is not illegal.

But the combination of the sheer number of phones purchased, the suspected number of "teams" and networks used for the buys and the troubling evidence of the photos and video of the Mackinac Bridge and suspicious flight manifests have many suspecting more than just coincidence. 

"We believe that we have sufficient evidence for prosecutions," Sheriff Mincks told ABC News. "And we are proceeding in that direction."

ABC News reported this past January about the purchases of untraceable prepaid cell phones in Texas and California.  Along with these recent arrests in the Midwest, these incidents in the South and West may have increased in significance.

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