USA Today 21 August 1998
All signs pointed to bin Laden
From his remote hideout in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden in February issued a chilling fatwa, or religious order: "Kill Americans."
That's just one reason why bin Laden was suspect No. 1 in the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa almost before the dust had settled from the explosions.
Bin Laden, who terrorism experts say is passionate about his desire to force U.S. troops to leave the Mideast, had threatened to send Americans home "in caskets," prompting a worldwide State Department warning of terrorist strikes.
And even as U.S. investigators in Nairobi and Washington were still sifting through evidence that the White House now says links bin Laden to the East Africa bombings, he had issued new threats against U.S. embassies specifically those in Albania and Pakistan.
A group reportedly founded by bin Laden, the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders warned that "the strikes will continue from everywhere against the United States."
U.S. officials have long been building intelligence dossiers and making contingency plans to act against bin Laden. But his hideout, protected by the ruling Afghanistan Taliban militia, afforded him a sense of protection. That ended Thursday, when the United States struck back with military might normally reserved for attacks against enemy nations.
Navy ships launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that left a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in flames. U.S. officials said bin Laden was manufacturing elements used to make deadly nerve gas there. Warned of a meeting of terrorist leaders at bin Laden's compound, the United States also attacked the site of his training complex in Afghanistan, which U.S. officials termed a "terrorist university."
Bin Laden reportedly wasn't harmed in the strikes. But he was certainly vaulted onto the world stage. A slight, graying 43-year-old often pictured wearing a white turban, he has emerged as the most notorious terrorist figure in the world. To U.S. counterterrorist fighters, he is the '90s equivalent of famed international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
They've kept track of his network, his suspected terrorist acts - and eventually hunted down what they think are some of his accomplices - by employing a vast, sophisticated combination of old-fashioned detective work and high-tech wizardry.
Rumors of action against bin Laden have been circulating among terrorism experts for months. This spring, U.S. agents surveyed the area near the Afghanistan border for a raid on bin Laden.
Investigators say it was a suspect arrested in Pakistan, Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, who helped confirm their determination that bin Laden should be the top suspect in the Africa bombings. President Clinton justified the strikes by citing "convincing information from our intelligence community that the bin Laden terrorist network was responsible for these bombings. Based on this information, we have high confidence that these bombings were planned, financed and carried out by the organization bin Laden leads."
But it wasn't just a suspect's confession that led to Clinton's conclusion. When word of the bombings in Africa originally reached Washington around 3:45 a.m. the morning of Aug. 7, the CIA counterterrorism center in suburban Virginia swung into action.
Ex-CIA director Bob Gates says the center has "some extraordinary capabilities. Once it was clear that it was a terrorism attack, the analysts and collectors would immediately begin going back on the data files they have on different terrorist organizations and seeing what they have on them."
CIA officers in such places as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia were surely asked to work their sources to "see if could find something out" about the bombings, Gates says. In addition to whatever money might normally be paid CIA informants, the United States offered a powerful incentive in the form of a $2 million reward for help in capturing the bombers.
Other foreign intelligence services, including allies in Britain and Israel, were consulted for tips. The counterterrorism center coordinated with FBI agents on the ground in Africa, running down leads and providing background intelligence.
Intelligence officials looked for evidence of money laundering, which may have led to the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that U.S. officials say bin Laden was using to produce materials to be used in weapons.
U.S. investigators routinely snoop through electronic transfers and use informants to look for suspicious movements of money by terrorists groups.
U.S. officials were tipped off on the structure of bin Laden's financial empire when his chief financial operative defected from his organization a year ago, says ex-CIA counterterrorism chief Vince Cannistraro. "A lot of intelligence was gleaned about how he keeps his money, how he transfers it from one bank to another, what are the front companies" that finance bin Laden's activities.
