Foiling New Year's Eve attacks

Arrests this weekend in the US, Pakistan, and Jordan highlight concerns

The US State Department has cautioned Americans around the world that New Year celebrations may be targeted by terrorists.

The seriousness of those warnings has been underscored in recent days with multiple arrests in several countries - apparently being used as staging grounds for attacks.

*An Algerian man was charged in Seattle on Friday with smuggling more than 100 pounds of bombmaking equipment from Canada into the US.

*Pakistani officials yesterday arrested more than 200 people they say were planning attacks on US citizens in Pakistan.

*Jordan police last week arrested more than a dozen militants suspected of planning terrorist attacks on US targets.

All three cases have one common denominator: The militants detained are suspected of belonging to the international terrorist network Al-Qaida, run by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. If true, it would signify that his organization has far-reaching arms - from established cells of operation in the Middle East, Europe, and Canada.

The US Customs Service has placed all 301 ports of entry on high alert following the arrest of Ahmed Ressam, a resident of montreal. And US and Canadian officials are conducting a joint search for an accomplice who stayed with Mr. Ressam in British Columbia for three weeks before he came to the US. Officials say the detonator devices found in Ressam's trunk are a trademark of the Bin Laden organization.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, the arrests of members of an alleged terrorist cell here that had links to the Bin Laden network provide a window on how these organizations establish staging grounds in various countries.

Experts say Jordan's relative openness, its position straddling the East-West divide, and its acceptance of moderate Islamic parties provide a good environment for militants to operate.

"It's geographically close to Israel, it's politically close to Israel. And it's part of the Holy Land: so an attack on Christian sites during the largely Christian millennium celebrations - it's not that surprising," says a Western diplomat in Amman.

Al-Qaida, Bin Laden's organization, has its roots in the 1980s, when Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan fought Soviet occupation. Bin Laden was a primary financier and allegedly ran the most well-developed training camps. Today, those well-trained Islamic extremists who came to help fight that war have returned to their homes and are suspected of operating terrorist cells for Bin Laden in several countries - from Algeria to the Persian Gulf.

The most effective cells are so secretive that members may not be aware of one another's assignments. Master planning, too, is layered, so if one who issues orders to a cell is caught, it is impossible for him to divulge the entire operation.

Bin Laden once communicated with satellite phones, but because of heavy US intercepts, experts say he now issues hand-written notes for others to relay on his behalf from a distance.

The Jordan cell, officials allege, is part of his network. Islamist sources familiar with those arrested say that they were the "extreme of the extreme" of the Afghan veterans.

"What we are seeing now is the tip of an iceberg," says a prominent Jordanian analyst who asked not to be named.

"They see Jordan as the go-between with Israel, and say 'Amman is the pimp of Israel,' " the analyst says. "It is scary, because however strong the security system is in Jordan, it can't be strong enough."

Since taking charge last February, King Abdullah has traveled widely to reestablish Jordan's pro-Arab credentials. But the roots of the Islamic groups and unhappiness date much further back - and were compounded by the Afghan conflict.

One of the first Islamist groups that started in Egypt - the Muslim Brotherhood - was embraced by Jordan in the 1930s. But by 1986 it was deemed a threat. The late King Hussein clamped down, calling leaders "preachers of darkness."

Among those who lost jobs was Abdallah Azam, a charismatic Islamist professor who joined the mujahideen forces in Afghanistan and became a major recruiter of Jordanians.

The Pakistani Embassy provided Jordanians immediate visas and sent them off to fight. "It was a great cause - it was the cause," says a Jordanian who spent three years in Afghanistan and knows Bin Laden.

The US CIA and Saudi Arabia, especially, recruited young Muslims from across the Islamic world to reverse the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Every town in Saudi Arabia had a recruiting center, and two doors away was one for Bin Laden.

Sources say that volunteers were grouped in Afghanistan according to their nationality - the foundation for cells deployed years later across the region.

"It was tempting," recalls an Arab journalist in Amman. "They were paid $1,500 a month and were reaching a level of sophisticated training higher than that of any Arab army."

The problem came on the return in the early '90s, after the Soviet withdrawal, when the jihad had worn off.

"These governments suddenly found that they had all these well-trained, fervent believers in their midst," recalls the Jordanian resistor. "It was like a bomb. They didn't know what to do."

Jordanian officials grilled the returnees - somewhere between 300 and 500, and sources here say that Jordanian intelligence agents almost certainly infiltrated the groups at an early stage. A number of Afghanis were arrested after series of small bomb explosions, and one or two hard-line groups were dismantled.

The leader of one group, Khader abu Ghoshar, reportedly headed the cell recently arrested in Jordan. He had been imprisoned for bomb blasts in 1993, but released by an amnesty.

Omar abu Omar, a Jordanian reputed by officials here to be the chief financier for this Jordanian group, was sentenced in absentia last year for his role in a series of spring 1998 explosions. He is now living in London.

A third Jordanian suspect, Khalil al-Deek - believed by Pakistanis to be the mastermind of the group, which they say shows the reach of the bin Laden network - was arrested in Peshawar, near the Afghan border with Pakistan, and extradited to Jordan last Thursday.

All were veterans of the war in Afghanistan - including an Iraqi and Algerian arrested during the Jordan round-up - though analysts here are divided about bin Laden's direct role, if any.

"I don't think the bin Laden network is a centralized group with a hierarchy and discipline," says the analyst, an expert on Islamic groups. "It is enough to have one Afghani here, to use his logic and religious training to manipulate 10 more. That is how they do it. Bin Laden may give a green light, but they act."

Jordan's leniency with fundamentalist Muslims in the past - much more like freedoms bestowed in Western countries - adds to its appeal for terrorists.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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