Crackdown on a Global Terrorist Ring

Two dozen suspected cohorts of Osama bin Laden were arrested on three continents

Strolling into a car dealership in the small Bavarian town of Bruneck, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim seemed like any other customer. German police knew otherwise.

As the Sudanese electrical engineer surveyed the dealership's wares on Sept. 16, he found himself confronting officers armed with a warrant for his arrest.

Two days earlier, the FBI had filed sealed charges in New York accusing Mr. Salim of playing a pivotal role in a global terror campaign directed at the United States by Osama bin Laden, the Islamic radical suspected in the Aug. 7 US embassy bombings in Africa. Among other charges, the FBI says Salim tried to acquire nuclear weapons for Mr. Bin Laden.

Salim is now facing extradition to the US, but he is not alone. Khalid al Fawwaz, a Saudi businessman and reportedly Bin Laden's chief operative in Britain, is also in a London jail awaiting extradition.

They are among some two dozen suspected Bin Laden associates arrested in seven countries on three continents since the embassy attacks. From Uganda to Italy to the US, one of the broadest international assaults on terrorism ever is under way.

The sweeps point up the close counterterrorism cooperation the US has built in recent years among its own agencies and with other nations, including some with which it has less than warm ties. The arrests also testify to six years of work by the FBI and US intelligence to tie Bin Laden and his men to a slew of terrorist attacks, including assaults on US troops in Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Though US officials are unwilling to discuss their efforts, charges filed in New York against Salim and four other men reveal that the US had a mole as early as 1996 inside Bin Laden's organization, Al-Qaeda, Arabic for "The Base." They also disclose other details of what the US believes it knows about the activities of a man President Clinton calls "perhaps the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world."

But US officials say the arrests and cruise-missile strikes launched on an Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan after the embassy attacks have done little to hurt the group - and therefore diminish the threat of terrorism. Indeed, they warn that it is probably planning new attacks. "We are on our toes," says a US official.

"It's a lingering threat," adds another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is a group that has a global reach."

Hunt for bombers

The FBI-led crackdown is taking two tracks. One is the hunt for the embassy bombers who killed 259 people, including 12 Americans.

Two suspects in the Nairobi blast, Mohamed Sadek Odeh and Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, are in custody in New York and are talking. By chance, the former was arrested in Pakistan after arriving from Kenya with a phony passport the same day as the attacks; the latter, hurt by debris, was picked up a day later by Kenyan police.

According to court documents, both admit belonging to Al-Qaeda. The former denied involvement in the bombing; the latter admitted driving in the bomb-laden vehicle up to the embassy, where he got out and threw a grenade-like device at a guard. Both have also been indicted in the Tanzania attack.

Court documents appear to indicate that a third suspect is in US custody and is cooperating with the FBI. The US is offering a $2 million reward for a fourth man, Haroun Fazil of the Comoros Islands off Mozambique's coast. Meanwhile, Tanzania is holding a local businessman and an Egyptian in its bomb- ing and is seeking two other suspects.

The crackdown's second track is aimed at Al-Qaeda's infrastructure.

It is relying on information from Mr. Odeh and Mr. Owhali and intelligence gathered by the US since it began looking at Bin Laden in 1992. That effort accelerated as part of a grand-jury probe into the Saudi exile launched after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to which Bin Laden has been linked. It reportedly produced a sealed indictment against him prior to the embassy attacks.

"We had been active in attacking Osama bin Laden ... and had accumulated information that was meaningful in and of itself and that took on greater significance once it was meshed with what these people in custody were telling us," says one US official. He notes the CIA has a "station" devoted solely to Bin Laden. "Plus we have the technical means of acquiring information," he adds, referring to spy satellites and intercepts of communications between Al-Qaeda followers and Bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since moving from Sudan in 1996.

This track of the crackdown has also been aided by information from the mole inside Al-Qaeda, dubbed CS-1 in court documents.

The second track has resulted in the arrests of 13 people in Uganda who may have been plotting to attack the US Embassy in the capital, Kampala, and three suspects this week in Italy. It has also seen the arrests of Salim, Mr. Fawwaz, and Wadhi el Hage, a US-educated native of Lebanon, who is married to an American and lives in Arlington, Texas.

Mr. Hage, who has pleaded innocent to charges of lying in 1997 in connection with the Bin Laden grand-jury probe, admitted to the FBI that he served as the Saudi exile's personal secretary in Sudan. Court documents say he knew Owhali and Odeh and link him to an alleged attempt to obtain chemical weapons.

Birth of the group

The complaint against Salim, unsealed after his arrest, provides a glimpse into Al-Qaeda's formation.

It grew out of The Services Office, an organization that channeled aid and volunteers from other Islamic countries to Afghan guerrillas fighting the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden, scion of a wealthy Saudi family, was involved in the effort and, after the Soviet withdrawal, forged Al-Qaeda with other veterans to target the US, which he saw as the leading enemy of Islam.

Top members, CS-1 says, swear bayat, or allegiance, to Bin Laden, who is known as the emir. A consultative council is part of Al-Qaeda's "command-and-control structure" and approves "major undertakings, including terrorist operations," the complaint says.

The charges against Salim rely heavily on CS-1. He told the FBI that Salim cofounded Al-Qaeda and was involved in issuing fatwas urging Muslims to attack Americans worldwide. He also allegedly helped finance and arm Al-Qaeda members, including the embassy bombers, and served as an intermediary with Sudan's Islamic regime and that of Iran. The charges say he tried to obtain enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

US officials say the global crackdown has done little to hurt the group - and therefore diminish the threat of terrorism.

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