In addition, the investigators looked at:
- Spy satellite photos. Hundreds of miles in space, U.S. satellites routinely take pictures of suspected terrorist hideouts and training camps. "They're sort of like a Hubble telescope looking down, rather than up," says John Pike an intelligence specialist with the Federation of American Scientists. "You can basically see an object a few inches across," he says, although with not enough detail to read a license plate on a car. Known terrorist training camps in Sudan are monitored regularly. And spy satellites no doubt were focusing on bin Laden's Afghanistan headquarters to check on his visitors and activities.
- Information from intercepted phone calls. The supersecret National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., uses computers to automatically scan tapped international phone calls. A signals satellite hovering 22,500 miles above the earth picks out international phone calls carried by satellite.
On the ground, worldwide electronic listening posts at places such as U.S. military installations also intercept calls, Pike says. Radio traffic between remote terrorist training camps are monitored. Intelligence agents can even monitor conversations in rooms where suspected terrorists might meet by picking up vibrations on window panes.
The telephone numbers and locations of known terrorists and terrorist organizations are automatically targeted. Computers decide whether to alert analysts to other calls by using software that scans for key words. Any mention of words like "bomb" or "attack" would automatically raise alarm. So would names, such as bin Laden, as well as terrorist nicknames and code words.
Although terrorists such as bin Laden are aware of these methods and insulate themselves from issuing direct orders, a former U.S. official says that bin Laden had a fondness for using his cell phone. That may have helped lead to him in the Africa bombing.
Investigators have also been helped in their effort to strike back at bin Laden by the large amount of information already known about him - some of it learned because he was once on the same side as the United States in attempting to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
An heir to a Saudi construction fortune, bin Laden has been very upfront about using his estimated $200-$300 million personal fortune to finance a jihad or "holy war" against the United States. President Clinton Thursday termed bin Laden as "perhaps the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today."
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Thursday that bin Laden has "basically declared war on America."
Even before the attack, the State Department annual terrorism report devoted a special section to bin Laden, calling him "one of the most significant sponsors of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups." In one way or another, bin Laden has been linked to major attacks on the U.S. troops in Somalia and Saudi Arabia - and even has shadowy ties to the World Trade Center bombing. He claimed credit after his supporters killed 19 U.S. troops in Somalia.
Bin Laden called bombings against U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 "praiseworthy acts of terrorism."
Clinton also linked bin Laden's supporters to foiled plots to bomb U.S. airplanes in the Pacific, assassinate Pope John Paul II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and to the murder of tourists in Egypt.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department terrorism official, says bin Laden has participated in "virtually every major attack of terrorism against the United States" in the '90s.
Ironically, bin-Laden started out on the same side as the United States. In 1979 he supported the Afgan mujadheddin guerrillas in their battle against the occupying Soviet Union.
They were supported by U.S. money, arms and CIA training in the Cold War battle for global influence. Bin Laden learned skills that would help him in the terrorist trade. According to an upcoming Congressional Research Service report, bin Laden gained "prominence during the Afghan war for his role in the recruitment, training and transportation of Arab nationals."
After returning to Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was expelled for anti-government activities in 1991. He sought refuge in Sudan, whose Marxist National Islamic Front government provided a haven. Bin Laden used his business contacts to fund businesses including a bank that helped him bankroll terrorist activities, experts say. Numerous terrorist training camps operate in Sudan. But bin Laden was expelled from Sudan two years ago, under U.S. pressure.
He took refuge in an elaborate hide-out in Afghanistan. There, he runs his group called Al-Qaida or the Bridge. Bin Laden is reported to operate from a cave there that has its own generators, satellite dish for worldwide calls and an elaborate computer system.
Bin Laden, Johnson says, has a "kind of hatred and craziness." If left unanswered, "he would continue to terrorize Americans around the world. He has no compunction about killing women and children. He's a complete egalitarian in his murderous attitude."
By Lee Michael Katz, USA TODAY
Contributing: Tom Squitieri, M.J. Zuckerman, Edward T. Pound, Wendy Koch and Jack Kelley©COPYRIGHT 1998 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.